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Posts Tagged ‘dungeons and dragons 5th edition’

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?

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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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Well, long time no post. I am in fact still alive, and more importantly gaming. I have been playing Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition and running the first published adventure path for the game Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Well that is until I pulled the shoot, but more on that later. I will not review 5E specifically here, as that just feels too overwhelming, and my good man Mr. Morrison over at The Rhetorical Gamer has done a good job again of reaching into my mind, with which I can only assume is some kind of voodoo, and laid it to bear on his blog.

So let’s talk 5E a little. I have to say that I like it. The feel of it in motion is good for me. It seems like a good blending of 3e and 4e from my perspective; they have smoothed over some of the hard corners of those editions for me. For example, I like the stronger but less frequent and numerous feats. Shit, you don’t even need to use feats and instead can just go stat bumps. The races and classes seem cool and strike a lot of the traditional archetypes. The subclass system, feats, and multi-classing allow you to build to your hearts content. I love the magic system and their neo-vancian approach to casters. Magic seems, well more magical again (and remember I loved 4e and played it exclusively for 4 years so no edition bashing hear). One of the things I struggled with in 3E/Pathfinder was the multiple buffs deal, so I like how they paired the slightly more powerful buff spells with the concentration mechanic that only allows for one spell requiring concentration to be active at a time. I also love that magic items are not necessary and have taken a step back to the early days of D&D where you might have found me under my covers picking out magic items that I would ruin the world with. Overall, the game feels very mutable to whatever you want to do.

I also like the flow of combat in terms of its pace and not being tied to the grid. Although I am not sure if I still have the chops for theatre of the mind (is there a less douchey term we can use for this?), either that or we as a player base have become addicted to the grid. In my game I have been saving the gridded combat for the more fleshed out encounters, everything else I tend to use a white board on roll d20 (since I play mostly online) with pogs to show positioning. I then use 13th Age style distances such engaged, close, and far. The gridless fights seemed to be a bit of a struggle, a little cluncky with the players being hesitant. In some ways I think throughout the past 2 editions we have been conditioned to think in terms of miniatures on a grid. It doesn’t help that all the abilities and spells are pretty structured with distances and dimensions. Now part of the problem might also be that I have trouble effectively describing the back my hand to someone. We will have to see, it might get better with more practice at it. Also I think I should go full descriptive for old times’ sake. I know what you’re going to say, “dude you never go full descriptive”.

Now on to Hoard of the Dragon Queen, I scuttled the campaign for a lot of reasons. In many ways I just wasn’t digging the adventure. The story itself was okay, it just didn’t grab me. I didn’t like the organization and felt that I was always looking for important content buried in long pieces of text while at the table. I think it also suffered a little from being developed simultaneously with the rule set as it includes terms and rules that didn’t make it into the PHB. They did a good job fleshing out the NPC’s and providing mini-sand boxes for each section of the adventure. I found myself not looking forward to games and it was a real struggle to get down to it. In general, I have been struggling to want to game as of late. I wasn’t really enjoying the group in terms of it not being a good fit and whether it was me or them I am not sure. Between working six days a week in my day job and private practice and having young children There is about an hour or 2 window in the evening between the time the kids are asleep and me passing out, and I found myself not wanting to invest in something so concrete as a weekly or bi-weekly rpg. It became easier and more desirable to just play video games or watch television. So basically, all of these things sort of combined and culminated in me turffing the game. So where do we go from here? Well I am still excited about 5th edition and my DMG just came in the mail. I have been going through old Dungeon magazines and modules looking for an adventure to convert, you know busy work. One of the strengths of the system seems to be that it is pretty easy to convert older 1st and 2nd edition material. I settled on the adventure “Ancient Blood” by Grant and David Boucher in Dungeon #20. The adventure has a nice Viking/Nordic angle to it and a magic sword called “Thor’s Fury”, so really what’s not to like. I think I am looking to sometime into the new year to run it.

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