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.