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I had to do it. I can’t even say that I was reluctant or hesitant. I know this sounds serious doesn’t it?  like some kind of important life change. Am I talking about filling for divorce? Changing careers? Vasectomy? Switching deodorants? No no no, I am talking about something even more serious. I am pairing down Princes of the Apocalypse. I have to do it; I feel my sanity is at stake. It’s not that it is a bad adventure, but there are some definite problems that I wish I was more cognizant of from the get go. I might outline some of my issues and what I would do differently in hindsight. Looking around social media and the blogosphere it seems that others have had some similar issues with the adventure, and likely why it is ranked near the bottom in peoples favorite WOTC hardcover adventures.

One of the things I am struggling with, which probably isn’t the adventure’s fault, is the glacial pace at which we are moving through the book. The problem is that we only play every 3 to 4 weeks so it is hard to get a good flow going as well as keeping the plot/motivations front and center. One of the players commented that they were going after these cult strongholds for some reason that he couldn’t remember (more on that next blog, I mean come on I don’t have a lot of ideas and you can’t expect me to blow my wad in one post). This appears to be exacerbated by, at the core, the adventure is a series of dungeon crawls: 4 above ground keeps for each elemental cult, 4 underground temples for each cult, 1 sub dungeon, 1 final node/dungeon.  the above ground temples had some nice variety in terms of setting and features, but I find the underground temples a bit of a slog. Granted my players are a kind of a “storm the keep” style adventurers, I keep trying to telegraph that there maybe be other ways to bypass sections, and I definitely try to be very clear with NPC’S that they don’t need to fight. I kind of just want to get onto something else, like maybe Planescape or that Ancient Blood adventure I have been converting.

My solution to the pacing has been, like a surgeon with a scalpel, to pare down the underground temples something fierce. I had the idea of going back to 4th edition style delves where you had 3 to 4 combats plus some kind of exploration. I have tried to keep the key features of each Temple that make them unique to their respective elements. The challenge rating of the encounters/scenes are pretty stiff, as they are my ace in the hole. If we hit the 3rd tpk I am pulling the chute. I also switched to milestone leveling at the end of each session. It was fairly successful the last time we met, as they wiped out the air cult and their prophet. No fuss no muss. By my calculations we are about 5 to 6 sessions from completion, god willing. They are 7th level now and well on their way to a final confrontation with one of the elemental princes, except for Yan-C-BIN because they dropped the air prophet like a bad habit. I played Aerisi like an annoying valley girl that sounded like Jocelyn from Bob’s Burgers. My players were well satisfied when she got her comeuppance. Should I steer them to a final confrontation with Imix given the evocation wizard is essentially a pyromancer and most of his spells would be ineffective? Naw, they need all the help they can, as I don’t see how I don’t mop the floor with them using one of those elemental princes.

Look out Mike Schley I am coming for your job!

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Hard Choices

Human beings are funny things. I don’t mean in a Joe Pescie “funny like a clown” way, but more like a quirky mishmash of personality traits and idiosyncrasies. My wife, for example, frequently states that I am like a fungus in describing how people often initially find me off-putting but over repeated exposures I tend to grow on them until they are quite fond of me. With things like the projective hypothesis and interpersonal dynamics on display, I feel that that there is no place quite like the gaming table to shine a light peoples quirks. For example, I remember running this convention game one time and this kid’s action during a 4th Edition skill challenge was to roast and eat a dead bandit in front of the townsfolk (uhhh…I guess maybe roll Intimidation?). Additionally, I don’t think we have to dig too deep to get an understanding of my penchant for dick, fart, and masturbation jokes at the game table.

Aside from the walking manifestations of our juvenile and delinquent self’s, I like how hard choices at the game table can bring out conflict or drama between players, between characters, and even between a player and his character. In a recent session of my Princes of the Apocalypse game I was absolutely ticked to be able to put the players in a situation where they had to make a tuff decision with some potential negative consequences.

Here’s the “sitch”, once upon a time four brash and wet behind the ears pc’s stormed the Earth Cult temple at the Sacred Stone Monastery in the dead of night and found themselves resource depleted and fighting the 2nd in command. In the end, two of the players tip-toed over their dying companions as they fled into the night (it was the rpg equivalent of the movie “A Bridge too Far”). Cut to last session where the party, after clearing out the other surface temples and gaining 2 levels, returned to the Sacred Stone Monastery to let the Earth Cult know what time it was. As they confronted the 2nd in command in the altar room he giddily sent one of his minions down the stairs and into the dungeon with instructions to kill one of the pc’s they left for dead.

Well this certainly came as a surprise to my players and much debate ensued. Further complicating the scene was the fact that the cult leader hit them with a slow spell on his first turn, perhaps the perfect medicine for a too big for his britches ranger but I digress. I love when they talk aloud in pseudo-questions while looking at me for subtle tells as to what the deal is. It was interesting to watch. The conflict arose around whether they should fall for the obvious trap with the former party member also likely being dead. I summarized their thoughts and concerns and asked them what would their “characters” would feel and do. The ranger told the barbarian (the two original survivors) that they should act heroically and try, even if it is in vain and a trap, to save their former companion, assuaging their guilt and making amends for leaving him to die and, apparently, to be tortured in captivity. The cleric then casts dispel magic on the barbarian and he flies off down the stairs to what we all know was quite clearly a trap. With a pull of a lever the stairs became a slide into a room with a loosed Umber Hulk. Yes the bad guy also sacrificed one of his minions. Now we are switching back and forth between scenes. The barbarian gets a little irked because the rest of the party leaves him down there to fight for his life alone while they slowly finish off the rest of the bad guys. He sarcastically reflected the ranger’s comments about being heroic back to him, which caused a little bit of tension. I also couldn’t resist needling him a little. His actions were just so inconsistent with his role-playing rhetoric it was hilarious. It seemed he was reluctant to put himself into a potential tactical disadvantage despite advocating that course of action and inducing it in a fellow pc. In the old days we would have had him change his alignment.

Unfortunately I was unable to capitalize on my advantage and the players triumphed without anyone dying. After a leisurely battle with the cult leader, the rest of the party joined the Barbarian and they wiped the floor with the gimped Umber Hulk. IRL their Dragonborn Bard companion is still alive, locked in a cell with the rest of the slaves. The Barbarian’s decision to rush off into danger did save the Bard’s life and they can now reap the rewards in the form of valuable information. If they didn’t go after the minion they would have found the bard dead with is throat freshly cut.  How do your players handle tuff choices?

To Grid or Not to Grid

After years of 3rd and 4th edition D&D and a small smattering of Pathfinder, 5th Edition D&D allowed us to break away from gridded combat. In a lot of ways the designers seemed to encourage theatre of the mind (TotM) as a way of showing the flexibility of the game and its ability to accommodate different play styles or mimic the feel of one’s favorite edition of the game. I often wondered how this has played out in practice. I get the sense from everything I have read online to watching some streams that there can be quite the mix of TotM and good old gridded combat.

While 5th edition enabled TotM, when I looked at the games I have run or am running as well as games I have played in, I realized that gridded combat was pretty much the only thing going on. In online VTT games I can see the pull or need towards having a map and tokens as the VTT’s are kind of designed with that default assumption in mind. Additionally, I feel that using maps and tokens online can really help center people and provide an orientation that might be difficult for the DM to get descriptively, given that they are speaking to people that they are not in the same room with or directly looking at. In my home game, I think I just started drawing rooms or combat areas on my battle map out of habit. There was a recent session in my home game that went fairly long and I was tired and didn’t feel like drawing one more boring non-descript room out. I suggested to my players we just narrate the combat scene.  Sweet baby Jesus, you would have thought I suggested that I shit in their mouths. The gripes seemed to come from them feeling they might be unable to do the most tactically superior action and a fear of possibly leaving themselves defensively exposed to me on the bad guys turn. So I relented and drew a box and placed everyone inside it.

That interaction irked me. I began to look more closely at how the game was playing and whether it was satisfactory to me. The pacing of play seemed to be bogged down or slowed due to the tactical miniatures game that was occurring for every combat. It was not only measuring movement, positioning, and determining area of effects; it was also the minutia of tactics being discussed on every turn that was making the sessions a bit of a grind. This play style seemed to be exacerbated by the dungeon crawl nature of Princes of the Apocalypse which can result in frequent minor battles or fights. Additionally, the gridded combat really brought out the competitive nature in me. It was like if you are going to set the battle up like a chess match then I felt almost compelled to Bobby Fisher the shit out of them. I know it has been said frequently that the 4 or 5 heads of the players will outmaneuver and beat the DM’s monsters, but to be honest that was not really happening at my table. While my players have been involved in playing rpg’s for decades, they would currently fall into the category of casual player. They don’t read blogs, listen to podcasts, or pour over player options, which essentially culminated into some at-will pownage by me. I also found myself falling into a less than stellar DM mode, in terms of  just defaulting to drawing something on the grid rather than being descriptive and immersive.

I decided things needed to change to improve my enjoyment and maintain my interest level in running the game. However, change can be hard, especially after years of gridded play being the default assumption and, for some of us, the borderline compulsive accumulation of a metric shit ton of mini’s, maps, and dungeon tiles. Nevertheless I persisted. I decided to change the status quo at my next session. I downloaded and printed Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea’s one page document on running TotM in 5th edition and handed it out to my players. I explained to them my reasoning for making the change and assured them that we weren’t going “full TotM”, as if the movie Tropic Thunder has taught us anything it’s that you never go “full” anything.  I told them that for most encounters we would just use TotM, but for the more set piece encounters we would grid it up.  They seemed to be on board and the session went well. I still used may ridiculous amounts of mini’s and pawns to add flavor and show relative positioning, kind of like we did back in our  AD&D and Runequest days. As a DM, I still need to work on describing the action better and setting the scene/environment, but we are moving forward.

Side Treks

I have been running Princes of the Apocalypse for what seems like an eternity. We only play every 3 to 4 weeks which I am sure contributes to what seems like a glacial pace. For those not in the know, Princes of the Apocalypse is one of the official hardback campaign adventures put out by Wizards of the Coast on a somewhat annual basis. It can take characters from level 1 to 15, as they attempt to thwart the 4 elemental cults from opening a portal for one of the elemental prices to stroll through—sorry spoilers. My players started the adventure at 3rd level (thank god) after sacking the Sunless Citadel.  I think what has made it a bit of a grind is that under a sandbox premise; the main action is a series of dungeon crawls. My player’s tactics have mostly been variations of a frontal assault on the various fortresses or temples. The sandbox element of the successive dungeon crawls has been the freedom to tackle any of the cult strongholds both above and below ground in any order they choose after uncovering their location through exploration. Each outpost/dungeon has a suggested party level.  I choose not to gate access to any of the areas and just tried to telegraph how dangerous the area they were entering was. Each surface cult outpost has access to the deeper underground cult outposts which are typically meant for much higher and powerful characters. This freedom of exploration has led to one TPK and 3 other deaths (not wholly unsatisfying if I am being honest).

The first TPK of Princes of the Apocalypse (there was also one in Sunless Citadel) happened after they cleared out River Guard Keep and continued down into the Water Cults main underground temple. This created some story “issues” since they unfortunately wanted to continue with the adventure. We were suddenly faced with an absence of hooks or ties to the adventure. Now I can hand waive things with the best of them out there, but we decided to buckle down to try and create something that would narratively work for our needs. They came up with the concept of their characters running an organization for wayward children. Essentially it’s an orphanage that takes in kids and grows them up. Each player character would have grown up through the organization to become the leaders. This had the benefit of giving them a stake in the area and a desire to prevent its destruction. It also, narratively, allows for a pool of back-up characters that can be drawn on when I invariably kill one or all of them again.

That was a fairly long preamble to get to the point of this post, which is how I dropped L2 Assassin’s Knot into my game to break up the monotony of successive dungeon crawls. Assassin’s Knot was a 1st Edition AD&D module that consistently gets ranked on the list for top adventures of all time. I won’t go into detail about the module as there are some good synopses out there, but it’s essentially an investigation style adventure trying to uncover who killed a known NPC and why.  -Spoilers in advance this time- An assassin’s guild is behind the murder with the aim of destabilizing regional politics so their benefactor can take over territory. There is a time pressure in terms of more assassinations and failure to prevent the destabilization. I paired the adventure down quite a bit and used it as a loose structure. I had the assassin’s guild begin targeting members of the player’s organization. The guild was hired by Thurl Merosska, a Lieutenant in the air cult. This was my way of tying it to Princes of the Apocalypse with the benefit of steering the players to a more level appropriate challenge.  Thurl also talks in a Southern aristocrat accent which I really enjoy, so a win all around. Princes of the Apocalypse does have some side quests in the module, but I found them problematic on a couple of levels. What I have found is that once the cult activity was discovered exploration, in terms of other towns, of the many locales in the adventure setting (the Desserin Valley) essentially stopped, leaving most areas never visited as the players laser focused in on destroying the cults. Additionally, side treks that don’t involve the cult in some way seem frivolous to the party, as they feel they have identified the real threat to the area and themselves, particularly after a few of the “cult reprisal” encounters were run.

Overall, the module went very well, the players were engaged and really enjoyed themselves. I seemed to evade some of the cliché pitfalls of mystery/investigation adventures that I have made in the past such as cagey NPC’s that shut down or stymie interaction or having only one solution or specific clues that needed to be uncovered that would lead to dead ends or stalled play. I aimed at providing amble evidence or clues while also incorporating player theories to push the investigation forward and leading to the uncovering of the guild. If things seemed to stall I would have the guild make a hard move against the players to generate more clues/suspects and drive the action forward. There were some decent surprises in terms of who or who wasn’t in the guild, with reveals mostly occurring during a combat encounter. I felt it was a really great adventure that you can drop into most campaigns. It also really highlighted the ease with which you can convert material to 5th Edition D&D. the adventure also has a wide array of interesting NPC’s that the players can interact with. My favorite is the High Priest of Osprem (I changed it to Umberlee) who is suffering from dementia. I had the priest meet with the players in the nude and cast geas on the party wizard, commanding him to go to the local bar and get him some pickled eggs.

I always forget and am reminded just how omnipresent magic items were in the earlier editions of the game. In Assassin’s Knot, literally everyone has some kind of magic item and usually multiple items. When I say everyone I mean literally everyone, like the gardener is sporting magic weapons and armor. It’s a stark comparison with my Scrooge McDuck mentality in handing out magic items in 5th edition.  I feel my encounter building skills appear to need to some work as the combats were fairly easy, but that was okay because my players needed a win after being repeatedly curb stomped by me.

The torch has been passed, or at least lit with a cantrip.  It is a time honored tradition for a man to pass onto his children the accumulated wisdom gleaned from his time on this earth, so they can carry on and forge new and brighter paths into the future.  As of today, I have fulfilled that responsibility by initiating and teaching my eldest son the ways of the D&D. I glossed over the darker days of wedgies, public ridicule, and involuntary abstinence (he is only 8). It’s a brave new world out there; and the geeks have truly inherited the earth. We are no longer relegated to parents’ basements…unless we want to be. We are everywhere, and social cliques are as fluid as they have ever been. I can’t believe he is going to grow up in an age where people will actually go to a theater or convention centre to watch a live D&D game be played. Still the necessary nods and respect to the old ways were observed. There was Cheetos, chips, and mountain dew aplenty. I tried to kill the boy with a save or suck effect, but he is wily like his old man, and he came away unscathed.

I have to say, without ego, that my son was absolutely amazing, he was a natural.  I mentioned last post that I had converted UK1 “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” module to 5th edition. The party is comprised of my son’s elven rogue, Stargazer, my friend is playing a half-elf warlock, and two dwarven NPC brothers (life domain cleric and fighter). They have penetrated the “haunted house” and have cleared the first floor. We started with a brief session 0 to establish bonds. My son came up with the idea that he was orphaned  when orcs wiped out his village and he was taken in by the dwarven brother’s family, and now seeks to hunt down these orcs. That’s pretty good eh? He even role played at times. When the barkeep at the Drunken Sea Urchin told him he needed to speak to an elderly poacher if he wanted more information on the “Haunted House” he asked me if he could “mutter” under his breath that this is ridiculous and a waste of his time. Also, when he found out how much it would cost to rent a room for the week he exclaimed, despite having no concept of money and what things cost, that this was “outrageous” and a “rip-off”. We also had to gently explain to him why he couldn’t make the NPC brothers go and investigate the horrible wailing and screams coming from the dark basement.

I think the hardest part was trying not to overly constrain his imagination. He was climbing into rafters to shoot his bow down at the monsters and dodging out of the way of incoming attacks. I made a sinfully bad DM error. He kept wanting to attack with his daggers, but he does more damage with his rapier, which I kept pointing out like some kind of overbearing power gamer. This is something I would never dream of doing with another adult, but I guess I am so used to telling him or teaching him how to do things as his dad that I didn’t catch myself until after. Next time I will be more mindful of that and just encourage him to do what he thinks is cool……and then kill him and build a character that doesn’t have any daggers.

Como estas bitches!

Long time no post eh. Were you hoping I had blog faded? Died? Gone forever? Stopped subjecting you to my banal and asinine ramblings? Well no such luck suckers, because I’m back.  What have I been up to for the last 2 ½ years you ask? Well, I have been doing exactly what you would imagine a 45 year-old with 2 kids would be doing, dealing with bullshit and grinding out an existence. But seriously, I found myself not gaming much and a little burnt out on tabletop rpg’s. It seemed that my limited free time was being filled more with video games and brewing beer than with tabletop rpg’s. I also found it difficult to carve out a chunk of time to be able to just sit and play. I had typically played online after the kids had gone to bed, but was struggling to maintain consciousness for longer than an hour after I had put them down. So I had nothing really to blog about, but I guess if you wanted to be technical I am not sure you could really say I ever had “anything” to blog about.

Just like a phoenix rising from the ashes, I am back dropping (do the kids still say that) loads of rpg goodness all over your face, neck, and chest. How did this happen you ask? Well like any addict, all it takes is a little nudge or taste to get that itch going. I happened to read an article on Polygon, during my daily procrastination routine, about the upcoming “Tales of the Yawning Portal” by WOTC in which several classic modules from past editions were being updated to 5th edition. The article was about the Tomb of Horrors update and I had the ridiculous idea that I should run it for my old gaming group as their first experience with 5th edition.  It actually took buying the book and reading halfway through the adventure before it dawned on me what a horrifically dumbass idea that was. So I flipped to the beginning of the book and started prepping “The Sunless Citadel” update instead. I sent out the call to arms and was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive and excited response. I guess we were all caught up in daily grind of trying to manage family and demanding careers, that a little escapism seemed just right. We play Friday nights every 2 to 3 weeks, and it seems that it has hit the sweet spot of not cutting into family time or generating too much spousal aggro. We made our way through the Sunless Citadel with me killing them multiple times and onto Princes of the Apocalypse, where I have also killed them multiple times; but more on that later.

What about that “Ancient Blood” adventure from Dungeon Magazine I kept threatening people with? Did I ever finish prepping and playing it? Let’s be honest, you already know what the answer to that question is, so stop badgering me. What I have done is begun a second game, I know like WTF how is that even possible, and before you ask , no I haven’t been laid off or “fired” or divorced thank you very much.  My 8 year-old (he is the baby seen on the header of the blog) has taken quite an interest in D&D and has been pestering me for a while around when he would get to play. Of course he took my suggestion that he needs to be a little older and a more capable reader before he begin his journey as me being a mega asshole dad who just wants to ruin his life and won’t let him do anything fun. You know, pretty much the usual.  When he started reading through the Harry Potter novels I knew I couldn’t push it off much longer, so I bought him the 5th Edition Starter Set and told him to read through the player /game rules and then we would build his character (FYI I made him roll his stats).  So I decided to convert the U1 AD&D module “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” to 5th Edition (super-easy to do) for us to play through with one of my friends. Needless to say, I am looking forward to how this turns out as my son takes his Elven Rogue “Stargazer” into his first grand adventure (FYI I will probably kill him).

Alright, I feel like at this point I need to remind you of the ground rules here. For full disclosure, if you are looking for any kind of substantive, insightful, or thoughtful commentary or criticism, then this is not the place for you.  I also design or create nothing or really offer anything of value. So you have been forewarned.

Erik the Viking

Hmm where to begin? I am still slowly prepping to run “Ancient Blood”, and by slowly I mean a brisk glacial place. I should be finished just in time to convert it to the 6th Edition rule set. I have been spending most of the time lately making maps for the vtt, reading the adventure again and again, and because I am an asshole, pondering how to add extra content to the adventure. There is one thing that has me concerned and that is converting the combat encounters/monsters over to the new edition. I have loosely mapped out and substituted a motley assortment of foes with which to antagonize my players with. My concern centers on the encounter building rules or guidelines set out the DMG. My little experience with system and what I have heard from other sources seems to indicate the guidelines might be a bit jenky. Encounters meant to be a fun donnybrook can turn out to be a bloodbath or vise versa a deadly set piece battle can turn out to be as threatening as a child’s tea party. It’s kind of all over the place. Part of the issue I think is the increasing experience point multiplier for more and more opponents; it seems to be off the mark a little. A friend of mine (the guy from the last post with the anal fissure surgery) suggests having a way for the players to succeed without killing everything, a way to escape, or knowledge of the threat ahead of time so they can tilt the odds in their favor. The game seems to require a bit of critical thinking and analysis when it comes to encounters, which I am not sure how I feel about it as I am a bit of a button masher kind of guy. I mean really, anymore demands on my critical thinking or mental resources and I am at risk of being reduced to a talking chimp.

So as I mentioned above, like an asshole, I felt I needed to add content to the adventure. A good portion of the adventure is based on content that doesn’t really match my play style and without it the adventure is kind of thin. What I am talking about is the overland travel. In the adventure, much is made about challenging the players and their characters to survive the trek, in sub-arctic conditions, to the abandoned Frost Giant keep. This is meant to be done by playing out each days travel and making camp through random encounters, foraging for food, not getting lost, and surviving and navigating environmental dangers such as breaking ice. I plan to incorporate that into a scene or two, but it is not my thing anymore to play out travel in a live action kind of way. In order “re-fill” the adventure so to speak, I have settled on adding a faction/threat, fleshing out one of the encounters into a possible side trek, and making the spirit of Mok-Turoknin’s (the dead Frost Giant king who’s curse is trigged) more of a factor.

The one faction or danger that I am adding is called “Erik the Viking”. The danger/faction is essentially a classic Viking clan lead by Erik. Their impulse is to grow strong, crush their enemies, and be worthy of Valhalla. Grim Portents for Erik the Viking are: trade to Dagmalstad is disrupted, Dagmalstad is attacked, the clan acquires and ancient power/magic. The impending doom is: Tyranny. As you might have noticed I am using Dungeon World terminology to organize and frame things. It allows to me to leave room for collaboration and to make moves more organically based on what the players do. Well at least in theory. I think the key will be in tying the players to the specific cities or factions in the adventure during character creation or session zero. I will give them the various groups that they can tie themselves too, including, and hopefully, Erik the Viking.

Below is the vtt map for the start of the game in medias res with the player’s boat sinking and being boarded by a raiding party from Erik’s clan. The 4e Dm in me was reflexively putting sharks in the water, because well sharks, until I realized that was like asking for a TPK in the first scene. I am a bit of douchebag but not that much of a douchebag. Besides I usually save the TPK for the second scene or when I want to rage quit my own game.

viking1

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