Monday, January 30, 2017

Monday Recap: There are Giants in the Sky

There are big, tall, terrible giants in the sky!
This is a recap of my weekly game of Storm King's Thunder!

This was a pretty short game, we've all been pretty tired. There's a lot going on in the world to discuss, and inevitably when people gather the subject of politics comes up. I usually use a "No Politics at the Game Table" guideline, but it's been so omnipresent that it's becoming harder to avoid.

Sometimes as a DM it's easy to forget that your players are coming to your game not just to play, but to see people they haven't seen all week. They need time to chat, to relax, and to update each other on their lives. Your job as DM during this is to stop being a dungeon master for a few minutes and be a fellow human. Once everyone is settled, caught up, and usually fed, they can get into your game.

Storm King's Thunder: There are Giants in the Sky

The only Tower with a sense of fashion

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 finished saving the inhabitants of Nightstone from several different threats. The villagers decided that the best step forward would be to travel to Waterdeep, where they could rejoin society and get back on their feet. They were all very grateful to the group, and thanks to Cecelia, they had gained a high opinion of the Harpers.

They had been travelling along the High Road when a tower in the clouds appeared above them and lowered a set of cloudy stairs down to meet them. The tower looked to be hundreds of feet tall, with a spire that looked like a big, pointy wizard hat.

Mialee began to ascend the stairs without a second thought. Cecelia and Rolen hurried after, quickly assuring the villagers that they would be right back.
If ever a wonderful Wiz there was...
When they reached the tower, to their surprise a cloud giant came out of the tower to meet them! He said his name was Zephyros, and he was looking for three "small folk" that he was told to assist.

He was looking for an elf of the Moonshae Isles, a man carrying a snake, and a girl with a heart of stone. The heroes quickly realized they were the three! Mialee is from Moonshae, Rolen carries a staff of the adder, and Cecelia's close encounter with the Dragon of Statues had left her chest partially changed to stone.

Zephyros said he had learned of great unrest among the giants in the world, and he had been casting "Contact other Plane" to figure out what he was supposed to do. The otherworldly entities had told him that he must help these three small folk get to where they were going, but not take a more direct hand in things.

The heroes quickly realized that he could save them a lot of time on their trip all the way up to Bryn Shander, to finish the quest that Morak Ur'Grey of Nightstone had given them. They were supposed to tell the sheriff of Bryn Shander, Markham Southwell, that his sister in Nightstone had died during a giant attack.

Rolen sent Rillix the Tressym flying down with a note to tell the villagers they were okay, and to continue on to Waterdeep. The villagers responded positively, especially since they had some of their own guards, and the High Road is one of the safest roads in the North.
A simple home for an eccentric wizard
As they set off, Zephyros showed them around his tower. He was actually a researcher of the Moonshae Isles, and had books of lore he'd collected about Mialee's clan of elves. Mialee was very excited to show off her home to her new companions, even if it made her homesick. She revealed that her people, aside from being very touchy and glittery, also decked out their treetop homes with pink shag carpeting, leopard print roofs and wall hangings, and light spells that flashed constantly.

They also went up to the aerie, where Zephyros kept his pet griffons. They were quite tame and behaved a lot like cats, but Zephyros warned that they weren't trained to fly with humans on them. The party was very sad that there would be no griffon riding in this session.

Zephyros also told them that there was a new unrest among the giants. The social order that kept Giants in line, the Ordning, had been broken. Now, any giant could become the new lord of all giants. Many evil, ambitious giants had taken this call to heart, and started to put horrible schemes into place. This unrest was the reason Zephyros had reached out to the other planes in the first place.
It's every giant for themselves out there
For this adventure, I decided to introduce the travel mechanic for Discovery into the game. The players don't have to worry about foraging, random encounters, or navigation, since being with a Cloud Giant takes care of most of that. I also gave Zephyros the Create Food and Water spell to cover rations.

The discovery mechanic is fairly simple: whatever area the players are passing through has a discovery score. barren land has a score of 0, most places have a 1, forests, mountains, and other potentially dungeon-filled areas have a 2, and big ruins or ancient kingdoms have a 3 or higher. Each day, the players roll 1d6, and if they roll the Discovery score or lower, they see something in the distance. Of course, checking it out adds time to their journey, but here I wanted to show them some cool things they could find before actually putting them in a situation where they have limited time or resources.

On the third day of travel, the group suddenly saw an amazing sight: a massive wall, hanging in the sky. Zephyros suggested that this was likely another cloud giant castle, and he was a bit hesitant to check it out. He explained that cloud giant class structure is based on wealth and extravagance, and he'd never had much of a taste for such things. He wasn't sure how they would receive him.

As it turns out, they didn't receive him very well at all. Boulders began to pelt the tower as they approached, and Zephyros began to make magic shapes in the sky to try to signal they came in peace. The boulders stopped, but not before Mialee and Rolen were hit by flying rocks.

http://pyracanthasketch.blogspot.com/2010/06/castle-in-clouds.html
All that's missing is the "Go Away!" sign
Zephyros took them up to the top of the wall, where they met Count Thullen, a resplendently dressed and kind-hearted Cloud Giant. He greeted the party warmly, assuming Mialee was their leader due to her glittery skin. He apologized for the rocks, and warned them that not all Cloud Giants were as kind as he or Zephyros were.

He also warned them to avoid his sister, Countess Sansuri, who had likely ordered the attack on Nightstone. She too had a scheme to become a new Lord of the Giants, which involved finding pieces of stone from the ancient Giant empire of Ostoria.

The characters took their leave, after the Count gave them a massive spell scroll containing the spell "Identify". It stood nearly as tall as Rolen, and Zephyros promised he would transcribe it to a smaller sheet for the warlock to use.

That evening, the party saw a group of nine shapes flying towards the tower. The party watched as nine humans on giant vultures landed on the cloud and began demanding to speak to the master of the tower.

The players were sufficiently shocked by this group - we had just played Princes of the Apocalypse, so they immediately recognized the Cult of Howling Hatred.
Oh dang, these guys again?
Zephyros went out to talk to them, and the strangers gave him a small glowing bag in hopes that he would join their cause, to return to power after a group of heroes had dealt a powerful blow to their group.

Zephyros said he'd think about it, and wandered back inside to find the heroes eavesdropping just inside the door. After a quick discussion, the group convinced Zephyros that he shouldn't join up with the vulture-riding humans, and Zephyros went back outside to decline their offer.

The humans left peacefully, without taking the glowing bag back. Zephyros felt bad about keeping it, so he gave it to Rolen. Rolen immediately recognized it as pixie dust, from his tome of jokes that Hyrsam had bequeathed him. He blew a pinch of the dust into Mialee's face, and she disappeared!

They decided Mialee would make the best use of the pixie dust, which has a random effect if you sprinkle it over a creature. It was also very sparkly, which might have influenced their decision.

The tower continued its journey, passing over the Sword Mountains. Below they could see the roving bands of orcs and dwarven ruins. For the most part, they were content to stay up in the sky, well out of danger.

On the sixth day of travel, they discovered a breathtaking set of statues. A trio of massive dwarf statues, each holding a different weapon, carved into a mountainside over a thousand feet tall. On the middle dwarf there was a little hut, with smoke coming out of the top.

Despite Zephyros' worries, the group lowered the cloud stairs and headed down to the hut. It was a small place, with an animal skin flap serving as the door. They approached cautiously.

Suddenly, a loud, gruff voice barked at them to get inside, saying they were late. Lead by Mialee, they immediately went in.

koni-art.deviantart.com
What did you expect? Adonis?
Inside, sitting near a small fire, was a blind half-orc. He introduced himself as Blik, and he called himself the "Oracle of Power". Somehow, he knew the race and abilities of each of the characters, even though he couldn't see them.

He explained that he was one of many oracles, which existed for every race, class, and many other philosophies. Mialee perked up when he spoke of the Oracle of Sex, but her spirits fell again when Bilk said he didn't know anything about where the other oracles were located.

Blik said he had a prophecy for each of them. If they followed the prophecy, they would find a powerful magical item they could use to fulfill their destinies.

Cecelia was told to go to Greypeak Mountains and look in "The Nest of the Lord of the Skies". Rolen was told to go "Under the Ocean, in the Court of a Friend". Mialee received the strangest prophecy, only being told that her item was "Once owned by a Long Dead King, who had the item Pulled from his Grasp."

The group asked if there was an item of power for Rillex, who was curled up on Rolen's shoulder. Blik seemed surprised, and told them he hadn't expected Rillex to want a prophecy too. Either way, he told Rillex that the item he sought was right there in Blik's hand, and gave Rillex some food.

Before the heroes could get comfortable, though, Blik shooed them out of his hut, saying they were already late and didn't have time to be lollygagging around here. They returned to Zephyros' Tower, hoping that the rest of their journey would pass quickly.
Because finding magic items is the goal of every campai- wait, is that A GUN?
We stopped there this week. I really like the discovery mechanism for traveling, it's a great opportunity for me to input plot, small items, and kooky NPCs while the players move from place to place.

I'm still worried that the players will become less excited when they are gaining levels less quickly. This was the first game they didn't level up after, even though it was a short one. The module kind of expects you to spend a lot of time wandering around at level 6.

However, the saving grace here is that I have a subplot, the whole archfey thing, going on. Maybe the players can level up a bit more than expected? There are only three of them. Perhaps I'll put some big story beats in their travel games in order to keep the level-ups more consistent.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Racial Traits: Half Orcs

Bout to mess up some dwarves
This was one of my favorite lists to write. I had never really looked into the Half-Orc description before (orcs are rare in the city I am currently running), and was surprised to see they have a lot of fun details that could really form the basis of an entire character.

I love the idea that a half orc would be just as quick to sadness as to anger.

Half-Orc Traits


Mine is the very soul of sorrow
d8 Personality Trait
1. Every one of my scars has a story, some good, some bad.
2. I can hear the whispers of Gruumsh One-Eye, the evil God of Orcs, in my dreams. I struggle to understand what they mean.
3. I'm not above breaking a few bones to get what I want, no matter the situation.
4. Despite my strong emotions, I have trouble saying exactly what's on my mind.
5. Physical combat makes me feel alive, and nothing else can compare to it.
6. I've learned that I will always have to fight to get what I want.
7. You could hear me laugh or cry from a mile away.
8. No talk good. Fight good.

d6 Ideal
1. Notoriety. A half-orc is nothing without a reputation for others to praise or fear. (Chaotic)
2. Pride. The value of a deed measures the value of a half-orc. (Neutral)
3. Strength. The only way to win in life is to break those who are weaker than you. (Evil)
4. Redemption. A person's actions can redeem their heritage, no matter how evil. (Good)
5. Emotion. Feelings, from rage to pleasure, should never be suppressed. (Chaotic)
6. Endurance. Life is difficult, and only those who can weather its trials will prevail. (Any)

d6 Bond
1. I would do anything to prove my worth to one side of my heritage.
2. I keep a memento from one of my parents, and value it more than my own life.
3. I have intense feelings of love for a particular person, and would do anything to protect them.
4. My collection of scars is my pride and joy, and I am always looking for a chance to earn a new one.
5. I can feel the influence of Gruumsh One-Eye in my heart, and I loathe (or accept) his evil ways.
6. There's nothing greater in the world that the thrill of battle.

d6 Flaw
1. I am overly reckless in battle, because I am eager to collect more scars.
2. Anyone who uses a word more than three syllables long deserves to be punched in the face.
3. I have a temper shorter than a gnome, and I snap easily at others.
4. I don't always understand why the things I do are bad.
5. I hate showing my pain and push others away when I am hurt.
6. I often ignore the advice of those smarter than me. Who do they think they are?


D&D is like halloween. There's a sexy version of every race
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 25, 2017

The Gold Problem: Big Purchases in 5th Edition D&D

Normal PC behavior
In last week's post, I started to talk about my solution to the "Gold Problem" in D&D. Essentially, there's not too much to actually spend gold on once players accumulate a high enough amount. And just hoarding the gold doesn't present any interesting choices while simultaneously creating more bookkeeping problems for the players.

Now, I have played in games where we didn't receive gold. The organizations we worked for (guilds, crusades, etc) paid for our expenses, or the good we did for others was enough to make sure we always had enough favors to call on that we could use to stay alive. But that also isn't an interesting choice. Besides, adventuring for gold is so ingrained in modern players, from video games, novels, and even RPG experience. Players expect cool treasure.

As I laid out last week, the allure of cool magic items at high costs can certainly give a player something to save up for, to forego their usual routine of hoarding gold or just buying health potions and ten-foot-poles until their backpacks explode.

But what if you have a low-magic campaign setting?

Goals for Gold

It's accountancy that makes the world go 'round
As I started to discuss last week, for a player to make a conscious choice about their gold, they need access to something that they can save up for. They need to see the mountain on the horizon before they know they can climb it. This means you should have a list of items a character can buy. And don't just put the things they can afford on there. Make it a long list. Show off the big-ticket items. Have the captain of the King's Guard use a sword of sharpness so the players can start drooling over it.

But in a low-magic campaign, you can still use the idea of a distant goal to encourage long-term planning. This should be a similar mindset to how players look forward to gaining new abilities and deciding if they should multiclass. If they know about how much gold they can squeeze out of a dungeon, that gives them a timeline before they have their own sword of sharpness. That makes them want to keep playing.

So even if magic items and wizards everywhere isn't your bag, you can still create a world that asks characters to engage with the economy and make big choices.

Living Expenses

The only thing he can afford is a generic surly Scottish accent
Living expenses are one of the first things that get lost in the paperwork of keeping track of characters, but I think they are important for a few reasons.

First, living expenses as a low-level character suck. If every weekend you go out dungeon-hunting and earn 100GP, then 10 GP of living expenses is the difference between an extra healing potion and nothing. It can be difficult to track, but we're setting up a bigger picture here: that gold is necessary in the world, and that at higher levels players might be able to break out of that cycle.

Second, living expenses can represent much, much more that a paltry 1GP per day. Perhaps the cleric in the party is required to tithe 10% of his share to his temple, or the place will fall into ruin and he will be ousted from the church. Perhaps the fighter has a family back home that he sends care packages and gold to. Even the classic "orphan urchin" adventurer has to have a bond to something or someone. Fellow urchins, people who helped them (such as an orphanage), or even charities could be linked to the character and require occasional monetary support.
Is 10% too much? 5 out of 5 greedy players say yes
Finally, not all living expenses are day-to-day. Fines to pay off prison time, new taxes, gambling and carousing, and crafting are all downtime activities that could use up gold on a regular basis.

The point of all this is to give players a regular way to interact with their gold, and set up challenges when it comes to saving up for the bigger items.

Home Sweet Home
Not pictured: your players
Of all the cost-related tables listed in the DMG, perhaps none is so highly priced yet so boring as the table for Building a Stronghold (DMG pg. 128). The table lists the cost of building structures without conferring a single benefit as to why a character would ever want to build one. There are even upkeep costs (in addition to living expenses) listed for each one. Why? The book gives absolutely no reason to pursue such an endeavor.

Well, let's fix that. Here are some ideas for the benefits granted by each of the Strongholds listed in the DMG. I've also included the businesses listed in the "Maintenance Costs" table (DMG pg. 127), since a business whose only purpose is to generate more gold is no better than the other strongholds listed.
  • Abbey: no longer must pay tithe, personal center for historical and magical research, open to many faiths, can house a brewery run by monks, can cast abjuration spells and divination spells at higher levels or as rituals
  • Farm: living expenses cut in half due to food provisions, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses and other mounts, pens can hold livestock for bonus on business rolls
  • Guildhall: living expenses cut in half once you gain 50 guild members, skilled hirelings available for small tasks at no cost or large endeavors at half cost, armory/arcane lab/poisoner's room available based on type of guild
  • Inn, rural: living expenses cut in half, starting rumors takes half regular time, small quests can be found immediately
  • Inn, town: living expenses covered, starting rumors takes half regular time, well-paying quests can be found immediately
  • Keep: living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks, renown increases, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Lodge: Living expenses halved, hunters and wilderness guides available for no cost, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Noble Estate: wealthy living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks, renown increases significantly, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses or other mounts, personal graveyard for fallen friends, noble cartographers can help map world/plan journeys, personal armory, free hirelings up to small squad
  • Outpost: living expenses cut in half, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, hunters and wilderness guides available for no cost, stables can house horses or other mounts
  • Palace: requirement to rule a city/ country, aristocratic living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, includes library/smithy/docks, renown increases significantly, garden provides herbalism components, stables can house horses or other mounts, personal graveyard for fallen friends, noble cartographers can help map world/plan journeys, personal armory, starting rumors takes half regular time, well-paying quests can be found immediately, free hirelings up to small militia
  • Shop: items shop sells have price cut in half for personal use, starting rumors takes half regular
  • Temple: no longer must pay tithe, personal center for historical and magical research, open to one faith, can automatically gain inspiration from performing services, can cast divination/conjuration/necromancy spells at higher levels or as rituals 
  • Tower: half living expenses covered, barracks for hirelings, thick walls and guards, personal jail cells, might include library/smithy/docks
  • Trading Post: living expenses cut in half, items shop sells have price cut in half for personal use, starting rumors takes half regular
And still not enough room for the greedy characters...
Again, I would make this list available immediately to the players. Have them enter a palace and know exactly what a stronghold like that would cost. Make incentives for them. And you could also choose to make the benefits modular: perhaps starting rumors requires a stronghold or business to have a social common area, and that requires an expansion to the business.

Old School Cool

Finally, you might consider a classic method for using gold in very old-school D&D: Gold as experience.
 
Let's see if you survive this next one
Now, modern gamers might balk at the idea of only getting Gold or experience. but on a certain level, it makes sense. If you are becoming better as a fighter, part of your experience is dungeon delving, but another part is training, honing and maintaining your weapons and armor, paying your trainer or guild, or covering the cost of equipment broken while training. If you are a rogue, paying fines and bribes or tithing gold to a Thieves' Guild might be the only way you can hope to continue improving your skills. Even monks could have a requirement to donate to charities or beggars to advance in their order.

In that way, players are paying for their levels. The key here is making enough gold available. Use a creature's experience point value as a guide to how much gold they might have on their person. If it seems like a monster wouldn't carry that much gold (what would a ghost do with 1,100GP?) then redistribute the gold into quest rewards, treasure hoards of more appropriate monsters (the necromancer who raised the ghost might have a chest laden with gold), or simply have the players find the gold in chests or dusty corners over the course of the adventure.

If you decide to do this route, I would either give the players more gold than they need or have them only able to buy experience with it. Each of these options presents a different playstyle that could suit a group better.
  • If you give the players extra gold, they may resort to living a squalid lifestyle just to level up more efficiently. Remember to use real-world consequences for such actions. Nobles will not give them quests, guards who need bribes will not allow them to access certain places, and other adventurers may look down on them.
  • If you only allow players to use gold on experience, I would either set aside a list of magic items that each player receives upon leveling up (as part of the "cost" of leveling), or place more magic items in your dungeons to make sure the PCs can also have the gear they need at higher levels.
These methods will work better with certain group types, so if your players are prone to murderhobo-ism or if they like going shopping for more than just their next level, I would shy away from using gold as experience.
This picture is just too good. Is it going out or in? Does it matter?
So there we go. A system to allow players to make conscious choices about their gold and plan/look forward to things, rather than sitting on a horde of gold without anything to spend it on.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Monday Recap: The End of Evil

OG Princes of the Apocalypse
No recap for my Storm King's Thunder campaign this week, we had an off week.

Instead, I'm going to do a full-campaign review in honor of the completion of one of my long-runner monthly campaigns. This past weekend, my Horsemen of the Apocalypse quest came to an end. It began when took a group of a few of my regulars and put together an epic-level evil campaign set in the Abyss. It took quite a bit of putting together, and I wanted to go over a few of the ideas and lessons I came away from the campaign with.

The (Relatively) Good


Backstory and Research


Together We Ride (best track from the Fire Emblem OST)
When I started this campaign, I knew it was going to be a story-driven game. I didn't want to just run through the layers of the abyss as though they were a dungeon, but I also wanted to show off one of the most dangerous locales in the multiverse.

So, I took two paths to prepping for the campaign. The first was to write a deep, interconnected story about the characters, bringing their stories to the forefront. I had each player write a short backstory (although some players went a lot further than others) and tried to incorporate the "known" stories into the campaign while keeping a good amount of "unknown" story. Without explaining all the details, the characters were thrown into an unfamiliar situation and learned about it over the course of the campaign.

The second path was to research the Abyss itself. The DMG, MM, and the Forgotten Realms Wiki were all very helpful, as was the appendix to the Out of the Abyss module. Later in the campaign, I began to use the information on Graz'zt from Powerscore as well as the 5e versions of Epic Monsters built by Dave2008 on the Enworld Forums to expand my information. In the end, I also took a lot of inspiration form the Dark Souls games in terms of setting the tone of the game. It took quite a bit of work, but I feel that it was worthwhile.

In the future, I hope that I can create this level of detail for my homebrewed campaigns. I would love to build worlds as thought-out and complete as the Abyss, but that may take a while to do!

Creating Unbreakable Bonds

It's the End of the World as we know it...
One of the problems in running an evil campaign is letting the players work together in a natural way. Evil is necessarily selfish and greedy, running a campaign with characters who couldn't compromise on their evil-ness was a big challenge. In the end, it took a session or two but I think I created a game where the players could work towards a single goal but remain selfish and evil.

The way that I did this was by treating the group as a single entity that could act selfishly and evil. In story terms, this meant creating a soul-binding mechanic between them that wasn't able to be broken, while simultaneously giving them various enemies that hated them as a group. There were no solo missions, no rivals that singled out a particular PC (except coincidentally). This was particularly effective when they lost the protection of their "master" halfway through the campaign. Suddenly they had incentive to work together, to protect each other, to fight on each other's behalf.

Changing the Direction of the Campaign

Pose for the glamour shot!
One moment that stood out as a turning point in the campaign (and indeed, was heavily discussed as a favorite moment of the campaign in the aftermath) was when the players betrayed their master and killed him. At that point, I had planned out an entire war-like campaign that ended with an epic battle against a Demon lord and the conquering of the Abyss by the group and their master. But all of that changed when the players decided to turn on their master.

I had put a lot of work into the planning, but in the heat of story it felt like the right time for the players to take charge. It meant rewriting the entire campaign, but fortunately I had a full month to do it. And in the end, I think it was the right choice. It was an epic climax, which allowed me to keep pushing the tension higher, just in a different direction than planned.

Different Ways to Play


Ain't no grave can hold me down
One thing I knew I would do going into this campaign was try different ways to incorporate challenge into the game. This included doing physical and building challenges at the table, player on player combat, epic level spells and monsters, and games without combat. These met with various success, but the biggest hit was using Slack forums to perform downtime activities.

Once the players had enough power to build their own layer of the Abyss, we had a lot of work to do. By structuring the timeline on a forum, we were able to build a very rich world, without sacrificing game time. Another boon was the use of "Slackbot" to act as a die roller. With a way to generate random numbers in the board, there's nothing stopping us from doing an entire campaign on forum.

I realize this isn't a new idea, but for my first foray, I thought it went quite well.

Slow Information Reveal
Four horsemen and their weird baby-slave Charlie
I mentioned above that I had written a complicated and mysterious story to kick off the campaign. I don't think I had told all of the secrets of the story until the very last game, and I think that kept the players thinking and guessing about the nature of their campaign until the end.

Part of that is building a story that has enough depth to explore for a while. I like using the "3 Why's" rule to develop the story. Come up with a cool concept, then explore why that concept exists. Then ask why those reasons exist, then do it a third time. By that point, you likely have a story that has the depth and backstory to fully explore over many sessions.

Short Campaign
This game was only 8 games. Since I only had one plot thread, I think this was just about the perfect length. We had no games that were off the plot thread, we had no alternate plot threads to explore, and there were very few NPCs that lasted the entire campaign.

The downside to this length of campaign was that it was difficult to do as an epic-level campaign. The players gained multiple levels every session, and gained additional powers of my own invention. It was a lot to take in. If I had done this over, I would have started the players at a higher level. I think the only thing that saved the group from floundering in their long lists of features was the time between sessions. Having a whole month to absorb a set of abilities offset the large amount of new abilities.

Lessons Learned


matchack.deviantart.com
Can't run a wild campaign without breaking a few rules
Of course, there were some things that really didn't go well at all.

Demigod System
To create the epic-level feel of the characters, I created my very own Demigod system. It turned out to be fairly unbalanced towards offensive power, and the players could kill things easily but would get wiped out by those same creatures in a combat that lasted longer than a couple rounds.

I have been tweaking the system I wrote, and I will be posting it up next week as my Wednesday article. I think it still has a ways to go, but I'll also submit some of the potential alterations I would include if I used it again.

Epic Level Monsters
Once I realized the imbalance of the Demigod system, I should have realized that going up against truly powerful epic-level monsters would not go well. It was true, even at their most powerful, the party fell to one of the epic-level monsters, their first total defeat.

I think fixing the Demigod system will help in the future, the system has already gained quite a few updates since we built the characters for this campaign.

Custom Races/Weapons/Archetypes

Not pictured: A centaur, draconion, or halfling. Pictured: a scythe.
For each character, I built a custom, homebrewed option for the player to take into the campaign. This ended up being a mixed bag, and showed me that I still had a long way to go in terms of building homebrewed items/races. The stats were sometimes powerful enough to change the game, and other times were completely forgotten.

Using Unwinnable Challenges
A few times in the campaign, I had the players roll a saving throw or fight out a combat that they had no chance of winning or beating. In a normal campaign, I would never do such a thing, but I wanted to let the players know there were still beings far more powerful than them. Unfortunately, the rule of a regular campaign held up even in an epic level campaign.

See, when a die hits the table, you've made a contract with the player. There has to be a roll on that die that succeeds. It doesn't matter how epic the campaign is, or how powerful the foe is. This contract is between the DM and the player, not the world and the character. If there's no hope, no dice are needed. And of course, if there's no challenge, no dice are needed either. I found out that this applies no matter what campaign I am running.

Final Thoughts



A modern take on the Horsemen? That's a Good Omen
At the end of the campaign, we all went around the table and said our favorite moments of each other player. That means each player complimented each other, and each player gave me their favorite moment of the campaign that I had written. This was a very revealing exercise.

The players, of course, gave about the compliments that you would expect players to enjoy. Funny moments, epic damage or attacks, cool role-playing moments, etc.

When it came to favorite plot moments, however, they all had the same theme. It wasn't just cool plot moments, it was moments where the players had a hand in shaping the direction of the campaign. They loved building their Abyssal layer on the Forum, they loved taking control of the campaign by killing their master, and they enjoyed the final scene of the campaign, where they decided to build an entire multiverse that bent to their will.

In the end, D&D is about the freedom to play a character, the agency to affect a world. Those moments are what people love, because it invests them in the world. Their choice made a difference, and everyone else has to follow along.

Overall, it was an excellent evil campaign. I still have lots to learn about epic level campaigns, though, and plenty of time to practice. But for an evil campaign, I couldn't have asked for a better story, group dynamic, and camaraderie.

Maybe I'll do another evil campaign on a smaller scale. But I will definitely be doing another epic level campaign, and hoping to fix some of the issues that plagued this story.

My Little Horseman
Thanks for reading!

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.


http://www.alfredolopezjr.com/
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.

umbrafox.deviantart.com
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.

www.seresmitologicos.net/
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.

seanseal.deviantart.com
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.

khorghil.deviantart.com
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!