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Archive for February, 2018

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.

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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.

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