Thoughts on the role of D&D in Firewatch

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Firewatch. While I don’t give away any major plot points, I do discuss elements of the story. If you have not played it yet, and want to go in knowing as little as possible, come back to this post after you’re finished.]

D&D plays a minor but significant role in the excellent PC game Firewatch. It adds depth to a former inhabitant of the game’s environment and provides some emotional heft. Below are some thoughts on what this means and why I first reacted negatively to this aspect of the game, but later came to appreciate its insights.

I’ve been interested in playing Firewatch since it first came out, and finally set aside some time on a business trip to run through it. The game is what some call (often in a pejorative manner) a “walking sim;” the player is basically experiencing a story, with much of the action narrative in nature so there is little in terms of combat, skill tests or risk of failure. Firewatch, though does include some exploration—with the amount of narrative you encounter changing based on how much you explore—and features an incredibly engrossing storyline that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was playing.

As the game progresses, the protagonist (Henry) finds several D&D-themed clues—although the game is called “Wizards & Wyverns” in Firewatch—such as a 20-sided die and an adventure map. These belong to a 12-year old boy who had previously resided in the firewatch tower you use as a home base. There is a rather sad story surrounding this, and Delilah—a firewatch supervisor Henry converses with throughout the game—has some sentimental memories of the boy.

The characters’ attitudes towards “Wizards&Wyverns” is rather negative. Henry frequently refers to it as nerdy, with the voice actor nearly scoffing as he discusses what he’s finding. Delilah is less overtly negative, but adopts a patronizing, pitying tone towards the boy’s interest in the game.

This gave me flashbacks to high school, which was less than accepting of people who were interested in things like D&D. The combination of mocking from “cool kids” and patronizing calls to be nice from slightly more gentle “cool kids” were what convinced me to hide my love for D&D (as well as Star Trek and many other “nerdy” pursuits”). I didn’t get back into them until well after college, when I was more comfortable socially.

So at first the depiction of D&D in Firewatch made me mad. It seemed like the game’s creators were using D&D as a signal for someone being lonely and unhappy. All the progress made in the mainstream acceptance of “nerd culture” in the past few years seemed to be undone. Compare this to the treatment of D&D in Netflix’s Stranger Things series; there, it is also a sign of difference, albeit one that indicates the resourcefulness and creativeness of the characters that allows them to succeed.

But that didn’t seem right. Firewatch is entertaining. It is also a game that many would consider art. People who put so much care into these characters and the gorgeous world they inhabit couldn’t have such regressive and dismissive views of creative pursuits like D&D, could they? So, over an hours-long layover at an airport on my trip home, I thought more about Firewatch and came to a different interpretation.

One of the better responses to Firewatch I’ve seen is an excellent piece by Olivia White on Polygon entitled “Firewatch took away our ability to be good people.” The series of events that place Henry in the firewatch tower are driven by his ultimate selfishness, and Delilah’s interactions with Henry and the world are similarly both self-centered and destructive. Unlike many games, the player can’t escape this; no matter what dialogue options you choose, you end up with less than heroic characters.

Much of the little self-awareness the characters—particularly Delilah—have surrounds the 12-year old D&D-loving boy. She regrets not doing more for him, or being unable to properly respond to new information about him that arises during gameplay. While Henry shares less responsibility for the boy’s fate, he too develops a sentimental attachment to his memory.

The things about the boy they mock—particularly his love for D&D—come to take on a touching, innocent quality. We realize the boy was a force for good in the brutal wilderness. Those surrounding the boy realize his goodness, but are unwilling to move beyond themselves enough to support and sustain it. So the things he left behind—like his D20—haunt everyone who encounters them.

This, then, is the true meaning of D&D in Firewatch. It’s not a marker of “nerdiness” meant to elicit sympathy. It’s a symbol of purity and innocence in the midst of darkness—the expression of our creative impulse—that, by its presence, reveals the flaws of the game’s characters.

In Colin Campbell’s review of the game, he said that, while not perfect, it is definitely something people will “want to argue about.” And while I had some issues with the game, the fact that it inspired this meditation on another game I love so much suggests it is definitely worth experiencing.

I’d love to hear what other players of Firewatch think. Am I giving the game designers too much credit? Is there something I missed?

NOTE: This is a different sort of post than I planned for this blog, as it’s more of a think piece based on the use of D&D in a PC game. I’ll be back to more conventional RPG discussions next week, so if this isn’t your thing, bear with me.

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“A great upheaval,” walkthrough, part 2

Last week I presented the first part of my experience with “A Great Upheaval,” the introductory adventure from last year’s Storm King’s Thunder campaign for fifth edition D&D. We ran this at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comics in Williston, VT. At the table were (character names): Adrian, a half-elf warlock; Jon, a human cleric of Lathander; Bark, a forest Gnome druid; and Rogar, a Dragonborn Ranger. Below is the rest of the walkthrough; I included notes in [brackets] to indicate the gameplay mechanics behind a few of the more notable events.

…The group decides to go to sleep then head to the caves in the morning. Adrian steps outside for some fresh evening air, and notices seven humans on horseback riding to the village across the river. He calls for the others, and Jon yells out a greeting to the riders. The riders react with surprise, but tell the party to meet them in the center of the town; the leader of the riders adds a threatening demand to keep their hands where they can see them.

The party thinks better of this, and waits at their end of the broken bridge, ready. Eventually the riders approach from the town, with the woman they met in the inn riding behind their leader. The woman reveals they are members of the Zhentarim. Because the group didn’t harm her, she tells them that they can leave the village safely and allow the Zhentarim to occupy it. The group doesn’t  even need to debate; they refuse. Jon tries to launch a surprise spell attack, but fails, and combat began.

The two exchange a few rounds of ranged attacks. One of the bandits falls and Rogar is wounded. The leader of the Zhentarim decides to jump across the bridge and attack at melee range. He slips as he jumps and falls prone right in front of the group [he is a tough foe, so I thought this would make for a good battle. But he failed his acrobatics check]. The group proceeds to beat him up—Jon smacks him with a mace, Rogar burns him with his dragon breath, and Adrian hits him with an eldritch blast. Finally the woman asks them to stop, and tries to negotiate. The party agrees to keep the leader safe, and the Zhenatrim and the party would leave together in the morning so they can all keep an eye on the others.

The next morning, Adrian steps outside again for some fresh air, and sees a group of 20 orcs rush out of the forest, heading towards the village. He calls the party out just as the Zhentarim woman calls to them from the other side of the bridge. She suggests they join forces to stop the orcs, but asks for her leader back. The group agrees. Rogar tosses him, misjudges the distance [failed athletics check] and the still-bound Zhentarim leader plunges into the river and drowns. The woman is stunned, but retreats back into the town to prepare defenses.

The Zhentarim had raised the drawbridge so the orcs try and swim across the river and climb the town’s walls, but fail, losing several in the process thanks to the Zhentarim firing from the town. The group and the orcs exchange fire, killing several more of the orcs until the orc’s war chief gets angry and swims across the moat. He manages to climb up to the group and seriously wound Rogar before the rest of the group gang up on him and kill him. The orcs across the bank try to help, with the orc shaman casting spiritual weapon to summon an spear and attack, but they fail. After a few more orcs are killed by the Zhentarim, they flee back into the woods.

Suddenly a hail of arrows hits the group from the other side of the bridge; the Zhentarim—angered at the death of their leader or maybe even planning this all along—are attacking. Rogar is further wounded before Jon casts guiding bolt on the woman (now in charge of the Zhentarim). The damage is so intense she is disintegrated, and the rest of the Zhentarim flee.

After taking another long rest, the group heads to the Dripping Caves to try and save the remaining villagers. They find the cave mouth in a hill, and explore around its perimeter. The group finds a stream flowing into the hill from the west and follow this inside to try and avoid detection.

They enter a low-ceilinged room with a pool into which the stream was emptying. All members of the party had nightvision except Jon, so he cast light on a stone and kept it hidden, revealing it only momentarily to look at his surroundings. They follow a passage north, passing a room sealed with a boulder (and making note to return to that room later) and come out into a large chamber.

Bark sneaks forward to explore. He sees a large goblin (assumedly Boss Hark) and two other goblins watching some giant rats eat something. The rest of the group sneaks up on the goblins and they all launch a surprise attack on Boss Hark. They manage to kill him before he can respond. The other goblins run away screaming, while the rats attack and were quickly defeated [this encounter felt way too easy, but I think it’s because all four rolled well on their surprise attacks].

The group hears screaming from the north. They find Lady Nandar’s maid tied up. She tells them about their capture; the goblins held the villagers in a room to the east and were gradually bringing them out to eat.

The party tells her to stay out of sight, while they follow the path of the fleeing goblins to the east. They come into a large chamber to see two groups of goblins. One group of five was shouting at another group of two that was joined by two ogres. [this was some improvisation on my part-I figured that the fleeing goblins would rouse the rest of the caves. In the adventure, one goblin would have been willing to betray Boss Hark to the party so I decided to have him rally half of the survivors to his side]

Adrian decides to try and trick the goblins into freeing the prisoners. He casts disguise self to make him look like the dead goblin boss; he then planned to walk into the room and order the goblins to free the prisoners. Jon taught him a few goblin phrases to use. Unfortunately, he became a little stressed and messed up, shouting at the goblins in elvish. The sight of their dead leader shouting at them in elvish enraged the goblins, and they attacked [Adrian rolled a 1 on his performance check].

The ogres rushed forward and pummeled Rogar, nearly killing him. Meanwhile, the goblins swarmed Adrian over his slights to their leader and nearly took him down as well. Bark turned into a giant spider [using his druid power] and attacked the ogres, managing to wound them. The group concentrated on the ogres, eventually killing both of them, even though everyone was seriously injured.

The surviving goblins, meanwhile, pulled away from the battle. Their leader said they just wanted Boss Hark overthrown, and didn’t want to keep harming the prisoners. The group, weary of fighting, agreed to let them go.

They then rescued the surviving villagers, gathered Boss Hark’s treasure (in the room behind the boulder) and returned to Nightstone. While there was no reward left to give them, they were cheered with a great feast. At the end of it, Morak pulls them aside and asks if they will travel to the village of Triboar to pass on the news of the death of his friend Luthag—who ran the Lionshield Coster—to his family. The group agrees and, after resting and recovering from their wounds, sets out into the wilderness.

[the printed adventure ends with a cloud giant taking the adventurers aboard his castle. We ran out of time so I thought it best to just end with rescuing the villagers.]

Thoughts: this was a great adventure, and I wish I had been running sessions when the Storm King’s Thunder campaign was active. It included all different aspects of gameplay—exploration, social interaction, combat—to introduce new players to the game. It also gave players a lot of freedom to choose how to proceed and had some great foreshadowing of the rest of the campaign. One issue I had is that it leveled up the characters too quickly. I know this was the point—to get them ready for the main adventure—but characters who finished the whole adventure would end up with 5th level characters they barely knew. Maybe future campaigns should be set to begin the main adventure at level 3.

“A Great Upheaval” walkthrough, part 1

Last weekend I DM-ed a run through “A Great Upheaval,” the introductory adventure from last year’s Storm King’s Thunder campaign for fifth edition D&D, at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comics in Williston, VT. Below is a write-up of what turned out to be a fun (and at times humorous) adventure. I included notes in [brackets] to indicate the gameplay mechanics behind a few of the more notable events. This is part 1; I’ll conclude the adventure next week.

At the table were (character names): Adrian, a half-elf warlock; Jon, a human cleric of Lathander; Bark, a forest Gnome druid; and Rogar, a Dragonborn Ranger.

The party formed in Waterdeep and heard that Morak Ur’gray, the proprietor of the Nightstone Inn, was renowned for his excellent beer and his tips for novice adventures to find promising dungeons to explore. They set out for Nightstone to begin their adventuring career.

The group arrives late morning to find something is amiss. There was no one around—no one coming out of the town, no one passing by on the road. But a bell is ringing incessantly from inside the town and the drawbridge across the moat is down. The group grows especially concerned, though, when they notice the bridge to the keep—built on an artificial island in the river—had been smashed.

The party decides to forge head. Walking across the drawbridge they discover the source of the ringing bell, a temple to Lathander and Mielikki. But they decide to venture further into the town to find any of its inhabitants. They grow even more concerned as they notice giant boulders embedded in the ground throughout the town, as if they had been dropped from a great height.

The group walks into the town square and aresurprised to come on two worgs. The worgs attack, severely injuring Adrian before the others manage to kill both of them. Bark revives and heals Adrian, and they realize something very bad had happened to Nightstone.

Looking to the north, they see a sign for the Nightstone Inn. As this was their initial destination, they decide to try and find Morak and head inside. It was devastated. A boulder had plunged through the roof, smashing tables and chairs in the common room. Curiously, a goblin lay dead with a crossbow bolt in its chest; an investigation by Bark indicates it had died recently. Jon then hears a sound in the kitchen at the back of the common room. They investigate.

Inside they find a goblin rummaging through the pantry and loading up a sack. It had not noticed them sneak up behind it, so Rogar—who hates goblins with a passion—kills it with his dragonbreath. The group notices a flight of stairs so they head up to find out if anyone had survived.

They explore two empty guest rooms and Morak’s bedroom. Bark tries unsuccessfully to break open Morak’s locked chest, but the others convince him that would be a bit rude. Jon enters the last bedroom, which had been partially destroyed by another boulder. He looks around and is followed by Adrian who—being more perceptive than Jon—notices a human woman hiding behind the door [Jon failed his perception check]. She tells them she is a travelling monk who was staying here when the attack started, and was knocked unconscious. All she knows is boulders came out of the sky, and wants to hide until it’s safe. They tell her they will secure the town, and head out.

They head outside and decide to investigate the ringing coming from the temple. The sanctuary is deserted but a door is half-open behind the pulpit. Looking in, the group sees two goblins swinging from the rope bell. Rogar rushes in and challenges them. The goblins leap down, draw their scimitars and try to intimidate the party into leaving. This fails horribly. A fight ensues and the two goblins quickly fall. Rogar takes the corpses outside so they don’t foul the temple, Jon prayers over the site of the combat, and they leave.

The party now decides to investigate the keep, stopping by any buildings they pass on the way. Rogar and Bark poke their heads inside the Lionshield Coster trading post and find a goblin inside gathering supplies. The goblin, startled, puts his hands up and offers them a fancy padlock it found in exchange for its safety. They press it for information, and the goblin mentions being sent here by “Boss Hark,” but won’t tell anymore. To Rogar’s annoyance, Bark agrees to let the goblin go. The rest of the group waiting outside is surprised to see a smiling goblin trot out, wave, and head out of the village.

Jon heads south, shouting to see if anyone is still alive. Two goblins looting a farm hear him, and ambush the group from behind some fence posts. Once the group recovers from their surprise, they kill one goblin and convince the other to surrender. The goblin tells them that he is from a tribe based in caves a few miles to the north. A group of humans arrived the day before and were captured; the goblins, being goblins, decided to start eating them. Their leader, Boss Hark, sent several to the town to gather any loot that was there. The group deliberates over what to do with the goblin, and decides to let him go if he promises to not return to the caves.

As they arrive at the bridge they see that a boulder smashed into it, leaving a 10 foot gap. Rogar suggests throwing Bark over with a rope, while Bark suggests casting jump on himself. Due to a communication mishap, both occurr; Rogar tosses Bark just as he casts the spell, so Bark flies through the air, landing against the wall of the keep. Bark and Jon then tie the rope to bridge posts with exceptional skill [the results of two natural 20s on the ability check] and the group crosses over. All went well except for Rogar, who slips and nearly falls into the river [a failed athletics check] but catches one of the beams of the bridge and pulls himself back up.

The group enters the keep and finds the four remaining guards of Nightstone inside, standing watch over the recently fallen leader of Nightstone, Lady Nandar. They tell the group a floating castle flew overhead, dropping boulders onto the town. The villagers couldn’t make it to the keep so they likely fled to the Dripping Caves, a fallback point a few miles to the north. Giants then descended and stole the Nighstone, a mysterious relic that was the village’s namesake…

Come back next week for the second half of this great adventure.

[UPDATED: changed formatting, and corrected the name of the campaign]

Is charisma overused in fifth edition D&D?

So just to save you reading the blog post in case you’re busy, the answer—in my opinion—is yes. But please read on for my explanation, as well as why I think this matters for gameplay and roleplaying.

One day while a former group was going through a D&D adventure, it came time for a charisma check to deal with a shopkeeper. We realized half the group had high charisma, so we had to debate about who would be best to handle this. This got me thinking about how common high charisma is in fifth edition D&D.

There are numerous classes dependent on high charisma. It is the primary stat for paladins, warlocks, sorcerers and bards. By contrast, dexterity is the primary stat for rogues and rangers (although wisdom is a close second for rangers). Wisdom is important for monks, clerics and rangers. Strength is essential for fighters and barbarians. And intelligence is only important for wizards.

Now someone may argue there is some complexity to this. Charisma is the primary SAD-type stat (that means single ability dependent, i.e. a class that can make do with high scores in one ability) for only sorcerer. Sorcerers are spellcasters and charisma determines everything about their spells, much like intelligence does for wizards. Paladins are a mix of divine magic and combat, so they’ll also be reliant on strength (or dexterity for the rare dex-based paladin). Warlocks are kind of intended to be combat-focused so they may also rely on strength or dexterity. So charisma maybe isn’t that ubiquitous.

There are a few issues with this retort. First, Warlocks and Paladins may be MAD (multiple ability dependent) but they’ll still need high charisma—either of these with mediocre charisma scores is kind of pointless and you might as well just play another class. So they still rely on charisma. Second, whether or not charisma is the primary stat, having relatively high scores among multiple characters means lots of people will be good at similar stuff, especially in social interactions. Finally, there are no classes with intelligence as a secondary stat. Sure it might be good for investigator-type rogues but it’s not really required.

This last point brings me to why I think it’s an issue. Just having lots of charismatic characters around should be a good thing, right? But there are downsides.

The first is if you want a smart character. Intelligence is useful for a variety of knowledge skills, and I think it’s a cool character concept to have a nerdy professor-type, so I wanted a smart character. But one of my fellow party members likes to always play sorcerers, so we didn’t really need a wizard. I realized then that the only way to have a smart non-wizard character is to lower a more useful secondary skill (like dexterity or constitution). But there are plenty of character builds pushing you towards having pretty good charisma so I kept ending up with charismatic characters with intelligence as their drop stat.

Now obviously this is only a problem if you want smart characters. But there are other issues. One is duplication. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, we kept running into situations where everyone could do a charisma check that came up. It takes away the fun when people don’t have unique skills, and can get a little frustrating. I bet a lot of 5e parties end up with lots of people with +5s on persuasion and none with more than +1 on history or arcana.

The final one is more of a conceptual issue. When I raised concerns about the overuse of charisma, my fellow players said it’s because there are different types of charisma. A charismatic paladin may be a bold leader, able to inspire the troops. A charismatic bard is a charmer. A charismatic warlock or sorcerer has a powerful, strong personality that can literally summon magic from nothing. So charisma isn’t overused, it’s a diverse concept.

But when a concept can stretch to fit numerous applications, maybe it’s poorly defined. Indeed, when you look at other game systems—like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, which I will blog about here—they have multiple skills that would fall under charisma. Of course, I have issues with very specific skills or attributes as that tends to lead to redundance or over-complexity (look for a future post on this).

So what is the solution? Maybe replace charisma with wisdom for either warlock or sorcerer. This would balance stats out a bit. Or even make intelligence the primary stat for warlocks. A warlock usually comes into contact with his or her patron through study or exploration, so it makes sense for wisdom or intelligence to be high. This would ease the over-reliance on charisma a bit.

Any thoughts?