I picked up my copy of Curse of Strahd today and while I’m looking forward to it (a friend intends to run it soon) I have to say that I’m hoping it is better than the other 5E adventures released so far.
Not to put to fine a point on it, but the adventures released so far – the two Dragon Queen adventures, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Out of the Abyss – are… Not great. The Dragon Queen adventures had their moments but those moments were bogged down by some interesting editing choices and poor organization.
Princes of the Apocalypse – which our group recently ended our game with – was a mess. The adventure was a decent homage to its inspirational material but playing through it felt disjointed, slow, and awkward in its execution. There is this wide open map to play in but really, only a few areas actually mattered and the ‘side plots’ were worse than distractions. The adventures were designed with the appearance of a sandbox but really aren’t. The DM has to work hard to make sure that the players don’t wander into the wrong area and effectively end the campaign with a TPK. And no matter what else happens, the players are basically left wandering around with no ability to put the pieces together. It was infuriating.
Out of the Abyss is another adventure built on fancy rails that wants to pretend it’s an Underdark sandbox. When I first started reading this one I was stunned. The adventure directs the group to a village of crazy fish people that are worshiping demons and basically set the party up by having Demogorgon rise out of a lake and destroy a town like a tentacled Godzilla and saying, “hey, that’s enough to get the party interested, right?”
Yep, a party of characters that have only recently wandered into this town after being slaves to the drow and then wandering around the Underdark lost and potentially starving for what might be days or weeks. But yep, we’ll get right on that fighting Demogorgon thing… Or, we’ll run like hell and get to the surface as fast as possible and forget we ever saw Demogorgon. That seems like a better plan.
I’m still hopeful that Curse of Strahd will be better. I’m not reading it until after we’ve had a chance to try to play it but so far, D&D 5e adventures haven’t impressed me, which is too bad because I really like the game.
Carnivals are terrifying, right? Something Wicked This Way Comes, is all about the dark things that carnivals bring to our towns… There are many adventures and sourcebooks for RPGs centered around the dark traveling carnival. Heck, the mighty Inquisitor Eisenhorn even faces one in a story set in the Warhammer 40K universe.
But what if the Carnival wasn’t so scary? Well, that is to say, what if, when you pull back the curtain, instead of being an even more twisted representation – it was something else? What if, when the layers of illusion are stripped away, you find a bunch of seemingly normal folk dealing with all the troubles of being itinerant entertainers in a dangerous world?
“I don’t have to outrun the owlbear, I just have to outrun you…”
When I read this scenario I was quite annoyed with it. Effectively, this seemed like it would play a lot like an escort mission. My wife and I have a saying… “Everyone hates escort missions.” In practice, though it did still feel like an escort mission, I found the scenario to be the most fun of the OP scenarios we’ve played so far in D&D Attack Wing.
Basically, your team is racing another team to escape off the board with a cart full of loot. A “pursuing army” is off-screen which does automatic damage to the cart in the rear each turn, so it pays to be ahead. There is a wall to break, and an opposing force to evade. Add to this the uncertainty created by blind pull boosters and the day could turn out many different ways.
I went extremely simple for this tournament. I tried a lot of teams in theory-craft but at the end of the day, I went back to my standard approach to the game – use the best creatures you can for the scenario and make sure they function well with a minimum number of upgrades.
My 90 Point Build
Lord Maximilian with Drain Life (54) and Calamity with Precise Shot (36).
From my booster I pulled Dragonfly for the second consecutive tournament. This time, I was happy to see him, with bear form and his staff, I knew he’d make a solid cart pusher, freeing up Lord Maximilian to go on the offensive.
I faced off against a team made up of a Generic Copper Dragon, two generic druids, and a generic Frost Giant. I rolled out Calamity and killed the Frost Giant in the first shot from the big ballista. 6 attack dice with a target token is no joke. The game steadily went downhill from there for my opponent. I was able to keep up the fire on their cart (being pushed by their booster pull, Rezmir), and unfortunately, he just couldn’t generate enough dice to seriously threaten my team.
This was the only round I got the cart off the table.
In this round, I faced my most dreaded opponent… my wife. She consistently beats me at this game and has twice beaten me in the previous OP events. I knew her build well and with a Dwarven Ballista, Frost Giant Fighter, and Claugiyliamatar, I felt certain I was in trouble. For her blind pull, she had Ontharr Frume, who she set as her cart pusher.
Once again, I got off to a hot start, one-shot killing her Frost Giant with a full six hits from Calamity. It was devastating, but she had enough oomph left on the team that we spent the full round duking it out. We both lost our carts and she came within a target token of defeating me (to be able to trigger magic missile).
In this round, I was saved by the fact that the cart provided protection. Those extra dice saved Lord Max from death and kept me in the round long enough to win.
Facing two super-charged giants (Jarl Horn and Ancoram) was a test. My opponent had pulled a Paladin for his blind figure as well and we went at it. In a very smart play, my opponent put his giant in between my cart pusher and my cart, leaving me unable to get the cart moving again right away. Calamity took a crit which lowered its attack to 5, and Lord Max was running around doing his best to keep everything on track.
In this round, Lord Max turned out to be the star. He pretty much fought Ancoram to death, dealt with a damaged Jarl Horn (my bear druid got a few hits on the big guy), and my weakened Calamity managed to kill his chances of getting the cart off the board. Lord Max died for the only time today in this round, but he really did save my bacon.
My first OP win. I’ll take it. Hard fought games with lots of unpredictable twists. It was a blast.
The other two legions I did not play against both had Drizzt on their team. I expected him to be a popular choice for this OP so I wasn’t surprised to see him out there. One of them was sporting Drizzt and Vakka, the other – I can’t quite remember what else he brought – I know he pulled the ranger for his booster, who, without a melee attack couldn’t sub in as a cart pusher. Unfortunate.
I was genuinely surprised that I didn’t see any Malebolge. I expected him to be prominent in this tournament, with his high durability, great ground attack, and decent enough level. I tinkered with a few builds including the little guy, but decided against him (for myself) in favor of the armor penetration and dodge dice I get from Maximilian. Without that, I think I would have lost the day.
This scenario provided a challenge I was not excited about on paper but turned out to be fun to interact with. The emphasis on the cart as a way to get bonus points made it worth protecting and worth moving every turn. The variety of tactics to slow that down or stop it made for an added element of tactics not usually present in the game and builds needed to be about more than just, “Kill the other guy.”
Now, as always, thanks for reading. I’m off to start thinking about OP5!
PS – getting closer to the Solar!
I used the term “murder-hobo” in public the other day and I realized that to anyone who does not play D&D, they might seriously think I was endorsing lethal bum fights. I was on a college campus, so this seemed extra likely.
The context of my comment though, as it would make sense to gamers, concerned the idea that even though I – ostensibly – enjoy a sandbox, hex-crawling style of play – I wonder if sometimes I only think that I enjoy that. I worry about this because it doesn’t just inform my fun as a player but it affects my thinking when I’m planning and running a game.
If I may take a brief aside into video games, I really struggled to enjoy Fallout 3, but I very much enjoyed Fallout: New Vegas. The difference being, for me, that New Vegas included this whole layer of civilization which was lacking in F3. In New Vegas, I was able to connect with different factions, have recurring enemies, build a storyline around my exploration and I didn’t just feel isolated like I did in Fallout 3. I make no objective claims that one is better than the other – it’s just that New Vegas satisfied my need to be a part of something in a way that the purely open exploration of Fallout 3 could not.
This difference really affects my enjoyment of playing an RPG at the table too. I enjoy old-school play to the extent that I really enjoy fragile characters and having to make tough choices and the mystery of a wide-open map with a million stories to be told. But out of the OSR movement, I naturally gravitated right to Adventurer Conqueror King System because of its emphasis on civilization (especially in sharp contrast to the great wilderness). During the explosion of settings surrounding D&D, Second Edition, while everyone was raving about Planescape and Dark Sun, I was quietly sitting in my corner running Birthright (and I would love to see a Birthright revival in 5e). The domain rules appealed to me precisely because they inherently connected player characters to the setting. You were a regent (or if a non-regent, then connected in some way to survive the world of regents). When I was running Warhammer Fantasy, I unbundled the “blooded regent” rules from the domain system and used it in conjunction with my homebrew world. That was a seriously fun game.
Taking another example, out of all the Pathfinder Adventure Paths, the only one I was ever pulled toward was Kingmaker. The whole concept of getting a hex-crawl which was explicitly tied to the idea of building a domain was fascinating to me. It served both purposes and we had some very memorable roleplaying based around the council the team put together to run their budding kingdom.
Amber – my gaming crush from way back – is another example of finding this freedom. Characters created for Amber games are intricately and explicitly tied to forces larger than themselves which will demand their allegiance (or rebellion) and with which their interactions are vital. That said, during the course of any given session it is likely that the players will roam all over Hell and half of Georgia (as my Granny used to say) because they can literally go anywhere. But they still have important, inescapable social ties which are as much obligation as they are sanctuary.
So why is it – as I am running my second 5e game – that I find myself falling back on the habit of treating D&D like a set of disparate adventures thrown together in episodic fashion and not able to find my footing in building a sense of community and continuity? It’s a question that keeps me up at night.
There was an announcement that Green Ronin is going to bring back the Blue Rose RPG. I was excited about this for two reasons. First, I’m a huge fan of romantic fantasy. Second, I’m a fan of the AGE system and I am interested in seeing it supported outside of Dragon Age. That said, I was not enamored of the world/setting of the Blue Rose RPG which shares much more in common with Mercedes Lackey than Tamora Pierce (or new writers like Rae Carson). Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy Mercedes Lackey’s Valdamar stories – and I certainly respect their longevity – but even for a civilization-loving gamer like myself I find everyone just a bit too reasonable for my tastes. Everything is just a bit too ideal. I mean, I wish the world worked like that. At the end of the day though, I appreciate the complexity of motivations which often seem to drive the characters from the later waves of Romantic Fantasy. That said, I am happy that Blue Rose is coming back if for no other reason than it had a beautiful aesthetic and presented a very different kind of fantasy – which is almost always a good thing.
To return to my problem which prompted this think aloud session… What is it about running D&D which shoves me back into module mode? Why do I find it so hard to create, in D&D, the same kind of free-floating wonder I am able to capture in Amber or other games? Why are there so few opportunities in the D&D realm to mix sandbox-style play with a world full of connections? Is it because the nature of sandbox style play (the freedom to roam) is conflicted by the need to have connections which, by their nature, tie your PCs down?
I struggle with this. As a DM/GM of over 30 years, with many successful campaigns at my back (at least, based on feedback from my players… I am often my own worst critic) why is it that I still struggle with a game I genuinely enjoy? It vexes me.
Let me close with this. I was reading some of the introductory material to Silent Legions and I found the discussion of sandbox play there refreshing. Specifically, the idea that “the stories it produces are all in retrospect – the tale of the choices the PCs made and the consequences that came of them.” This is a well-crafted thought and explains precisely what it is that makes me love the idea of sandbox-style gaming. It captures the spirit of what I have done in my best games – the ones I have run that even I love looking back on – which involves a give and take between the setting and the PCs such that sometimes they will have to accept consequences for choices not made; the road not taken and all that. If I can capture that again – if I can capture that sense of freedom and wonder compounded by a living, breathing world – I think I’ll be happy. Until then… I’m not sure what comes next.
Thoughts, feelings, reactions, stories? Feel free to share.
As always. Thanks for reading.
Around the year 2000, my girlfriend was going away for the summer. In order to stay in touch, I planned to write her a series of letter-style short stories which would seem to come from a fantasy world based on the city we lived in and its surrounding areas. I only did a few of those – but the planning for that project led directly to the creation of my longest-lasting homebrew world, Irona, which became the setting for my 3rd edition D&D games and later was adapted to work with Warhammer Fantasy RPG, second edition, 4th edition D&D, and even Barbarians of Lemuria as I tried out all of those systems.
Over the last 14 years, Irona has grown and changed quite a bit. I’ve tinkered, jiggered, added in suggestions from players, built histories and delved back into the past. Ultimately, it’s become a big place with a lot of information written about it.
As I started my 5th Edition D&D game, I went back to Irona and my creations there. I decided that I was going to start over – in a way – and begin the game with the same timeline and set up which originally shaped that first 3rd edition campaign. After all, only one of my players had ever played in Irona before – this is an almost entirely new group with no history or connection to this world.
And as that presented a problem of its own, I dug into my DM toolbox and pulled out another old tool I hadn’t used in a long time – the Campaign Newsletter – an information sharing technique I’ve used with several games before and that I find very helpful. I thought I’d take a minute to explore my way of structuring one of these, show an example, and offer my insights about what works and what doesn’t. I’d also love to hear anything any of you are doing in a similar manner.
So far, my admiration for 5e D&D has probably been pretty obvious on my blog. I’m really enjoying the game I’m running and overall, my perception of the way the game plays is very positive.
But I do have, I suppose, one complaint. It’s a really personal complaint so I don’t expect it to resonate with everyone… But it has been a stark moment for me.
I used to worry a lot about domains. When doing world building or even just character creation, I often found myself thinking about deities in terms dictated by their portfolios more than their personalities. And by their portfolios, I mean their domains. This is an affliction tied very much to the concept of domains as mechanical effects used in 3rd and 4th edition D&D (and Pathfinder) but I can see its influence in many types of design and even fiction. It’s important to have boxes we can put ideas in. Portfolios for gods serve many purposes in design and discussion.
Creating a very defined portfolio for our fictional deities is useful because it provides clear talking points for the faith. When I explain my storm god to a gamer trying to make a cleric it is pretty easy to say, “well – just imaging Thor and that’s a good place to start.” But as I mentioned in my last post, expectations can be fluid between my image of Thor and my player’s image of Thor. I mean, I might have read a lot of Thor comics and the old Deities and Demigods entry about Thor but my player might actually read Norse mythology… Turns out Thor was associated with a lot more than storms. Hold that thought… I’ll be coming back to it.
So I’ve started a D&D 5e game. And I like it. I’m a fan – as my review noted – but now with character creation and two full sessions under our belt, it seems that 5e is going to work for me. A few of my immediate observations, which I’m looking forward to writing about more, have to do with the incredible ease of character creation (the first player I helped create a character we were done in under 10 minutes), and the easy, freewheeling sense I have that I can just do whatever the heck I want (and so can my players) during a session. I don’t feel the obsessive, painful need for three full working days worth of prep just to get an adventure right. Maybe I was doing that to myself… but maybe the games I was playing had something to do with it as well. I think it’s a little of both.
Anyway, my real inspiration for this post came when one of my players – during character creation – asked a pivotal question of his fellow gamers, “Do you pronounce it Drow or Drow?”
The range of responses was pretty spectacular, from “what is that?” to “Oh, definitely this way.” to “does it matter?” Of course it matters!
Whew. Been sick as a dog for going on two weeks now. It’s been unpleasant. Finally, here is the last part of my ruminations on the new, 5th Edition Player’s Handbook.
PART THREE: Magic!
As I mentioned in my other posts, I’m a huge fan of what I’m seeing from 5e. I’ve also alluded to the fact that some of my favorite changes are in the way magic works. I finally get to talk about why.
My continuing exploration of the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. As you know from Part One, I’m a fan. I really enjoyed what I saw in Character Creation with the variety of options, the balance of simple choices against more fiddly choices to appeal to a broader range of players and the addition of the backgrounds which add without creating weird pigeonholes. Now I want to look at Part Two of the book.