Saturday, June 24, 2017

5e Sorcerer Variant?

One of my beefs with 5e is the uneven distribution of long rest and short rest abilities among classes (i.e. encounter and daily powers). The biggest offender, imho, is the sorcerer who gets only long-rest resources and is encouraged to use them up quicker because the sorcerer can spend more resources for a nova round. The quick brainstorm with a friend is to make sorcery points short-rest resources somehow. There's two issues with it.

Number of Sorcery Points. First, the number. 5e sort of assumes something like 2-4 short rests per long rest, so if we simply divide the sorcery points between half and a quarter, that should come close. Say half for now. That'd mean a level 5 sorcerer gets 3 points, which equates to one heightened spell per short rest or a bonus 2nd level slot. That seems pretty strong since warlocks get two 3rd-level slots per short rest, and the sorcerer would also have 3rd level daily slots. If it's a quarter, that means the level 5 caster has 2 points per short rest, which prohibits most expensive metamagic on spells other than cantrips and first level spells, but one level 1 slot per short-rest seems about right but weak. A third is probably about right.

Creating spell slots. The second issue is sorcery points being used to make new spell slots. Short rests could essentially be used to recharge, meaning why not take 3 short rests in a row to recover more slots? This is easily solved by capping created slots with a duration. I'd say end of next round, so you could create a slot in preparation for using it the next round. 1 minute might also be reasonable, or even 10 minutes though. But since they're easy to create, there's not a lot of reason to make them so long-lasting. And if/when they expire? They could automatically convert back to spell points. There's a slight loss here, as it's more expensive to create a spell slot (5 sorc points to make a level 3 spell) than you get from spell slots (3 sorc points for a level 3 slot). But that's probably fine.

Level 20. The sorcerer capstone ability is finally the short-rest sorcery points we want. Nice, but super late. They'd need a new capstone.

Done. What other consequences would this have? Some metamagics aren't going to work on your big guns. You won't have enough points to heighten, twin, or whatever your highest level spells. There's also a question of limitations, can you have more sorcery points that your max? I say sure, convert one big slot to points to power metamagic on your other big slots. Finally, it limits some metamagic options flat out, like Heighten Spell. We might be able to address this by either explicitly mentioning the option is best when you have more sorc points, or by fiddling with the number a bit, more like 1/4 plus 1 or half minus 1 something to ensure the number of sorc points at each level is about right. This still feels a little clunky, but I like the idea. Combine it with 1-2 bonus low-level utility spells for each origin, and it might do well.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

The lost perception skills of older D&D

Older D&D was weird. Though I don't think I ever used the rules in the 90s, dwarves and gnomes (and some other races) have these strange detection abilities. And they're subtly different between the races. I'm going to focus on dwarves, elves, and gnomes here because the others just cherry pick some of these detection powers.

In AD&D 2nd Ed, dwarves can spend one round to detect things if they're within 10 feet of that thing (except depth underground, since you're always within 10 feet of your depth I guess): sliding and shifting walls or rooms (4 in 6), grade or slope (5 in 6), stone traps/pits/deadfalls (3 in 6), new construction (3 in 6) as well as depth underground (3 in 6). Gnomes can detect depth better than dwarves (4 in 6), grade/slope (5 in 6), but also detect direction underground (3 in 6) as well as unsafe walls and ceilings (7 in 10).

That's right, while 2nd Ed raised a few of these detections so they were all using a d6 (dwarves went from grade/slope and new construction of 3 in 4—75%—to 5 in 6—83.3%) except the gnome's 70% chance to detect unsafe walls and ceilings couldn't be lowered to 4 in 6 or raised to 5 in 6 to make it standard. Stout halflings and half orcs likewise ended up using a d4 for their detect grade/slope abilities (3 in 4 and 1 in 4 respectively), and later races in Skills & Powers just get percentile scores assigned. So while the system mostly uses a d6, it doesn't use it consistently.

In the basic Rules Cyclopedia D&D (which only has dwarves), dwarves get all of these stone skills at a 2 in 6 chance, whereas Swords and Wizardry (my ersatz oldest-school D&D) says dwarves get this but the rolls are up to the DM.

This is fascinating in part because these skills were/are probably almost wholly ignored by most D&D players, but also how specific they were to dungeon crawling. Knowing how deep you were (approximate dungeon level) would be hugely helpful in figuring out how tough monsters might be, as well as if the 5% grade in the 100-foot corridor (nigh imperceptible) was taking you further down or not. New construction seems like an ersatz measure of things being walled off, but it also gives you a sense of history within the dungeon, while shifting walls, traps/pits, and unsafe walls/ceilings are obvious hazards (of apparently differing difficulty). Also interesting to note is that dwarves and gnomes got slightly different sets, meaning it was useful to have both types of characters in your party. It also conjures some strange image of dwarves keeping their eyes down and watching for pits and new construction at the base of walls while gnomes are eyes-in-the-sky noticing the ceilings of the dungeon plus a different sense of direction.

Elves get a different ability, which is passive secret/concealed door detection. They get this at a 1 in 6 chance, so just by walking through the dungeon elves will find one secret door in 6. Not great, but totally nice if the DM remembers it (I also just roll this for random noticing facts in my AD&D Al-Qadim Church game). Elves who are actively searching find 1 in 3 secret doors, and 1 in 2 concealed doors.

It's also interesting to note that there are no rules for how these interact with thief abilities (does a dwarf searching for a trap get his roll plus the thief roll? does it take extra time to get both rolls?) nor do these detection abilities ever increase with level: you have them or you don't, and they never improve.

In 5e, we get a little of these as ersatz fixes. Dwarves get their stonecunning and elves get free proficiency in perception, but I can't help but wonder if the sheet blinders work in reverse here. Often with skills, new players are wondering which one they can roll for a certain thing to get more info or move the story along, but there's nothing specific enough about those skills in 5e to warrant the utterly specific uses (or expectations?) that the old AD&D options provide.

I've been thinking about this more and more because, in my 2nd edition game, many of the rules are buried in paragraph form, when bullet points would bring them to light easier. The oft-maligned Skills & Powers book does a nice job of presenting each as a clear option since you needed to spend points to purchase each one, but it can also be used to nicely gather each option together so you can really see what powers you have. So in my vague dream to do some cut-and-paste work to compile and solidify some 2nd ed material and make it more accessible at the table, I'm wondering if these strange powers shouldn't be made broader (i.e. dwarves and gnomes might passively notice sloping corridors rather than needing to actively do it) or otherwise wrapped into a coherent system which includes general thief/rogue skills.

There's also a strange element of DM determinism in these skills, which is the information these detection powers provide or the paths these open up need to be a bonus in the adventure. For traps, their detection is generally simple since the failure result is merely that the trap is set. For sliding walls/rooms though, a passageway could be blocked if not detected. Similarly, if a secret door is the only exit and it isn't found, the party is just stuck. Just because this stuff is on a character sheet, doesn't mean it will work when you need it. Also, while there's been a lot made about dungeons havning interesting design (loops, multiple entrances, etc.) there seems to be little attention paid to some of these other issues here: sliding doors or cave-ins which trap a party and force them to continue onwards, subtle changes in elevation leading to distinct levels (or over and underpasses), the history of a dungeon's construction and determining which areas are original and which are recent editions, natural construction problems and hazards vs consciously-made traps. It's a small laundry list of good elements to put into a dungeon that I hope to keep in mind for the future.

It's easy to see how these old skills got consolidated in third edition into a version of notice and search (along with the rogue skills), what you're noticing or searching for has perhaps been lost a little. Also what's lost is the race-specific nature of these skills. Dwarves and gnomes have an uncanny ability to detect a grade or slope in a corridor, others could attempt it with weights or marbles or water, but these races just are that attuned to their world that they get these automatically and no one else will ever be as good as them. And I think that's one thing that's been a little lost in modern D&D: some races were just better at some things than others, which actually made the race/class choice matter a bit more.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 5 – Finale

Well, that's that. We just did chapter 6 and finished on-time. So at least I can get some of that pacing right.

I was pretty disappointed by this one. I think it was a combination of the group composition and adventure though. We had three and a half hours today and didn't need any of the extra material I had prepped and that was with cutting down on the hit-and-run from the villains. It didn't help that one of the players was super chatty. I know we lost 20-30 min to leveling up to level 5, but I feel like we lost another 30 minutes at least to tangential stories (I know someone ordered sweet potato fries with dinner, but a couple minute bit on the difference between sweet potatoes and yams... that's what I'm talking about).

Ultimately, it was also disappointing when the two most on-top-of-it players both were lost during the final battle. I know it's designed to be confusing, but the group didn't seem to grab onto the goal of escape and get un-cursed. They seemed lost in the sandbox I gave them as I removed a couple rails in the adventure.

So the adventure itself, I like because it's got some nice NPCs at odds with one another, but that was also the downfall. The players didn't really track who they had met, and there are maybe two too many NPCs. My attempt to identify important NPCs by giving them notable eye colors was seen as a red herring, and having two new-ish players (one brand new, one returning after 20 years from AD&D 2nd Ed) slowed things down. So it was perhaps a bit confusing for them.

There was another problem, namely that some of the classes didn't come with much investigation power built in, which is a bit of a problem with 5e in general: fighters just fight. I'm going to curate my list of class options better if I run another Ravenloft.

Ultimately, while I was a bit disappointed, I think some of it was the set-up (new players not knowing what Ravenloft meant) and group composition (chatty player). The adventure wasn't as solid as I had hoped, but I picked it because I thought it had some good NPCs and the finale of U1-3 would be lackluster and it was close to the right size for 4-5 sessions (which it was perfect for 4-5 sessions). I could potentially run this again, but it's about a 20-hour adventure which is too long for short things and too short for long things, so not sure when I might get to it.

As done is better than perfect, I'll just move on to what comes next. Also, story recap in another post soon.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 4

A little late on this update. We did a Friday session, but it was pretty slow because the group is fairly chatty and I didn't really push to keep people on task as we were eating and drinking. I'm a little irked by the group composition and might not assemble the same people for another game. We'll see.

As before, no real spoilers. I'll post a big summary at the end.

In session 4, we finished up everything except the final chapter. I cut down chapter 4 as it was a lot of mood and storytelling plus we didn't hit it in the railroad order. I also had to do some impromptu fleshing out of the Midnight Slasher, as they ended up following up on that thread with a clever use of a locate item spell. I also Curse-of-Strahd'ed up the villains in this (making them more interactive), so the party did get to encounter the Dukkar and do a quick combat with him, which was somewhat satisfying (and will be more so for the final battle).

Overall, I'm a bit dissatisfied with this adventure. I really liked it when I first read it, except it was a bit light on combat. Now I feel like it has very little concrete goal for the PCs to achieve. Ravenloft is often a "stop the evil / escape" situation, but the players were definitely floundering a bit in terms of what the heck they're supposed to be doing. The presentation in the adventure is more railroady than the adventure itself is, but even adding in a second path to defeat the Dukkar, the party ended up going mostly by-the-book on this one. Also, there are some really long bits of exposition in the book to flesh out the background that could probably be given in other ways.

Some of my dissatisfaction is maybe with the group, as I mentioned above. I'm just not as excited to run this as I had been with Strahd. Then there's the problem with the melee-only classes. I'm finding that skills alone aren't enough to keep players interested for investigation. I ended up giving the Totem Barbarian the full druid ritual caster feat, so he could swap out the initial two selections and possibly learn a few other spells, I think that's a change I might keep in any other game I run. But honestly, the ranger has some nice features to help with travel, and spellcasters can do a bit with investigation and interaction that others just can't. The Barbarian, Fighter, and Monk just don't get that many skills that are grand, and many of their subclasses are 100% focused on combat. This didn't feel like as much of an issue with Curse of Strahd, but I'm sure some of that was the players and party composition.

I still do like the adventure, and it may fit well into a series of Ravenloft adventures with a Sliders style plot. You could even string it along before Curse of Strahd if you wanted to throw something like Night of the Walking Dead, this, and another one or two before they get to Barovia and ultimately deal with the Amber Temple. I just don't feel like this adventure quite lives up to its potential in terms of the adventure presentation, ease of use, and playability. It's got some great NPCs, and good background on the domain, but just lacks a bit in terms of the structure.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Powerful NPCs destroy verisimilitude

My current DM really likes throwing high-level NPCs at us now. I'm not super happy with this because it really brings us out of the game. Here's how it came about, as far as I can tell:

The DM has decided the CR system is ridiculous since we could easily handle many battles in the past campaign. In the last campaign, we did well with a lot of battles, but he's also remembering the past year of high-level play when we really could handle a lot of stuff. I think the earlier parts of Princes of the Apocalypse (before level 7 or so) were fairly well balanced modulo travel nonsense (see below).

As part of his play style, the DM tends to keep combats small, where I think the math of 5e makes a battle with fewer enemies than the number of players easy. Players can gang up on people, and with a few clever uses of some battlefield control can really keep one to three of the enemies out of combat to focus fire on the half of the group that is still a threat. Still, it's easier to keep track of 3 enemies' stats than 6 enemies' stats.

Another aspect of his play style is he tends to say yes, even to ridiculous requests at times. He was very willing to give surprise rounds and advantage right away, and still is at times. That makes stealth much more valuable, and I'm a little surprised we didn't make an all stealth party this time because of that. We've always got time to take short and long rests, and he doesn't pressure us for time usually, so we can really handle many battles with ease. The short rest mechanic also means many of us get some nice resources back after a rest (particularly when I played a warlock), so you can really handle battle after battle when he makes them easy (or easy for us).

On a related note, overland travel with random encounters is awful in 5e. Not only does our ranger ensure we'll never get lost or need to forage for food while traveling, but since all your resources come back after a long rest, there's really no point to doing these in 5e. I like random encounters to help set the mood or tone of a story, or to siphon off a few resources from the party, but travel in 5e (without the Adventures in Middle Earth fix where you can't get a long rest in the wilderness) makes the resource drain pointless.

Finally, I'm not sure if he nerfs the enemies intentionally or not, but he tends to ignore many aspects of the by-the-book stats. It may be a combo of not reading things close, being tired at the time, or lack of system mastery for the spells (He used crown of madness totally ineffectually tonight and didn't use the enemy's second winds). For the spells, I suspect some of it is by not really playing 5e much, you don't know off the top of your head what most of the spells do. That's easy to mess up, or having an archmage up-cast lightning bolt as a 9th-level spell is just not super useful. So he's not always using his enemies effectively. Some of the theater of the mind aspects of play also might hinder this, there's really not interesting terrain in the game for stunts, and we usually have trouble tracking where enemies are and which one is which (probably once or twice a night at least).

How does this lead to high-level NPCs? Since The DM has thrown out the CR system, we end up having three 6th-level PCs fighting things like two CR9 champions plus a CR6 warlock (this past week's tomfoolery). Or the end of Rise of Tiamat where there were just tons of archmages wandering around. Those archmates were functionally something like 14th level NPCs we just fought, it took everything we had to defeat them, and we got a short rest in the middle because we had been beaten (non-lethal damage on taking down the paladin and fighter/rogue). Obviously, we hunted the survivor down to take our money back, because D&D.

So we're left wondering why the noble was able to hire these very powerful mercenaries to chase us down (The druid made a deal to reincarnate his dead nephew for a lot of cash, but he wasn't going to pay us for it when the mother wasn't 100% convinced it was her son). So why are we the ones going to deal with the giant problems when there are these high-level mercenaries able to be hired?

In the last campaign, where he started out using obviously 20th-level NPCs as patrons for each faction, we also were asking ourselves multiple times why we were being sent to investigate things while the big powerful spellcasters (able to cast wish spells and the like) were doing nothing themselves. I have no explanation for that.

I think this is often a criticism of some of the published D&D worlds: when there are these massively powerful NPCs walking around (Elminster, the Seven Sisters, etc.) why are the PCs really needed to be heroes? It's now exacerbated by the inclusion of these NPC stat blocks in the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters, and incongruent with the idea of tiers of play.

In by-the-book 5e, characters of levels 1-4 (Apprentice) are local heroes, levels 5-10 are regional heroes, levels 11-16 (paragon) are global heroes and levels 17-20 (Epic) are cosmic heroes. This means that those CR 6 NPCs that function as 14th level spellcasters are really high up there, and the ones beyond that are just basically god-like. In theory, the CR for one creature is equal to average party level for a 4-5 person party. So that CR 6 warlock is an average encounter for a 6th level party. Give the warlock some support henches and it's a good time. But what's the level of that CR6 warlock? The spell-casting says the warlock is 14th level. Clearly paragon. We could instead try to break monsters down into their tiers, but a proficiency bonus diagnostic doesn't quite map to the tier levels exactly. Nonetheless, it may be a decent stand-in: things with a proficiency bonus of +3 are regional-level threats. +4 spans the end of regional and beginning of global. +5 is solidly global, with +6 being epic. That might not work out properly though because the CR 6 warlock was a 14th level caster with a +3 proficiency bonus. I'm sure with some more time and math I could reverse-engineer something somewhat close though.

What it really means, is by using these high CR NPCs, the DM is telling us there are many powerful people in the world that could be doing our job instead of us. So we need something more of a real hook for the game, especially since the others poo-poo'd my idea of all being good-aligned.

What's the fix? I guess telling the DM. He should know that the one warlock with a couple veterans (CR 3) is much more believable, and something like four veterans, a gladiator, and the warlock might have been a much more believable set of enemies to face. The mage might have an apprentice and two hired bodyguards rather than being an archmage, or might have a bound elemental or demon servitor to defend him. It's difficult to point out NPC powers that I don't know about, but I do try to point out some of the stuff most of the time if it'd make an easy fight harder. I could also try to point out that doing 4 easier combats will drain resources so it's useful to utilize that in the right context, and that random encounters on the road in 5e just serve to bog the game down.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 3

Session three. One of the players was absent, and we got a new novice to join. We mostly finished chapter 3, skipped 4, and are halfway through 5. So the pacing seems about fine that the game can end after chapter 6 or perhaps with a custom 6.5 in the next two sessions.

This session was totally investigation again. Perhaps a flaw with the adventure (depending on your point of view). I was resigned to keep it a little slow because we had a new player who had never played before, but she caught on pretty quickly. I also wish I had not told players we'd advance in level. Curse of Strahd was designed for 3-9 basically, and this isn't really designed to level up midway through. I had them hit level 4 now, and they'll hit 5 at the beginning of the final session I think.

I feel like I've done a bit better at NPC voices, but I find I need to give them explicit labels. The voice isn't a description (like deep voice, British accent) but a stereotype (1920s gangster). That's helped me give the characters a bit of personality.

I had to do a bit of improvisation with the House of Mists, just because repeating the encounter seemed ridiculously boring at the time. So I drew random cards and tried to deliver some NPC hints based on the card.

I also did some improvisation by deciding to use theme/mood encounters in addition to random interactive encounters. This means I'd totally want to revise my random encounter tables, but it also means I can have them spot an NPC in the crowd or find a body in a dark alley, encounter the darklord's spies, or whatnot. Basically a lot of the old Ravenloft material suggests no random encounters, and I understand that. They generally give railroady set-piece encounters. But you can deliver some of those here and there, and curate your randomness. Basically, I want to revise the tables I made so the generic encounters that can happen anywhere are mostly theme/mood encounters rather than possible combats. Or perhaps so that there's a separate chance for theme/mood builders than possible combats and strong clues or whatnot.

I've also noticed that I wish the text were re-organized a bit more to be encounter-specific. The encounters with Malocchio, Matton, and Gabrielle plus the House of Mists in Karina are really the heart of chapters 3-5, so it was really good that I re-read it today and organize things in my mind if not in my notes. I need to re-organize my notes if I want to put some notes on the DM's guild.

I realize these posts are pretty details-light, I should do something more plot-oriented at the end.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Reinterpreting the Ravenloft setting in light of Curse of Strahd

Its no secret that I really enjoyed running Curse of Strahd last year, and am running The Evil Eye during Ramadan this year. I've even got my eye on running Castles Forlorn and/or Feast of Goblyns in the future. What I've found particularly interesting about trying to run these Ravenloft adventures is the subtle re-interpretations of the setting that Curse of Strahd gives. So I've been thinking about how Ravenloft could be a bit more coherent in 5e cosmology and my interpretations of it.

Isolation and the mists. The big change in Curse of Strahd (from the Ravenloft setting, not the original module) is Barovia is about 99% isolated. I think this is an artefact of them wanting it to be self-contained. There are no clear neighboring Ravenloft domains for Barovia. This didn't bother me too much, except for during Curse of Strahd, the Darklord card indicates no ally. Had I picked this for my group, I would have given them each an uncommon magic item (a simple weapon +1 or a scroll of daylight maybe) per person with a note just signed A. The Tarokka reading could have indicated that one of Strahd's greatest enemies would send aid, or maybe "A foul and evil enemy of Strahd will make himself known when the time is right." When trying to pick a second Ravenloft adventure to run, however, this made it tougher. Feast of Goblyns, a widely noted great adventure, explicily involves some domain hopping, and The Evil Eye involves some visitors from other domains. I picked Evil Eye because I thought I could downplay the visitor part, or make it clear that the visitors are also not free to move around as they wish.

My solution to some of this issue, is to make domain hopping difficult, and knowledge between domains less certain (or at least more difficult / less certain that some of the adventures imply). Ravenloft domains are part of the Shadowfell, and are not always aligned properly. They're all islands, essentially, but some collide with some regularity, while others may essentially bump into one another randomly. New domains are created with some regularity, and their creation can disrupt previous cycles. This means the people of each domain will know that the mists generally block travel, but merchants and scholars may know when the mists generally lift. Domains may not be synched in time, as each small flat earth has different seasons or celestial properties. Scholars may also know that there is a dark lord of each world that can control if these borders truely open, so the citizens may be most likely to appease (or petition?) the darklords at certain times to ensure the borders are open. Even a darklord, however, may not be able to align two domains or planes, however, so some scholars may know that traveling down a road or river doesn't alway take you where you expect to go.

Somehow, I intend for both the Vistani and some members of the Church of Ezra to have the ability to cross the mists to other domains, and possibly even arrive where they want to (most of the time). One could also introduce a tool proficiency, like a planar orery or planar etherscope which could be used to predict where one might end up upon entering the mists.

Souls and Husks. Curse of Strahd establishes that souls are trapped in the Domains of Dread, reincarnating. Furthermore, the majority of people in a domain are soulless husks who can never leave. I do like this idea. It hampers travel, so only a select group of besoul├Ęd heroes (or villains) can domain hop. Communities that establish themselves in a new domain will end up developing husks as well, and essentially be trapped since the entirety of the group can never leave.

A soul, however, always knows its home. Mist-travelling out of the demiplanes is likely to take one back to their own home, or a shadowfell duplicate of it.

The mysterious Dark Powers' true nature.  In Curse, there's a strange side quest that reveals some of the nature of the mysterious Dark Powers of the Domains of Dread. This is kinda taboo, because they were always written to be mysterious in the old stuff. My solution to this is to let some be the odd vestiges that Curse of Strahd uses, but also to define (at least for myself) the nature of the demiplane(s): they aren't just cages for evil beings, but the dark powers need evil to sustain themselves.

To keep it mysterous though, scholars stuck in the demiplane(s) or outside of them may have different theories. I plan to use this to great effect for one of my alternate sets of plot rails in The Evil Eye, as they party might work with a local arcanist (of the Fraternity of Shadows) to achieve their goals rather than what the module suggests. This lets me play with crackpot flat-earth or twisted religious theories (e.g. "Do you know that no one in this realm has reliable memories before the Witch of Loupet came to Invidia?" "If the gods truly feed on acts of malevolence, is it not the duty of the pious to ensure they are fed?" "What remains to be seen is if those bright-eyed souls who can move about the lands are the only ones who's pain feeds the gods or if even the dreary dull-eyed plebians' pain is effective."

Darlords and domains differ from one another. One thing I never quite understood about the old Ravenloft setting is how much the common folk knew about the darklords and the nature of the demiplane they were trapped in. Given my assumption about the dark powers, I intend to work to make sure that a domain is a reflection of the darklord's psyche. I think this is, to an extent, done in the old Ravenloft materials. But for a weekend in hell or sliders-style domain hopping, I want each domain to feel different. This can be reflected in the types of creatures encountered, how husks and souls are distinguished, how the domain borders are closed, among other things.

What's interesting about this, is one could try to add in horror tropes that relate to a character's inner struggles (aligntment, background, perosonality trait, ideal, bond, flaw or general backstory). I think this is, perhaps, the key to getting the weekend in hell style of game to work, and I wish I had explored this a bit more in Curse of Strahd and had time to add it into the Evil Eye.

Conclusion. There we have it. Some preliminary thoughts on the setting. I should gather some of my other ideas, weed out the bad ones, and throw these up on the DM's guild at some point. Some of the things like Ravenloft minor properties for magic items or Tarokka-based personal characteristics might be useful, even if these musings aren't.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 2

Session two just finished up. We were one man down tonight, but that didn't hinder things too much.

We started off with a modified ending to chapter 2. I added in a Temple of Ezra where the party rested, but chapter 2 basically went according to the railroad. The player who's character aged 40 years was a bit disappointed he couldn't get a greater restoration spell to reverse the aging so that by-the-book ghost is pretty nasty, even for 5e.

There are two key flaws in this adventure that I've noticed so far. First off, there's a bit of a lack of direction. I noticed it before we started, and the players have noticed it now. I think I've gotten it through to them that getting home is probably the goal, but also maybe saving some townsfolk. Thus far they haven't latched onto impending executions, murderers, or a stunning series of deaths in town. They've finally got enough clues to get some movement going in Karina (Going to talk to Raul again, possibly work for Matton, then a meet up with Captain Timothy for some dogfights). So they've got some things to do now, but not a lot of direction.

After one player mentioned the lack of direction, I literally had to remind them that they didn't really ask any questions to any of the NPs they've already met about where they are or the like. So they're going to go back to try to get a few more answers, and now I've planted some doubts about whether Niko or Malocchio are the Dukkar. That should be cleared up once they get to chapter 4. Also, I need to be prepared for chapter 5 to happen before chapter 4. While the adventure is written like a bit of a railroad, it could use a bit more advice for moving things around and how to give the right clues without requiring a "right" set of actions.

The second flaw is a lack of combat. I did pick a few random encounters, but so far it was just a noble which meant they had an extra Matton encounter. There are a few combats coming up, and I plan to throw some alley thugs at them in the bad parts of town, but it's been a lot of investigation and roleplaying and not too much combat, which makes for a slightly slower D&D game.

This basically makes me wish I had asked for Slow Natural Healing, where a long rest is a week in town. But I suspect I can hit them with some more combats soon, and I plan on giving them exhaustion as well to keep them weakened as needed.

Because we were a man down tonight, I didn't press them to make a lot of progress, so we went from half-way through chapter 2 to halfway through chapter 3. We've got two games to go, and hopefully a Friday afternoon game, so that should still put us on target to finish, but I might not need my extra final chapter in Castle Loupet.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Best 2nd Edition Ravenloft adventures

Perhaps in part because I loved Curse of Strahd so much, or that it opened up Ravenloft to the DM's Guild, or maybe just as some macabre interest, I've been looking up a lot of Ravenloft stuff lately. I'm running more Ravenloft for RamaD&Dan this year. The setting wasn't really a favorite in the 90s, but I do still have the Masque of the Red Death box stashed away and collecting dust somewhere in my parents' house. Either way, I've been interested in which other old AD&D Ravenloft adventures were the best.

The obvious starting point is I6: Ravenloft / RM4: House of Strahd / Expedition to Castle Ravenloft / Fair Barovia / Curse of Strahd) for the original material and the revisions/reimaginings. Afer a few searches and having to look up the old Kargatane website on the wayback machine for reviews, I've come across five adventures that continually come up as good (in order of release):


I've now got my hands on all of these in some form (Bleak House only electronically, Castles Forlorn isn't on the DM's Guild yet), but each strikes me as fairly 90s and fairly Ravenloft. This isn't also to say that others are bad (though some almost certainly are). It's just that these seem to have generally positive reviews rather than mixed or negative (or positive with ways to fix it up) plus they are mentioned numerous times in threads discussing the best Ravenloft adventures. I wanted to base this top 5 list on some Enworld poll or the DM's Guild ratings, but there are some old modules that I'm literally the only one who's rated them there. Also, missing maps is a problem with the old TSR modules on the guild, and its hard to distinguish some of the ratings when people rate it poorly for missing maps versus being a stinking turd. In general, there just aren't enough people rating things to get a good sense of what's what.

I'll stick to first impressions here, and say barring Bleak House (which I haven't looked at as much because I've just got the pdf from the guild) I'd run any of these. The adventures in the setting tend to be much more about investigation and interaction than combats and dungeon crawls, which leads me to be a bit leery about 5e adaptations. I think D&D players expect a bit more combat, that the original Ravenloft and Curse of Strahd deliver on. Feast has the most dungeon to explore, probably because it's straddling the eras and was the first adventure for Ravenloft as a campaign setting. Given the weekend in hell nature of Ravenloft and the Sliders-like domain hopping, I wonder if they could be stitched together into a neat little campaign: Feast, Castles, and Evil Eye are all for levels 4-6ish, while Night is levels 1-3...

Another interesting note is how the railroads work in these adventures. They're quite event-based, eschewing random encounters ("No random encounters, only deadly ones") in favor of things that push the mood and story. I've become a fan of random encounters as they have their uses, but it is intersting to see these as examples of how different event-based sessions can be run. I don't thing this is the worst design ever, but might need some alternate paths so the events don't feel as railroady and player choices can be meaningful in a way that a game can't really go "off the rails" simply because there are no rails to depart from in the way of a good sandbox.

The other adventures that seem to be mentioned with some regularity are the mid 90s ones: Hour of the Knife (1994), Howls in the Night (1994), Circle of Darkness (1995), and Neither Man nor Beast (1995). Also maybe Servants of Darknes (1998) and The Shadow Rift (1998). These don't seem to be mentioned as much, and from the small number of reviews it's not as easy to see them floating up to the top of well-liked adventures.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Backgrounds and personal characteristics for a weekend in hell: Running Ravenloft

This is my second rodeo running a 5e Ravenloft game, which is slightly surprising since I wasn't the hugest fan of the setting in those halcyon days of 2nd edition in the 90s. And for a second time, I'm left with a bit of awkwardness as the PCs have minimal background and the adventure truly doesn't foster any roleplaying background. This isn't necessarily odd for one-shots in general, for shorter games, a character's backstory doesn't come into play much. But it is a little disappointing and I wanted to have characters with a few more ties to the setting/adventure. Unlike a dungeon where I can simply say the noble's family had some interaction with it, or that it was a haven for criminals, the weekend-in-hell style of Ravenloft really prohibits that a bit.

I explicitly told players they could (and perhaps should) swap any languages granted by their background for tool proficiencies, and I'm sure the players can manage to play up their backgrounds as criminals, nobles, outlanders, or entertainers. So what I'm going to focus on here are the personal characteristics that 5e uses.

I know the antagonizer and I have discussed how we find these personal characteristics disappointing by the book, since many of the examples in the Player's Handbook seem to blur the lines between these nebulous categories as well as encourage conflict within the party. But it's by-the-book 5e and that's mostly what I'm going with here.

With Curse of Strahd, I asked everyone to roll on the Harrowing Event from the haunted one background. This provided some minimal links for a party of monster hunters. For The Evil Eye, we didn't go so far as that much planning ahead and we took the first hour of chitchat time to finish characters. I knew this was happening, so I fleshed out my idea to use the Tarokka cards a bit. I dealt each character one card from the high deck and asked them to use one of the two personal characteristics associated with the card. These were ideals, bonds, or flaws based on the card's theme. For example:


These turned out to be a bit more generic than I had imagined, and as they're random I didn't make enough that were specific to this adventure. Since the beast wasn't drawn, it's cat-based option won't be coming into play. Since the cat-bond was an option anyway, there was no guarantee it would even come into play ever, which makes for some bad design. But, I can totally re-use them later with minimal updating (like removing the overly specific cat aspect). With just these three, you can see that they could use some revision anyway. The Raven was the hardest card to do, and the choice is really about whether you want that as an ideal or flaw. I thought the beast and innocent were a bit better by getting two different aspects of the theme in there. Since I'm also using the high deck to track inspiration (giving players a bonus d6 on their roll if they get their card), this adds some utility to the Tarokka deck that I bought but also reminds the players of this somewhat creepy setting element. [Aside: I know I used Tarokka cards to track inspiration for Curse of Strahd in a similar way, but for the life of me I can't find any notes on how I did it. So this is a bit of a rehash somehow.]

Ideally, this system would have mimicked more closely Appendix A from the Hoard of the Dragon Queen, which I was disappointed wasn't reused in future WotC adventures. Lost Mines of Phandelver does this slightly with the pre-generated PCs, not with personal characteristics, but giving a minor backstory with a clear goal. I may have failed a bit in this attempt with The Evil Eye, but succeeded in coming up with some options to use the Tarokka deck in future Ravenloft games. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Evil Eye: Actual Play 1

Thus begins RamaD&Dan. After a lot of dilly-dallying and second-guessing, I picked an old Ravenloft adventure because it was written by the same dude that wrote a couple Al-Qadim things I liked a lot. My concern was that it was light on combat and slightly rail-roady, but my other option, Feast of Goblyns, looked a bit bigger and I only have four sessions this year to run this game in. In retrospect, that felt more D&D as it has a couple dungeons strewn about but also feels very old school Ravenloft with domain hopping, and Evil Eye felt like I could reskin it as a separate things, kings like how Curse of Strahd is Barovia, not Ravenloft. Feast of Goblyns, Bleak House, and Walking Dead are consistently rated (along with Evil Eye and the original Ravenloft module) as some of the best of Ravenloft, so I hope to try my hand at all of these eventually. Minor spoilers for how I'm running this follow.

The Evil Eye is firmly a 2nd Edition and Ravenloft module, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In the grand scheme of Ravenloft, it seems to be in the golden era of Ravenloft adventures, focusing on investigation with a horror trope that other Ravenloft adventures hadn't covered before. Totally obvious, as my player's guessed it already, but there's time to make them second-guess it and grow to fear things plus there's some good questions in this adventure about who is really the villain.

So, I spent the past month and a half prepping this bad-boy, and some of it seems useful so far. First-off, there's the expected cut-and-paste work of getting the likely enemies into 5e form for about the right level. This involves converting the major NPCs, but thankfully Volo's guide plus the basic 5e Monster Manuel made it fairly obvious, though I gave out some legendary and lair powers for encountering the main adversaries.

Next, I wanted to make eyes important. A simple eye-color chart (with minimal human eye-color research) lets me assign everyone an eye color. With the modifications in Curse of Strahd, I plan on describing all the important/souled NPCs as having an eye-color, and less important husks as having dull, grey eyes. One draw from the Tarokka deck will do it, but I also have 2+ descriptors for eyes for each alignment, so for NPCs I'm only drawing a suit because the colors are a red herring, the descriptors might reveal a character's allignment if the player's are canny.

I also find Ravenloft adventures a little difficult, since they're the weekend-in-Hell trope. So I used the high-deck to assign an ideal, bond, or flaw that I expect to come up to each character. Each player had two options to choose from and I asked them to replace one of their background traits with one based on the card they got. Also, because I'm using the high deck to track inspiration (like others might use poker chips or some other physical item), if they draw their card it'll be advantage plus 1d6. As an aside, I allowed players to swap a language granted from their background for a tool proficiency.

Finally, I added in 2 major NPCs who can potentially replace the main ally faction in this adventure. I just wanted a little less railroad. What I want to add in is some more combat options, and I think I've got some solid ideas on that.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Random tables

I've been terrible at blogging this year. Oh well.

I'm currently in the final stages of prepping to run a 5e conversion of the 2nd edition Ravenloft module The Evil Eye (a conceptual sequel to last year's Curse of Strahd). To do this, I've been adding in some random tables that I feel are missing in the original. In part because I feel like I need to flesh it out a little more to avoid a possible sense of railroading (there's only one way to escape Invidia) and in part because I find the random tables to be really helpful in my Al-Qadim Church 2nd Edition game I'm running.

Here's the secret: I tend to use random tables for inspiration. I also tend to stick with the random rolls, the trick is how to fit it into the story (i.e. improvisation) and when to know when to re-roll. Random encounters (and I call them random encounters, not wandering monsters) can be used to move the story along (i.e. tell the players to stop dilly-dallying), they can be used to instill a sense of danger into the game (i.e. dilly-dallying in a dungeon can be dangerous, traveling in the wilderness can be dangerous), and they can be used to hand additional clues into the players' hands (i.e. they randomly encounter a corpse with helpful information). From a GM's perspective, they can also be used to slow down the pace of a game and/or liven things up with a bit of roleplaying or combat as well.

Examples of some great random encounters:
The horse. Early on, the PCs randomly encountered a horse. I wasn't super sure what to do with this, but obviously, when the players wondered if it belonged to a missing hero, it surely became that horse. The random encounter fleshed out some of the story that was otherwise going to be missing.
Elf tribe. I don't really recall what I did with these, but I randomly rolled an entire group of over 100 elves. I hope I did something like using them to foreshadow the gnoll horde because otherwise large group of elves in the middle of the jungle made no sense.
Banderlogs. After rolling baboons a number of times, I noticed the Monstrous Manual had another entry on the same page. These baboon-like creatures were intelligent, numerous enough to be negotiated with, and able to provide some totally unplanned clues as the party flubbed their comprehend languages spell and did it all with gestures and pictograms.
Mystery. Not wanting to spoil a potentially ongoing plot, I had rolled a particular creature twice on the party's journey recently, and given the ecology section of the monster's description, it clearly ought to have been a mother and daughter combo. With an impromptu fleshing out of their backstory using some obvious recent events (a tribe of jungle giants had been slain), these things being in the area suddenly made sense to me.
The turtle. In one of the early adventures, the party was traveling upriver to the site of some ruins to plunder. I totally role a giant snapping turtle which the low-level party had absolutely no business dealing with. I made it easy to avoid, but it served as a neat reminder that in the game I'm running, they would encounter things well beyond their capacity to deal with. Later on, when I rolled another horrible river encounter, the sea hag was looking for the turtle and only extorted the party for a bit of loot then let them go.

So, what does this look like in The Evil Eye? Well, it's the land of Invidia in Ravenloft, so I'm using the Tarokka deck for randomization when possible.

First off, I've got a random attribute table: eye color. Given that the evil eye plays a role in its titular adventure, I'm going to try to use eye color for some subtle narrative effects. So it's important that people pick an eye color that I want them to, meaning I'm going to deal out a card and let them choose.

Eye color and descriptions
Suit Color
Glyphs ❧ Green
Stars ✭ Blue
Swords ⚔ Brown
Coins ◎ Amber

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Return to Nordheim

I ran the Antagonizer's bachelor party D&D game again (twice) this past weekend. Its really somewhat satisfying running games again, as its both easier and you get to see how other groups react to things. Plus it was satisfying to take the hard work from before and reuse it, sharing something that I enjoyed with new people.

I kinda ran two different games, though, in how the groups proceeded. The first group was much more violent, befitting of Vikings. They basically followed the trajectory of the Antagonizer's group. I think I did the witch better, they did club one seal (though it didn't die), plus I was able to throw in some trolls to the group before they were largely slaughtered by Atulli and her brothers. I'll admit, I was searching for whatever stats I had used before and failed to find them, and threw four 5th-level PCs plus a henchman against two legit 5e Frost Giants and a mage. The final encounter was too difficult, plus I revised how they might find the seal rune.

I loved my rune mechanics this time. Once you had the insight to search for runes (from the giants, witchpukje, or trolls) you could voluntarily fail a death saving throw to make a wisdom saving throw. The difficulty was 15 to search for a particular rune, or 10 to search for a random rune). I did give out two runes for a nat 20 on the check. Upon learning a rune, you still lost 2 points of con (making it an anti-feat) and I allowed a hit die to be spent or a 2nd-level spell slot to power the rune.

Of course, this meant the first group was failling death saves in the middle of the battle with frost giants, which ultimately hastened their death. But I think they at least had fun with the risk vs reward aspect of it.

The second group was much more strategic and played it a lot more like D&D, expecting creatures to be their exact D&D counterparts. They asked about languages, which I realized I hadn't put info on that in my character creation doc. Languages are almost always useless in one-shots unless you specifically add them in. I usually let people swap for tool proficiencies, but those are also generally useless. Nonetheless, I should have put a list of Conan-inspired languages as options. I even foolishly allowed one to be a Kensai playtest monk. Three of the players were a bit more character optimization oriented, so the scout rogue and the beastmaster ranger (spell-less variant with a ridiculous cow companion) were maybe more powerful than the other group.

Second group also played it a lot safer, they bargained with everyone they could basically, avoided a fight with a troll, etc. Since they didn't go after Atulli, I opted to use the dragon plot a bit, with the dragon just not having woken up yet. They found his lair, murdered him with some ease, and brought his necropants back to Atulli who gave back their loved ones. They even tried to get the seal rune outside of combat, though the first attempt didn't work.

One big difference, I think, was the second group didn't really lose any resources. They took a long rest, and I should have made it so that some seals would be dying the longer they waited. The first group I think I did quite well whittling them down a bit, a hit die here and there or a spell slot that wouldn't come back till a long rest. Second group was basically at full strength for the dragon fight, and since it was a little impromptu I didn't give it lair abilities (the original game I bumped the PCs to 7th level for a modified white dragon, here I used a modified red dragon a little lower in CR) but gave it legendary actions/saves. The lair might have been enough to make the final battle harder, but it was also a con game and I take the time limit pretty serious. Didn't think I could have him run away all Moby Dick style for a second encounter.

But, I really enjoyed running that stuff again. I might still consider writing it up for a DMs guild style thing at some point, with clearer encounters for different sized parties and maybe a random encounter table for making it last a bit longer. Combining the two courses of action worked well, so the PCs could explore a few different ways of obtaining their goal. I also could have used a few additional notes on clues they might find.