Saturday, October 20, 2018

Gehenna & Harrowheim - Session 3

Before the party leaves Hammersted with the shipment of liquors, Grant distributes some "leftovers" along with a very terse mention of how he appreciates their help. The items he gives out are as follows:

  • Gaudith's Gauge: An intricately carved wooden spoon which, when set afloat in drinkable water, will act like a compass toward the thing (purposefully vague) that the bearer focuses on. The idea is that the bearer must be personally familiar with the thing, and they must succeed on a DC 18 Insight check or the attempt fails and they cannot use the item for a long rest.
  • Ranulph's Runcible: An ivory spoon, so clear and smooth that it appears to be carved of pure pearl. When used to stir a poisonous or toxic beverage or soup, it becomes pitch black.
  • Long-Shadow Shield: This was a shield that belonged to one of the dwarves who was lost (read: went out like a bad-ass) when the goblins first attacked. It is made of ironwood, which is a famous Faewild crafting material that is stronger than steel but a third the weight. The wielder has an additional 60ft of darkvision at night (60 if they had none before, 120+ if they did).

The party eagerly accept the items and learn approximately of their abilities with some Arcana checks. Then they set off back to the Stone's Throw. Niobe's panther, Frida, and Derek (wild-shaped into a donkey) pull the cart. Derek is asked later why he didn't become a camel or some other desert-acclimated creature, and he just shrugs. It seems that the dwarf druid isn't actually that familiar with mammals and such.

Halfway back, as they approach the ruined tower where they had battled the automaton, they spot a massive sandstorm (think this) speeding toward them from the southwest. At the forward apex of the storm is a massive black bird shape that only a couple members of the party even spot.

The party decides to speed toward the tower, which turns into a series of Constitution checks to maintain the full sprint. Mykos casts fly on himself and is able to carry Navo and Niobe to the cover of the tower just before the sandstorm hits.

Derek, Frida, and Calphire are all still on the cart a couple dozen yards from the tower when it is up-ended by the winds and sand, burying them. Navo and Mykos succeed in taking cover behind the tower wall and avoid the brunt of the damage. Niobe looks back out of fear for Frida and her hesitation plays out well as she fails her saving throw and is thrown away from the wall by the storm.

During the storm, Navo and Mykos spot stone men walking amidst the sands like zombies. They can't make out any specific details in the flurry.

After a few minutes, the storm passes to the northeast and the stone men have left no traces of themselves. Mykos and Navo begin frantically trying to dig out their companions, which was aided by the use of Gaudith's Gauge. Other than some bludgeoning damage (and a failed attempt to burn oneself free with a firebolt) everyone made it out unscathed.

One of the cart's wheels, however, was wrecked. Luckily, none of the casks were compromised. The party stashed the casks in the ruined tower under some sand, made their way back to the Stone's Throw, explained what happened, showed proof that they had completed the job and that the casks were awaiting pick-up, collected their 2000 gold pieces, and went to bed.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Gehenna & Harrowheim - Session 2

Session 2 begins right outside the open gate of the Hammersted brewery, where the party peers in to see an armless corpse smeared with shit hanging behind the doors by a foot. Niobi's panther, Frida, begins to get wild eyes at the smell of goblins (and goblin excrement) in the air, and the party decides to kick in the door and take the fort by force.

A battle ensues where the majority of the party holds off several waves of goblins using the gate as a choke point, while a couple other PCs sneak around the back and discover a group of dwarves locked in the privy on the second floor of the main distilling building.

The dwarves are certainly happy to be free (and drinking) again, but their boss, Grant, is a rather prickly personality, and the party decide they'd rather sleep off their wounds and take a shipment of liquor back to the Stone's Throw than work out any further deal, especially after grant requests that the party train some of his new recruits in the martial arts...but doesn't offer any payment in exchange.

The party go to sleep, and that's where we end it for the night.

In retrospect, the battle took pretty much exactly as long as I had hoped, but the way that the party used the gate as a choke caught me off guard. The goblins were obviously not meant to be a tactical force, but I had designed the encounter and the goblin's layout within the brewery to encourage a stealth mission. The way I had envisioned it playing out was that they would take out 4-8 goblins without alerting any, and then some failed stealth or goblins that survive to take an action would alert the rest. Then, the party would have to take a defensive position while 12-16 other goblins charged their position.

Also in retrospect, I didn't like how little loot I had prepped for these goblins. I know there is a $2k reward once they get back to the tavern, but the end of the battle fell a little flat compared to the cool gem they were able to take from the golem last session.

I also wonder about Grant, the dwarf NPC and how "unlikeable" I made him. I definitely have his personality down, but the PCs didn't seem to want to engage him at all. His other dwarf employees: Talcum (the young, shy one), Mondr (the big silent type), Skol (the raspy-voiced intelligent one), and the new twins for security Herod and Kivki, didn't really get any screen time.

The plan is to have Grant slip the party some goodies before they leave to sweeten the deal and try to get on their good side a little. Also, the consequences of not training Herod and Kivki will probably come up a while later.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Gehenna & Harrowheim - Session 1

Session 1 begins with the last PC, Mykos, walking into the tavern after they have closed it up to keep in the warmth during the desert night. Mykos is a tiefling hexblade. He begins chatting with the bartender when he's approached by a human man in faded purple scale mail.

The man says his name is Bertrand, and he is a Dog of Yaangugar, the elite "police" of the sorcerer king Yaangugar, who rules a city closer to the easter coast of a continent. This city, Tannjerou, is where this man is interested in taking some well-equipped and capable adventurers to investigate the murder of a famous thespian ("Beorhtio"), allegedly by a radical group called the Black Flame Zealots. Finding the killers without raising suspicions from the group would guarantee a lot of money as a reward, in addition to Yaangugar's favor.

The PCs eventually all sync up and decide to help out Grouse with his lack of liquor first, and then meet Bertrand back at the Stone's Throw tavern to make their way east.

Before everyone goes to sleep, Navo's player reveals in a solo moment that his character's right arm has been badly crippled, and he is learning to throw daggers again with his left arm instead.

The party sets out for Hammersted along "Old Mill Road" and comes across what is presumably the ruins of the old mill. However, Derek the dwarf immediately recognizes that this is likely not a windmill, but the top of some corner tower of a giant castle or palace that is buried and very old.

The party goes to investigate when a giant scorpion comes around the bend. Before the scorpion can close with the party, a pile of what looked like sandstone erupts from the ground and takes the shape of a giant earth golem with clockwork mechanisms holding it together.

A battle ensues in which the golem throws the scorpion corpse at the party, almost killing Navo (who has very very very few maximum hit points somehow). Mykos ends up doing some great damage to the construct thanks to hexblade's curse, and Derek hits it with a lightning bolt. Notably, the creature is able to "slow time" before it is hit by a projectile using some gemstone in its hands, which Calphire pries out after the beast is defeated.

The party notes this location as a potential place of adventure in the future, but carries on into the desert. After a few more leagues they find the brewery. They begin discussing strategy for proving they are here on official business, but when they round the corner, they see the gate ajar.

And that is where we left it for the night.

Gehenna & Harrowheim - Session 0

This series is going to be a very simple log of a 5e homebrew campaign that I am now running on Fridays. I don't have much time to write these, so they will be summaries and highlights.

This is the setting pitch for the campaign:

The world has no name, but the destruction of the world has a name, and it is Gehenna. This is what the people call the ever spreading desert at the center of the large continent. The marching sands bring with them demons and dark magics that have minds of their own. As civilization has retreated, treasures, gold, and magics from another age were lost or abandoned, buried in now sunken ruins and caverns that await visits by curious adventurers.

Harrowheim is an ancient stronghold in eastern Gehenna. Where it stands was once a wooded cliff, lorded over by a vampire that had sewn powerful wards into the walls and grounds. Now, a hostile desert surrounds the oasis of dark wood and stone, but fails to penetrate the old dweomers of the place. As Gehenna has pushed past the fortress, the unfinished road from Harrowheim to the coast has gradually fallen into disrepair. What once was a guarded thoroughfare is becoming a highway of terrors, and frequent monster attacks, particularly at night, keep travelers at bay. Harrowheim houses a syndicate of worldly elves (drow) of varied aims, and abbutting the fortress is a shantytown of restless refugees. The political situation is... tenuous, to say the least.

The coast to the east, the Fertile Coast, hangs on to the luxuries of the past. Things are much the same as they were years ago, before the desert began to engulf the world. But every place on the continent dances on the edge of a knife, and on the coast that knife is fought over by two powers.

One force descending upon the coast are the waves of refugees fleeing from the desert. What might otherwise be just a large nuisance to local lords has marshalled into an insurgency. A group calling themselves the Black Flame Zealots has emerged from the refugees and recruited starving young men and women into their ranks. Wearing the image of the infamous black phoenix, the zealots have assassinated prominent figures on the Fertile Coast, burned down government buildings and stoked revolutionary ideas in the major cities.

Sorcerer Kings are rising among civilized lands that have become desperate to keep the Zealots at bay. These beings run the gamut of morality, but they are all willing to crush rebellion and treason with an iron fist and burn the will of the insurgents to ash with arcane fire.

Meanwhile, the old gods are being abandoned daily as the world becomes a husk, and a new faith, the Burning Erudition, is taking root among refugees and settled peoples alike. The cults of this new religion are varied and fractured, but prominent figures are beginning to emerge and seize power.

Adventurers who stray deep into the woods and swamps of the world may find themselves stumbling into the Fae, a place and a peoples of singular purpose: to toy with outsiders and belittle their mortal machinations. The faces of the Fae can range from benevolent elves to the murderous Wild Hunt.

Stretching vast around the other planes of existence is the Astral Sea, a mythical starfield that houses whole continents suspended in its aether. Only great civilizations have achieved the magic necessary to send their peoples into the astral plane. Some, such as the high elves (eladrin), used it as a new home. Others, like the giants, use it as a cosmic prison for the worst of their kind.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Spirit World or the Underdark...
Session 0

After character creation, we begin in a tavern called The Stone's Throw, a few leagues out from the edge of the spreading desert. It is run by a human man names Grouse, and his half-drow half-human daughter Minna.

Already in the tavern were two player characters: Calphire, a halfling wild sorcerer with hair like blown glass, and somewhere else in the tavern Niobi, a half-elf ranger (homebrew version of the class that I'll post some time) and her panther companion Frida.

The first of the players to enter the tavern after play had started was Derek, a dwarf druid. He came in, asked for a glass, cast create water into it, and started to drink. The bartender asked him for some money for renting the glass, and Derek promptly threw the water into Grouse's face and walks out. He runs into Hob, the Goblin merchant sleeping in a barrel outside, but doesn't buy any of his magic wares. He goes to sleep in the stables.

Next in was Navo, a half-elf arcane archer who uses daggers instead of a bow and arrow. He tried chatting up the ranger and her panther pet, but was unsuccessful.

The last PC is delayed because his player can't make session 0.

Calphire goes over to the edge of the bar where various jobs are posted and finds one put there by the barkeep himself. His shipments of rare desert liquors from the Hammersted brewery stopped a month ago and he needs someone to go check out why. The brewery is further into the actual desert a few leagues. He's promising a fair amount of money. Calphire accepts, then goes to the two half-elves to talk teaming up for the job.

I end the session there, because we're already well past three hours due to character creation.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons: The Action Economy "Problem" Phantom

Blah blah, haven't posted in forever because of real life stuff, etc. etc.

I recently started following a bunch of D&D subreddits (because I'm clearly an old man in this digital age), and a "problem" with 5th edition that I have seen discussed on multiple occasions is the action economy.

The first place I heard it spoken of was on Matt Colville's Youtube channel, in this hour long video, I think.

Colville didn't say it was a "problem" so much as he simply made an observation: 5th Edition D&D math stacks the odds in the PC's favor when it comes to single-opponent boss fights, especially later on in the levels.

Essentially, what makes the difference in 5E combat is how many opportunities each side has to act. Single, powerful monsters have a comparatively limited number of actions to do each round when fighting a party of PCs. Even with the "legendary action/resistance" powers available to the truly dangerous enemies, their ability to capitalize on any advantages in the flow of combat are cut short by the sheer number of PCs that get turns in between each true action the enemy can do.

So let's say you, the DM controlling a dragon, really smash one of the characters with a critical hit. That character is now close to dead...

In the early levels of the game, one of the PCs would have needed to spend their entire turn healing the characters to make sure they survived. This means the dragon is effectively facing one fewer enemies this round. Do that every round and the PCs have a dire situation on their hands.

But in the later levels of the game, the party can save that PC using only bonus actions (namely Healing Word). So even with the same level of damage output, the monster in this circumstance has a much lower chance of winning a straight fight because it is (effectively) fighting an extra PC every round.

The legendary actions allow the DM, in this case, to have the dragon do a tail swipe or some such attack out of turn to try and further complicate that PC's life and, hopefully, take a PC out of the fight temporarily to relieve some of the pressure.

But there are other ways to slow down the PC's action economy. Here are a bunch, briefly listed:

  • A flying creature battles the PCs on a crumbling mountain side. Random PCs must Dex save each round or slide down 10ft. The monster regularly tries buffetting the PCs off balance to inflict falling damage.
  • A hyper intelligent enemy has an ever-shifting rubiks-cube-esque boss chamber that it can command to move with a thought. Every round the PCs are slid into walls or each other, out of formation and into spell areas, etc.
  • The BBEG runs away, with the intent of being chased, to lure the party into a secondary trap/encounter/difficult terrain, etc.
  • The bad guy is rather alchemically inclined, and throws tanglefoot bags and alchemists fire and acid vials as bonus actions.
  • The BBEG has a dancing weapon that they reveal in the second round of the fight. Now there are two sources of attacks each round.
  • The evil wizard casts polymorph on his familiar in the first round of combat and makes it into a crazy monster.
  • The fight occurs in a room full of portals that interconnect. Run into one and you pop out of another. Only the BBEG knows which one leads where.
  • Your smaller evil guys can stealth! If they hide behind a tree, they can move away and attack again from a better vantage point.
  • Make use of semi-permanent choke points. The bad guy leads the party into a tight alleyway, but faster and athletic characters can take a different side street or climb up a building's siding. Either way, it distracts certain PCs for a round or two.
  • The fight occurs in the swamp, which is waist-high water (difficult terrain for medium creatures, swimming only for small ones) that doesn't slow down the BBEG cuz he lives here.
  • Start the fight with the PCs in a hole or down a level or two from the bad guy. Let the BBEG shoot magic or arrows or bombs down at them as they climb for the first couple rounds.
  • Big enemies grab PCs. They grab them all the time and throw them into other PCs. They use PCs like makeshift clubs, or toss them into spiked pits or out windows, etc.
  • Make the point of the fight to stop a ritual or destroy an item, so that if the PCs focus completely on dealing damage to the monster they will fail the main goal.
You get the drift. Change the playing field every round. Keep the PC's on their toes. The monster rules will not give you everything the villain should have at their disposal. If your PCs are using crazy ideas and tactics, your villains should too.

And ultimately, the easiest way to make sure that your PCs don't trounce a big baddie because they get waaaaaay more actions each round is to add more enemies. Evil duos are awesome. Evil leaders (bard, clerics, etc.) with a small battalion of mooks are awesome. A wizard with a golem for protection and a pet chimera makes sense, and makes for crazy combat.

The books have the rules in them, but the real challenges you present to your players can't be found in the books. The challenge is in the way you design the fight and force your players to shift gears multiple times before it's over. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Where is the Drama?

Simple post this time around: death rules and how they relate to what people believe about the game.

If you play with instant death at 0 HP ("Save-or-die" effects would fall in this category too), then you believe the drama occurs in two places:

  1. Before the fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. After the character has died (e.g. What do we do now that party member X is dead? Can we resurrect him? Should we? etc.)
If you play with death or stabilize at 0 HP (or less), then your system splits the drama into 3 categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  3. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with follow-up death or stabilize check, you add a fourth category:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  4. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with 3 follow-up death or stabilize checks, you add a two more categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the first round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. In the second round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  4. In the third round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  5. In the moment a character could stabilize or die, and...
  6. After the character is dead
If you play with unconscious at 0 HP with bleeding-out/negative death totals, you add an indeterminate number of categories:
  1. Before the potentially fatal blow is struck, and...
  2. In the first round the allies have to potentially save the character, and...
  3. ...
  4. ...
  5. ...
  6. ...
  7. ...
  8. After the character is dead
What's the point of extrapolating this?

My theory is that there is only so much drama a narrative/game can contain. A good session builds drama and then dissipates it, ebbs and flows, so to speak. Without clear and concise climaxes, the drama gets spread too thin. Players can only keep their feeling of excitement going for so long. If your character takes five rounds to finally kick the bucket or get back up, it isn't dramatic anymore. It also sucks the drama out of actually hitting 0 HP, because you are still multiple rounds away from a verdict on your character's fate.

The faster the rules allow you to resolve something, the more the drama is pointed and powerful. If the situation calls for a little gray area between an event and its resolution, that can be ruled on ad hoc. Adding all the extra layers between life and death a priori takes away from the immediacy and the danger.

"But I don't want my games to be that deadly!" You say.

Easy. Give your players more healing potions.

Extending the moment between life and death robs it of it's power.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Disappointing Combat in D&D

SPOILER ALERT: I'm writing this while watching the newest episode of Critical Role (ep. 88). If you don't want to have minor combat details ruined for you, wait to read this until you've seen the episode.

Read at your own peril.

In this episode, the party engages in an underwater battle with a kraken. The setup is short but sweet, and then, as much D&D combat is want to do, the play slows to a crawl as soon as initiative is rolled.

Now, given that this is all submerged, I understand slower movement speed. But that's not what is going on here. Each player's turn takes one of two forms:

1) excruciatingly long because they are trying to figure out how the rules apply to the unique circumstances.

2) breathlessly short because they are grappled and fail to escape.

The short turns are effectively not turns at all, they are just more pauses in the action. Here is an example of an excruciating turn: Grog is swallowed by the kraken and he is blinded, restrained, and slowly burning in acid. When it comes to his turn, he doesn't have anything to do but "swing his weapon" to deal damage to the kraken from the inside. Of course, the whole reason he is restrained is because he is being squeezed by the kraken's insides. He doesn't have nearly enough space to swing an axe or hammer, but because the rules tell him he can do nothing else, he is forced to make nondescript attacks that don't reflect the narrative reality at all. Needless to say, the turn is slow and uninteresting.

Worse than that, it's how you are supposed to escape. If you deal enough damage to the kraken from the inside, you might get puked out. But as we've already established, that makes little to no sense. Like I've said before on this blog, if there is a rule for how to do something, people are much more likely to use the rule rather than make something up, even if the rule is lame. We think within the box most of the time.

I can't think of an opportunity for more dynamic and exciting play than when a player in swallowed whole by a huge creature. Unfortunately, that's not what happened on that turn or the next. It took an incredible leap of logic by Grog's player to pull out his magic jug that makes oil. Then, when Keyleth the druid is also swallowed immediately after, the big risk of setting off a fireball and purposefully igniting the oil in the jug pumped life back into the encounter. The kraken pukes them back up and the real battle begins.

About an hour later, the real battle has ground to a halt again (before the actual encounter ends) and it becomes a game of how to escape through a portal when everyone keeps getting grabbed and restrained by the kraken. The party's goal is to leave without killing the beast, but it's "stickiness" and the underwater environment make this goal extremely difficult. After several rounds of the party trying to break free and getting pulled back, Vax the rogue is swallowed while unconscious.

This is followed by another grueling turn for poor Keyleth who is barely able to keep the all the alter-self, animal shapes, and druid beast-shapes straight.

The issue here is not Critical Role, the players, or the DM. It's the rules. The rules are designed in such a way as to punish any "get-in-get-out" encounters. Every enemy is sticky in D&D, and the kraken is the king of sticky things. It has two average parties-worth of tentacles which auto-grab and restrain after dealing damage on a hit. The party members that are restrained lose approximately a third to a quarter of all their actions during the fight. They just fail their escape rolls and do nothing. That's not even counting the swallow ability, which is essentially a nigh-inescapable grapple.

It's painful to watch the party members on screen look utterly exhausted by their lack of options. The combat ends in an intense way, but that's all thanks to the roleplaying and DMing that are superb. They were succeeding in entertaining themselves (and us viewers) in spite of the rules, rather than with them.

I haven't thought about D&D from a design standpoint in a while, but these same issues are always on my mind when I do. There's got to be a better paradigm for handling combats like this, where everything devolves into repetition of two or three optimal actions until math saves the day for one side or the other.