The Three Traditions

August 13th, 2014

nightvale_angel

For use in a 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons setting in which there are no Bards, Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers, or Wizards. The Warlock and Paladin classes are left to fill roles normally taken by these missing character classes, with the Paladins serving not Gods in the traditional sense but the same strange patrons the Warlocks bind themselves: the Archfiends (Amon, Baphomet, Baal, Paimon, and others), the Archfey (Aurora, Mab, Skuld, Titania, and others), and the Great Old Ones (for this purpose the intermediary servants of a single inscrutable cosmic entity).

In the Southern Realms there has been a longstanding tension between the nations of Man and the holdings of the Fey. Their strengths have waxed and waned, through war and peace, revolution and catastrophe. In recent ages, the cities, roads, and industries of Man have gained ground in fits and starts, largely through a tip in the balance between the Three Traditions.

The Archfey and the Archfiends have variously assisted, empowered, and protected the Warlock princes of each side, occasionally troubled by the One Who Is Many and His servants. Variously known as the Great Old One, He That Is, The One Faced By Seven, or simply The One True God, this inscrutable entity has rarely engendered a significant following. The odd hermit or madman here or there would claim to hear whispers from beyond the stars or receive wet, ominous dreams with strange portents, but the servants of the Archfiends in civilized lands would dismiss them out of hand. The green princes of the wilds ensured these odd teachings could not take root in their territory. There was balance of a sort.

Recently this has changed. A rash of charismatic Warlocks and Paladins have established popular cults, erecting temples and shrines deep in bustling cities, in frontier towns, and even in the wilds themselves. Each is dedicated to this unknowable entity to the exclusion of the regularly-excepted fiends and fey courts.

They preach that every mortal is stalked by invisible agents of the One, horrible guardian angels biding their time, observing, waiting to harvest them at the time of their inscrutable Lord’s choosing. They congregate for a ritual cannibalism, transmuting bread into the flesh of their martyred prophet and consuming it raw. They mutilate their infants to mark them as part of their contract. They proselytize vigorously, desperately, and sometimes forcibly. All in hopes of forestalling a coming doom. For none know the purposes of this terrible ancient power, but the cryptic warnings of His messengers have been increasingly specific, increasingly urgent.

The Princes and Emirs have inquired with their fiendish patrons, and found them mute. They offer no refutation of the Great Old One’s prophecy. Instead they are warned not to meddle with The One, his Choir, or his crawling Messengers. Their hands bound by arcane pacts, the mighty potentates must stand by and let this new cult thrive like weeds in their garden.

The Green Lords have looked deep into their pools and crystals and can divine no future guaranteed by the fey courts for all their power. They ask the trees of the origin of the One’s faith, but they do now know. They ask the stones and the stones cannot remember a time before the One. They ask the stars and the stars weep silently. Their silence on the subject, and the complicity of the princes of Man engenders fear and uncertainty among the laity. Even some of the Paladins bound by the Oath of the Ancients and champions under the Oath of Vengeance have turned from their paths, re-dedicating themselves in Oaths of Devotion to the One.

Stormclouds gather ever near. The angelic choirs ululate, wail, and chatter maddeningly. Is it this new faith in an ancient power that will save the world, or doom it?

Adventuring parties are strongly encouraged to have at least one Warlock and one Paladin tied to the same Warlock Patron. Characters devoted to the One Who Is Many are encouraged to subscribe to a number of strictures and taboos similar to Jewish Kosher Law or Muslim Halal. Fluff all interactions with the Great Old One Patron as a cross between the Abrahamic God and Cthulhu


5e With Kids, AAR

July 24th, 2014

The mess in progress

This week I took advantage in a gap in my eight-year-old son’s summer camp schedule to go hang out with an old childhood friend and his daughters. I brought along the recent Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set to run them through as a little campaign. We had two sessions scheduled, which I hoped would be enough to get a reasonable idea of whether these children could handle the hobby and, perhaps more importantly, if I was ready to use 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons as a game system with children as players.

Spoiler: It went pretty well.

Characters

Having five pre-generated characters with backgrounds and relationships to NPCs and ideals and goals was handy. The six-year-old girl’s dwarven cleric was related to the missing miners and was keen on rooting out some brigands in the town they were heading to. The nine-year-old girl’s halfling thief had bad blood with those same brigands and an aunt living in the town. The eight-year-old boy’s human fighter had a chip on his shoulder about his childhood home being overrun by zombies. The girls’ dad ran an elven wizard that was on a mission to re-consecrate an altar that had been co-opted by goblinoids (who turned out to be allied with the same brigands the girls had ties to). It also meant we didn’t have to blow our first session on making adventurers.

A trap that’s come up repeatedly over the years is character creation. Some games, including the most recent major revisions and clones of Dungeons & Dragons, have droves of enthusiasts that publicly obsess over the various methods and options of building new characters. That’s well and good, go have whatever fun you’re looking for. Personally I find more fun in actually playing the game than in making the characters. Simple character creation (and it gets no simpler than pre-generated characters) shortens the road between getting a group of people together and playing the game you got together for. That’s not so much praise for 5th edition D&D as an observation about a common speedbump at the beginning of many adventure campaigns.

The character sheets provided emphasize the character’s bonuses to rolls, not their numeric attribute score. I like this, as it almost never matters if you have a 17 dexterity or a 16 dexterity. What matters is that you get a +3 on dexterity-related activities. The +3 is big and visible across the table, the 16 is present for occasional reference. The cleric and wizard really would have benefited from a more useful presentation of available and prepared spells.

A 9-year-old's campaign notes

Rules

Advantage seems, with a short sample size of actual play experience, to be a good thing. The players were happy to have a second chance to roll a die even if they already knew the first result was good enough to succeed. We who play pen & paper RPGs like rolling dice. Contriving a situation that grants advantage to a roll lets us roll another die. That’s the kind of thing that appeals to the tactile lizard-brain part of fun that ought to be present in a game.

The new proficiency system made it almost alarmingly simple to remember what everybody ought to be adding to their rolls. If you’re proficient at something at first, second or third level (as far as we got) you get a +2 on top of whatever ability modifier you have. If you aren’t, you don’t.

The lack of a table of contents in the little sample rule book made a couple of references not-entirely convenient. What benefits do you get from surprising a foe? What are the rules for recovering from damage during a rest? It’s all in there somewhere, but I had to fudge a couple of rulings to keep things moving. Again, the advantage system served me well for DM-ignorance-related adjudication.

We never saw an actual roll with disadvantage during eight hours of play. I wonder if that is typical, or a quirk of our formative group dynamic.

The Adventure

None of the core concepts of the stock adventure’s premise were ground-breaking. There are some evil humanoids and criminals working for a shady puppet-master that’s trying to get at some ancient lost treasures of awesomeness. And a dragon. Nothing we haven’t heard before. Several of the bad-guys have explicit motivations that helped run them as the DM. What does the Nothic get out of working with the Redbrands? That informs how it interacts with the player characters.

The adventure starts by railroading the player characters towards a town that acts as the narrative hub of the story, dropping a couple of plot hooks along the way. Once in town, several notable NPCs had tasks they would like the players to take care of if possible. As mentioned before, the pre-generated characters tied in nicely with the setting. Everybody had reasons to be there. Just about every side-story the NPCs want to drag the party into had a character hook related. The thief wants revenge on the bandits. The lady at the assessor’s office wants the bandits dealt with and will pay handsomely. The archer wants to clear his home town of zombies and a dragon. The druid that knows where the super-secret hidden place is happens to hang out in that same town and another NPC gives the party directions to a treasure hidden there. A bunch of disjointed story threads tie together to provide the players with plenty of things to do and plenty of motivation to go do them.

Motivation is often lacking in published adventures. I suspect that’s tied into that character-building trap mentioned earlier. You want to play your special snowflake character. That special snowflake probably has no business existing anywhere, and certainly has no business helping the Rockseeker Brothers in their mining/archaeological endeavor. Or the good folk of Phandalin in general. Or the other player characters. Largely due to a reasonably-clever intertwining of pre-generated characters (that aren’t just a lump of stats and combat abilities) this adventure works quite well.

The challenges presented were simple enough for two total rookies and an eight-year-old with limited play experience to make just about all the decisions and get through it. That’s not entirely fair. Three little kids putting their heads together can come up with really good solutions to fantasy RPG problems. Don’t underestimate the cunning of two fourth graders and a devious little sister. They may take a little while to do their addition and subtraction, but their creativity is rock-solid. They explored, scouted, made good use of available resources, and circumvented threats with aplomb. At one point the cleric fell into a pit trap. A few minutes later they were using that same pit to their tactical advantage in a sword fight.

Over all we completed maybe two-fifths of the major content of the adventure. The players completed their initial assignment and took care of a major side-job, climbing rapidly from first to third character level in two sessions. There is still ample material to go through involving some overland travel, exploration of ruins, and hairy boss fights (some involving hairy bosses). I can reasonably expect these players to be fourth level well before finishing the main brunt of the story.

House Rules

It just isn’t possible to play Dungeons & Dragons without some in-house strange rules coming up. In preparing for play I didn’t care for the way that very few creatures or antagonists had their inventories spelled out. I jotted down a modified “I search the body” table from the Vornheim city kit, as well as a modified “random book” table. Modified because I’m playing with children and some of that stuff is totally suitable for porn stars and not so much for grade-schoolers.

Slickly-designed custom table

Upon looting a corpse (or captive), DM rolls 1d8. On a 1-7 a common item is found (a flask, 1d12 or 2d12 extra coins, that kind of thing). On an 8, something odd is found. DM rolls 1d12 and consults a list of thirty-odd items, counting down from the top of the list. Whatever the result is goes to the players and that line is crossed off. Interesting but not-terribly-valuable stuff goes at the top and is likely found earlier than interesting and increasingly-valuable stuff lower on the list. The little girls were somewhat disturbed to find a mummified fairy on a dead goblin, but later used it in negotiations with a hungry Nothic, so that worked out.

I may have bumped down the armor class of the goblins during the initial encounter. That wasn’t so much a house rule so much as I wanted to make sure their first-ever combat encounter wasn’t a total party kill because I have better dice luck than them. I was also inconsistent about whether groups of identical opponents all went on the same initiative count, based entirely off a read of the table as opposed to any hard-and-fast rule.

Conclusion

It’s refreshing to play a game that felt very old-school-nostalgia-fest with people that aren’t jaded by years of exposure to the narrative genre or the metagame tropes. During our second session we had a couple of problems with the two youngest kids running off to chase each other around the building, but I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect young children to sit attentively for four hours straight.

Everybody should DM a gaggle of kids a time or two. Kids make for great murderhobos.


Getting Ready to Homebrew 5th Edition

July 16th, 2014

gobgobgob

It’s a bit early, what with the Player’s Handbook not having shipped, but with Wizards of the Coast having released a 110-page PDF of the new Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules and a Starter Set box with a neat litle adventure, we’ve got a pretty good amount of material to get off the fence, set aside our hipster indy RPGs for a while, and return to the mothership for a while.

I understand that it’s cool to disdain Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps even more so if you are a long-time pen & paper roleplaying gamer. There are myriad reasons for this, ranging from the compelling and legitimate to utterly petty and childish. I don’t care whether you’re ironically or unironically against Dungeons & Dragons of any particular flavor. In my mind, every RPG you play is just D&D with house rules. Some house rules make the game more simple, some make the game more complicated. Many change the core themes of play. But if I were playing with your group, I’d tell my wife and kids that I was heading out to play some D&D with my friends. So when somebody releases a new system under the Dungeons & Dragons trademark I go and check it out. Out of habit, perhaps. Perhaps because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every version of Dungeons & Dragons so far. At least when I first picked it up. Unlike other brands in the hobby, Dungeons & Dragons never seems to lose its shine and appeal until it’s been played a bunch.

Which brings us to the new & shiny version. From the material we’ve seen, 5th edition is bringing a few interesting new elements to the classic game. In part this is meant to reconcile the play styles of several older editions. This has fans of older versions seeing spectres of newer versions. It has fans of newer versions seeing hobgoblins of older versions. They’re correct in many of the particulars. Aspects of 1st and 2nd edition AD&D are present. Aspects of 3rd edition are present. Elements of 4th edition are there, too. New character background, bonds, and inspiration mechanics even tie in material that I associate with independent pass-the-talking-stick storytime games. Depending on how well the full system ties all these together will have a huge impact on how fun the game will be to play, how well it will facilitate DMs running the game, and how well the brand will fare going forward.

One of the important roles of a Dungeon Master has always been to adjudicate the rules, to decide how they should be interpreted and implemented in a particular story, to create new rules to deal with unforeseen circumstances, and to ignore rules that are deemed counterproductive. This has been the case since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson killed their first orc. The result is that every Dungeon Master and his group ends up playing a different version of the game than every other group. Each has his own house rules, a kind of informal set of precedents and traditions that help players predict how the story will work. In some groups, magic swords glow constantly. In some group, magic weapons only glow with held by a person. In others, they don’t generally glow at all. I’ve seen play groups general hundred-page printouts of their campaign’s various house rules.

The first house rule I expect to implement is related to the following blurb, as presented in the Basic Rules PDF on page 31:

rabies_for_learning

It is my long-held belief that, in most editions of Dungeons & Dragons, spellcasters have to be handled with care by both the player and the DM. They have to walk a tightrope between being fragile and being stupendously overpowered. A Wizard or Cleric can frequently render other characters superfluous. They can slay many enemies, circumvent many perils, and generally solve most problems and adventurer might face with no assistance from other characters. In a game where the spotlight ought to be shared and every player would like an opportunity to save the day every once in a while, this is problematic. The rule quoted above grants a Wizard the ability to pick any two spells he wants when he gains a level. Depending on the story at hand, some spells have the potential to bypass entire adventures, throwing a wrench into the Dungeon Master’s plans and depriving the whole group (including the Wizard’s player) of hours of entertainment.

A simple solution: remove the free spells when a Wizard gains a level. If you want new spells, look back to the ancient tradition of raiding some other Wizard’s spellbook or scrolls. This can be somewhat problematic if you start a Wizard character; which cantrips and 1st level spells should he have access to? If starting a Wizard at a higher level, the list of commonly-available spells would need to broaden as well.

This can also be an issue for Clerics, who are generally understood to know how to pray for whatever miracles their deities are willing to grant. The Basic Rules PDF grants Clerics access to every Cleric spell in the book the moment they are powerful enough to cast them. They are limited almost entirely to what they player has the foresight to prepare in advance. If we end up finding that Clerics are as potent in 5th edition as they have been in Pathfinder or 3rd edition, it may be a good idea to come up with a “common book of prayers” that any Cleric of a given faith would have access to. This may require coming up with a “researching a spell from scratch” system that I’ll probably base on whatever the rules for making magic items are.

The second house rule will be to modify the combat maneuvers from the Battle Master archetype found in a leaked closed-playtest document and make them the model for improvised actions by anybody, not just a subset of Fighters. I suspect the final published version of the rules will do something similar anyway, so folding this house rule into the proper rules should require a minimum of fuss and muss.

Also, no feats. If there’s one thing I grew to detest in 3rd edition, 4th edition, Pathfinder, and other Dungeons & Dragons clones, it’s feature creep, trap options, and general bloat through the “feats” system. I was tickled to see them considered optional by default.