Saturday, July 23, 2016

The marriage of rules and setting (Featuring V20: The Masquerade and Dark Ages)

I was recently seduced into looking at a lot of the new V20 material because I foolishly looked at (and backed) Beckett's Jyhad Diary, which looks 100% awesome. Vampire was one of the big turning points in RPGs in the 90s (and Vampire and Changeling finally got me to abandon D&D, so they're important for me personally) and Vampire still has a special place in my heart whenever I go back and look at it. But what really struck me looking through some of this stuff is how different versions do or do not actually let you make a character you want to play. 4e was all about reflavoring: I used a hybrid swordmage/artificer as an ersatz abjurer once to reasonable effect. But its a thing of beauty when the rules seem just right to express a character concept.

Now V20 isn't perfect; there are a few lingering legacy oddities. For example, all the elder disciplines (level 6+) are basically unattainable by player characters by the book, and the books just keep detailing them, pages and pages of these things players can't use. V20 Masquerade itself is largely a compilation and (relatively concise) redaction of much of the core material, while V20 Dark Ages aims to do that but also present a few new points of view, otherwise bother getting the new book at all (unless you're like me and sold all that old crap for a pittance and more shelf space a decade ago). So in between a few new merits or bloodlines we get some interesting new interpretations of things like a level 5 Serpentis power that isn't about removing hearts. It gives Setites a whole different angle on things, as its one of the 15 disciplines (i.e. magic powers) that the clan gets. Assamite Viziers in Dark Ages get their own version of Quietus which focuses on more, let's say, visierly matters rather than assassinish ones. This is exactly the type of thing I wish had happened earlier in the game.

Take another problem issue: Malkavians. Sure, they're a clan of madmen, but they were also said to be a clan of oracles and visionaries. Now, neither Masquerade nor Dark Ages quite fixes this: Dementation only has one oracular power—eyes of chaos—so neither of the two core books really provide much for being an oracle. There's an oracular ability merit that any clan can take, but its still a bit shit. I don't remember any of the old material that really made me want to play a Malkavian oracle, or worse, able to play one well (if there was a level 6 discipline that did, I don't know about it and don't count it). Finally V20 Lore of the Clans comes along with one good merit that might be worth stealing for other systems: cold read. This merit lets you risk willpower to ask questions about an NPC when you first meet them. I'm not quite sure if it'll play as well as I think it might, but its exactly the sort of reasonable mechanic that we need to play an oracle-type character. I might have to revise my Hakima. This merit isn't a perfect fix, but it can be combined with the slightly improved oracular ability merit and new prophetic dreams merit for some good play that is based on die rolls, not the whim of the storyteller or dungeon master.

Another issue: Baali. I freakin' love these guys, but they never supported the idea of the less-than-fully-evil Baali, despite teasing it in many places. The MET rules even go so far as to state that anyone with Daimonion are infernalists. Depending on which version of the rules you're using, Baali can't even actually make infernal pacts because that's a level 6 discipline. How are you supposed to make even an evil infernalist Baali by the rules for NPCs without ridiculous fiat involved? Well, along comes the new Black Hand book and Kraina of the Well. This is literally what I've been waiting for since I first learned of the Baali. Actual rules to let me do what the Baali do. Its still not perfect, as its never been clear how you learn out-of-clan disciplines (does it require a teacher or not?), but I can work with that.

Leaving Vampire for a moment, I had a similar feeling reading through Adventurer Conqueror King again. I like the simplicity of basic D&D with the complexity of some additional classes and options that give you some latitude in creating a character you want to play. But I liked the specialty mages and priests and kits such from second edition. Well, some of that is hidden in their feat system, like black lore of Zahar which is one proficiency (basically a feat) that gives your normal wizard a nice boost for necromantic powers. With a couple little alterations like that plus their nice rules for creating your own class, I might strongly consider that instead of 2nd edition if I run another old school game. Its kind of a shame because I had dismissed ACKs a bit because I wanted something like 2e specialty wizards and instead what they offer is something a little more like 5e wizard specialties.

The rules can also help constrain things. Back to vampire, the new larp rules do just that. Perhaps because of tons of bitching and complaining about blood magic and out of clan disciplines from the old rules (which gave out way too much XP too fast, particularly compared to the tabletop game) there were huge restrictions put on blood magic and they really emphasized the merits and flaws system. I think they went too far, honestly. Merits can be really powerful and you only get 7 points of them, maximum. Unusual or rare clans take up additional merits (2, 4, or 6 points) which is actually a nice way of saying that its a privilege to play a Samedi or Follower of Set. But some of the clan-specific merits are very powerful or stupidly required. I don't mind too much you need to pay more points to have Setite or koldunic sorcery, but Tremere and Giovanni need to buy a one point merit for each extra path they want to be able to master, which limits a dabbler Tremere who knows lots of paths but has mastered few. If you wanted to play a real loremaster, you need to play a Tzimisce because their clan-specific merit literally gives them access to the most potential lore in the game (+2 to max lore and an extra +3 to lore checks in your haven, plus its compatible with the 1 pt loremaster merit). You can never, by the book, play a Salubri healer with the 5pt golconda seeker merit though unless your DM makes Salubri healers a common clan in your game, just like the Tremere need to really plan ahead if they're focusing on their blood magic or not because there's also a limit to the number of rituals you can take based on your path mastery. Now, this feels too constraining to me, but I can see the desire to put out carrots to let each clan do what it was born to do and somewhat balance the clans against one another in a larp game. To be fair, I also found the nature of larp games to be quite constraining because they want stereotypical characters of each clan and the large shared nature of the game means you can't just come in with wacky concepts and your own factions or interpretation of the genre.

I think the point is, the rules can make a huge difference. I generally like a set of rules that's complex enough to let me do what I want to do (or, conversely, open enough to give me the freedom to do it). But I find it a bit unsettling when I look at the vampire larp rules and think of a cool character concept that I can't do. And alternately, when I look at the tabletop Vampire rules where I spot something that makes me think: yes! I can finally play the character that I've always wanted! Sometimes rules are flexible in a house game, and sometimes they're so complex its hard to say what one or two house rules might do. I even understand the need to constrain a game with some stricter rules, particularly for larps or player-vs-player type games. But I'm still struck how the rules can really open up come concepts as viable, or close off creativity.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Crossbows in D&D 5e and in general

Crossbows (and similar weapons) have been bad choices in most editions of D&D despite being rather iconic. This is a recurring theme in 5e, where the system itself seems to work very well in general but there's a few options that just don't quite work well. Supposedly crossbows're easy to use (point and click) but have a longer loading time, which makes them reasonable for wizards but not other less skilled users, but bows are often superior. Combat & Tactics allows them to ignore up to 5 points of legit armor, making them actually viable in late 2nd edition because you've got a reasonable to-hit bonus over bows which are multiple shots. Let's ignore the fact that bows also require strength and longbows shouldn't be used by Str 8 characters and focus on the crossbow though.

The whole "realism" thing in D&D is rather odd, because up until Combat & Tactics rounds were 1 minute each, so attacks and HP and AC were all rather abstract (like you'd really only make one or two attacks in one minute or legit 1.5 attacks a minute so on even rounds of combat you get an extra attack). Fast forward to third edition: loading takes either a move or a full round, perpetuating the idea the they're slow but powerful. Except they're higher crit range than bows (19-20 vs 20) and damage (1d10 for heavy vs 1d8 for a longbow) and simple weapons (longbows are martial) but longbows have a bigger crit multiplier (x3 vs x2 for crossbows). So there's benefits of crossbows but they don't seem that big.

I wish the loading property in 5e came with a rider that loading weapons did an extra die of damage (or extra d12) at 5th, 11th, and 17th level to counteract their incredibly limiting loading property (or perhaps only if you have the extra attack feature). Slow but powerful, but once/per/round like a cantrip.. 2nd edition made that happen eventually with the Combat & Tactics upgrade, plus a larger damage die meant more in 2e I think. But then 5e went and ruined this by making the crossbow expert feat which lets you ignore the loading property, and my proposed loading property fix isn't going to play nicely with the rogue who doesn't care about extra attack right off the bat.

As far as I can tell, the crossbow expert feat does exactly what feats shouldn't do: this feat is basically required for any warrior-type who would be using a crossbow to make use of their extra attack feature (but rogues and clerics don't need it as badly as they don't get extra attacks). In essence, if you want to play a crossbow using ranger, you need this feat. Its also ridiculously abusive, if it was meant for a drow assassin to be able to attack once with the short sword and once with the hand crossbow, because in practice people use it to dual-wield hand crossbows. This just kinda breaks the versimilitude for me. But whatevs, that's how its written.

Can crossbows be fixed here? I think they can with a little slight of hand. This needs to be a D&D style fix though, so it can't be as simple as an alternate weapon system like in 13th Age or Dungeon World where your class determines weapon damage (which is a mighty fine solution, just not D&D). First, remove the loading property from the light crossbow. The feat give it that wonkiness and rogues get it, and removing the loading property will fix the rogue problem. Any rogue can now use it off-hand for a bonus action attack but the ranged attacks while engaged disadvantage will make it less-than-ideal still. Technically any rogue could also dual-wield these, but they could also toss an off-hand dagger so that's not much of an issue. Still ridiculous, but meh. Next revise the loading property: if you are entitled to an extra attack with a weapon with the loading property due to the extra attack feature, it deals an additional die of weapon damage per extra attack you are entitled to. If you ignore the loading property, you ignore all the loading property, because a level 17 fighter making extra attacks is probably better than getting a pittance more damage. This also clandestinely fixes slings in the process. And maybe blowguns, its not clear what an extra die of damage looks like when a weapon's damage "die" is just 1 point. I'm torn between saying an extra die of damage or just an extra fixed damage like a d10.

By the by, I'm still torn on trying to fix strength by removing the ability of Dex to add to damage, or capping it at +2 to damage (i.e. a finesse weapon adds strength to damage or a max of 2 points of dex bonus, whichever is higher). It would nerf dex-based characters a bit in terms of damage, making strength a bit more appealing, but might have other implications that I haven't explored yet.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Alignment Redux

After listening to the Antagonist's latest podrambling, I had a few reactions to their comments on the problem of alignment (I'm going to keep this alignment-focused). I see the point of their discussion, but feel the two of them were talking a bit across one another.

See, the Ginger Giant seems to like players having slightly wacky PCs (mental trauma for almost dying), while the Antagonist and I fall a little closer on wanting serious PCs. Which isn't to say that I don't like a whimsical or gonzo game, I just prefer to know what I'm getting into and have most of the players interested in the game I'd like to play (which, for longer-term things, is generally something more serious). I got the sense from their discussion the the Ginger Giant doesn't think alignment is worthwhile or adds much to the game and that's why it is problematic (the shades of grey problem), whereas the Antagonizer sees alignment as an active problem (and mostly the Chaotic Neutral problem).

Basically, I see a combination of two problems with alignment, both of them coming in at the point where people have different underlying assumptions about the game.

First, is the (shorter) Chaotic Neutral problem. We've had a few discussions about alignment before, but basically Chaotic Neutral (and Unaligned in 4e) can be an excuse to play a character who's a selfish prick. Not only that, but they can be disruptive to the group's goals and the group itself. But that's not in and of itself a reflection of the alignment, its a reflection of a player who wants to play a selfish prick. They are, wittingly or not, stealing the show from everyone else and making the story more about their character's story than about the group or the adventure. So I think this problem can, to a small extent, be mitigated by a discussion at the table about what sorts of games people like to play and what people are signing up for. Some folks seem happy to watch or participate in conflict within the party, which I find occasionally fun but I don't like that to be the focus of the game. Because if that were the focus of the game I'd like it to be more in the form of a Vampire LARP rather than a D&D group. Those rules are designed to pit player against player, often without requiring any storyteller to intervene on the basics. Now, I definitely was thrilled with the one 4e halfling game that I played in back in the day where we made a slight mockery of things (it was a one-shot, perfect to bring in Frondo Maggins, a do-nothing hobbit with a heart of gold), because we did add in elements of feuding amongst characters and slightly wacky concepts. So its not about ignoring the wackiness, but trying to get the players on the same boat: the game should not be about one character and their zany actions. It could be about the zany group and its members' interactions. It could be about the adventure and narrative wherein the group is the relatively vanilla protagonists with little background or flavor. It could be about some grand narrative of the world where the PCs play a small but vital part. Difficult to do perhaps, but I bet if you nip it in the bud you can channel people's desire for zany characters into something better than Chaotic Neutral.

The second, longer shades of grey issue is that I wonder if we're doing a disservice to our players when we play a game with shades of grey using alignment since alignment was originally absolute. Because we're bringing in our modern mores to the archaizing game (and possibly archaic alignment element), people often have this sense that a drow or orc could be good. Drizzt didn't help here, though Unearthed Arcana was the book that gave us drow PCs in the first place. Evil wasn't necessarily illicit for PCs in AD&D until 2nd edition focused more on the heroic. In Dortherdoreft where I stole the show with derro fetal savants, the players felt bad about killing them but knew that in-character that was the thing they needed to do. Because the things looked young and innocent but were powerful and malevolent.

I recently encountered this repeatedly in my game here. One huge issue with my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign is the DM opted for the morally grey interpretation.  Then when he used DM fiat to say one of the prophets had converted to good (it was one of his favorite NPCs he had planned to use and we just wouldn't let him), he literally had to bring celestial beings and the gods of good into it to try to say "Guys, it's obvious that she's repented and is now good".  It was extremely unsatisfying. We caught a group of bandits and brought them to our supposedly good allies (a group of Order of the Gauntlet paladins) who immediately decided to put the bandits to death. This caused more friction all because of the underlying assumptions about the game: is there an absolute good? I thought we were playing shades of grey. There was another incident where we spent half the night debating how to take out only the evil knights in a tower and not killing innocents when eventually the DM just said "Oh, you know to be one of these knights you have to murder someone," and that was that. Which made my character extremely leery about the group since he was a notorious pirate and I thought we were playing a shades of grey game where not every orc was irredeemably evil. Well, turns out we ended up playing it that the cultists were basically irredeemably evil, despite the fact that one of them was obviously redeemed, and we kept rehashing the same discussion about whether or not we should take prisoners. It was really relevant because, as a fey warlock, I had lots of spells in the sleep and hypnotic pattern realm where I could take a few out of the fight but they weren't dead. We had to deal with them. And I had initially decided to play an evil character bound by superstition to be a party-friendly guy (can't harm widows and orphans or people who have surrendered, cause that's how you get cursed), so I tried to get someone else to kill the captives whenever I could since we were doing morally grey.

And here's where the wishy-washy alignment gets rough: there is nothing truly good in the world, so tactics like assassination and take-no-prisoners hold, despite being thoroughly unheroic and murderhobo-ish. Because its true: anyone you let escape might tell of your presence or come back as a foe again later when they're rested and have gathered more allies. So one clear solution to this problem is to re-assert the cosmic nature of alignments, despite the Antagonizer not being a fan of that when its rare (i.e. with unaligned in the mix). But it can also be common: goblins are evil and must be eradicated without exception. Undead are evil too. The gods of good fight tooth and nail against the gods of evil. Or do it with the old-school Moorcockian system where Law/Civilization opposes Chaos/Destruction. Because a lot of people don't want to play Authoritarian/Lawful characters when Individualistic/Chaotic is much more fun and in line with many flavors of American culture. I think that's why the alignment restriction of the paladin has softened: when good and evil aren't absolute, playing the honorable or lawful good paladin who loses his powers if he makes a wrong choice is really hard and totally dependent on the DM's fiat power.

I recently read the Dragonlance comic books and finally found a statement interpreting why there are gods that are neutral with respect to good and evil, which I've previously dismissed as ridiculous. There was a time when good was triumphant in the setting, and it resulted in hubris and thus the cataclysm. So even the gods of good accept that there must be balance between good and evil, despite fighting tooth-and-nail against evil. The more I read about Dragonlance, the more I keep thinking they did some shit totally right: the setting fits with the rules quite nicely, even if the rules were a bit wonky at the time.

A real problem with 5e alignment is perhaps that if it feels tacked on or like some legacy element, it is! Almost nothing in the rules refers to it. But if the rules and your story were properly wedded, there would be mechanical options for playing heroic characters. I've been really tempted to write up some of these options as a sort of Heroes of Mercy option and throw it on the DMs Guild, but in the original Oriental Adventures the Shukenja had a few options to sort of make their enemies into noncombatants. These are things like charm person or the geas spell but there's a few more. I feel like I've seen this sort of sentiment in a few different anime series, where the villain is defeated and then goes to pursue their dream of being a farmer or some such. It doesn't have to be ridiculous, but if the cleric had a cantrip to ensure an escaping mook wouldn't be a threat again it might allow players to be more heroic. Its been hard trying to put the idea into mechanics, however. I feel like it could be tied to an honor system, but the 5e DMG honor system is really just some wishy-washy half-baked nonsense that I don't understand how you'd use at the table. Basically, the rules don't support that kind of heroic play and players might be happy to take that option to play a heroic paladin rather than a cavalier one.

So I currently suspect that a useable alignment system has a few options:

  1. Discuss the group/party dynamics before people make characters. You already are likely to know who the problem players are and maybe you can channel their boredom/"chaotic neutral" nature into a better relationship with one of the other PCs. You could also go with some cheesy random table of party relationships where each player rolls one and that's their relationship to the character on their left. But I had trouble coming up with a lot of generic good options for this. I think the party alignment concept is definitely worthwhile if you are using alignment at all.
  2. Use alignments as cosmic truths (and allow wholly good beings in the planes): then you have permission to kill all the goblins and the game makes sense as long as you're opposing evil (or chaos). 
  3. Give the players the means to really play their alignment. Mechanically, that is. The rules need to support the player choices.
  4. Replace the useless ideals or flaws with alignment, straight up. If you do something good/heroic, lawful/authoritarian, or chaotic/individualistic you're up for inspiration. Or focus alignment on the ideals players select or roll. 
  5. Replace alignment with some other roleplaying tool. Drives from Gumshoe or Nature/Demeanor from the World of Darkness games might be suitable. The Dortherdoreft dwarf personality traits were wonderful, and you might give inspiration based on other players guessing someone's nature/demeanor at the table.
  6. Why bother with it at all? There's only a few places in the rules where it matters, mostly magic items. I don't think there's even a spell that really needs it as "good and evil" have been relegated mostly to extra-planar creatures. This kinda fits with the replace-it option.
Because I'm a pretty strong proponent of matching the rules and the story, I'm keenest with options 1 (discuss it with the players), 4 (use alignment in lieu of crappy background options), and 5 (create a means so players can play their alignments well) at the moment, but open to counter arguments. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 7—Final Session

We finished Strahd today. It was pretty epic.

The party starts in Strahd's study, takes a short rest and explores a bit. Nothing major, but they do find Helga and she joins them, asking them to rescue her and offers to show them the way to the crypts. They keep going back and forth about where they want to go, because they know their last Tarokka clue was wine-related, but they kept forgetting it obviously said "tomb" in there and for some reason were going to have her take them to the wine cellar. So I had to keep reminding them it was a tomb.

The rogue wants to make a detour at the throne room, so Helga takes them there. He wants to search for secret doors looking for the treasury, but as we're on a tight schedule here I took the random encounter of bats and just made them fly around the throne room. It was obvious if he wanted to search for secret doors that the bats would attack, so the party just went to the chapel instead. With Helga leading them they bypass the dummy, the zombies on the balcony, and hit up the chapel. Obviously they stop to investigate the alter, and I swap the armor on the body out for plate mail since the module doesn't seem to have any way for them to have bought it or found it in the sections I ran so far. They spend extra time in the chapel donning armor and identifying the made, so I threw the Rahadin and unseen servant encounters at them to let them know resting there was possibly dangerous. I roll the wine cellar for Rahadin, so Helga pretends to be afraid and refuses to keep going with them unless they hit up the wine cellar (which really means the elevator trap). She had already told them to take the stairs from the chapel to the crypts, so they just do that without her.

So finally, its around 7:30pm and they're in the crypts. They explore a little, learning that no greedy deed goes unpunished, but stop shy of their Tarokka goal because they find Sergei's tomb. They open the portcullis and go in, realizing he's got magic armor they do another armor change and put one set of plate on Periwimple and the paladin takes the magic plate. They dispel the magic preserving Sergei and plan on animating him and Strahd's mother, but the bard wants to wait till he can use one 4th level slot to do it. The rogue spots Strahd standing at the edge of their light on the other side of the portcullis.

Thus begins their epic battle with Strahd. The party is in Sergei's tomb with the portcullis down, so Strahd just sits at the edge of their light radius and casts fireball for a few rounds. They freak out and for some reason thought keeping the portcullis down was the best plan, and take an extra fireball or two for their troubles. Strahd is playing it cool and they're not doing much damage with ranged attacks. He finally get the shadow lair action off, but the shadow is quickly slain. After a bit, Strahd backs off to let his regeneration kick in a bit and the party is dumbfounded not knowing where he is. He casts greater invisibility just for fun.

At this point the players decide they've got to get out of there and open the portcullis, just in time for Strahd's two spawn to waltz in and make their attacks. Strahd seals the portcullis with his lair action trapping them inside again. At this point the party makes a few moves and Strahd realizes the paladin is wearing his brother's armor and goes into a bit of a rage. He spider climbs through the wall and is invisible behind the party watching as they lose a few actions and shatter the portcullis so they can get out. Then he drops another fireball and finally uses his legendary actions to start in on melee attacks, downing the blood hunter and getting a bit of healing from a bite. Strahd is in place to majorly fuck up the party now with lair actions and a couple spells.

Enter the paladin. On his turn he's got the sunsword out and gets 3 attacks because he's hasted. He deals 86 points of damage to Strahd killing him. And, because Strahd is in sunlight, he doesn't get mistform and actually dies. 1d8 for the sunblade + 1d8 because sunblade deals extra damage to undead. 3d8 for divine smite with a 2nd level slot and another 1d8 because divine smite deals extra damage to undead. 5 damage from his strength, 2 from duelist, and 2 from the blade's magic and another d6 from hunter's mark. That's 6d8+1d6+9 damage per attack (plus the sunlight damage), and that's how you kill Strahd. Which was needed because the paladin was grappled and Strahd was about to drag him up onto the ceiling to use him for cover and try to bite the paladin and then drop him on the ground. The blood hunter was down and the bard was close to dropping, so one more fireball might have done enough to drop some PCs.

Rahadin enters after, mutilating the swashbuckler who was hiding from Strahd behind the tomb, hitting with 3 attacks (one a crit) and dealing his crazy psychic damage. Again the paladin comes in and murderizes, doing just enough damage to drop Rahadin before he gets a chance to act again which would have done psychic damage to 4 of the heroes plus getting 3 scimitar attacks in.

So, they saved Barovia after alienating most of the Barovians, and did it all with just Periwimple (who's really fucking tough!) and the sun sword at level 8. Well, their obnoxious antics enraged Strahd, so if he were coolheaded he would have retreated to one of the other tombs and maybe murdered them still, but alas. A game well done.

I really liked the adventure, though I think I could have used one more read-through of everything to put a few more pieces together (like how really important it is to have sunlight to fight Strahd). Because I've got so much of it prepped, I'm considering running it again in the fall. I did it in about 35 hours of play not by cutting things per se, but just by removing a dozen or so cards so they wouldn't need to explore some things, and I made a couple minor changes to keep them on track. I could have pulled more random encounters and taken an extra session, or let them do more and taken another 3-4 sessions, so my guess is it'll take something like 50-60 hours if you just ran it by the book, more if you don't start them at level 3. I've got a couple ideas for condensing the adventure differently, blending the towns of Barovia and Vallaki and moving a few other plots there to run something closer to the original module but with a few of the fun bits included, which might make the adventure more like 30-40 hours total with the pacing a bit slower. But most of the work is behind me and if I think I have the time and some interested players, I might see about running it again here in the fall.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Hints of abandoned sub-classes in the 5e Player's Handbook?

Reading through the players handbook a bit lately (my Princes of the Apocalypse character was trapped in the plane of Air by Yan-C-Bin so I think I'm making a new character, at least temporarily), I remembered something I thought was strange. There's a pretty clear hint at the storm sorcerer in the flavor introduction to the sorcerer. I know that, by and large, the classes are introduced by flavor text for 3 of the iconic builds, but it struck me that storm sorcerer was seemingly included in the flavor but the subclass was left out.

It immediately made me look at the druid and bard options because they were also only two-subclass classes and I was wondering what else I'd find. Indeed, one of the bard options could be read as a College of Guile/Subterfuge/Chicanery and there's a possibility that a third druid circle would be some sort of druidic avenger/warden. I'm not sure of a good name for this druid, I'd tentatively call it Circle of the Storm to indicate nature's fury but that's likely to give people the impression that its all about lightning and thunder when its about being a warrior druid.

Looking at the others, we see a dwarf battlerager described in the barbarian intro. Cleric lists three iconic domains. Fighter is a laundry list. Monk lists the three monastic traditions. Paladin lists the three oaths. Ranger, oddly, seems to list two types of hunter and the beastmaster, possibly harkening to a time when there were more subclasses that got condensed. Rogue, warlock, and wizard also follow suit by listing three examples from their subclasses.

Intriguing, but I'm not sure if that means a College of Guile bard or drudic Avenger/Warden were planned but not released yet or abandoned as they didn't make the cut. I'm guessing they were half-baked but due to space some things needed to be cut. The storm sorcerer saw a release in Unearthed Arcana and was later toned down slightly (such a waste, they could have just given the storm sorcerer 5-ish thematic utility spells and it would have been perfect, or perhaps just feather fall (1), gust of wind (2), and wind wall (3) to solidify the storm theme with spells that are thematic but you just don't have room for in your build).

So the druidic avenger (let's stick with Circle of the Storm) is pretty easy to mock up. Take the Valor bard's features as a base: extra weapons/armor plus bardic inspiration uses at 3, extra attack at 6, and cantrip/attack mix at 14. You have to modify it a bit, so the main circle feature is probably a couple ranger hunter-type spells and a melee damage boost at level 2 and/or a bit of extra land speed, extra attack at 6, land's stride at 10, and the bonus action spellcasting at 14. Spells might include: ensnaring strike (1), hunter's mark (1), find steed (2), silence (2), elemental weapon (3), nondetection (3), fire shield (4), locate creature (4),  contagion (5), geas (5). I tried to pick only things that worked on melee and missile attacks and mostly spells from off the druid's normal list. So you end up with a caster using the druid list, who's about as good as a valor bard at melee attacks but with more weapon-enhancing spells and a mount. They're probably about on-par with some clerics, and will be using spell slots to cast spells augmenting their melee attacks. This does make for an interesting variant of the 4e Warden class though without the war-forms. It could be a nice alternative to the ancients paladin, totem barbarian, or ranger for a wilderness character.

A guile bard isn't as straitforward. They're superficially similar to the lore bard, you'd assume they'd get expertise in deception and slight of hand maybe plus something like mage hand. But that's really similar to the Lore bard's training just more specific. And its not really clear how to modify their bardic inspiration here. Lore bard uses inspiration to hinder foes and valor uses it to boost allies. This makes me think that they just said the lore bard basically covers what a guile bard would need, and the guile bard was aborted because the lore bard killed it and took its stuff. One could potentially poach some Arcane Trickster features, but that actually also covers much of the same ground as a guile bard would. The college of satire bard from unearthed arcana (and college of blades bard too mabye) also suggests that if they did consider a guile bard concept initially they abandoned it.

What's odd here is that the battlerager was clearly forseen and released in the SCAG where it maybe belongs (really wish they had just renamed the class berserker still). The storm sorcerer looks like it wasn't done in time for the main book, which also makes sense why it would be left out. They only had so much time to test it and so much space in the book: they just happened to leave the flavor text in. These are obviously things the designers considered and found worked well or otherwise filled a niche. The druidic avenger could just have been a nod towards a land-druid who liked flame blade (following their rule of threes for the class intros) but it is a reasonably obvious concept that would add a bit more diversity to the druid and wouldn't take up that much space in the book. And the druid is the only class other than the ranger that is left with only two subclasses after the SCAG came out, though the circle of the land does have many sub-options within it. There's easily space for another druid build, especially a smaller one like what I sketched out above. So I'm not sure why it wasn't fleshed out unless I'm totally misinterpreting the signs here. Finally, the guild bard seems like a viable option, but maybe less so once the lore bard was finished  and they moved on to some other directions that seemed more viable.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 5&6—Marathon Double Session

I am super glad that we opted to do a marathon Saturday session for Strahd. I feel that even rushing people through Strahd would take seven 5-hour sessions (35 hours) as they're probably one 5-hour session away from finishing, and this was a shorter version. Today's session went 10am to 10pm with some food breaks and chat in there, so it was basically two sessions.

To be fair, I removed some cards from the reading so they weren't required to go to places that I thought were less interesting. But they did Barovia, Villaki, Krezk, the Wizard of Wines, Yester Hill, the Old Bonegrinder, and now Castle Ravenloft. So that's not nothing. But it's not everything either.

To sum up: This session they started in Vallaki after clearing St. Andral's Church. Last time they defeated a few vampire spawn and let Strahd escape and re-consecrated the church. Ezmerelda had taken Ireena and Ismark out of town, so they met up with her at the Vistani camp but avoided talking to Kasimir and didn't follow up on Arrabelle. They spent another night in Vallaki so they could talk to new new Burgomaster, Viktor Vallakovich and pay to get the church fixed up. Ezmerelda wasn't able to sneak back into Vallaki during the day, and the players conveniently forgot all about her, so now she's just an entry on the random encounter chart. Party isn't into Fiona Wachter, so they get the impression that Viktor won't rule like his father did, and seem content. They ask to see Izek's room, and find it creepy as fuck, distributing the spoils of that amongst the children. That won't creep Ireena and Ismark out at all. They wanted Ismark to take over running Vallaki, but he's not into it and doesn't trust them enough to leave Ireena at St. Andral's church alone, so he stays there.

The party takes little note of the swarms of ravens they've seen and head to the Old Bonegrinder, having a few non-combat random encounters on the way. They come to the windmill and the blood hunter uses spider climb alongside the sorcerer's prestidigitation (to clean windows) and scouts the windmill. I was super excited for the hag encounter but it was a bit disappointing as they were level 7 and just murderized the hags, though Bella Sunbane did escape. They spend the time to take the children they find back to Vallaki before heading to Barovia.

In Barovia they confront Bildrath in his shop, creepily asking about Periwimple (their greatest ally). With some creepy innuendo and a suggestion spell they get Peri with them but realize they can't spend the night in Barovia or he might go back to his mother and people will notice. They stop at Jenny Greenteeth's house (from the Adventurer's League nonsense) and talk to here but quickly realize they can't trade magic items to here but do waste a bit of time swapping trinkets. Eventually they sneak out and stay with the Vistani at the Tser Pool encampment. From there its right on to the castle.

They cross the bridge no problems, and actually take the expected way into the castle: main door, meet Rahadin, get to the dinner scene. Missing the secret door at the organ, they head up because they know one of their treasures from the reading is in a place of dizzying heights where the stones are alive. Trying to get to the taller tower, they go all the way to the parapet and fine Gertruda, who directs them to the other side of the castle to the north (heart) tower. After a somewhat dangerous battle on the stairs where I generously had the first two people only fall 30 feet to the landing and told them it was obvious they could drop prone and crawl up the stairs, they eventually dealt with the halbeards and a group of vampire spawn coming after them. In Vallaki I determined that there was a large group of folk from Kara-Tur so most of the "adventurer spawn" are easterners by dress which makes them stand out. I'm not sure why I did it, but I stuck with it. They're not consorts.

After destroying the heart and finding the Tome, they headed back down, some of them apparently thinking the tome wasn't the treasure despite the part where I clearly described the tower as "alive" and had printed out copies of the reading for them. So they did some scouting with spider climb and saw Pidlewick II in the high tower but didn't go there as I said it was obviously not a good resting place unless they had 8 hours of firewood due to the exposure to the cold and rain. They spied down a bit and saw Escher in the lounge and the bottle room, and I made some of the doors have cat-sized holes from being broken. They took all the scratched up furniture and went back up the heart-tower for a long rest, but were ambushed by 7 invisible witches. The party mostly made their saves against Tasha's and they murderized the witches, earning their long rest and hitting level 8. The bard finally realizes he's lost his original trinket (stolen by some Vistani bandits they met on the road and travelled with) and the winery's gem (stolen by the Martikov's at the Blue Water Inn before they burned it down). he's unfazed.

After the rest they explored the cat/witch level, then met Escher. He somehow survived till his turn and escaped out the window thanks to spider climb despite the fact that Periwimple is a fucking beast with large number of hit points, 3 attacks, and property that lets him deal an extra die of damage. So Escher is still out there and the party discovered their bedroom after they no longer needed it. Also I realize how lucky they are to have Peri as their ally. They could have had Arrabelle.

They move down to Leif the accountant, and I slightly fucked up by having them encounter the rat swarms on the wrong level. They'll never know, but this castle is fucking complex and I was looking at the wrong level. Sad thing is if each room were named the descriptions it would be a lot clearer rather than just a room number (e.g. this staircase leads to K37 The Study, as well as blah, blah, and blah). Would be a lot more helpful, especially in cases where it's hard to find where a staircase is on the adjacent level or where they same staircase number shows up on multiple levels. I also realized while prepping this beast that the reason the numbering is wonky is it still corresponds to the old maps. This means I could print out some old fan-versions of top-down maps and use the numbering, which is pretty cool even if the players haven't explored any levels enough to get to see them (I plan on just handing out the crypt floor for ease). After some intimidation they get a little information from Leif (who's been through this sort of interrogation a few times) and he gives them directions to the high tower and the crypts (basically: down).

From here they went down down down to the flooded dungeon. It took a while and used up the three witch-zombies the bard created, but they made it and freed Emil and only found the two magic items. I fast forwarded through the strahd zombies in the torture room just asking for 2 resources (i.e. levels of spell slots or hit dice, a HD from the paladin and level 1 slot from the sorcerer) and they encountered the ridiculous brazier room.

This was a bitch, because I knew I didn't want them teleported to Tsolenka pass or the Amber Temple because of time but I hadn't realized that during my read-through. So I panicked and tried to use the House of Strahd version of the trap, which made little sense since I had initially read the description from Curse, not House. But basically it meant they could bypass it as long as they didn't harm the brazier, hourglass, or statues which they didn't. 10 minutes for a detect magic ritual meant a random encounter, and its a black cat who nudges one of the doors open and they blast it with eldritch blast, killing it. No more black cat encounters anymore. But they're left with 3 doors and they pick the spiral staircase over the obviously shorter staircase or the longer one (neither of which spiral).

I try to telegraph they they're going quite a ways up while not telling them exactly how far up they're going, but they end up all the way in the study at the top of the castle. Here's where we end, so I hope they have the sense to go back down and try one of the other doors which at least keep them in the Larder or Crypt levels.

Overall, I'm relatively happy with this adventure so far. The players seem to like the weirdo sense of humor, even ridiculous things like Prince Ariel the Heavy. I think we'll essentially have what amounts to seven 5-hour sessions (35 hours total). If I was running this and not rushing the players a bit, I expect it'd take another session to do Argynvostholt (its biggish, if empty),  another for Berez and the Van R's tower, plus one or two for Tsolenka Pass and the Amber temple, and another one for the Tower of the Mad Mage, the den, and more nonsense in Vallaki. So total about 50-60 hours to do it pretty fully, though not everyone would opt to do everything obviously and the Amber Temple might not be done till after you defeat Strahd (making it an optional final session or two if they finish early, though the book doesn't call that out as explicitly as it could).  My only vague regret is I didn't ban chaotic neutral alignment and didn't force them to intertwine background more, and that I didn't quite have time to let them explore the countryside a bit more (I wanted to use Berez). But I pumped them through levels quickly and they'll hit 9 if the find the Holy Symbol and take a long rest and then they can attempt to kill Strahd or murderize them. I'm slightly glad they didn't hit the elevator trap, though they might still do that.

Long story short, the PCs are well positioned to get to Strahd in the next 4-5 hours of play and hopefully will so I don't need to open an extra trap door shooting them into the crypts after 3 hours of play on Wednesday. If you want to run this beast in less than 40 hours you need to cut some things but can defo run it as the original module with just Barovia and Ravenloft (I'd guess 20-25 hours, 2 marathon sessions), or possibly add in a few things like the Old Bonegrinder to spice things up before the castle if you have the time. Fudge the reading, put one of the things there if you need to, or make the winery and Yester hill closer, move the abbey, whatever you want.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 4

This session was a shit show. We started about an hour late because of too much chit-chat and some people being 20 min late. the party headed back from Yester Hill to Vallaki, stopping at the Wizard of Wines and Krezk along the way.

First, at the winery, they had the audacity to ask for compensation for bringing the gem back. Even after Martikov reminded them that he found valuable information in his ledger about where a guildmember might be buried and didn't ask for anything (other than them leaving his house). So, Martikov knows they have the gem and sends his kin back to Vallaki ahead of them.

They go to Krezk to make sure Strahd hasn't burned it down. He hasn't, so they head back to Vallaki. Along the way I roll the skeletal rider random encounter. They pursue him and easily take him down, learning nothing.

Back in Vallaki, they learn Rictavio has hastily left town and meet Gadof Blinsky, to my delight. Everyone loved it, and they bought an Ireena doll and a Strahd doll. Ezmerelda showed up late because Vistani aren't welcome in Villaki, and they had heard from Ireena and Ismark there was a strange man staring at them for a while. Putting together clues from the toy shop and the Inn, they realize Izek has some shady interest in Ireena. Ezmerelda asks them what they'll do about Ireena since she's not safe, so they pursue the St. Andral's Bones hook a bit.

The party talks to the orphans in the town square where they were gathering before the parade. They get Yeska to come with them while the paladin has a biggest-dick competition with Izek when he comes to round up the children for the parade. It was a great scene, with Izek being much smarmier than they expected. Gaining info from Yeska, they confront Milivoj about the bones and he admits the Coffinmaker paid him. At this point, however, the festival is about to start.

The blood hunter sticks around the inn, hoping he can hide and not attend the parade while the others look for the coffin maker around the town square. For some ungodly reason, the blood hunter starts the Blue Water Inn on fire. I guess he rolled well on an insight check to know that for some reason the innkeeper didn't like them much, but I didn't think that was a reason to deprive someone of their livlihood.

As the parade progresses in the town square, the party is horrified at the lone laughter. The paladin steps in to light the wicker sun with his sunsword, and the sorcerer casts disguise self to appear as a guard and convinces the other guards that he's got the prisoner handled. The swashbuckler keeps the crows torn between what they should do, and Fiona Wachter makes her play and tries to convince people that they should oust the Burgomaster and serve Strahd. The party was totally thrown by the Burgomaster trying to keep people happy and deposed  him, leaving his son in charge after a brief stint of thinking that the Burgomaster's wife was in charge.

Meanwhile, through some very delayed cut scenes (I'm proud of leaving the bard in suspense by constantly cutting to him for 1 round of action before cutting away), the bard found the coffin maker and went to his shop, forcing the coffin maker to show him where the relic was. The coffin maker reluctantly went upstairs and was killed by the bard's shatter spell when the vampire spawn woke.

Unfortunately, this accelerated the St. Andral's bones plot, so when the whole party realized there were vampire spawn loose in town, they eventually wend to the church to find Strahd killing the priest and they send the spawn packing.

So, now the party has really alienated the Martikovs, who have reclaimed one of the gems from the party. They've deposed the burgomaster of Vallaki, leaving the son in charge (nominally). They still need to get back to Barovia to find their greatest ally, and make it to the castle, probably stopping at the windmill on the way.

Basically, I need to prep the whole castle asap, because we're going to do a 8-12 hour marathon on Saturday and then hopefully if they're still alive they'll go after Strahd at the end of that or next week because that's all the time we've got. And lesson learned, even going through Strahd quickly... 25 hours of play wasn't enough. 40 hours for a quick game is probably more like it (I hope), unless you really cut it down to the original module.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 3

After the massive amount of prep I did for last week, this week was just a little bit. Still need to prep the castle itself, but hopefully I can get that done soon since my Church game is mostly prepped for the next week. The group started by fleeing back to Vallaki for a long rest after 30 needle blights bested them. They met some Vistani bandits on the way back, and learned a few more rumors and one of them was unknowningly relieved of their trinket so Strahd can scry on the party now quite well. While in Vallaki they encountered Rictavio finally but Ezmerelda hadn't yet brought Ireena and Ismark to the Blue Water Inn. They bought lots of oil and torches in town and the bard chatted up Rictavio.

Now, the bard is being played with what I call 'disruptive traits'. Last time he basically caused the party to loose to the needle blights because he spend all his spell slots early in the morning on mischief and a few reasonable things. So when he rolled poorly on shatter (his last spell slot) he wasn't able to help much in the fight. So this bard basically casts detect magic to identify important NPCs (who else has magic?) and Rictavio obviously has 3 magic items. So he flat out asks what's up with the three magic items. Rictavio is obviously leery about anyone coming up to him and saying "I know you have three magic items" but engages them a little trying not to reveal his secret. The party is obviously suspicious, thinking of his true identity or that he's the mad mage. Bard goes back the next day and hits Rictavio with suggestion, trying to force him to tell the truth. I decide that he can't be forced to reveal information due to the ring of mind shielding, but also that he would be really awkward in doing it and thereby sorta reveal stuff by omission. Anyway, that all took far too long for the bard trying to do something good for the group. At least both Morgantha and Strahd managed to scry on the party for the day.

Party eventually goes back to the winery, but because so much time has passed I rule that the Belviews went to the winery to catch up with the PCs but ended up fighting the druids instead as the PCs had fled. So they get to the winery and start snooping around for the guild member's tomb, thinking he's at the winery (their Tarokka reading). In doing so they alienate the Martikovs who are just trying to clean up their home. So unless they return the missing gems the ravens won't be helping them anymore. I take pity on them though and old man Martikov finds his old ledger and finds some records from back in the guild days and notes that one of them was burried in Castle Ravenloft.

Next the party goes south to Yester Hill, since Ezmerelda did her own reading and had heard about the hillfolk. As they sneak up towards the hill Strahd arrives on Beucephalus and the ritual of the hill starts. This leads to a 40 minute time-out as food arrives and they debate endlessly about what to do. In the process flubbing an insight check (with advantage from inspiration, +d6 bardic inspiration, and +d4 for having a relevant Tarokka card representing the inspiration) to see what Strahd might be doing. That was a great check, but the players aren't yet trained not to ask if they can constantly make rolls. I think they're finally getting that I'll generally only let one of them roll for the party though (the one with the best shot).

So, they totally annihilate the druids of the hill and burn the effigy. Then they have Strahd to deal with. The rogue climbs up on the rock wall and draws a 9 from the minor deck (10% chance), meaning he gets hit with a lightning bolt for 44 damage.

They smartly converse with Strahd a bit, he admits he's just brought them to Barovia to toy with them (mostly true), they catch him lying that he could leave whenever he wants, and they now know he's been spying on them. He asks a few time about Ireena and they imply they left her in Krezk, so he flies off to make his date with the Abbot (who will tell them all about Ireena since they spilled the beans to him previously). Then I realized there were supposed to be more blights by the tree, so they all come out of the branches once Strahd leaves, injure the party a bit, and the party easily beats them (though uses a few resources).

Interesting thing, having no barbarian, druid, or ranger I gave the blood spear to the outlander paladin but he was quite happy to take the sunsword instead which was burried under the tree. I named the axe in the tree "Trunkbreaker" (but in Elvish, where it sounds much more elegant, I assured the party). Funny thing though, only 2 members of the party are good and that axe will damage non-good people who attack with it.

So, overall the group did accomplish a lot, even though it felt slow. They uncovered Rictavio's secret, got the sunsword, cleared out Yester hill, and survived their first encounter with Strahd. That's four things! If they give the gem back to the winery (rather than selling it) they'll start out the next session with another XP in my ridiculous system of trying to award XP for doing good deeds and advancing the story. I also mentioned that we might try to schedul one extra session in, because next time if they deal with the bones of St. Andral and the festival of the burning sun, try to collect their greatest ally and stop at the Old Bonegrinder before going to the castle they'll still need at least a whole session before going to the castle. Though they might opt to go to the castle once, then deal with outside stuff before going back to try and defeat Strahd. However it goes I think I need another solid 12 hours of play to try to bring this to an end so hopefully an extra session can happen.

Of the tricks and such that I tried, handing out high-deck cards for inspiration has worked well, as has having players hand their traits around the table to have someone else track their inspiration. Its nice to not worry about that. I keep forgetting to hand out exhaustion when players go down, so some of my grand schemes to make the game grittier haven't taken hold. Also rolling weapon damage with the attack, group initiative has been a mess with this so I might go back and try individual initiative again and rush people through their turns next time. We'll see how it goes. Looking forward to the next 2 planned sessions, but I really think we'll need to do the extra one so hopefully we can make that happen soon.

Monday, June 20, 2016

RamaD&Dan: Curse of Strahd Character Creation

Just posting for posterity at the moment. I'm relatively happy with this, though a few things might change if I run this again. Specifically, variant Human is still real good, I might bump it up to the rare races and allow someone a reroll for stats if they don't roll better than the standard array/point buy (as one player did). Also, a random thought: I hadn't considered dividing classes into rare/common as well, and only letting (say, Barbarians or Battlerager Barbarians) if you keep your stat roll.

RamaD&Dan: Curse of Strahd
Wednesdays—June 8, 15, 22, 29 & July 6 2016

The aim is to plow through Curse of Strahd in the 5 weeks of Ramadan. That means playing something like 5-10 (maybe 4:30-10:30 if we can manage it), and we might see about arranging an additional day halfway through as needed/desired. There’s probably at least enough material in the book for twice as much play time, so we’ll need to be somewhat focused and on-task to get through things.

Party Creation

Before you’re wedded to a character, the group needs to discuss the party. Are you an adventuring family (this might limit races to things like humans, half-elves, half-orcs…), a mercenary group, a heroic group of do-gooders, or something else? Does the party have an alignment (and everyone agrees to pick an alignment at most one step removed?), an association, or some overarching goal? Do you elect a leader, or are you lead by some noble or honorable soul? Are you all from the same culture or religious group? What is home like? Remember in this edition that you don’t absolutely need any particular character class and even single-class parties can survive.

Character Creation

The info below should cover everything we’ll need for character creation. It’s not set in stone, but these are the options I think fit a heroic/good party in the setting/module well. I’m totally willing to consider other options, either as an individual or once a party concept is settled.


Start at 4th level. Curse of Strahd is designed to do 3-9ish and if you get one level per session we’d hit 9 at the end.

Ability Scores

Roll randomly 4d6 drop the lowest in order. Because stats are really important in 5e, you can ditch your rolls and use the standard book system as a human (normal or variant human). As a standard human you can instead rearrange your rolled scores.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bachelor Party Viking D&D Recap

A month ago I was back in the North having just run a two day Bachelor party D&D marathon and best manning a wedding. Because I wanted some secrecy and surprises, I didn't write much about the thing beforehand and general business afterwards left this lingering. I think its time to tell all.

Back in the day, the Antagonizer had a (somewhat infamous in my mind) surprise D&D birthday party. His now wife will probably never repeat that mistake, as the little white lie to get him to the location ballooned into him prepping for a birthD&D game he wouldn't be running, the game ballooned out of proportion with about 10 or more total players, and the game that was run featured a scenario that I didn't think felt at all birthday-y. So I had to do better, but it also became apparent that the bride-to-be and maid of honor were totally spilling beans left and right, so I also had to do it all on my own if there was to be anything surprising at all.

I went with a relatively obvious choice of scenario: vikings! I vaguely crossed it with hyborean age Conan materials, but that didn't really come out too much. My other good option was something totally Fury Road, but with the honeymoon slated for Iceland I stuck to my original idea and D&D 5e because it was a system I knew reasonably well and figured all the potential players would be familiar with (though I sorta wish I had used Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, I knew going with the familiar was a better option in this case). So I picked up the old Vikings historical reference book, the basic Northern Reaches gazetteer, and a couple others (turns out the Great Glacier isn't really all that useful).  Strangely, I also was able to do a tourism in New York and see a Vikings exhibit at Times Square which also provided some good inspiration, though I didn't include all the trinkets I had been intending.

My original plan was thwarted by scheduling and such, so it wasn't one scenario for the whole weekend, so I had to go with two separate-but-linked adventures. The first riffing off a Croatan comment from the last D&D game that I played with folks (but also Frost Giant's Daughter), and the second ended up being Moby Dick. Because I knew of the Icelandic honeymoon, I also wanted to put some Viking/Iceland lore into the game. Unfortunately my dream of using floorplans and such from actual sites the Antagonizer would visit crumbled because 1) its hard to find floor plans of archaeological sites online, and 2) most of the sites they were going to didn't really lend themselves to this sort of thing. Alas. The one option I had really tried to insert, the crazy big church, didn't end up being discovered either, though that was ok because it was mostly there just to have a crazy big church and filled with boring undead.

Since I didn't think the group and I could pull off a two-day Saga of the Icelanders game, I opted to go with croataning a colony for part 1. The PCs were latecomers to the colony and their loved ones had been turned to seals for angering the Frost Giant's Daughter (conaning it up a bit in the process). I had initially been going to go with they were all just kidnapped, but somehow them being turned into seals (better than penguins, right?) came up when I mentioned my vague plans to one of the D&D guys here in Faraway. I sketched a by-hand map of some potential sites and filled them with a few characters inspired by viking myth and my two primary D&D references. So the party encountered pukja and a witch with a cat-drawn chariot and the like. The Groom hung himself from a tree (and sacrificed 2 points of Constitution) to master the seal-rune so he could transform seals back into humans (with rules basically just stolen from GAZ7), and then they took out the frost-giant's daughter. Fairly successful.

Draft of the map, missing witch's forest to the east, big-ass church, and others. Players didn't explore the Hudrefolk mounds or hot springs.

I think it also helped that I gave them some interesting character options. I gave out a reduced list of options from the available official D&D materials plus Unearthed Arcana. Since it was so restricted I reimagined the list of dooms from the Viking's book, trying to give each one a potential good aspect. The star doom was unlucky, which let any player tell the unlucky player to fail a die roll and grab inspiration. Because I was doing an all human game, I used dooms for the stat-rearranging. If players kept their stats, they got to pick a doom. If they rearranged stats or took the standard array they'd roll to randomly get one. It led to a couple less-than-optimal characters so dooms could be chosen, or the players just didn't care about their stats much. Not quite sure which.

Part 2 featured most of the same characters, but swapped one out for another as I opted to bring in a few others since it wouldn't just be blokes in the wedding itself as I had originally hoped. This time the scenario was Moby Dick. I had tried to lay the seeds of an old hero who was cursed and became a dragon, but it didn't really become relevant as the entire game was about 5 hours and three combats with the same dragon. I used a white dragon as the base and made a few cosmetic changes so the dragon was a bit more corpse-tearer inspired (poison breath, stole lair stuff from green and black dragons, etc). It was satisfying. I wasn't sure I could get the PCs to flee after the first encounter with it, but 5e characters are fairly resilient and once a couple went down the party realized things will be hard. They had gotten the dragon to within an few inches of its life, but it retreated into the water exit of its lair. The party explored the lair a bit, surmizing there was a second entrance so the dragon wisely came back after a rest through the main entrance, avoiding their well-laid trap after laying waste to the colony out of spite. After another encounter they had the dragon on edge again, so it retreated to the frozen lake where it figured it could rest for a day (regaining full strength at the expense of losing its lair). The party short-rested and booked it to the lake (rangers can nicely determine when dragons are around, though I still find that ability to be really vague). I think the players thought the dragon would just come up and play fairly, so I made it instead a bit of a whack-a-mole game where the dragon tried to come up from hiding then retreat back below the icy water. Luckily for them the cleric had water walk as a spell and the sorcerer had mastered the seal-rune so the icy waters weren't a huge danger. In the end they killed the dragon, which was quite satisfying and managed to do it in the time limit we had for the game. Not much exploration of the dragon's heritage and backstory, but it apparently wasn't necessary for folks to have a good time plus they got to go into a volcano.

Overall I think things worked out quite well. If I had had the time I would have ran it here before hand to test things out, as I could have fixed a few things up and done with a little more prep, but so it goes. I also had to go win the Best GM award for prepping and running an old school ridiculous module right after I got back to this sandpit, so I'm very happy with what I was able to do given the constraints that I had. It was exhausting, but worthwhile.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 2

This session went better than the previous one, but slower. I was much more prepared. Probably because I types up 6 pages of notes on places I expected the party to go and what they might do there. Obviously they went off the rails right away, but that's always expected. They got a lot of info talking to the Abbot and Ezmerelda. And made some enemies and bad decisions. Obviously spoilers may ensue.

Starting off, the party began at St. Andral's church in Vallaki. They had planned on taking Ireena to Krezk as Donovich had suggested, so they set out to do just that. Strahd's stolen carriage was left with some locals to paint, so they moved at draft horse speed towards Krezk. I had thought they'd take the carriage with them and was planning on having Strahd show up to deal with them, but since they didn't I just used the first random encounter on the road they got: 3 werewolves in human form. The werewolves attempted to pass themselves off as travelers from Krezk, asking about the news from Vallaki. The party dropped a little too much info, so as the wolves got close they suddenly said they had lied and the party is what they were looking for. Lamentably they rolled poorly and I neglected to have the wild sorcerer roll for spell failure. Next time he'll draw from the low deck of Tarokka cards and a draw of the Berserker (6 of swords) or Anarchist (6 of glyphs) will be his surge. After killing one wolf the others fled, but ranged attacks brought one of the two down so only one escaped with his life. A bit to the bard did make the party a little wary, however.

When they got to Krezk my notes said they'd be turned away towards the winery, but a knock spell by the bard opened the gates and the party was reluctantly escorted to the abbey. Along the winding road Ireena was suddenly drawn to the sacred pool when she glimpsed it, but the party stopped her before she could get too close. So her identity had basically been ascertained, but she wasn't safe. They continued on to the abbey.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ridiculous 5e spells for villains

Playing Curse of Strahd, I have a hankering to let the villains do some creative spellcasting. I made nice use of the 5th level spell scrying as a PC in my Princes of the Apocalypse game, and its given me more inspiration to use some by-the-book spells in nifty ways. I mostly looked through the wizard list on the 5esrd (all of it) as the big-bads in Strahd seem to use the wizard list (Strahd, Baba Lysaga, and the Old Bonegrinder ladies). There's probably others, but these were some of the initial thoughts.

Curse of Strahd spoilers below. I'm sure I read somewhere about an alternate spell list in Strahd for when one of the villains prepairs for the PCs, but I can't find it anywhere now. These spells will give some nice fodder for that though, and a few are already on the character's normal lists.

Running Curse of Strahd (and gussying it up a bit)

I like Curse of Strahd. I wanted to run it. So I am.


This is still quite a beast. I've been running a number of modules these days with my Al-Qadim Church game, and starting to get a better feel for what I really need to run them successfully. Some have been great. Some... not as great. Organization has been the biggest problem for most of them. So while its been quite an endeavor to get through the material for the big picture with Strahd, its all the little details of running it at the table that were most frustrating. Four examples:

  1. I knew that Ireena wanted to bury her father. But I couldn't remember why Donovich wouldn't do it. Or why they were able to make a coffin on their own but couldn't drag it across town on their own. Had to wing that and it didn't quite work. Alas.
  2. The card reading was pretty slick. However, afterwards the players wanted more advice on interpreting the cards. I wasn't overly forthcoming. Not quite sure who other than Rictavio or Ezmerelda would help out there.
  3. The maps of places have ridiculous things labeled and described, like the well outside of the Blue Water Inn. There's a well on the map, I'm not sure it needs to be numbered and described. If the map was labeled "well" that would have more than sufficed.
  4. Yeska. This kid is named in St. Andral's church and its plot, but there's no details about him. So I was frustrated that I couldn't find where he was described in more detail in the book, but it turns out he isn't.

I think a bit more organization could have helped with all of these: better overviews and some input from playtesting. And Bryce's suggestion of cutting 75% of the text. I still don't get why location Z has so many named NPCs and other locations have few-to-none.  I assume its because literally a lot of the castle text is word-for-word what is in the old modules (well, I've got House of Strahd from 2nd edition, not the original I6, but still).

But what I want to do here is set out a few resources and tricks that I've decided to look into and try as I make my own notes on how to run it, so I can hopefully run it again in the fall and do it better. Because the book is big, and you need a quick overview of the big picture, a few ways to address some of its faults, and some tips for running things at the table.

One of the best resources is the powerscore Guide to Curse of Strahd. Pretty helpful for getting a solid overview of each chapter. Its got some nice suggestions for gussying the module up a bit and making minor changes. One of the best resources, and I've now realized I need to write my own version of it soon. Because I think I can maybe do better, at least for the material I have left, or at least do it better for me to help me run Strahd. This is great, but not quite enough for me at the table. I need to spend a bit of time really making decent notes for each location, and if they're good I might put it out there as my own gussied up Strahd guide.

The second most helpful item thus far is the Curse of Strahd DM's Kit & Screen. It has material both for gussying and for actually running the adventure, but its not as helpful as the powerscore blog. I thought a few of its suggestions were wishy-washy and untested, but it definitely gave me some inspiration and a nice index of named characters and entities. And the tables on its "screen" are actually useful, unlike the official Curse of Strahd DM's Screen which includes maps for no good reason. I mean... the Barovia map isn't half bad on the screen except you can't count the hexes. Basically I feel like unless you want the front screen art (and even that I didn't find impressive) its not useful.

The Tarokka cards are nice, though I could have easily gotten by with the old deck I had from the 90s. In fact, I love how the 90s deck is still colored red and black, which actually makes it easier to use for more than just the reading in game. I bought two DMs Guild products that were supposed to let me make more use out of it (Tarokka Deck Unleashed and Tarokka Expansion) but neither actually made me want to use the products. They both include some pretty wicked-hard tables to use in game. Good ideas, not implemented that well. Instead I took the idea of using the deck as dice and made it better by removing the high cards so you just have 4 suits of 10 cards each (you separate them anyway for the reading). Without needing to consult a ridiculous table I've got a d4 (suits 1-4), d8 (4 suits 1-4, add 4 if the card is even),  d10 (number), d20 (number +10 for 2 suits), d100 (number draw twice). If you need a d6 or d12 its doable but not as clean still, but none of this requires looking at a table really. Also, the encounter rolls of d8 + d12 are equivalent to 2d10 so no worries there, just adjust the probabilities for road/wilderness stuff as needed. The reason the old deck is a little nicer is that is has two color suits vs all black suits: this makes the d20 easy (red = number +10, black = number). I rarely remember to use inspiration in 5e, but I plan on handing out the high cards to represent inspiration when needed, and stealing the Wraith: The Oblivion shadowguide model of passing your personality traits to the player on your left so they're watching out for you.

A few of the suggestions for gussying the game up then:

Rolling ability scores. I used my now standard-ish ploy of letting humans use the standard array but needing to roll ability scores in order to play other races. Standard humans can re-arrange their scores, or either standard or variant humans can take the array. Everyone is human, but a couple picked standard human to keep the natural 17s they rolled. I mostly like this system because there may be inspiration to play what you rolled, there's a back-up if your rolls are terrible, and the party isn't a Mos Eisley cantina of strange folks in a human world.

Cut the cards. Rather than remove any locations from the adventure, I pulled out about 13 cards from the reading. I picked some of the less exciting locations and removed the possibility that the fortunes of Ravenloft would require the PCs to go to these places. That seemed to be the easiest cut to make rather than trying to legit remove the Amber Temple or silver dragon knights or have Sir Klutz be the party's greatest ally.

XP. I've tried to break down all the "heroic acts" in the adventure and am planning on giving XP for every 2-3 things they accomplish. I like this much more than the generic milestones because its more like XP but less number intensive. Much more like the 13th Age style of incremental advances: 4 sessions and you level, but here I'm making them earn each one. I still need to solidify this list a bit, its likely I can make a decent subsystem out of it that others will find useful.

Spells. Back when I thought one player was going to play a wizard, I made a random table to add some basic rituals and a few other spells to the Barovian witches' spellbooks (or other NPCs). I don't think I need to do that now since no one is a wizard or tome-pact warlock. This felt like a really satisfying gussy though because as a tome-pact warlock in Princes of the Apocalypse, I'm not finding any ritual scrolls except when the DM let me pick which scrolls we found.

Enemies prepare (moar spells). I might use some of the above spell ideas when Strahd, Baba Lysaga, and Morgantha start fucking with the party. I'm excited for them to use animal messenger or sending to get messages to the PCs. PCs will be making Wisdom saves to avoid Scrying each day now. I'm also excited to fuck the PCs using the dream spell. Basically the idea is to adjust spell lists for when the enemies become aware of the PCs as a threat. I might also create a few new spells like this (an undead version of animal messenger?) or look through the old books to see if there are some other spells for spying and communication that have gotten lost in the editions.

So this isn't too much gussying, I'm going to rush the players through this, but if I get the chance to run this again I think I'll keep what works for sure and decide what else I might could add in or change. The weird part though is while people say the adventure is replayable, I feel like there could be more that's card-dependent. Like... each of the interesting events in a location could be card-cued, or even the creature type of some of the allies/enemies. Its a bit of a disappointment at the moment, actually, that more isn't randomly determined. But that's musing for another day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Curse of Strahd: Actual Play 1

First session tonight. A few kinks, as expected, but we made decent progress. I was really hoping to get through the village of Barovia, card reading at the Tser Pool encampment, and find one of the treasures. Well, since the treasures are random they didn't have a chance to do that part, but they got to Vallaki in 5 hours!

First up, obviously we spent the expected 45 min or so going over some character details and a few expectations for the adventure. I've got a noble wild sorcerer, mercenary swashbuckler, outlander vengeance paladin, entertainer lore bard, and acolyte blood hunter. Had them roll for trinkets and on the harrowing event table from the Haunted One background since no one opted for that background. Had hoped they would work out some things like party alignment and goals and such beforehand, but at least we kept the intro stuff to 45 min. Then the book started in full.

I opted for the werewolf hook, since Bryce suggested it was the only good one and I kinda agree. I might have considered running Death House but we only have 5 weeks, maybe a 6th if we all have time to squeeze an extra session in. So the group came into Ravenloft. First random encounter was wolves (I had them howl in the distance) then a hidden bundle (commoner's clothes). After the creepy gates of Barovia, they found the dead body and its note, then waited as the dire wolves came in. The swashbuckler got mauled and they took one down. A low moral check meant the other wolves would back away if the PCs let them. Reason prevailed and the 4 remaining dire wolves left them alone. An aside: the 90s-style cursive note was almost impossible for everyone to read. I'll have to type all the handouts and print them in a more normal font, I think. Another place where the usability of the book fails.

In Barovia they first encountered Mad Mary, then went to the Blood on the Vine tavern. They talked to Ismark, agreed to take his sister to safety, dealt with father Donovich and Doru, then gathered Ireena up after the funeral was finished. Oh, and they spotted Morgantha selling pies but didn't get the full encounter. The religion of Ravenloft isn't detailed enough to withstand player questioning, but luckily the paladin is devoted to Lathander who is apparently the same as the Morninglord.

From Barovia they stopped at the Tser Pool encampment where I learned that there are fewer suggestions for the reading than I had expected. As in, they asked Madam Eva to explain the reading to them. Two of the treasures are in Castle Ravenloft itself, and I'm not sure how to telegraph this to the players. I suspect a meeting with Rictavio or Esmerelda can be used to help there, or even the Keepers of the Feather or Baba Lysaga maybe. I'm trying to get the players to ask around town for rumors and info, but they haven't quite caught on yet that they could ask for key terms, though they've started asking a lot about tombs and graveyards because one of the treasures is in the guildmaster's crypt.

After Tser pool they found the black carriage with an invitation to the castle in it. I wanted them to know Strahd was around, but they didn't take the bait to bring Ireena and Ismark with them to Castle Ravenloft itself. So they unhitch the carriage, take it, and go through the gates of Barovia again and pass Old Bonegrinder. A bit of temptation to stop there, but they press on. One more random encounter on the road is a lone werewolf in human form. He sees their numbers and has no inclination for combat, but does tell them that the old woman selling pastries lives there. I'm cutting down on some of the encounters that could happen, so they make it to Vallaki with no further problems.

In Vallaki they head to the inn. The blood hunter goes around town getting the lay of the land, the paladin talks to the wolf hunters in the Blue Water tavern, and everyone is creeped out that the standard greeting in Vallaki is "I'm happy that you're happy!". They get a few rumors from the inn, but don't press it to get a lot. They spend the night, and stop at the church the next morning to see if they can swindle some holy water out of the church if they need it. A good persuasion roll and seeing the symbol of the morninglord on the foreign paladin's shield gets Father Lucian to fess up that they can't make any until the bones of St. Andral are returned. This sends me into a bit of a panic as I see he told the boy Yeska about them, and Yeska told someone else, but I was expecting more than that when they asked who Yeska was. The naming in the adventure is odd, as there's not a way to distinguish between big-names and small names. And I searched an index and find he's only described on page 97, the one I had been looking at. So, at this point I'm a bit flustered but we've made good progress and its 10:30pm, so I figure we can stop there.

Five hours and 30 minutes, being a bit speedy and taking 45 of that for character stuff and we're in Vallaki at least. I could have slowed things down with a couple more random encounters, but I didn't think that'd be needed. I know to prep Krezk, the Wizard of Wines and Yester Hill for sure, plus probably the rest of Vallaki. Not too bad, and if I just end up giving the PCs a level per session then they'll be 8 by the end of days, 9 if we do one extra. I might just cram most of this in. Well, still trying to skip the mad mage, van richten's tower, Argynvostholt, Tsolenka Pass and the Amber temple at least. But we'll see. They've even figured out the identity of their greatest ally, and if I can make it clear that two treasures are in the castle, we'll just spend more time in the castle after they get one from Yester Hill and gather their ally from the village of Barovia.

RamaD&Dan: Curse of Strahd

So when Curse of Strahd came out, it inspired me a bit. I had never really looked at the original Ravenloft module (or its 2e revision, 2e reprint, 3e reimagining...) despite it being a classic. Ravenloft, the setting, likewise didn't really inspire me too much. I can kinda dig the horror and I'm apparently way too keen on undead enemies, but I never got into it as a campaign. Despite this, Strahd inspired me a bit, so I stole one idea during the Viking Bachelor Party D&D marathon, and convinced myself I could run Strahd in 5 weeks during Ramadan.

Game starts tonight.

What I've found really inspiring is a few of the villains, and the fact the module has lots of room for reactions from the NPCs. Basically, each chapter has a few options of what might happen in the location which you can use the first time the characters enter a location or wait till a later time. Oh. And Strahd himself will start actively hunting the party eventually. Yeah.

So obviously I stole that for the White Whale portion of Viking D&D, in which the party saw clear signs of what could have been a dragon, fought it in its lair twice before chasing it as it fled. The dragon was powerful, took a few PCs down but didn't quite kill any. But the players thankfully retreated when they were being licked, and so did the dragon. I can't wait to do this with Strahd and some hags.

I have a big concern though, which leads me to want to run this twice. I have about 25 hours of game play for Curse. That's maybe ok for the original module, but might not quite be enough if I want them to do much of the adventure. They need to do something levelworthy the first four sessions and then go fight Strahd on the 5th (I'm starting them at level 4, so they'll be level 8 by the end hopefully). Because running a module like this is so much prep, I want to run it a second time to get the most out of it. So maybe I'll run it again Sept-Nov, it'll be less prep the second time I'm sure.

The real hard part is figuring out what to cut. I'm working on a list of all the "heroic deeds" that players might do, which is giving me some ideas of what to chop out. There's some suggestions I've found online and at the DMs Guild to suggest how to shorten things (one interesting one is move Argynvostholt to Krezk and replace the Abbey of St. Markovia), but I think I've decided to simply remove 13 cards from the deck to begin with. This way the players won't be required to go to one of the places I'm less keen on (Argynvostholt, Abbey of St. Markovia, Tower of the Mad Mage, Van Richten's Tower, Tsolenka Pass, or the Amber Temple). I've left some in that I do really like (I apparently like hags and witches as well as undead), so those might still feature in the game.

I'm opting not to physically remove or change any places or NPCs, I just think some're just not quite as exciting to me and won't let the cards force the players to go there. I did a pre-draw and all the treasures ended up at the castle anyway, but the winery may be a red herring if they don't do a new draw in-game.

So I'm excited for this. I found a number of interesting ideas online to add in, and I'll probably put up a post soon with some of them.

Of course, anyone considering running Curse of Strahd should also check out this guide.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Water is a terrible element (yet its still my favorite despite being horribly suboptimal in D&D)

While nominally working on my Al-Qadim Church game (I was also tinkering with some 5e stuff for the Princes of the Apocalypse game I'm playing in and working on a secret project), I've been going through a lot of old and new D&D stuff looking at water spells. My conclusion: no one can write a decent water spell to save their lives.

First problem: what sort of damage does water do? You can't really have a water elementalist without enough water spells, but you also can't really have a water elementalist in 5e without those spells doing damage. The Elemental Evil Player's Companion addresses this a bit by adding some spells that do bludgeoning damage. That makes sense: you conjure a big pile of water and whump someone with it. There was an old water blast in Al-Qadim as well, which is just a big spray of water (generally to the face). Unlike fire, however, there's really only one or two big watery face-blasts you can get away with it seems. Thus far one of my favorites is called Cone of Teeth from 2nd edition, where your watery blast takes the form of shark's teeth and rends your enemies.

Second problem: If you're not conjuring water, you're restricted to natural bodies of water. So many spells involve letting things normally on land bypass or function under water. Maybe you need to float or swim or breathe or see in the water? There's a spell for that, and a water elementalist can surely cast it. Possibly a couple different versions of it.

Third problem: Mist/fog is water, but its also air. A lot of the fog spells are listed as both air and water, and its easy to see why. Rain and weather are a combo of the two elements. So, for better or for worse, air and water need to share some spells or you have to decide to try to limit your possibly spells by restricting things to one or the other element. Related: does waterbreathing fall under air or water, or should there be a distinction between water breathing and lasting breath spells?

Fourth problem: ships are both air and water, but also neither. Ship spells are another issue all together. A lot of water spells are found in ship/pirate type games and supplements because it makes sense that they'd be useful in the setting. But is a spell to conjure rigging really a water spell? What about one that strengthens or weakens a ship's hull? Some of the ship spells are even nonsensical if you consider a water-wizard or water-sorcerer to be a "sea" type. Sea things often include storms and ships, by why the heck would a storm-sorcerer have the power to weaken a hull or conjure rigging with their innate magic? Why would a sea wizard gain any benefit for casting those spells which seem like tangentally related spells?

Fifth problem: Ice. Ice is the easy way out. Sure it makes a little sense since water is actually ice, but not when a water elementalist's primary means of attack is doing cold damage with a frostbite spell or a cone of cold. I certainly don't think a pirate in an Arabian Adventure (or, honestly, pirates in general) should be using Ice Knife and Snilloc's Snowball Swarm as their primary offensive spells till they hit 5th level. Ice sure can make for a nicely thematic set of spells though, especially if you add in wind/weather (and maybe some enchantments and northern lights type spells).

Sixth problem: Conjuration or Transmutation (or Evocation)? Related to the second problem, you can easily make many a water spell a conjuration and then you have no ridiculous need to cast it in/near a body of water. This could be the case with so many spells that it blurs the artifical lines between the codified 8 schools of magic in D&D. In 5e I can really see why they remove a lot of those sorts of limits in spells so tidal wave and wall of water don't need to rely on the surrounding environment. Still, if the schools weren't such a big thing it might be nice for them to get a boost in power when cast in the right environment.

So, what's the verdict? Its hard to concoct some original water spells. I bet everyone could come up with about a 6-12 fairly distinct ones (depending on the granularity) but everyone will basically cover the same ground with their water spells (stay dry, go underwater, get over the water, blast of water, something ice, something fog, manipulate the current/flow...). So I'm left with a few different feelings on this. One can either stretch the definitions of water a bit (and if you do that, why not add in a scalding steam spell alongside a bit of ice and fog), or accept the fact that if a player wants a water elementalist its part of the DM's job to ensure the setting supports water (i.e. ships or rivers will be involved). The latter is a bit unsatisfying, so maybe there's a few more ways one can make spells which are thematically watery (a spell that smooths and polishes objects, or alternately bloats and cracks them; scrying in a pool of water) that can be used to expand the list a bit.

Side note: all the elements are a bit repetitive, but somehow air, earth, and fire ones don't seem quite as bad.