Tag Archives: tabletop

The Trap of D&D

Growing up in a religious and conservative family in the 80s, I remember a few scares that swept through churches across America. Someone thought Teletubbies was an attempt to foist the “gay agenda” onto our children. Others worried that Star Wars embodied Eastern mysticism, turning precious young minds away from the truth of God’s Word, turning them toward duality. Eventually, card games like Magic the Gathering took the place of “greatest threat to American youth,” followed by the sweeping craze of young people reading a book series called Harry Potter.

But nothing held so much dark, terrible power as the bastion of evil, Dungeons & Dragons.

As part of my “intense training” I cast Level 2 Bag of Cheetos, Level 5 Mountain Dew, and Level 8 Vanishing Money… just a few more rulebooks and miniatures… that’s all I need…

Churches had tracts (small comics with a Christian message) that warned parents of the dangers. Christian musicians sang about how Satan-worshipers kept D&D books out as part of their natural paraphenalia and rituals. The game was no game, but rather a gateway straight to hell! After all, someone knew someone who knew someone who maybe killed themselves because their D&D character died in the game — nevermind the fact that, much like Superman or other heroes dying in comic books, the rules have always made it possible for characters to return to life. The game taught kids to cast spells, inducting them into real witchcraft and satanic rituals… or so the stories were told from church to church, parent to parent.

Plus, let’s face it, D&D kids can come off pretty weird, ranting about how “with his last conscious breath, my wizard used his level 4 burning hands to bathe the evil demon queen in flames while Tordek the dwarf cleric rolled a natural crit when he summoned the power of his gods to close the portal that led to the Abyss.”

And so it was that parents who never watched a moment of the game nor looked at a single page out of a book “knew” exactly what this devil-spawned trap held in store for their precious innocent ones.

It wasn’t until about 2007 that I really took a serious look at D&D and discovered what it is, and what it isn’t. I ran a few groups with co-workers and friends, and had immense fun. D&D is about telling cooperative stories… scripting surprises, twists, and turns into the various adventures… creating characters with exciting backstories, heroic ideals, and all-too-human flaws… learning to role-play the traits and qualities that might seem completely foreign in the real world.

Every group has a Story-teller or Dungeon Master a.k.a. DM, someone who puts together the setting, provides the description, plots out the battles, plans out the course of events, and portrays all the various faces that populate the world of the game. In groups I’ve seen, the DM and the players work together (to some extent) to figure out what makes for the best story, the most fun, the moments of high adventure and glorious victory. It’s a lot of work, but when everything goes smooth, it’s the most rewarding place at the table.

All the action is resolved with a roll of a 20-sided die and some number off a character sheet. Even if it seems ridiculous, players can try anything they want, and the DM has to (Fairly!) determine whether the effort succeeds or fails based on the roll of the dice plus the character’s ability to do whatever was attempted.

Player: “I want to somersault over the orc’s head to reach the princess before she falls into the death trap.”

DM: “That’s going to be some difficult acrobatics to pull off… but with some luck, you might do it. Give me a roll…”

A few weeks ago, one of my son’s friends found out I used to be a Dungeon Master, or DM. He and his friend had been trying to start a D&D game for some time, but they couldn’t find someone to be the DM. I volunteered, and started planning the campaign. Sure enough, a dear friend found out my son was getting involved in a D&D group, and responded with a concerned gasp. After all, it’s such a dangerous and evil thing.

To be fair, she’s a counselor and has seen some people go off the deep end with this or other hobbies. I think her concern is more for the risk that could be true of any of us–when something harmless and enjoyable starts to dominate our free time and energy.

But regarding those old fears I heard for years… Saying that playing D&D is a gateway to witchcraft and satanism is like saying that Axis & Allies makes a person more likely to become a skinhead and try to rebuild the Third Reich. It’s like claiming my Madden skills on the PS4 are a step on the path to an NFL contract.

Do some people go nuts with it? Certainly – just as we do with all sorts of hobbies and interests. But the camaraderie and joy I’ve seen around a table have been life-giving and inspirational.

Here’s a clip of Matthew Mercer – a voice actor in a number of video games and animated movies/shows – talking about the impact of this game and the style of art it involves. He really captures the essence of what makes this thing awesome.

Is D&D a trap, some gateway to dangerous places? Perhaps–but not in the way my church friends from the 80s thought. There’s a  magic involved, for sure, but it isn’t in make-believe treasures and pretend spellcasting…

It’s the power of cooperative story, the hush that comes over the room as someone describes what’s happening, and the rush of creative excitement as we decide what comes next.

It’s a trap, alright, and a hard one to escape. Want to try? Give me a roll.

 

Death House – an intro to 5E Ravenloft

A couple weeks ago I started prepping a campaign for a Dungeons & Dragons group. I met with the players, discussed expectations, and helped them create their characters.

My two older sons (ages 16 & 11) are part of the group, and I thought it would be good for them to try out their characters’ abilities before the whole group meets to start the campaign. We decided we’d play around with some light combat, exploration, and social interaction so they could practice their skills and role-playing.

My new favorite D&D book

Then The Curse of Strahd came in the mail. This book is 5th Edition’s version of Ravenloft, a popular campaign setting that goes back to the original D&D from the early 80s. Count Strahd von Zarovich is the central vampire villain, D&D’s version of Dracula, a character who appears in numerous products related to the game. I remember a fighting game and customizable card game that included Strahd among other notable characters from various expansions and supplements.

What impresses me most about 5th Edition’s core books is that they return the focus to elements of story-telling. 4th Edition was fun enough for me (and the first version I played). You could tell a story using those rules, but the system seemed to center on all the characters’ powers–daily abilities, encounter spells, at-will powers, feats and skills and so on. 5th Edition keeps some of that, but from the start, the books are built around the story the players and DM are trying to tell, from the subtle but evocative details described within a room to the long-term arcs and world-changing events that could form a thrilling campaign.

Curse of Strahd continues this trend beautifully. The first part of the book addresses how to run a horror-themed campaign instead of the usual swords-and-sorcery that D&D regulars might expect. The book also includes a player character background for someone who has endured a harrowing experience that forever scars their lives. Of course there is a long campaign arc with various locales, adventures, monsters, factions, and details necessary to run multiple sessions taking characters from level 1 to 10. As an option, there’s a short exploration adventure called Death House which is designed to bring new characters from level 1 to 3.

I decided to run Death House with my sons to give them a chance to learn their characters. I haven’t ever had as much fun with pre-made expansions as I did with this small excerpt from the larger campaign setting. To set the mood, we started just before dusk with the lights turned off and some creepy music playing from a YouTube track. My oldest son was immediately suspicious of everything, from the swirling mists (something like a magical side-effect of the corruption on the land) to the dirt road near the party’s campsite (something like a dirt road made of dirt that leads to a place).

After much cajoling, I got them to the actual house where the adventure was to take place. The book describes each room of the four story manor in great detail, and practices what it preaches about setting the horror tone. Some recurring bits of description show that not all is right in the Durst family manor. For example, almost every room has ornately carved wood paneling that seems like something artistic and lovely at first glance–say, children dancing in the woods. On closer inspection, characters can see corpses hanging from the trees, or swarms of bats attacking the children. The description of a spare bedroom addresses all the plain,. dusty furnishings, then includes the following: a smiling doll in a yellow dress sits in a nook under a window, her face covered in cobwebs like a wedding veil.

The kids in need of rescue, who send the PCs into the adventure

Without spoiling too much, each the most innocuous rooms or objects in the manor can prove dangerous… especially when my younger son decided to investigate everything.

Me: “The door creaks on rusty hinges as it swings open to reveal a dusty closet. Some tattered rags and old bars of soap clutter the shelf, and a broom leans against the back wall behind strands of ancient spiderweb.”

Younger son: “I investigate the room!”

Older son: “What? Why? It’s just a closet.”

Me: “Haha, seriously? Ok. Well, as soon as you step into the closet, the broom flies into the air, thrashing about, trying to beat you back. It’s magically animated and exceedingly hostile to intruders. Roll for initiative.”

This is all straight from the book, which mentions the animated broom of attack that goes on the offensive if anyone comes within five feet. I thought, “Why would anyone step into a dusty closet of worthless belongings?” To investigate, of course! Silly me–you never know what players are going to do.

Since I only had two players, I made a couple NPCs, especially since my older son is practicing healing as a cleric. He got his chance when the younger son’s rogue took a broomstick to the noggin and got knocked out. (Lesson learned? Perhaps? We’ll see.)

I made a gnome tank for hilarity’s sake, and she took a little abuse. Then I tried the “haunted one” background to make a warlock, who proved to be a fun NPC I’ll use in future efforts. She repeats the last few words of every sentence, but in a whisper. I stole this strange and seemingly unconscious mannerism from a girl who lived in our neighborhood some years ago. “We should proceed with caution with caution… the spirits here seem restless and vengeful and vengeful…

The haunted one background led to a character who witnessed a monster slaughtering dozens of innocents around her, yet for some reason it looked right at her and spared her life before continuing its rampage. As a result, she’s disturbed and broken, but it drives her to assist anyone in need even if the situation is dangerous. Additionally, her faith in divine beings is shattered, but she also talks to spirits no one else can see. The background provides for a random trinket selected from a list of 50 options designed for a gothic style campaign or setting–for example a clock that runs backwards for one hour every midnight, a coat stolen from a dying soldier, or a handmirror with an image of a bronze medusa on the backing. The options are all splendid and offer interesting hooks for future stories.

I wanted to play the NPC more than I ended up doing, but acting as DM and trying to run two distinct characters was a bit much to keep up with… plus I don’t like the idea of the DM playing a character, as it often leads to a sense of stealing the spotlight from the players.

Nevertheless, we had an exciting time and a great warm-up for the new characters my children made. We explored about halfway through the adventure in the first 3-hour session, then finished it off in a second session of similar length. It could have gone another session had we been thorough in exploring every hall and room. I revealed only what the characters could see, using a makeshift map hastily drawn on loose paper. (“You see a hall to the left and stairs that lead down. The chanting is stronger downstairs.”)

That left several rooms in the basement untouched, preventing a number of possible encounters from taking place.

The adventure is designed for leveling up based on story progress instead of experience points. Once the players reached the way downstairs, they hit level 2, regardless of what they have or haven’t completed. After they leave the manor, no matter how they complete the scenario, they reach level 3 and stand ready to delve deeper into 5th Edition Ravenloft.

While prepping for this D&D group, I noted with some chagrin the massive amount of crap I bought for 4th Edition. The pre-made, published adventures all remain unused, several of them still wrapped in plastic. I feared I might also dislike the campaign components of the 5th Edition books… but Curse of Strahd has proved well worth the time and money spent.

D&D 5E: Character Creation

When the first version of D&D Next came out for playtesting, I wrote a post about my experience creating a character in the new system. That post gets more weekly views than any other in my blog. But I feel bad because it’s based on outdated materials.

So I am happy to write a proper post about the Player’s Handbook and creating a character in 5th Edition.

I finally got my Players’ Handbook (PHB) in the mail, and I dug into the book to see exactly what my dollars purchased.

It's here!
It’s here!

There’s plenty that looks familiar… but some changes I love. Bottom line up front? I got it for less than cover price on Amazon, and I have no regrets about the money I spent. But I’m not sure I’d throw $50 down and be as happy.

Chapter 1 covers the basic intro of “What is D&D?” and the process of creating a character. It lays out some key points: D&D consists of exxploration, social interaction, and combat. The game boils down to the DM giving the players a scene, the players describing their intended actions, and the DM describing what happens next.

Chapter 2 covers races. There are 9 races in the PHB – the 4 primary (dwarf, elf, halfling, human) and 5 uncommon (dragonborn, gnome, half-elf, half-orc, tiefling) – each with a little bit of sub-race variant or an option to guide that permits a little variation and character differentiation. For example, you’re an Elf? Are you a high elf (bonus INT, bonus cantrip), a wood elf (bonus WIS, better stealth), or dark elf (bonus CHA, bonus darkvision, racial spell, disadvantage in direct sunlight)? Each race has similar options.

Chapter 3 introduces classes. The PHB comes with 12 classes, so already it gives more bang for the (considerable) bucks than 4E did. The classes consist of: barbarian, bard, cleric, druid, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, warlock, and wizard.

Each class has a few subclass options to distinguish one version of the class from another. For example, you may have the nimble thief, the brutal assassin, or the arcane trickster, all falling under the rogue class.

Yes, that’s right, magical rogues.

My favorite section is Chapter 4, Personality and Background. It’s character concept Heaven, with an explanation of four characteristics to guide a player’s understanding of their character from a sheet of numbers to a living person. This chapter introduces traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, and that’s where I’ll focus the majority of this post.

Traits describe likes or dislikes, past accomplishments, fears, mannerisms, and the influence of ability scores. (Perhaps my dextrous rogue takes pride in his nimble fingers and specifically his ability to pull off sleight-of-hand without getting caught.)

Ideals are what drives your character. It’s the principle she’ll never go back on, the rule that guides his decisions, the goal that keeps her up at night. If you don’t have an idea off the top of your head, don’t worry; the PHB provides a bunch of examples to choose from later.

Bonds are those ties which connect your character to someone, something, or somewhere else. It’s the prior allegiance or baggage your character brings–whether that turns out to be a burden, a weakness exploited by a villain, or a source of inspiration that pushes your character to heroic deeds.

Finally, flaws are your character’s blind spots or weak points. What vice does this character secretly cling to? What drives them into fits of rage that might challenge their morals?

When I reviewed the Starter Set, this was a feature I loved about the pre-made character sheets. Seeing it fleshed out in the PHB makes me a happy player / DM.

And if a player gets stuck, the PHB includes backgrounds that might further embellish or expand a concept of a character. Each background gives some story details that can help out in a pinch in-game or can be used as hooks by the DM to motivate a character to action.

My first party had a player who was a “by-the-dice” guy; he rolled an appropriate die for what class, and what race he’d play. He rolled a set of stats and took them in order. When he got “paladin” he rolled a die based on the provided list of gods. He ended up with a Dwarf paladin who worshiped Nature. How’s that for a unique concept?

If you’re a by-the-dice player, the PHB hooks you up. Chapter 4 includes tables to cover each characteristic for a chracter’s background. You can choose an appropriate ideal, bond, or flaw… or let the dice create a concept for you.

My D&D Next character Lamoncha (from the post mentioned at the beginning) was designed to be an artisan who crafted intricate mechanical trinkets based on his time spent with the gnomes near his birthplace. Here’s an example of how he’d shake out with a random-rolled Guild Artisan background:

Guild Artisan:
Business trade: wagonmaker / wheelwright (1d20 – rolled 18)
Personality trait: “I’m well known for my work, and I want to make sure everyone appreciates it. I’m always taken aback when people haven’t heard of me.” (1d8 – rolled 8)
Ideal: “Community: It is the duty of all civilized people to strengthen the bods of community and the security of civilization. (Lawful)” (1d6 – rolled 1)
Bond: “I owe my guild a great debt for forging me into the person I am today.” (1d6 – rolled 3)
Flaw: “No one must ever learn that I once stole money from guild coffers.” (1d6 – rolled 3)

That’s something you can start a character with. He’s arrogant, but he’s noble. He’s driven by a sense of duty based on a debt owed, both figuratively (out of gratitude) and literally (due to his secret theft). And that’s just rolling dice without giving any thought.

It’s really that easy to come up with a character concept if you have no previous idea walking in.

Here’s an example from start-to-finish, rolling dice for every decision:

Race: 1d10 for 9 races, rolled 9 = Tiefling (one of the few classes without subracial options)
Class: 1d12, rolled 7 = Paladin. To add to my concept, I’ll roll now for the 2nd level choice of fighting style.
Fighting Style at 2nd level: 1d4, rolled 2 = Dueling (bonus for wielding only one melee one-hand weapon).
Ability Scores: 4d6 minus lowest, rolled 15 STR, 10 DEX, 11 CON, 14 INT, 10 WIS, 12 CHA (Not a perfect set for a pally, since CHA and CON should be up there right after STR, but it’ll do. So I have a smarter-than-average paladin who’s not as tough as others.)
Gender: 1d4 split evens/odds, rolled 1 = Male
Height: using provided base 4’9“ + modifer 2d8, rolled 9 = 5‘6“
Weight: using provided base 110 lb + height modifier of 9 x(2d4), rolled 6 = 164 lbs. (Does this matter? Not really. But a character can be completely random, and might end up shorter or taller, larger or smaller than average, and that might add something.)
Alignment: 1d10 for 9 possibilities, rolled 2 = Neutral Good “folk do the best they can to help others according to their needs.” (I lucked out, since a Chaotic Neutral paladin might be quite the contradiction.)
Deity: 1d8 for 7 Neutral Good deities, rolled 7 = Mystra, goddess of magic, with domain of Knowledge (using the Forgotten Realms list provided in the Appendices)
Background: 1d12 for 11 backgrounds, rolled 10 = Soldier (skill proficiency for Athletics and Intimidation, some equipment listed)
Specialty (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 4 = Cavalry
Feature (Soldier): Military Rank (with description of how that plays out in social interaction)
Personality Trait (Soldier): 1d8, rolled 8 = “I face problems head on. A simple, direct solution is the best path to success.”
Ideal (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 1 = Greater Good. “Our lot is to lay down our lives in defense of others.”
Bond (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 4 = “I’ll never forget the crushing defeat my company suffered or the enemies who dealt it.”
Flaw (Soldier): 1d6, rolled 6 = “I’d rather eat my armor than admit when I’m wrong.”
Starting wealth (Paladin, 5d4 x 10, rolled 11) = 110 gp

So now I’ve got a Tiefling Paladin who served as a cavalry soldier and suffered a terrible defeat. He’s not a sword-and-board “tank” but a powerful and skilled striker. He’s smarter than average, and his chosen deity is focused on knowledge, so that gives him perhaps a touch of the rational and logical beyond your average religious devotee motivated by faith. He’s straight-forward and direct, willing to sacrifice, seeking to help others… but (perhaps due in part to his above-average intelligence) he won’t admit when he’s wrong. And he has a history that drives him to do good, but might also be a tie to connect him to the story of the campaign, when the last survivors of his defeated company fall under the sway of the new dragon cult encroaching on the borders of civilization…
Yeah, that works as a concept, eh?

Chapter 5 covers equipment, and that looks pretty much like previous versions. One addition I like is the “trinket” table. It’s a d100 table of odds and ends that might be part of a character’s story, since each character gets to start with one. It can also be a DM tool to provide something more in a treasure hoard than just “X gold pieces and a +1 sword.” To me, it’s ripe with possible hooks.

The Soldier background states that the character already has “an insignia of rank, a trophy taken from a fallen enemy (a dagger, broken blade, or piece of a banner), a set of bone dice or deck of cards, a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp.” But everyone also gets a trinket!

Our tiefling paladin’s trinket, rolling 73, is “the shell of an egg painted with scenes of human misery in disturbing detail.”
I did not roll for the trinket prior to writing the bit above, but this fits perfectly as a token of the true nature of the dragon cult mentioned. Perhaps a former comrade brought this as evidence of what’s really going on, before she suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.

Finally, Chapter 6 is the “optional” chapter, covering multi-class rules and feats. These can be ignored at DM and group discretion, which is great for newbie players who don’t need to be overwhelmed with more options on top of everything thus far. Looking over the multi-class rules, it seems to make more sense than 4E ever did. I can easily picture my fantasy story’s main character as a cleric/warlock multi-class character. The rules make it easy to see how that might play out, covering possible rule conflicts and how different class features interact with one another. Minimum ability prerequisites are established to keep my kids’ favorite NPC, the dumb-as-dirt “HorcSorc” half-orc Sorcerer from going Wizard, and so on.

For feats, there’s enough to give you something useful, but no pages and pages of options like 4E.

There’s a decent section to cover how the game actually plays, with Chapter 7: Using Ability Scores, Chapter 8: Adventuring, and Chapter 9: Combat. These all look pretty familiar compared to 4E. I’ve noted elsewhere that advantage and disadvantage seem (to me) to be the biggest change. Instead of a million bonuses, if you have a lot of things in your favor, you roll 2d20s and take the higher as your attempt. If you have things working against you, you take the lower of 2d20. It seems elegant and simple, but I still have yet to see it in play to know how well it works.

The last part of the book covers spells, and there are plenty: 3.5 pages of 4 columns per page listing all the spells, since 8 classes use magic. So there are heaps of magic to start with. Spells fill a quarter of the book, from pg 211-289 out of 320 pages. Naturally, pally and ranger are shortest lists, and wizard goes on forever. But the point is, magic is robust in 5E.

And I don’t just mean in the spellcasting mechanics.

I’m quite pleased. The character sheets may be flat but that doesn’t mean the characters have to be. With a little creative thought or even just a few dice rolls, your character can go from zero to 3D with ease.

Thanks for reading! Have you checked out the PHB or playtested 5th Edition? What are your thoughts on it?

Is there something I didn’t answer? Ask a question in the comments, and I’ll look into it.

Forced Extended Rest

I saw this on the shelves of our local bookstore yesterday.

Urge to spend... rising... RISING...
Urge to spend… rising… RISING…

My PHB and copy of Hoard are in the mail, ordered from Amazon a couple days ago. It has to make the long trip across the Pacific to reach my mailbox, which usually takes about a week.

In addition to the two new books, I’ve ordered the set of minis that go along with the Starter Set. Hopefully, once all has arrived, I can sit down on a Saturday with my in-home natural D&D party (my wife and three kids old enough to understand the rules) to get a feel for 5E.

So for now, I impatiently wait.

Starting an Adventure

After reading through the Rulebook and looking over the pre-made character sheets, I dug into the adventure booklet provided with the new D&D Starter Set.

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Some background info:

I recently moved overseas for my job in the military, and all my household goods are ready to be delivered to my house. I have a trunk full of all my RPG materials, including several piles of miniatures I used for 4E campaigns.

I feel like I could reach into that trunk (once it arrives) and dump the minis out on the table, because this adventure has a little bit of everything.

It’s really not that bad. There are 27 entries in the “Monsters” Appendix, and at least one of them is a guy who’s supposed to be on your side. (If you end up fighting the NPC you were sent to rescue, then something has gone horribly wrong with your players’ decision-making processes.)

I did glance through descriptions of some of the different caverns and off-shoot rooms in the major adventure areas, and I found it odd to discover that one room would have some zombies, the next a flameskull, the next ochre jellies, and then a doppelganger running around causing mayhem.

I get it. They’re sprinkling a little of everything in, because maybe that gets them a repeat customer, and maybe that tells the DM what the players at a specific table are most interested in. Still, it feels like a jumble of monsters conveniently sharing the same cave complex for no other reason than “Hey, we could toss in some of these…”

That’s the overall impression I came away with. But there were some specifics that caught my eye and made me smile.

First, the intro explains a bit about taking on the mantle of DM. Some key phrases I’m glad to see: “The rules are a tool to help you have a good time. The rules aren’t in charge.”

Suck it, rules lawyers.

In fact, here’s a pic of “Rules to Game By” from page 2:

20140804-165500-60900287.jpg

The adventure starts with the PCs escorting a wagon of supplies to the central town. They come upon a goblin ambush to start out with an easy combat. The last goblin attempts to flee, and the previous victims are NPCs the characters are supposed to have a connection to. So this discovery and event inevitably leads down a trail to a goblin cave hideout.

I said in a post about combat that there is no mention of squares or emphasis on miniatures and tile/grid maps. The adventure leaves the option open by providing a grid map of the hideout, while making no effort to mandate a certain style of combat or play. The map is clearly provided to give the DM an idea of where things are. If it gets blown up and printed out, or doodled onto a grid map, great. If not, that’s fine too.

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Each room is described in plenty of detail and offers interesting options other than “this room contains five bags of hit-points you can beat down for XP.” The writers assume you might be a new DM, so they provide useful tidbits and reminders along the way, such as “Check to see if any of the characters or monsters are surprised when combat starts. Do this by looking at passive perception…” with an explanation of how the rules work, or at least a reference to the applicable rulebook section.

Part 1 is intended to get the players past level 2, and there is a helpful reminder just in case.

Part 2 puts the heroes into the central town, with a host of NPCs and potential side quests as they try to learn more about the Big Bad Evil Guy. There’s a handy explanation for new DMs about role-playing NPCs (don’t try to wow your players with your acting skills, do try to get into the head of the particular NPC and think about what that person might care about, etc.).

Potential threats and locations of interest are all thoroughly explained. Part 2 should get the players to level 3.

Part 3 involves a variety of leads and inquiries to learn more about the main villain and his plan. There’s a handy explanation for rules using the overland map provided earlier in the book, along with suggested description to make the journey interesting. This section also includes everyone’s favorite, the Random Encounter Table!

There are a few locations described for the purpose of roleplaying social interaction (or as much social interaction as you get from trying to get answers from a banshee). While these can conceivably degenerate into fight scenes, the idea is for this to be more talking than punching. Again, this serves the purpose of introducing concepts, like “Perhaps the Mage with the zombies would be willing to strike a deal” instead of “Kill every living thing we encounter.”

The leads eventually bring the heroes to Cragmaw Castle, which (once explored, and once its inhabitants are defeated) will point them to the location of the Big Bad’s lair. Again, this all captures the idea of a sandbox. There are several locations available and several branching decision paths open to the players. Some areas may not be visited because they’re not necessary.

All this kind of goes without saying, because of course that’s what D&D is about. But my point for including it is to show that the writers took the time to ensure there is a robust set of options available for new players and/or DMs.

By the time the Big Bad is defeated, the players should be level 5. All the levelling information and perks are already printed out on the back of the pre-made sheets, so there’s no painful delay while everyone figures out their options and upgrades their sheet.

Besides the Monsters appendix, there is also an appendix for all the magic items the players might potentially encounter.
Finally, the back cover of the Adventure provides a Rules Index, pointing to appropriate pages in the Rulebook. Perfect for the new DM who is put on the spot to answer a player’s question, “How does it work if I want to try to Persuade?” or “What does it mean if the Ogre smashed me in the face and dropped me to 0 hit points?”

All in all, this looks pretty slick and well-prepared for a group of 4-5 players. I’m excited about the Starter, for the low cost I paid for it.

I’m not sure this gets me signed up for a $50 price tag for each of the core books once those come out later this year. When I get home and have time to give this a shot with my wife and kids, that answer will become more clear.

But for now, the set accomplishes its stated purpose. It gets me eager to gather a group, set the stage, and roll some dice. I want to get started playing some D&D (again).

I hope this post and the others help if you’re on the fence about looking at a new edition. If you get the starter, what’s your take on it? If you’re not getting the starter, do you like what you saw here? Let me know your thoughts in a comment.

The Pre-Made Starter Party

I have a post scheduled with more thoughts on the D&D 5th Edition (nowhere in the materials is it called that) Starter Set Rulebook. But yesterday as I glanced over the pre-made party character sheets, I wanted to add a post about them.

Again, keeping in mind that this is an “everything you need to start playing” set, I love what they’ve done here.

All the stats and numbers are already assigned and printed out, so there’s no hour(s) of filling in the details prior to playing. That’s to be expected from a pre-made party.

The provided characters cover the traditional races and classes well: dwarf cleric, halfling rogue, elf wizard, and two versions of the human fighter, one as a commoner setting out to become a hero, the other as a noble setting out to be a good leader of the local people.

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What catches my eye is the effort Wizards has put into giving new players a concept to role-play. Again, I’d expect they probably have done similar things for previous starters and pre-mades… but here are a few examples of what I found awesome.

Each character sheet has a few boxes on the right side for personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws.

The elf wizard personality trait box states: “I use polysyllabic words that convey the impression of erudition.” Compare that with the folk hero human fighter, whose traits box states: “Also, I use long words in an attempt to sound smarter.” Even the trait descriptions convey a sense of the character.

The human noble, who I shall call Rarity for no reason in particular, has this personality: “My flattery makes those I talk to feel wonderful and important. Also, I don’t like to get dirty, and I won’t be caught dead in unsuitable accommodations.” Again, you can almost see the self-important deceived state of this character right off that first line. It definitely gives a player an idea on how to act out that character.

The “bonds” box gives the player and DM a sense of what is precious to the character. This gives the DM a button to push in the story, and gives the player an idea how to respond if that precious thing is threatened. For the elf wizard, the tome that character carries contains the sum of his or her collected knowledge, and “no vault is secure enough to keep it safe.” The rogue, on the other hand, has an aunt with a farm, to whom he or she has always provided support.

Flaws give an added dimension to each of these “generic” heroes. The noble has “a hard time resisting the allure of wealth, especially gold. Wealth can help me restore my legacy.” The rogue’s “aunt must never know the deeds I did…” And the cleric secretly wonders “whether the gods care about mortal affairs at all.”

The box below these is for “Features and Traits” and fills in some important tidbits that look much like Feats might have been in 4E. One fighter has a more defensive style. The other is actually stronger as an archer. This is also the box where racial traits like Darkvision is listed for the elf and dwarf.
Each character also gets a bit of flavor in this box. Based on their background, they enjoy some perk, whether it be a connection to an organization, a rank or status enjoyed among a certain sphere of influence, or the trust of certain groups of people as shown by support that doesn’t endanger their lives (i.e. hiding you and your friends for a time, giving information or healing).

As a starter party, this group works well. For a set of players first trying out D&D, the materials work great. I think the biggest issue might be figuring out who gets to play which character in the party.

Back to the regularly scheduled posts tomorrow morning.

How to Play and Combat

I started digging into my delicious Starter Set this morning.

This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!
This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!

I’m reading through and noting what sticks out to me based on my 4th edition experiences. When I notice what seems like a change, someone may say, “Well in 4th edition DMG page 125 the same sort of rule is clearly written there.” If that’s the case, great, chalk it up to inattention to detail. But this is just my first-read experience and captures what catches my eye.

Chapter 1: How to Play gives you the standard explanation of “What is D&D?” It covers the basics about checks, and how abilities, skills, proficiencies, and saving throws all come into play when rolling dice to determine an outcome.

The skills seemed like a decent set. Nothing seemed missing. Some (Bluff, Diplomacy) are refined and given names and examples with wider applications (Deception, Persuasion). I like Investigation as a concept – putting together the pieces and clues, gathering intel of a sort. It seemed like that always fell under Perception in 4th ed, which is kind of dumb. Perception sees things that might be otherwise easy to miss. Investigation sees things and figures out the details that others might miss. To use examples from the book, Perception sees the orcs hiding in ambush along the road. Investigation sees the wounds dealt to the ambush victims and figures out it was probably a band of orcs.

Animal Handling always makes me chuckle. It has uses, I’m sure, but I can’t stop picturing a pink-haired Druid character named Fluttershy.

One interesting change for 5th edition is the Advantage / Disadvantage system. In either case, you roll two d20s when you make a check. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two. If you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I’m curious how this will play out in a group. Maybe it does away with some of the “+5 for this, -3 for that, but I have combat advantage so +2, and this is my quarry so I have that one feat that gives me another +2…”

I have advantage. I roll two dice and take the better number. Simple. Done.

I can see some potential flaws, though. For example if you’re fighting some monsters in darkness, does it turn into a bunch of flailing around? I imagine everyone would get a lot of low rolls. Then again, if everyone shares the same disadvantage, maybe it’s prudent to eliminate that from the equation and only take other disadvantages into account. I didn’t see that stated explicitly, so I imagine that might be my first house rule to reduce rolling and wasted time.

Filed this under “We’ll see…”

Moving on.

Chapter 2: Combat contains one noteworthy difference from 4E: language involving maps and squares doesn’t appear in the rulebook. Maybe that’s an “advanced” option they’ll incorporate later (because I’m sure Wizards of the Coast wants to sell us some map packs and such), or maybe they know that describing everything in # feet gives the DM and players enough to effectively utilize maps.

But this does inherently free up groups to use things like simple description or generic drawings on whiteboards or paper to run combat without counting out squares or laying down rulers for line of sight determinations.

Could you do that in 4E? Sure, but it seemed pretty obvious that wasn’t what they were pushing for. Now tiles, maps, and minis are an available option instead of the default.

First off, the Combat chapter lists available actions you can take on your turn. Everyone can take a move and an action. I’m liking some of the updated choices: You can take a Disengage action to avoid provoking opportunity attacks when you move; you can take a Dodge action to give attackers a disadvantage against you (as well as permit Dex saving throws with advantage); you can Help another creature in completing a task, meaning you give them an advantage to do the stated thing so long as they attempt it before the start of your next turn.

Opportunity attacks count as a “reaction” – and you only get one reaction per turn. So there’s no more taking five opportunity attacks in a turn as I’ve seen sometimes argued in 4th edition.

Also, everybody gets critical hits on a roll of 20, and everyone misses on a 1. Sauce for the goose (player characters) is sauce for the gander (monsters). And crits look decidedly deadly… deadlier I suppose is the correct term.

Instead of max damage for the base attack, you roll any damage die twice and add it all together. So a rogue with Sneak Attack rolls those dice twice too.

A glance at the character sheet for the pre-made rogue tells me at level 5, they roll 3d6 for Sneak Attack. Let’s assume 1d4 for a dagger, 3d6 for a sneak attack. A successful crit sneak attack nets you 2d4 plus a whopping 6d6 damage just from dice rolls with no other modifiers? Egad.

Rogue carves the Kobold for infinity damage, exploding it like a blood sausage.

At least a fighter gets a crit on 19 or 20. But yeah… Sneak Attack crits look sick and dare I say it, broken. Another thing I look forward to seeing fleshed out when I get to play this with a group…

Next post – Chapter 3: Adventuring and Chapter 4: Spellcasting

D&D Next: Skills

“I’m going to need to have you start rolling dice on camera…”  – My online DM (who clearly has trust issues)

A few weeks ago, my friend and I started playtesting D&D Next in order to set up an online group that he could turn into a podcast.

The first session involved character creation, a couple combat challenges, and a couple skill challenges. I posted two blogs about the experiences (and one on my writing blog, concerning character backstory). Since those first posts, we played through another session, with mostly RP and a skill challenge.

First, I haven’t seen D&D Next refer to anything like skill challenges. There isn’t even a list of skills on the character sheet, so “skill challenge” is a misnomer in the first place.

Next – in my limited experience – appears to move away from non-combat encounters. But there are still ways to create them if desired, for situations where one simple roll of the die does not capture the complication or multifaceted nature of solving a crisis, or the length of time it might take to get through an ongoing series of events requiring the hero’s intervention.

The DM Guidelines draft does break down common tasks under the applicable ability, with basic descriptions and appropriate DCs to accomplish the desired task. For example, Strength has entries for Break an Object, Climb, Jump, Swim, and examples of Improvised Tasks.

The entries under Climb are “scale a cliff with plenty of handholds,” “climb a rough stone wall,” “climb a sheer surface with scant handholds,” and “climb an oiled rope.” Improvised Tasks include “push through an earthen tunnel that is too small,” “hang onto a wagon while being dragged behind it,” “tip over a large stone statue.” and “keep a boulder from rolling.”

Each ability has an Improvised Tasks section, as well as how hazards might affect failed checks and what sort of requirements the DM might choose in order to even attempt an ability check. (Strength might require firm footing, for example.)

None of this feels like a complete rewrite of 4E. The descriptions look very familiar. However, skills are absent as the middleman between how well your ability helps you succeed (or not) at a given task.

How did this play out?

In our sessions, when I normally might ask for a “Sense Motive” or “Insight” check, the DM simply said “Give me a Wisdom check.” If something involved sneaking around or crafting highly technical gear-work devices, we went to Dexterity. (My character’s background includes training under gnomes to craft intricate mechanical crap.)  The old terms and names of skills are a helpful jargon for players to express what exactly they’re trying to do, and for DMs to determine which ability to use.

It was a bit frustrating to see what happened when I didn’t have a bonus for a given check. At one point I rolled a 14, which was under the moderate DC 15 challenge. That implies that 75% of the time, the character would fail at any task related to that ability. The DM and I chatted about how skill checks are meant to be difficult, and no one is supposed to win all the time or else what’s the point? Also, I recognized that a party of one is going to bring inherent weaknesses.

Plus there was the quote at the top of the page, for when I rolled a 20 followed by a 19 at the beginning of the night, for checks with no inherent character bonuses. So it’s not impossible to “win.”

In order to succeed as a party, the group of players might want to take some time prior to character creation to figure out which character will have which strengths. Then again, that can create unique challenges and opportunities for creative solutions to problems.

But perhaps it takes away some of the skill tunnel vision players get in 4E:

“I want to use Diplomacy to negotiate the harsh terrain and survive the bitter winter in the mountains.”
“You can’t use Diplomacy that way.”
“Uh… how about History? Or can I get an Insight check on the storm?”

taken from 2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com
No? Well then Dungeoneering HAS to work…

Lore Have Mercy

Though skills are gone, characters now have Lore to cover areas of specialized knowledge. Any Intelligence check for an area in which the character possesses lore will net a +10 bonus. The types of Lore are broken into:

  • Cultural
  • Forbidden
  • Hobbyist
  • Magical
  • Military
  • Natural
  • Planar
  • Political
  • Religious
  • Trade

I won’t go into exactly what’s covered by each, for space and time considerations. The guidelines describe specific examples, like Military might cover fortifications or tactics, and Natural might involve the flora and fauna of a region or the usual weather cycles in an area. But you can imagine the +10 bonus makes it a player’s priority to figure out how to fit the square peg of their available lore into the circular hole of a given challenge.

How this played out:

When a situation called for making a decision or choosing a course of action, I often sought to use Lore to aid me in picking a right path. For example, my character found himself pressed for time and in need of supplies and assistance in order to (hopefully) construct a number of devices for a buyer. I was able to use Trade Lore while looking through merchant’s wares in the market to find what my character deemed a competent craftsman. And I used Cultural Lore to get a good idea on how auctions of large shipment of goods were conducted, so that I could avoid a time-consuming and more expensive process. My character was able to skip some layers of market bureaucracy and go straight to the source of supplies to haggle.

Still, the uses for lore appear fairly narrow. Hopefully that plus the shift away from lengthy skill challenges will keep lore from falling into the tunnel vision trap of highly trained skills. Clear communication between player(s) and DM will help.

I see some interesting qualities to the system, and I did find myself having to rely more on imagination to describe intended action instead of the crutch of “I do a (fill in the blank skill) check.”

I look forward to seeing more of it. Sadly, my character was in a bit of a pickle at the end of the last session. That will be my next post, but as a spoiler, here’s this quote from my DM:

“Oh man. Well… that will be interesting.” (sigh) “I made it clear – so very clear – that this was a lawful city.”

Set Some Goals

Tabletop Tuesday

A lot of the Air Force courses I’ve attended include lessons about the importance of setting goals in order to succeed.

Today, we’ll talk about setting goals in your tabletop game. But we’re not talking about incorporating player goals into your campaign (that will probably be another post). We’re talking about giving goals to your monsters!

Everyone needs a goal in life, even your fangorious gelatinous monster. (Okay, maybe not everyone.)

In a tabletop game, your players’ characters are probably going to spend a lot of time fighting against a host of sentient creatures. They may be not be the brightest creatures, they may be evil through and through, they may be tools of some higher villain. But they will have objectives and goals they are trying to achieve.

Make your combat about those goals instead of about the monsters themselves.

Let’s face it, the “kill everything burn everything and die trying” monster makes very little sense. Villains have their own interests, their own purposes. Usually, they have some decent or even good motive that has been twisted around or blown out of proportion into a terrible evil.

“Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet… and it’s remarkable how like an egg is the human skull.”

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This guy is going to have a different set of goals and plans than these two.
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Your villains’ minions need not line up like a Revolutionary War battle and march to their deaths in the hopes of defeating the heroes. Setting up a fight with no goal means setting up a long, drawn-out slugfest where the two sides try to bring their enemies to zero hit points. Yawn.

Give the monster team a reason to fight. You can speed up combat and you can make the combat matter to the story. Double win!

Perhaps they simply have to delay the heroes from an objective. They can capture or kill particular innocents or valuable NPCs. They can hold a position or activate some magic artifact or complete a ritual. They can make off with a critical object, or damage a strategic location.

“Good job, heroes… you slew fifty goblins but failed to stop the saboteur who destroyed the bridge. Now our army is stuck on this side of the river while the city is under attack.”

When you do this, mindless evil can have a place in such a setting. It stands out precisely because it has no plan, no motive, no ‘higher’ purpose than carnage and destruction. It can be the enemy that simply has to be brought to zero health, something that has to be put down. And then that combat goal tells a story different from all the others, instead of every combat feeling exactly the same.

So, what does the big bad evil guy (or girl, or gelatinous monster) want? Give your villains some goals. Your heroes will thank you for it.

Take Some Initiative

Tabletop Tuesday

One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”

For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.

Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).

But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.

This can’t get confusing at all.

“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”

“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”

“Look at the map.”

“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”

“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”

“Huh what?”

“You’re up.”

“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”

How do you solve this?

Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.

Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)

But the rest of us don’t. So what next?

1. Try a timer.

Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.

I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.

2. Try default actions.

One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.

Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.

The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and  on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.

3. Training practice.

Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.

Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.

4. Visual aids.

You know you want one
No excuses. You’re up next, and you can see it plain as day.

Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.

Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.

The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.

Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.

6. Give monsters short-term goals.

Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.

7. Cut some useless rolling.

If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.

So there you have it.

Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.

For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?