Friday, January 20, 2017

Racial Traits: Half Elves

Like elves but uglier!
I know what you're thinking. This isn't just a combination of the human and elf racial trait lists. Well, not entirely.

According to the PHB, Half-Elves live either in elven enclaves, human cities, or neither. So it stands to reason that some half-elves would grow up with the aspects of those around them. But there are also some new traits on here, which represent the diplomacy and in-betweenness of the race.

For extra fun, pick an elf trait and a human trait and be the actual diplomatic bridge between your party members!

Half-Elf Traits

Like humans but prettier!
d8 Personality Trait
1. I can find a friend in every city I visit.
2. My desire to understand the world eclipses my baser instincts.
3. I can sleep anywhere, from marshes to mountains.
4. I'll jump on any opportunity that benefits me. You never know when it might come up again!
5. I've collected hundreds of stories and songs over my lifetime, and I always have one that applies to a situation.
6. I'd rather fall back and fight another day than make a costly mistake.
7. I'm privy to many diplomatic and political secrets, which I sometimes use to get out of trouble.
8. I'm always aware of the political dynamic of a situation.

d6 Ideal
1. Acceptance. The world is vast, and there is room for all types and peoples within it. (Good)
2. Diplomacy. Through the exchange of ideas, all obstacles can be overcome. (Good)
3. Innovation. I want to make something that has never been made, live a life that nobody else has, and do things that have never been done. (Chaotic)
4. Discovery. The world is vast and fascinating, and I want to see every twig and leaf. (Chaotic)
5. Freedom. The opportunity to express oneself without limitation is always a worthy goal. (Chaotic)
6. Solitude. It is important to spend time in quiet contemplation to consider a life well spent. (Any)

d6 Bond
1. My freedom is the most important treasure I've earned.
2. I have a big dream and it's going to take more than just me to do it. I am always looking for followers or recruits.
3. I will stand alongside any who fight the oppression of their people.
4. I fight for a cause that is greater than any mortal. I'd gladly lay down my life to support it.
5. I've become part of an enclave of half-elves that I would never turn my back on.
6. I favor one side of my ancestry over the other, and I strive to be more like and accepted by that race.

d6 Flaw
1. I often make the same mistake more than once because I hate dwelling on my errors.
2. I believe I can talk my way out of anything, even if an ogre was barreling towards me.
3. I jump from cause to cause like a butterfly on the wind. I'm not really sure what I believe.
4. I can't hear an opinion I disagree with without launching into a verbal repartee.
5. I hate when people impose the slightest restriction on me, and often go out of my way to disobey it.
6. I am overly quick to empathize with others, even those who are outcasts or villains.

Sometimes you try really hard to make something nice
and then you get a guy who can only grow awkward stubble
If you would like to read more about why I am writing these, or how I use them in my games, please check out my first post on Dwarves.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Gold Problem: Magic Item Shops in 5th Edition D&D

So what's the problem?
I wanted to take some time today and talk about magic items and gold in 5th Edition. I run a high-magic homebrewed world, where you're likely to see imps and levitating chariots strolling down the street, where there is an entire city built around magic schools, and the Mage's Guild stretches across the country.

In a setting like this, Players need to be able to buy magic items. You can't have everybody and their brother using sending stones and not offer them to the PCs. But I think this applies to other campaign worlds as well, for one big reason: gold.

Gold presents a weird problem in the D&D world. It seems self-evident that players expect to receive it. Nearly every monster has some sort of treasure or reward. And yet, what can the players spend their riches on? Living expenses and adventuring gear are laughably cheap. Even hirelings are insanely inexpensive in D&D. At 2 GP / day, a well-rewarded party could afford to bring a small militia with them into every dungeon.

So how can we make gold matter? My solution is to make sure the players know exactly what they can buy with their gold, and the benefits of that purchase. In particular, I use big ticket items to force the players to make a choice: do I restock my health potions, or do I keep saving up to buy my own +2 longsword? Can I donate that much to charity while I am looking at purchasing a castle?
You want to buy my enchanted stuffed bunny rabbit? It's a good deal...
This is going to be a two-part post (if you can't already tell, I love taking time to focus on certain parts of a larger idea), and today we'll be looking at Magic Item shops.

Establishing Magic Item Trade

Now, in a world where people can freely buy magic items, you'd think every bandit and thug would have a +1 dagger and a Cap of Water Breathing, right? I disagree.

Again, look at the cost of living per day (PHB pg. 157). Remember, that is also per person. That means each week a smith that makes and sells a set of scale mail (50GP), he is likely paying for the living expenses of his family, his apprentices, and covering the cost of running his shop (DMG pg. 127). For a week's worth of expenses, with a family of four and an apprentice, making the scale mail costs 49GP. I think you can see where I'm going with this.

The fact is, most people in the D&D economy deal in copper and silver, not gold. They don't have the money to afford magic items, except for perhaps a family heirloom scrupulously saved for or donated by a kind-hearted adventurer years ago. And that means most bandits won't have much to steal from their victims.

So then where do we find the pockets of high-rolling economy that can garner the cash to trade in magic items?
If you use magic items, you are the 1%
The answer, of course, is wizards. People who make magic items probably don't need such a large influx in capital to complete their process. People in guilds, nobility, rich merchants in cities, dragons, etc, all would have frequent enough customers (adventurers) that stocking magic items could be necessary. So it's not that magic items should be restricted by area, but rather by economy.

Now, this doesn't mean that a bandit captain couldn't have a +1 weapon or a ring of protection. But make sure you consider that it would be the result of years of banditry, hoarding gold away from the other members of his crew, and potentially making him a target for other bandits.

Setting Up Shop

Now, for pricing the items, I use Saidoro's excellent guide to Sane Magic Item Prices. This is more a post about the shops that sell the items, not what items cost, so please check out his link even if you decide to not use the method I've created here.

Next, we need to look at what sort of magic items players should have access to. I went with the Tiers of Play (DMG pg. 37) to determine this. Essentially, here's how it breaks down:
  • Level 1-4: Common Magic Items, few Uncommon Items
  • Level 5-10: Uncommon Magic Items, few Rare Items
  • Level 11-16: Rare Magic Items, few Very Rare Items
  • Level 17-20: Very Rare Magic Items, few Legendary Items
This helps us break things down nicely. We can also look at breaking down the various shops we want to create:
  • Shops based on Item type: Consumables, Combat Items, Noncombat Items, Summoning Items, Cursed Items, etc.
  • Shops based on Item rarity: common, uncommon, rare, very rare, and legendary
Could you make an entire shop of cursed items? Sure.
Would your players kill you in your sleep? Probably.
So, using that as a guide, here is how I break down my shops in a high-magic world:
  1. Common Magic Item shops: found in small towns and big cities. Usually serves as a general supply store with a few healing potions and scrolls they picked up from travelers. About 1 shop per 50 square miles, so at normal travel pace the PCs can expect to find one within a small town every 4-5 days of travel.
  2. Uncommon Magic Item Shops: found in big cities. These shops are owned by amateur wizards, strange item collectors, and rich merchants. They often specialize in selling items to adventurers, so they aren't terribly difficult to find. A PC could expect to find 1 shop per 500,000 people in a large, populated area.
  3. Rare Magic Item Shops: found in highly magical places. These shops are usually for established magic-users and scholars only, often they are cloistered or off-limits to the public. Sometimes they are used to house dangerous items for safekeeping, but threats to the realm may convince them to open their doors. Because of their secretive nature, a PC may have to spend time searching to even learn of their existence, but they might be able to find about 1 shop per major country or government.
  4. Very Rare Magic Item Shops: This is the stuff of legends. There may be one node of magical power on the entire planet, where scholarly monks and ancient wizards make pilgrimages to in order to unlock dark secret magics. This collection of magic would be located at that point. Like the Library of Alexandria, most people would have heard of such a place, but the journey to get there, the danger of the magic contained within, and the protections afforded such power all make this the purvey of only the planet's greatest heroes. A PC could easily find legends of this location, but there would only be one in the world.
  5. Legendary Magic Item Shops: Mammon's treasure keep. The troves of the Gold Dragons of Mount Celestia. These type of shops exist in very few places across the entire multiverse. Even then, those who guard them are so powerful (or so greedy) that even glimpsing such a location is tantamount to impossible. If the PCs wish to buy and sell legendary magic items, this is the only way to do so.
Now, for each level of shop, I usually divide the shops between the different treasure types. All common magic items are consumables, but I like the idea that a fighter's guild might sell uncommon combat magic items, or an conjurer's store might only deal in summoning items.

Another thing I always always include is big-ticket items. These can be limited in stock, but I could absolutely imagine a Fighter's Guild champion who is willing to part with his Weapon of Warning for 60kGP. Maybe the characters will pool their money, save up, and buy it at level 7. That's a good thing! It means gold mattered to your party in a tangible way: the group's fighter now has a cool weapon that directly benefits combat.

Also, never pass up an opportunity to use the property tables listed in the DMG (pg. 142-143). Making each item unique, with a minor trait, a description of history, or a quirk brings the item to life and helps define the character who uses it.

For Less Magical Worlds
Sometimes magic is just crazy people who believe in things really hard
Now, not every campaign should be as high-magic as this one. But even without these shops, players still need an imperative to spend their gold. I'd recommend one of two solutions:
  1. Scale down. Perhaps common magic shops are only found in big cities, and uncommon magic shops are the secret vaults of wizards. Maybe anything higher than a rare item can only ever be granted by gods or found in the deepest reaches of the multiverse.
  2. Make non-magic purchases more expensive and more appealing.
Next week, I'll be looking into non-magic options to incentivize your players to save their gold rather than spending it or hoarding it. And it's not just buying a castle for their own personal use. But that is definitely an option.

Thanks for Reading!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday Recap: The Rave Cave

It's a Great Club!
This was our third session of Storm King's Thunder! This intro adventure is really going by quickly, and the players are feeling much more comfortable with their characters. I hope the sense of achievement can hold up once they aren't leveling every session.

Storm King's Thunder: The Rave Cave

Cast of Characters
Jon: Dungeon Master
Megan: Cecelia Sondheim, human bard, a Harper hoping for a bright future!
Cody: Rolen Dundragon, half-elf Warlock of the Archfey, a scoundrel with a heart of gold
Cait:Mialee Galanodel, elf ranger, from a distant land and doesn't have personal space boundaries

When we last left our heroes, they had just defended the village of Nightstone from some Orcs with the help of daring elf hero Rond Arrowhome. Now, all that was left was to rescue the actual villagers themselves, who had apparently been holed up in the Dripping Caves for several days. The players decided to rest up and move towards the caves under cover of night.

Little did they know the horrors awaiting them
Leaving their new pet Tressym, Rillex, with a few guards in Nightstone keep, they made their way to the cave. It was fairly obvious where the villagers went into the cave system, but Mialee quickly discovered that the goblins they had fought in Nightstone had also come from this cave.

Not wanting to rush directly into a goblin-filled cave, the heroes searched around the small hill for alternative entrances. The guards from Nightstone had told them there were a few different ways to get into the cave, and they discovered a small crevice which seemed to lead down into the earth.

Tying a rope around a nearby tree, they descended into the Dripping Caves. Rolen, with his skinny arms, used a thorn whip to hang on to the rope and not fall. Cecelia went down first, and as she neared the bottom of the rope she heard a strange noise: a kind of shuffling and tapping of footsteps, and a little melody being sung by a high-pitched, rough voice.

Cecelia sang the melody back, and the noise stopped. As the group lowered themselves down from the rope, they heard the small voice ask them if they wanted to hear a joke.

They agreed, and the voice told them a joke. "Why do elves have long ears? ... Because otherwise they'd have no point!" The heroes, even Mialee, got a kick out of that one. With the group laughing, the source of the voice leapt out from behind a stone wall.
Even Goblins need someone to make fun of
It was a little goblin, dressed in a jester's outfit. She was holding a scepter with a little wooden goblin head on it, whose mouth open and closed when she shook the scepter. She introduced herself as Snigbat, and her wooden goblin head as Batsnig.

Together, Snigbat and Batsnig told a bunch of jokes, which were met with mixed reception. Cecelia loved them, Mialee didn't get half of them, and Rolen pretended to laugh while trying to figure out if they needed to kill this little creature.

Eventually they asked Snigbat what she wanted. Snigbat explained that she was no goblin, but actually a Nilbog! Because Goblin Boss Hark was such a jerk, sticking Snigbat in the dumb position of "chimney guard", she had become possessed by a nameless spirit and turned into a Nilbog.

Snigbat said that all she wanted was to turn the entire cave of goblins into Nilbogs. However, she couldn't do that as long as the goblins obeyed Boss Hark, who she described as a huge stick in the mud. Also, Boss Hark had tricked some ogres into his service, and since they couldn't be nilbogs they would have to go. If the heroes were willing to help Snigbat take care of the ogres and Boss Hark, the entire cave would turn into jovial little Nilbogs and the villagers (who also couldn't become nilbogs) would be free to go.
She just wants to DANCE
If you haven't picked up Volo's Guide to Monsters, this creature is from Volo's pg. 182. In the actual text of the Storm King's Thunder module, Snigbat is just a down-on-her luck goblin who despises her position and wants the heroes' help. According to Volo's, "there is a chance that a goblin will become possessed by a nilbog, particularly if the goblin has been mistreated by its betters." This seemed like the perfect chance to use a fun monster from an alternate sourcebook, and I think it turned out really well, as you will see!

The heroes decided to take care of the ogres first, rather than risk fighting ogres and goblins at the same time. After using dancing lights and Snigbat's help to lure one of the ogres over to a small crevice where it wouldn't be able to fight well, Cecelia cast silence to make sure their combat wouldn't be detected by the other denizens of the cave.

The ogre was very confused by his inability to roar, and had a hard time fighting in the tiny corridor. The heroes kept their distance and peppered him with arrows, crossbow bolts, and eldritch blasts. Just as he fell, however, a second ogre came running. She roared in silent rage at the death of her companion, and attacked the group.

Cecelia took a massive hit from the ogre's greatclub, and the silence bubble popped, just in time for the ogre to roar out in anger and sadness. The heroes quickly dispatched the monster, but they could hear Snigbat out in the main cavern trying to convince her fellow goblins not to go check out the noise.
Big, dumb, and ugly: the perfect guilt-free D&D monster
Rolen and Cecelia decided to try to imitate ogre sounds to make it sound like the two creatures were off having an intimate moment, instead of fighting. They did surprisingly good imitations, so much that even Snigbat was surprised at their performing prowess.

With the goblins calmed and the ogres dispatched, all that was left was to find the Goblin Boss and take him out. Snigbat lead the group a short ways, ending just outside Boss Hark's chambers. Snigbat decided to go in and distract Boss Hark while the charcters prepared an ambush.

Snigbat jaunted into the room and told Boss Hark a joke. Cecelia and Mialee nearly ruined the ambush with their laughter, but Boss Hark didn't get it at all. He was jsut about the order Snigbat to death when the heroes leapt out to make their move!

They immediately got a lay of the room. They saw Boss Hark, his two goblin guards, and his seven giant pet rats eating something vaguely humanoid in the corner. Rolen fired off a sleep spell, hoping to put the guards to sleep while they dealt with Hark.
Surely nothing bad ever happened from sleeping on the job
The sleep spell turned out to be incredibly potent, knocking out both guards and Boss Hark in one go! The heroes quickly dispatched the giant rats while Snigbat conked the goblin guards on the head.

With all the other threats taken care of, the heroes easily dispatched Boss Hark. As soon as they did, Snigbat began to dance and caper around, and the other goblins rose to their feet and began to dance around as well.

Snigbat allowed the heroes to take Harks' treasure horde, since the new cave of nilbogs had no need for it. The heroes got swept up into the mood, dancing and laughing with the nilbogs. They gathered the villagers from various parts of the cave and bid farewell to the now jovial nilbogs.

The heroes finally met Morak Ur'Grey, innkeeper of the Nightstone Inn, and the dwarf who Mialee had been told to seek out to find adventure. Mialee responded to finishing her quest in her favorite way: by unashamedly flirting with Morak. Meanwhile, Cecelia told the newly-rescued villagers of the death of the steward of Nightstone, Lady Velrosa Nandar. The villagers were very downtrodden that their home had been destroyed and their steward killed.

The party and the villagers decided to spend the rest of the night in Nightstone Keep, where they held a small ceremony for Lady Nandar and decided what they would do next.
Morak takin' care of business
Morak decided it would be for the best if everyone went to Waterdeep for the time being, and a few of the villagers gave the characters tokens of appreciation for their rescue. Morak mentioned that the heroes could accompany the villagers to Waterdeep, and then head further north to Bryn Shander. One of the villagers killed in the giant attack had a brother who worked as the sheriff of Bryn Shander, and Morak suggested that he'd likely be appreciative if the news was delivered personally.

The guards decided that if they were going to leave Nightstone, they might as well give it a good send-off. They cracked open Lady Nandar's wine cellar and everyone toasted to their rescuers and to fond farewells.

Mialee continued flirting with Morak, and Cecelia flirted with a teifling stable boy named Grin. While the girls and their new friends went off to celebrate in private, Rolen got drunk and fended off the attention of an old human lady named Renarra.

In the morning, the heroes prepared to accompany the villagers to Waterdeep. They packed their bags and gathered all the supplies they could from the ruined town.

They actually did "Pack their bags". I've decided to try to make travel an interesting part of this campaign, so we're using a new set of rules that cover travel time, encumbrance, and random encounters. I'll be posting articles here in a few weeks detailing exactly what goes into this new rule set, but we aren't quite to traveling games yet, so they can hold off a little bit.

Their first day on the trail was quiet. The villagers were well-protected by the remaining guards from the keep, who were happy to have something to do again. However, during the afternoon, Mialee looked up at a bird and saw a magnificent sight.

Up in the clouds was a tower, sitting upon a cloud, with a giant wizard's hat set upon the top. It began to descend, and stairs made of clouds formed below it, reaching down towards the ground exactly where the heroes were standing.
Yep, that's the official art. A big Wizard Hat. 
That's where we ended for this game. I gave the players a brief overview of what they can expect for traveling, and how long it would take to travel to Bryn Shander. They immediately took to it, asking about taking a ship out of Waterdeep to cut some time off their journey. I hope that's a good sign that we can make travel games fun.

The real challenge will be figuring out ways to give them more choices like that for overland travel. I'll have to think about giving them reasons to travel all over and creating time limits on various travel goals to force them away form always taking the safest routes.

In the end, taking the safe route isn't always the best route, after all!

Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Racial Traits: Gnomes

Racial diversity at its finest
I've been playing fantasy Role-Playing Games for about 5 years now, and Gnomes have always been a contentious subject in the worlds I've been in. My first few campaigns were in a setting that removed Gnomes entirely from the world, and since then I have heard heated debate for and against including the little guys. There is even debate on what exactly gnomes represent and how they fit into the world. Some prefer the image of an incorrigible prankster, others want tinkerers and steampunk inventors.

I created this list using traits described in the player's handbook. I tried to stick to the listed traits as best as possible, but perhaps you will have some adjustments or comments you'd like to make. I'd be happy to discuss!

Gnome Traits

The surgeon General advises you do not mix gnome and kobold PCs
d8 Personality Trait
1. I love jokes and puns and try to tell at least one to everyone I meet.
2. No matter the spell, I believe my magic is applicable to any situation.
3. I could have fun in a pit of wolves.
4. I can't wait to see or discover new things, and rush to new places like a child in a sweetshop.
5. My mind is bubbling with thoughts and I can never speak them fast enough.
6. I am fascinated by others and make great efforts to listen to them, sometimes even taking notes.
7. I can always find humor in my own mistakes.
8. I love to help people and share my knowledge with others.

d6 Ideal
1. Life. Every moment a creature is alive is a good one and should be lived to the fullest. (Good)
2. Fun. 500 years is too short to be boring, dull, or sad. (Chaotic)
3. Community. A family is a group of friends that can be full of surprises and laughter. (Lawful)
4. Intelligence. The quickest way to master a skill or craft is to learn everything you can about it. (Neutral)
5. Curiosity. Learning about the world is the finest way to enjoy it. (Any)
6. Magic. The arcane arts are the best way to find out new things and fill a lifetime of exploration. (Any)

d6 Bond
1. My hair or beard is always finely trimmed and exotically shaped. I'd be devastated if it were cut.
2. I have a powerful invention in my possession that I would never part with, it has deep significance to me.
3. I love my home or workshop, and have honed my skills in hope of protecting it.
4. I'd like nothing better than to completely cover myself in extravagant clothing, jewelry, and equipment.
5. Kobolds are stuffy and sour, I plan to play pranks on each one I meet.
6. I've taught many human and halfling students, and my knowledge and experience are very important to me.

d6 Flaw
1. I often laugh at those who trip or fall, before I realize it wasn't a harmless prank.
2. I have trouble knowing when it's not appropriate to make a joke.
3. I'd do anything to meet my goals, and I hardly ever think about the risks beforehand.
4. I have little patience for the sour, dour, and party-poopers.
5. I think mistakes aren't the end of the world, even though others see me as foolhardy or reckless.
6. If I don't want to be found, I will take great measures to hide.

What the hell
If you would like to read more about why I am writing these, or how I use them in my games, please check out my first post on Dwarves.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Investigation in the Big City

A city on a hill, where even the lowliest peasant
has the calf muscles of Adonis
I've been running games in a massive city for a while now. The city is called Garton, capital of the country of Garlancia. It's large and sprawling, on the level of Baldur's Gate or Waterdeep in the Forgotten Realms. It's a walled city, but farmers and beggars live outside the walls and are (mostly) protected by city guards. There is a lot to do, shops on every corner, guild houses, and a noble district complete with royal palace and city parliament.

I think most people would like to run a huge city game like this, but it can be pretty daunting. The sheer amount of available options can cause creative paralysis. Fortunately, I've been experimenting with different ways to handle such an influx of information, and I've landed on a good solution.

Investigation in the Big City
In fact Arabian Nights are not at all like Arabian Days
First things first, you need a reason for the characters to search the city. I find that using the Three Clue Rule is a good place to start. Players need lots of guidance to get on the right path, because what is obvious to you is shrouded to a player. So make sure whatever they are searching for has plenty of paths leading to it. I usually go for double the three clue rule and put six paths that lead to where I want the players to go.

Second, you need some alternate things to find. Use this as a chance to show off some cool areas of the city. Is there a statue, palace, or eccentric citizen that can be showcased? Also, check out your player's skills. Is one of them far better at a skill than others? Stealth and performance lend themselves to certain classes, and it's unlikely you'll have more than one person with a high value in each of those skills. If this is the case, you can put character-specific plot threads into the list as well.

Finally, (and this is going against the Three Clue Rule and conventional wisdom) you can choose to throw in one Red Herring. Just make sure that it clearly contradicts some of the actual evidence, so if the players choose to follow it they would have to ignore other evidence. That will make their choice matter.

On this search you find... a dead body holding a tin can full of worms
Now, write up a short scenario where a player encounters each of these clues, landmarks, plots, and diversions. The scenes should be generic enough that any player could find them (except the character-specific ones), but also contain information that won't hinder the game if it isn't found. We want there to be a consequence for failing to find something in the search.

Here's an example from one of my games for a landmark:

You don’t find anything of importance today, but you do manage to get a good view of the royal palace. It looks like the tower they were building is finally finished. You head back to your base and get drinks with your companions at the nearby tavern.

Note that this particular search happens over the course of a day, This doesn't have to be the case, you could easily do an hour per search. But remember that each item on the list should take about the same amount of time to find.
If you live here, you can compete in illegal underground sewer-surfing races
Next, print out your scenarios and cut them up into individual notes to be handed out. Once you have that, assign a skill and DC to each search. Easy searches (landmarks, simple clues) should be low DCs, difficult searches (red herring, complex clues) and character plot items should be high DCs. If you have a search that leads to your Bard's long-lost stage manager, you'd better make that performance check high to deter other players away from attempting the search.

When a player performs a search, they will roll a skill check and try to meet the DC associated with the search. If they pass, give them the slip of paper. They can then read the information and corroborate it with their allies. Depending on the amount of information on each search, you could allow them to discuss after each round, or you could say they are out searching until the end of the scene, and have them discuss their clues all at once.

Session Implementation

During the session, you have some options. You could:
  1. Lay out all your clues and searches face-down on the table, marking on the back what the skill and DC required is
  2. Assign certain clues to certain city areas, or certain days of searching, and slowly release the clues over several rounds.
  3. Make several stacks of clues, with the easy searches on top and the difficult searches on bottom, to reflect the players becoming more familiar with the area over several rounds.
If you choose to use rounds, I would give the players one extra round to search than the number of clues in each pile/area. People are going to fail, and you want them to have a fighting chance to try again.

If the city has floating areas, make sure they are home to the prissiest of nobility

On the subject of failure, I would also prepare a list of common tasks that you can run with players that failed their search while others are reading their clues. Simple things, that require a single roll that the player can choose to make. If they pass, they gain resources (gold, ale, items, whatever). If they fail, they lose resources. Gambling, drinking, shopping, etc could all be reduced to a single roll and used while other players read over their clues. I would use a random tavern name generator for this.

Whichever method you choose, make the scene more interesting by limiting the amount of searches the players have available. This is part of why I prefer to expand the three clue rule to six, at least. If players feel like they are making a choice between investigations, they will be more compelled towards the scene.

Also, putting an in-game time limit on the searches can also help increase the scene tension. Tell the players they hear a tip about an assassination happening this evening, and they only have a few hours of daylight left to figure out where it will be taking place. Have them search for a plot-important NPC who is known to leave town quickly. Or have them try to find the location of a dark ritual before the evil cult completes it.

Results of the Investigation

See how far you can take this before your players realize you're just running National Treasure
In the end, your players will hopefully gather enough clues and make the right connections to lead them to the subject of the search. If they don't, the time limit is a good way to force them to make a choice rather than keep searching. Also, if they do choose the wrong path, follow the red herring, etc. you will want to make their failure apparent. Don't rub it in their faces, but make it clear that they chose wrong and the search failed. They hear the city guard talking about the assassination or the person leaving town, they see a beam of light or feel the ground shake that indicates the ritual is starting.

However, remember to give your players time to discuss and review their information. Each one of them is going to have an incomplete picture, and they will need a chance to figure out how the clues fit together.

Also, feel free to link several searches together: do a couple rounds, play out a scene at the search location, then do a couple more searches. This can help break up the monotony of searching and give the game a more hectic, lead-following feel.

And you will also have shown off your city, advanced character plot, and allowed them to "wander the big city" without having to map out every building and street. If they don't find certain clues, plots, or landmarks, then it's easy to set those scenes aside and put them into later games.

Also works in Sci Fi, just make sure you include teleporters and laser carriages
So, that's how I prefer to do investigations. It's a little extra work typing up the scenes (my upcoming investigation game has 30 of them...) but I've received excellent feedback from my players in regards to capturing the feel of searching for information and deducing the solution.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Monday Recap: No Breaks for Nightstone

Storm King's Sadness
This was our second session of Storm King's Thunder! After coming off playing higher-level characters, everyone felt pretty squishy this session. That's pretty normal for 1st and 2nd level characters in 5e, because the higher levels are beefier it's easy to go down when you've barely started rolling hit dice.

Of course, eventually the characters are supposed to go up against threats they can't beat head-on, so I think this section of the book is supposed to drill that concept home.

Storm King's Thunder: No Breaks for Nightstone

A magnet for destruction
Cast of Characters
Jon: Dungeon Master
Megan: Cecelia Sondheim, human bard, a Harper hoping for a bright future!
Cody: Rolen Dundragon, half-elf Warlock of the Archfey, a scoundrel with a heart of gold
Cait:Mialee Galanodel, elf ranger, from a distant land and doesn't have personal space boundaries

When we last left off, the heroes had just cleared the village of Nightstone of goblins, met a young bronze dragon named Felgolos, and were suspicious of a mysterious woman named Kella Darkhope. Also, everyone in the village had jumped ship, and the leader of the village was dead in the wake of a giant attack.

Cecelia was pretty worried she wouldn't be able to finish her first unsupervised Harper mission. Forging a diplomatic relationship between Nightstone and the elves of the Ardeep Forest would be difficult if there were no Nightstone residents left to claim the town.

The characters took a rest, with Mialee guarding (and flirting with) Kella during the night. Felgolos gathered a pile of rubble to sleep on, and Cecelia, Rolen, and the remaining guards took their own rooms.
Felgolos: The Flying Misfortune. No really, look it up.
In the morning, the characters were awakened by a voice in the courtyard in the center of town. Going to investigate, they saw seven figures on horseback, one of them calling out for Kella. Felgolos, already having suspicions about Kella, believed these were Zhentarim agents here to collect her.

Mialee and Cecelia hurried back to Kella's room, only to find her bed empty and the window opened. Meanwhile, Felgolos and Rolen went outside to talk with the seven visitors.

Rolen decided to adopt his false identity for the conversation: the well-known elven hero Arannis Nailo (yes, that's Cody's character from the Badgers of the Apocalypse campaign). After a brief discussion, a few things were clear. The seven riders weren't leaving without Kella, "Arannis" couldn't reasonably threaten or withhold her without tarnishing his reputation, Felgolos was positive that everyone was a Zhentarim, and this guy totally had a thing for Kella.

Cecelia and Mialee tracked Kella's path over the keep's wall and down into the moat. Fortunately, they were able to move undetected by the negotiating groups, and found Kella's footprints on the bank leading back up into the village. They climbed back into the viallge and saw their quarry dashing towards the riders.
The lead rider guy, Xolkin. Very trustworthy name.
Rolen was reaching a tense point in the negotiation. He had gained the promise of payment for Kella's return, but he wasn't able to get any of the riders to speak to him alone. Just then, Kella burst out from behind a building. Both Rolen and the Riders were shocked. She yelled at them to get out of here, since she knew the castle had a dragon in it.
Felgolos decided to shapeshift back to his true form at this time, threatening the riders with his breath and presence. He demanded they tell him why there was Zhent influence in this small town.

Kella and the riders, seeing they were clearly outmatched, gave in. They were trying to establish a base close to Waterdeep. They had been investigating increased giant activity, like what happened here at Nightstone. They said it was only so long before a major settlement was attacked, and they wanted to have a site nearby to help their agents in Waterdeep, Goldenfields, and Womford.

The leader of the riders tossed a bag of gemstones to the ground, as a token of peace, in faith that they could leave without invoking the dragon's wrath. Felgolos nodded, and they turned and galloped off.
Felgolos is a Zhentarim truther
Felgolos decided that he would make sure they really weren't coming back, and took his leave from the group. Cecelia and Mialee, both enamoured by his presence, wished him the best of luck on his travels. He said he'd be around, and that if they were ever in trouble with giants they could certainly count on dragons to take an interest in helping them. All they had to do was make sure they gave the dragons whatever they were interested in, whether it was land, tribute, gold, companionship, etc. With that, he took wing and sailed away.

The party regrouped at the castle to discuss what to do next with the remaining guards. They were fairly certain that the villagers had retreated to a nearby cave, where they were supposed to go in case the keep was taken, but the caves in this area were regularly inhabited by goblins and ogres. If the villagers hadn't returned yet, they might be trapped in the caves.

The heroes agreed to go to the caves and began to take their leave. However, before they could, they saw a band of about two dozen humanoids running towards the village. An orc war band was heading straight into town!

The characters hid in the guard tower near the keep to see what would happen. The orcs rushed in, closed the drawbridge behind them, and began setting about looting the various homes in Nightstone.
Kill anyone who isn't an orc! And some of them who are!
At first Mialee tried to draw the orcs within longbow range with a Dancing Lights spell. Unfortunately, the orcs were very suspicious of the spell and decided to start burning down houses until they found the person who had cast it.

The group decided to give away their position, just to get the orcs to not burn down the town. The chief came near them (but just out of attack range) and told them they could stay in the keep for all he cared, he was just trying to get a fortified position to fight some elves from the Ardeep forest who were pursuing him. Much mockery commenced.

After he left, the heroes snuck out of the castle and down the side of the hill, stealthily taking out a few of the orcs. They found a position on the other side of the walls where they could fire away at the orcs, taking advantage of the short range of the orc's javelins.

However, their position couldn't hold. Mialee was starting to run out of arrows, and they had all taken stray javelin hits. They pulled back and discussed what they could do next, since over half the orcs still remained in the town. Mialee spent some private time with one of the guards.

Cecelia was becoming very disheartened about her mission. Not only would the village be destroyed, but she wouldn't even be able to let the villagers gather their things or leave peacefully. The party decided it would be for the best to brave the darkness of Ardeep forest and try to get help from the elves these orcs were fleeing from.

The characters ventured into the dark forest. Cecelia knew this forest was once a long-lost elven kingdom, but the elves nowadays were very protective and dangerous. She also knew that the villagers in Nightstone were not on good terms with the elves, and that getting their help might be difficult.
Nightstone isn't even featured on this map, which is saying something
They had not ventured far into the forest before they heard the sound of hooves. A squad of 8 elves on horseback rode out onto the trail. Their leader front-flipped off his horse, kissed Cecelia's hand, dipped and kissed Mialee, and winked at Rolen before introducing himself as Rond Arrowhome, dashing elven warrior!

The party was very grateful to have such a daring elf at their disposal, but first Cecelia had to convince him to help. Rond seemed to dislike the Nightstone inhabitants and was pleased to hear the village had been deserted. He wasn't interested in helping, but Cecelia convinced him that the villagers would leave for good, if only they could get back to their things and not have to worry about the orcs.

Rond thought the idea of killing orcs was a grand one. He immediately pulled Cecelia up onto his horse and they took off for Nightstone! Mialee found an attractive elf man to ride with, while Rolen just did his best to not get too comfortable with the rider he was paired up with.

Outside the village drawbridge, Rond leapt from his horse and began to call out insults to the orc chief. The drawbridge began to lower, and everyone prepared arrows and spells.
Hahaha! Adventure!
As soon as the bridge was below bow height, Rond gave the word and the elves unleashed their volley. Several orcs fell, but a few still remained, including the chief. Rond dashed forward to engage the chief in a daring duel.

Rolen quickly cast a sleep spell, putting the weaker orcs out of the fight. Cecelia cast her bardic magic on the orc chief, hoping to weaken and distract him from killing Rond.

An orc shaman strode forward, targeting Mialee with a Command spell. Under his command, she turned to one of the elves and attacked him with her shortswords! The elf wasn't killed, and he seemed to understand she was just under a spell.

Rond was having a tough time against the orc chief. He took a brutal blow to the side and spit blood. Cecelia was very worried about him, and cast another spell on the chief, giving Rond an opening. The chief was almost down!

Meanwhile, the shaman commanded Mialee to jump into the moat under the drawbridge, so she did just that. Rolen and the elves picked off the sleeping orcs before turning their full power on the shaman. In just a single volley, he was taken out.

The orc chief was still standing, however. In a fit of rage, he cut down Rond and began to charge at Cecelia. Cecelia fired off a crossbow bolt, but it didn't seem to stop his charge. The chief raised his axe in a vicious swing towards Cecelia's head.
Not the brightest in the tribe
Fortunately, it was at just that point that the chief's brain decided to inform his body that in fact, he had died from the crossbow bolt some 30 feet back.The chief's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed.

Cecelia rushed to Rond's side, casting a Cure wounds spell on him. He was alive, but wounded. Still, he managed a grin and wink at his savior. Meanwhile, Rolen fished Mialee out of the moat.

The elves bid farewell, and left quickly. They didn't seem interested in sticking around to help rebuild Nightstone. With the day nearly half over, the characters decided to take the rest of the day to recover and move out towards the caves under the dark of night, not wanting to waste any time in case the villagers needed rescuing.
Not today. But someday!
We stopped there, with the heroes leveling up to level 3. They are finally getting less squishy! Megan decided that the heroic College of Valor was more appropriate for Cecelia. Cody was having a lot of trouble picking a Pact boon for Rolen, and wanted to take more time to read through each one. Cait decided Mialee was a hunter conclave ranger and immedaitely took the Giant Killer feature.

I think I set a good tone for the upcoming games. The characters definitely got a good idea of what some of the future combats will be like: a powerful force that can't just be rushed at, but instead must be strategized on a higher level. They used two really good tactics in this session: 1. Strength in Numbers and 2. Hit-and-Run ranged attacks.

Let's just hope that continues to work against bigger enemies in the future!

Thanks for Reading!

Monday Recap: Old Wounds

Leap before you look
A game I was supposed to be a player in fell through this weekend, so I decided to write up a quick heist game for my gaming group. I used this fantastic outline on how to create a heist game, but I did end up changing it to be a little more planned out. In the end, I really am not that good at improvising plots on the fly.

Also, I'm not sure if I'll do a Monday Recap for games I play in. Maybe just a quick note at the beginning of any other Monday Recaps that week.

Old Wounds: A Heist Game

Nate has had enough of your crap
Cast of Characters:
Jon: Dungeon Master
Will: Nate Mortcombe, older thief, has been around the block, used to be the Face in the Phantoms
Wade: Fernar Vale, half-elf wizard, used to crack magic wards for the Phantoms
Bria: Harlor Maren/Rowen Miller, socialite with a million identities, loves to steal from the rich
Megan: Voralah Ostymon, halfling thief, loves gold and has high aspirations
Shannon: Mina Maeghor, half-orc bruiser and former pirate, known as "Four-Fingers"
Quinn: Tom Samble, young musician and amateur thief that Nate picked up for this heist

This was a shorter game, with no combat. I had planned for at least one combat to happen, but the players used all the skills and spells at their disposal to avoid it (to Shannon's displeasure!).

Phinneas Blythe, local fence, had gathered a crew for a job he needed done. His client was interested in a rare magic item being auctioned off, a Sphere of Annihilation. The person auctioning off the Sphere was Selena Kingsley, a former member of the Phantoms and Nate's old flame. Blythe had put together this team to pull off the job, partly because he knew Nate and Fernar would jump at the chance to steal from Selena. She and their other partner Lucious were the reason that Nate and Fernar had spent a stint in prison.

The group planned out exactly what they were going to do. They spent four days preparing the various contacts, covers, and equipment they would need to bust this job wide open.
Like any good adventure, this happened mostly in a tavern
To get to the sphere, they had to get past six layers of Selena's brand of magical security. The outer perimeter of the tower was being warded by alarm spells, phantom dogs, and impenetrable Wall of Force spells. However, Nate and Rowen decided to simply walk in the front door (in disguise of course). Easier said than done, since their old friend Lucious was standing right outside the entrance gate, wearing a medallion of thoughts to cast Detect Thoughts!

Nate knew even with his disguise, Lucious would probably recognize him. So Rowen decided to play the bait. From speaking with Volorah (who had worked at Selena's tower and been hit on by Lucious), Rowen knew exactly what sort of thing Lucious liked in a woman. She approached, making sure all those qualities were the only thing on her mind. Lucious immediately took the bait, and while he slunk off with Rowen, the rest of the gang showed their forged invitations to the new guard.
Rowen: Best at whatever it is they do
A few minutes later, Rowen rejoined the group, with a shiny new medallion of thoughts in hand and Lucious tied up back in the bushes.

Volorah, knowing it would be useful later, took a chance and pickpocketed the new guard of Lucious' key ring. If they were going to crack the final layer of security, that key would be important.

Next, the group had to get past the main entrance. Heavy-set bouncers were checking for signed invitations, and they had a Zone of Truth spell set up. Rowen had forged a set of invitations for a noble house that had declined to come to the party, House Islington. Even though he was forced to tell the truth, Nate slyly convinced the bouncer that he was indeed Goniffer Islington, Patriarch of the House. The bouncer smiled and let them pass.

While passing through, Mina noticed one of the bouncers was an old pirate friend of hers. She made a note of it, knowing that if he was paid he wouldn't mind starting a brawl as a distraction.

They entered the lavish main hall, where nobles mingled and decorations were everywhere. Nate immediately noticed Selena herself standing at the top of a large double staircase. She looked fantastic.
Can't really blame Nate at this point
Rowen immediately got to work. This was their element! Chatting it up with nobles, asking all the right questions, winking and nudging their way into the nobility's trust. Rowen was surprised, however, to suddenly be approached by a servant and given a message.

The note read, "Sorry darling, couldn't make it! - Mabel". Rowen crumpled the note in anger. Mabel was supposed to be their Sphere expert, someone who had been paid off to move the sphere for them once they reached it. She had been bribed, Tom had gone on a date with her, and now she had vanished. The entire crew swore revenge.

They weren't completely out of luck, however. One of Mina's contacts was there, a rare magic item collector that they had contacted about getting an Amulet of the Sphere. They hoped that it would be enough to enable Fernar to move the Sphere himself.

Fernar, Mina, and Volorah walked up to one of the robed wizard guards who was watching the door to the undertunnels. It was Tom! He had gotten himself a position here for the party. He quickly filled them in.
Tom Samble, off the job
The wizard guards were supposed to be casting spells such as Detect Thoughts, Detect Magic, and See Invisibility on the party. However, the crew had sabotaged the magic scrolls a couple days before and now they all simply made it feel like the spell was being cast instead of actually casting it.

Nate and Rowen decided to stay up and work the party room while the other four headed through the door to the undertunnels.

The undertunnels were simple stone passages, but they were guarded by a Guards and Wards Spell, and invisible Imps patrolling. Fernar had made a deal with the devil who provided the imps, and he hoped it would hold.

He tried the password to dispel Guards and Wards, but it failed. Selena must have changed it for the party! They decided to use brute force to get through this section. tom pulled out a scroll of "Find the Path" and they began to head towards the inner sanctum, where the Sphere would be kept.
Ain't no stinkin' spell can stop these picks
After muscling their way through foggy corridors and Volorah picking her way past an arcane lock, Tom noticed a door reading "Prison". Volorah started to pick it, but the door suddenly opened and a crossbow bolt slammed into her.

Thanks to an uncanny dodge, the damage was minimal. The jailer who had fired the bolt looked ready to fight. Mina grinned, Volorah drew blades, Fernar readied his spells. Tom, however, cast a quick suggestion. They were just lost, no need to attack. With the help of Fernar's portent, the jailer believed them and closed the door.

Meanwhile, up at the party, Lucious came bursting into the room, having freed himself, and headed straight for Selena. Rowen made a quick interception, telling him she had stolen the medallion to make sure they saw each other again. Lucious fell hard for that one, and ten minutes later he was knocked out and strung up again outside the washroom window.
Another time, you'll hear the story of Fernar and the much-too-big sword
Downstairs, the group finally reached the inner sanctum. Tom headed back upstairs to retake his post, and Fernar got to work on cracking the safe. Working through the multiple layers of magic, avoiding alarm spells and exploiting his dispel magic scrolls, the others watched on as he did his finest work.

However, it wasn't quite enough. He only had one layer of protection left, an Arcane lock, and he had just run out of scrolls. Volorah suggested they use Lucious' key. Knowing there was a heat metal spell on the keyhole, they clicked it open quickly.

The inner sanctum door swung open.

Upstairs, Selena approached Nate and told him to drop the act. Nate acted surprised, but he had been thinking about talking to her anyway. She began to grill him on what he was doing and who he was here with.
In and out burglar
The Sanctum was empty! Mina and Volorah started to panic, but Fernar was well aware of Selena's tricks. A simple illusion spell had made the sphere invisible. He put on the Amulet of the Sphere and began to move it.

Nate smiled at Selena, and said a strange little phrase they both knew meant a job had just been completed. Selena's face dropped. She immediately ran towards the undertunnels, gathering her guards.

She slammed open the door to the sanctum, but it was empty. All that was left was a perfectly-round hole leading out of the back wall, which the crew had made using the sphere of annihilation itself to escape.

Outside of Auraglow, a few days later, Phinneas Blythe shook Nate's hand. The Sphere was being transported in a specially-made levitation chamber, and the crew would be well paid for their fantastic work. The group headed out of town, into a life of great riches... at least, until the next job came up!
A job well done!
This game was really reminiscent of the games I started playing RPGs with. They were more theatrical, less combat, more deduction and problem solving. I really enjoyed the game, and the players seemed to respond well to it. I think I could have included more character building components, but for a one-shot I thought the level of character interaction was perfect.

I'd highly recommend using the format I linked above to run your own heist games! Even though I did more scenario creation than it suggested.

Thanks for reading!