Sunday, July 9, 2017

Tales from the Yawning Portal: DMing the Tomb of Horrors

Tomb of Horrors has always been a favorite of mine to run as a session or two for fun. When Tales of the Yawning Portal popped up with a 5th edition version, I had to get it and run it. Luckily my group was totally on board for a different experience for a few sessions, so away we go.

I've run ToH in multiple systems and I have seen the ins and outs. I know all the tricks. I know what fun looks like and what frustration looks like. ToH is a great experience dating all the way back to Gary Gygax's original group. Let's take a look.

My game was run with 5 players, although we swapped out a couple of players along the way. It lasted about 3 sessions of about 4 hours each. All of the players started with multiple 14th level characters, so they could switch to new ones as characters died. My party ran no rogues, which was just weird.

This is all my opinion. Your game may go differently, your gaming group may have different problems and successes. I'm not going to argue that I am right about any of this in the context of your game. As always, do what works for you.

Here's my recap of the good and the bad at a generic spoiler-free level.

  • I set expectations that this is a PC-killer dungeon. Players were told to make several PCs and be prepared for them to die. If you don't set this expectation, your players will likely get upset.
  • I let all options from my list of playable content into the game.
  • I let the PCs have all the mundane equipment they can carry 3 uncommon and 1 rare magic item of choice, and one totally random magic item from all the tables in the DMG.
  • I relaxed the rules for spells -- no preparing, no selecting. You get your spell list. Spell slot limits still apply.
  • I had a banner map printed ( and covered all of the area with labeled cardstock stuck on with mounting squares. It was OK, but I would prefer a different approach that I give in the spoiler section. I oversized all of the squares and made them weird shapes to attempt to hide secret passages.
  • I explained that all skill checks require a complete description of what you are doing, what you are touching, where you are looking, etc.
  • I gave the party maximum HP at every level. This turned out to be too much. Average HP at every level would have been better.
  • I let them be level 14. This is great except there are too many "I win" spells for casters. If I had to do it again, I would stick with 10th level (or lower) characters, giving a maximum 5th level spell in play.
  • I think some players had seen the ToH before, so I should have modified it more. Having a preprinted map didn't allow for that. 
  • I never use a DM screen. For this one, I should have, and probably should have slipped a copy of the map with notes to it.

For here on down, we're talking specifics so SPOILER ALERT!!!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Groups in the Same Campaign: Madness or Brilliance?

For years I have been planning an Asian-inspired campaign, in fact, since before D&D 5E even came out. Originally it was to be a Pathfinder campaign. Instead, something better came together out of a combination of 5E, some homebrew, and the Forgotten Realms Kara-Tur setting. The campaign concept evolved over a period of years to become a group of monster hunters in Asian-inspired Kara-Tur somehow getting caught up in the Blood War, the eternal war between demons and devils. I knew to do this right it was going to take a lot of homebrew and a lot of prep. In the end, there are 3 custom races, 7 custom classes / archetypes, a whole new weapon set, and several house rules. Prep involves coming up with lots of place names and character names in a setting I am not particular well-versed in, either specifically or by genre. To save myself a lot of work, both of my Roll20 groups play different parties in the exact same campaign.  Prep once, play twice.

Half the prep is a wonderful thing. It turns out, however, that running two groups through the same campaign has far greater advantages. As GMs, we all put together those interesting fights, only to have a quick series of failed saves or critical hits skew the fight into something different than we planned. We've all had players miss clues and drag the campaign off in unexpected directions. The question lingers: was it bad design or was it just a crazy random happenstance. Now with two groups in play, I often get those answers. I learn what is design and what is random.

A good example was a recent mission that both parties undertook in the town of Trunau. Something was killing commoners in one part of the city. They needed to figure out what was killing, find it, and kill it. It is a classic trope: investigate, locate, and kill. Both parties followed the same rough path through investigation, each clue leading to the next. One party had great luck at determining most of the special immunities and resistances of the monster. The other party had no luck.  Both parties ended up camped out in the middle of town at night trying to catch the creature. However, one party upset the local guard captain so badly that a PC was temporarily jailed, while the other party followed rules of honor and kept in the guard captain's good graces.

In the yokai fight, one party made most of their saves. The summoner failed and had to stay back during the fight. They knew very little about the yokai and charged into melee, killing the monster quickly, but still getting badly hurt by the tentacles flying in every direction. The second party almost entirely failed their saves. Being frightened, they couldn't move in on the creature. The summoner instead summoned a giant snake onto the monster which easily grappled it. The snake then moved the yokai within range of the PCs so they could attempt to hit it. This party had several PCs with little or no ranged weapons and it was a challenge.  Unfortunately, despite the much longer fight, the yokai couldn't seem to hit anything and the PCs mostly walked away unscathed, with the giant snake taking most of the damage.

By seeing the different ways this investigation, hunt, and eventual combat went, I learned a lot more about the overall design. I learned where things pulled the PCs in a consistent direction. I learned where dice rolls made a huge difference and where they didn't matter. If I were writing this campaign to share, running two or three groups through it simultaneously would have been the optimal approach for testing the design. By choice, I would run 3 groups through: 2 to test the initial material, and a 3rd to test the material after I made some tweaks.

Now this approach isn't for everyone. Trying to run two or more games at the same time takes some serious time commitment and organization skills. It turns out, it also takes some thorough notes to keep the parties straight and the information that the parties know separate. It is a real challenge, but if you are up for the challenge, there are some definite advantages that come out of it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Abyssal Winds: A New Style of Campaign

I've GMed over 100 sessions of Dungeons and Dragons 5E now, with over 40 different players across multiple campaigns. I think I have finally learned enough to make a meaningful commentary on the system. I really love it, except for one thing: my bad guys, NPCs, and monsters are always getting ran over by the PCs as they sprint through encounters. They don't even think about it anymore. Bing, bang, bam -- they run in and kill the baddies. I had a level 15 take out a level 21 lich in a round and a half without breaking a sweat.

My new campaign has been years in the making and I really wanted to get a different feel from combat and NPC interaction. The party is a group of monster hunters in Kara-Tur, the Asian-inspired part of Forgotten Realms.  To slow down the action, I really have emphasized two major changes: making NPC interactions trickier and making monster interaction trickier.

For NPCs, the PCs now have to navigate the subtleties of honor and tradition. Each PC has 7 stats now: the traditional six plus honor. Honor rolls are used to figure out how to say and do the right thing when approaching an NPC. Botch the honor roll, and the PC is going to say something insulting or commit a faux pas that will make even the best charisma not matter. Honor is a gatekeeper that slows down milking the NPC for information. It makes the party have to work for information. It also works quite nicely with the near-Ebberon levels of politics I have brought into the setting.

For monsters, I pulled heavily from monster hunters across popular culture, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy has the scooby gang, and before every fight, they spend their time figuring out what the creature is, what it wants, and how to kill it. I want the PCs to ask that one relevant question: "Does it have any weaknesses?".  In Kara-Tur, my monsters often have only one weakness. You walk into one of these monster encounters without doing your research, and you'll end up dead. That werewolf can't be hurt unless you have silver weapons. The troll regenerates without being hit by fire in a way that makes the PCs ineffective without it.  The players are now using investigation, perception, and a hodge-podge of techniques to gather and assemble information before they jump into a fight.

The results so far have been magical. They two groups I am running through this campaign are roleplaying more, interacting more, and scheming more. NPCs suddenly are an obstacle, not just a formality. Monsters are dangerous again, even for the monster hunters. It is by far the best start to a campaign I have ever had.

It is even more pleasing that all of this interaction and roleplaying actually reduces my preparation time.  I can build a generic village, throw down a few useful location tags, and keep a list of names. The players send their PCs looking for specific people to talk to, specific locations to find, and I improvise the interaction in-game. The only real detail I need in advance is some rough semblance of the local customs that I can reference with the honor rolls. Add a scenario with monsters and a little local political intrigue, and I am ready for a session or two missing that really plays well.

I'll keep an eye on it as it continues and share my results here as things progress. I am very optimistic that this will be my best set of campaigns yet.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

It's All About the Crits: Critical Successes and Failures

When you roll a 1, something bad happens; when you roll a 20 something good happens. It is a simple roll in many systems that can be the curse or bane of players and GMs. Today we're going to be discussing it in D&D 5E, however this rule applies lots of places.

Lets get some terminology out of the way first. An attack roll is made when a creature attempts to hit a target using a weapon (which could a natural, like a fist or claw) to hit a target. A saving throw is a a creature trying to resist or avoid an effect of something like a spell or a trap. A skill check is used when a creatures applies its knowledge to answer a question or its skill to perform a task.  For our purposes, this creature will be a player character.

For attack rolls, a 20 deals double damage dice, and a 1 misses in 5E RAW. These two effects nearly cancel each other out over the long haul, although not perfectly (math left as an exercise for the reader).  Every PC on every attack has the same change of a critical failure (miss) or a critical hit. This does a nice job of reflecting the crazy randomness and risk in a battle. A couple of crits one way or the either can results in an unexpected outcome.

Now, let us insert the favorite houserule that something worse than a miss happens on a critical fail.  In many cases, a significant percentage (if not all) of these critical failures ends your turn. These failures include things like dropping your weapon or clumsily falling down. Here's where an unintended consequence pops up. A level 1 character gets to attack once. A level 20 fighter gets to attack 4 times.  Because every attack has the same chance of a critical fail, the level 20 fighter is 4 times more likely to have  critical failure during their turn than a level 1 noob. Even worse, is that a critical failure may cost the level 20 fighter some of their subsequent attacks during the turn.  It makes the level 20 fighter look like a complete clown at fighting.

For skill checks, there are no critical failures or success in 5E. Let's assume once again we insert the critical failure / success houserule. First our level 1 noob untrained in athletics wants to jump onto the roof of a house DC 25. Does out noob succeed with a 20+0 as if they had all the skill of a level 20 fighter maxed out in acrobatics? How about if that fighter has a +10 in acrobatics and rolls a 1 tying his shoes DC 1? Does that means he fails? The bottom line is that critical failures and successes don't seem to fit, because they make the unskilled perform unrealistic tasks and they make highly trained characters fail at the mundane. Sure, the GM can try to moderate this, but ultimately the base rule doesn't fit, because it breaks the assumptions of what "being skilled" means.

Lets try one more -- the saving throw. Once again, 5E doesn't have critical fails or critical successes. Lets add them. Again, the level 20 maxed dex fighter trips jumps into the fireball, and the level 1 noob jumps behind the fighter, does a tuck and roll over the nearby wall, and takes cover. Clearly we aren't doing any better with the realism with this than we did with the skills.

Ack! So that means we don't use our favorite houserule? What ever shall we do to get our failures? I share this sentiment. Failure is the best part of the games. Most of the stories told and retold (Aoefel and the acid pit) revolve around failures, not successes. From my playbook, here are a few options:

  • Use GM intrusion style mechanics from the Cypher system. For 5E, it could look something like this:
    • On a roll of any one, the GM can make an intrusion i.e. add a complication to the scenario.
    • If the player doesn't accept, they have to give a hero point back to the GM. If the player has no hero points, they have to accept.
    • On an accepted intrusion, the player receives two d6 dice called hero points. The player then immediately hands one of the 2 d6 dice to another player and gives a reason for doing so.
    • In the future these hero points can be added to any roll (limit of 1 to a roll) before its outcome is known.
    • A player can only have as many hero points as their proficinecy bonus.
  • Allow crit fails on attacks only, and only on the last attack in the attack action. This gives everyone an equal chance of a turn-ending effect without the higher level classes losing all of their extra attacks.
  • Just play with RAW and use the plot to set up your own critical failures. Put the players in a scenario where they can fail and don't give them limited or complex information to figure out what will happen.
So those are my thoughts on critical fails, critical successes, and 5E. Have other thoughts? Drop me a message on twitter @PinkDiceGM.

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Stern Warning

Dreden slammed his fist against the table. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"

"Yes," said the two hobgoblin warriors who faced him across table.

"You cannot go above ground. We cannot be discovered, " said Dreden, his brow furrowed so that it was nearly touching his nose. "This mission will fail if you disobey."

"Yes, commander," the two repeated, one slightly before the other.

Dreden sat into the chair, lumber creaking under his muscular hobgoblin physique. The two warriors seemed fidgity. It was the white cloaks and the white helmets. They were too bright, too clean, and too civilized when they were above ground.

"Now what is the status of the tunnels?" Dreden spoke slowly. His face was normal again.

"The southern tunnel is slow going. There is bedrock under the river." said one warrior.

"The northern tunnel is a day ahead, so far as we can tell, " said the other.

Dreden frowned. "Escort Gitrid to the forward camp so she can make the assessment. We don't want any mistakes."

"Yes, sir", replied the warrior. "We're just being cautious after the first tunnel flooded."

Dreden leaned forward. "I can respect that. We lost too many to the first mistake. Still get Gitrid to help you. She bores me, she drinks too much, and I don't care for her company. Let her do something useful."

The warrior nodded.

"And check back at the end of a fortnight." Dreden paused while the warrior look confused. "The battle plans will be ready by then, and I want you to report back then. Now GO!"

The two slammed their arms to their chests and spun with a quick exit.

Dredn returned to pouring over his maps, scratching at his side. These white cloaks did seem, unnatural.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Numeneric Thoughts: Flying Things

Some of the things that fly in the Ninth World:

  • There is a winged creature with feathers, webbed feet and a large circular mouth. This so-called suckler bird likes to land on large pieces of shiney metal and glass and suck the debris off it.  A large flock of them can clean all the windows in a good sized town in a day. The young, however, have been know to attach to eyeglasses, mostly just frightening the wearer.
  • Numenera hunters near Beoth reported disturbing some sort of nest before leaving town.  A week later small flying disks appeared, cutting through timbers of local buildings. The residents were able to take shelter in stone buildings after one resident was killed, but are scared to go outside.
  • There is a four-legged animal in the Wyr river valley that can spread its limbs and glide.  The 3 foot creature has generally been content with swooping down and grabbing live food from the river, but recently it has taken to snatching livestock and small animals in settlements near the river.
  • Stirthal is home to a "wandering spirit from the sky". When someone is hurt on the streets of the town, a bright red machine drops out of the sky and works to repair their wounds. It seems to speak a foriegn language of clicks, chirps, and screeches. After it completes, it flies off into the sky and disappears again. 
  • There is an insect swarm in the Pytharon Empire that has been attacking those carrying numenera recovered from a local ruin. The victims are found dissected with not a drip of blood nearby.
  • There is a large animal in the Salted Marshes that can take to the air despite its large size.  Travelers said they have seen it as a bright streak in the sky at night.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Numenera Thoughts: The Sky

A few thoughts concerning the sky in the Ninth World:
  • A man in Uxphon has found a Numenera in the mountains. For 10 shins he will let you point it at the sky on a dark night where is shows large invisible cities floating in the sky.
  • In Navarene, several people have found objects left behind by a lumbering automaton that rambles quickly across the land. Friends and neighbors described the objects as large eggs. One witness said that when activated they glow crimson. A short time after, those that had the object were found burnt to death after a bright flash from the sky.
  • A large forest of trees stands outside of Dobrin, metallic with large metal leaves that point toward the sky.  On the first day of summer and the first day of winter, the sky above them pops and crackles with lightning. Anything above the forest is burnt into dust.
  • Near Mt Jaspar there is a machine in the sky that flies from a fixed spot out past the Deeplight and back every week, as if on an invisible cable. At night its light flicker and during the day it casts an unnatural shadow on the ground. No one know what the bronze-colored machine does.
  • In Draolis, there has been recent reports of small red spheres falling from the sky. A day after landing, a purplish worm-like creature, perhaps 12 cm in lenght wriggles out and crawls into the ground. All attempts to catch one of the worms has been useless, since the worms seems to be able to just "melt" right though anything.
  • In the forest south of Sere Marica a bright spot of light appears in the sky, seeming to originate from a source of the beam in the woods. No one has been able to discover where it comes from or what it does.