Why I love D&D

This is a short post for people who are kind of interested in trying D&D but aren’t sure if they’d really like it. It’s hard to explain what makes this game so great, so I’m going to give an example of a great in-game moment that captures the unpredictable fun of D&D. Hopefully veterans will recognize this sort of story, though, and enjoy this post as well.

I recently started a new campaign as a player character, rather than a DM (who runs the game). I’ve been mostly DM-ing for awhile, so I was looking forward to playing from the other side. My character is an Aasimar Paladin, Roland. Paladins are the stereotypical holy knights from literature, like Sir Percival. Aasimars are a D&D creation, the offspring of a celestial being and a human. So he’s basically a really holy warrior.

My group and I were exploring a castle that had sunk into the earth (the Sunless Citadel adventure from Tales of the Yawning Portal). At one point we found a room containing five sarcophagi. Paladins can sense undead, so I determined there were skeletons in each of them. We readied ourselves for a fight, and opened one.

The other four opened as well, and the skeletons stumbled out. My character particularly hates undead—undead cultists killed a unit of his knightly order—and excitedly rushed into battle. But he rolled a low initiative. Initiative rolls determine who goes first in combat, so low rolls means you have to wait for others.

The group’s ranger went first, killing one in a volley of arrows. The wizard went next, damaging a skeleton with a fire bolt. After a few more turns Roland finally got to attack…and missed. The group’s rogue killed another skeleton in a flurry of dagger stabs, while the dwarf barbarian hacked another to bits with his axe. Roland swung…and missed again.

Soon there was only one skeleton left, and Roland began to despair he would have a chance to demonstrate his martial prowess. The dwarf barbarian swung and damage the skeleton, but it was still up. Then it was Roland’s turn.

He attacked, and hit! But he didn’t just hit the skeleton. I rolled a 20 on the attack dice and a maximum on damage (8). A natural 20 on attack is a critical hit, which means damage is doubled. And the skeletons were vulnerable to the war hammer I wielded (they’re more hurt by bludgeoning damage) so the damage was doubled again. It ended up with 22 points of damage.

Roland shouted a challenge, swung…and the skeleton exploded into dust.

And that’s why I love D&D.

It’s always hard to predict what will happen, as a powerful warrior can miss with every attack in combat. But just when all seems lost, you land a good blow, and have a satisfying encounter like this one.

Sometimes it can be pretty dramatic, such as a recent adventure I ran in which the entire group except the fighter was knocked unconscious in a fight with the hobgoblin boss. The fighter charged the hobgoblin and fought him on one on, killing the enemy with a lucky blow.

Everyone has stories like this, stories you can’t quite replicate in computer games or more structured tabletop games. And that’s why I love D&D.


Why don’t I play wizards in CRPGs?

I know it’s kind of weird to write a blog post asking my readers a question about myself. But it’s a question I’ve been pondering recently.

I started re-playing the expansions for Neverwinter Nights. The two expansions—Shadows of Undrendtide and Hordes of the Underdark—actually form a series separate from the main Neverwinter Nights campaign. It takes your character from level 1 to epic levels, and is a lot of fun.

As I was making my character, I realized I tend to play melee characters in computer-based role playing games (CRPGs). My first game ever—Baldur’s Gate—used a paladin, and I repeated that in its sequels. Other times I’ve played a ranger or a melee-focused rogue, but that’s as far as I stray.

That’s not the case with pen and paper RPGs, like D&D 5th edition. While I have played paladins here, I’ve also played clerics, warlocks and wizards. My favorite so far was a wizard (Fonken, who I’ll discuss here at some point). So I thought I’d try a wizard in my latest play-through of Neverwinter Nights. But after about halfway through Shadows of Undrentide, I stopped.

Why? Part of it is the nature of that game; your choice of henchman disadvantages non-frontline characters. But it was also the gameplay. I found myself spamming the same set of attack spells in each combat. And if the enemy broke through my outer defenses, I had to reload the last save. Ultimately, it proved one-dimensional and both tough and boring at the same time. So now I’m playing as a ranger.

But obviously some people play CRPGs as a wizard, and have a lot of fun. So the problem must not be in a design flaw, but some difference between tabletop and computer-based Dungeons and Dragons games.

Indeed, the tabletop experience as a wizard is a lot different than in a computer game. Some people do just spam magic missile, and have a great time. But there is a lot of opportunity to use attack spells that disadvantage enemies, giving your melee companions a chance to attack. And all the non-combat encounters provide an opportunity to use utility spells in a manner that really makes your party’s lives easier. I tend to follow this guide’s approach to wizard, which de-emphasizes damage per second (dps) and focuses more on controlling the environment.

A lot of this doesn’t translate into computer games. There are many spells I prepare as a wizard that I never use, as the situation doesn’t arise or there are other easier means. For example, in Shadows of Undrentide, I had knock prepared, but my panther familiar ended up just breaking down locked doors. So as a wizard you tend to gravitate towards spells that cause a lot of damage or that summon allies.

As a result, wizards just become dps machines. This is the role they play in World of Warcraft. That might be fine if you have a large party to control—as in Baldur’s Gate—but when you control just yourself and a henchman (like in Neverwinter Nights) it can be limiting.

More importantly, it’s not what draws people to play a wizard. Wizards are smart and inquisitive. They’re masters of lore and problem solvers. None of that comes across if you just cast attack spells over and over. I guess you could still add in some role-playing elements, but it’s rarely directly connected to the story.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is a way around this. Games like the Elder Scrolls—in which there is a lot more freedom to interact with the environment—are more fun to play as a wizard. You can use your spells in creative ways to avoid combat if needed. But ultimately, a lot of the non-combat encounters from D&D would be difficult to pull off in a video game (although if someone has a good example, please let me know).

Overall, this may be a good case of how tabletop gaming does not translate well into computer games. They’re both good, but are not exactly the same experience. Are there other areas where we lose something important if players only know D&D through computers? Am I being unfair to “support” characters in computer games?

Out of the Abyss conclusions, wrap-up

Well, my final session for the first half of Out of the Abyss never happened. A few of the members cancelled at the last minute (I may write a post on how to deal with this increasingly common part of modern gaming) and the rest of us decided to play the excellent Lords of Waterdeep instead.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I’m taking a break from DM-ing and we’ll be starting a new campaign, so we thought we’d just move on. I’ll still be doing walkthroughs of our sessions, although from the perspective of a player.

In this post, I thought I’d write up how I was planning to conclude part 1 of Out of the Abyss, in case anyone is following along for ideas to use in their own campaigns. I’ll also provide a few of my thoughts on the campaign.

Concluding Part 1

When we left off, the group was getting ready to wage the Battle for Blingdenstone. They needed to accomplish a few tasks for the deep gnomes before the battle could begin. And then, assuming they defeated the villainous Pudding King, the deep gnomes would lead the party to an exit from the Underdark.

The campaign book provides several tasks for the group. Some occur around Blingdenstone–putting deep gnome ghosts to rest, cleansing a holy site, defeating Ogremoch’s Bane (which corrupts earth elementals), and finding Entemoch’s Boon, which aids in their summoning. There were others that took the group to other areas of the Underdark–fetching special fungus materials from Neverlight Grove, and procuring a shipment of high-quality weapons from Gracklestugh. For each task the group undertook, they would gain some benefits in the battle.

I decided against running the outside-Blingdentsone tasks. These would be useful if the group went to Blingdenstone first, and the DM wanted them to fully explore the Underdark. But it would add too much time (and be a little annoying for them) to backtrack now. I was going to run through each of the three tasks in Blingdenstone, though, as they were varied adventures that provided more depth to the city.

After that would be the battle. This involves the group dealing with a few random encounters before battling two powerful oozes and then the Pudding King himself. As I’ve done before, I pre-rolled the random encounters so they would be all set–in this case the group would fight two waves of black puddings and ochre jellies. I’d then run the final battles.

The escape details are left up to the DM. I tried to come up with a simple, but memorable final battle. The deep gnomes would escort the group to an exit they knew of. This is a cave lit with wondrous light, which is a mixture of nightlight fungi growing in it and…daylight! The cave has a shaft leading up to another cave, which opens onto the surface.

The upper cave was an ancient elven temple, which they carved out and structured to Corellan Larethian. They carved steps into the shaft, and set up mirrors so the two sets of lights could intermix. If this sounds a little familiar, I took the idea of an abandoned elf temple as an Underdark exit from Baldur’s Gate 2 (see my thoughts on these games here).

But the drow who had initially captured the party would be awaiting them, as they’d gained intelligence on the party’s movements while they were in Blingdenstone. The drow would be hiding, try and surprise the party, and a chase would ensue.

I drew out a map and would use miniatures to track the progress of the chase. The varied terrain and option to ascend into daylight might have led to some interesting tactics.

And that would be it; they would be free from the Underdark, hoping they’d never have to return… (which is what would have happened if we continued the campaign)

Thoughts on Out of the Abyss

Overall, I thought this was a very well-done adventure. It’s my first published multi-adventure campaign for D&D, and I thought they did a good job. The encounters were varied and interesting, and the setting made for some memorable adventures.

DMs definitely need to read through the whole thing a few times, though. The adventure is open-ended, so you’ll need to have all chapters prepared simultaneously. Also, the flow of the adventure is not always clear. Without planning out various options, you may stumble while directing the players; this was especially the case in Gracklestugh.

My big complaint would be the cinematic nature of some encounters. As I’ve noted, at times the players just sit back and watch as things occur. Nothing they do really affects the outcome. This is particularly the case in the Kuo-Toa city on Darklake. Some parties may enjoy this, as they can interact with NPCs and try various options as things progress. My party tended to be on the quiet side, though, so they kind of waited until they had to act. So I’d be prepared for these sequences if you have a similar type of party.

But all in all, it was great. Maybe at some point I’ll reconvene the party and return to the Underdark…

Is the DMs’ Guild bad for game stores?

In January 2016, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) announced the Dungeon Master’s Guild. The DMs’ Guild is an online platform that would allow WOTC to release material for the fifth edition of D&D, while also allowing players to upload their own material. It’s a great idea, and has made it a lot easier to keep the momentum going for 5e. But it seems like it cuts out an important part of the gaming community; friendly local game stores (FLGS).

First, the DMs’ Guild is a great idea. It enabled the D&D community to develop and grow as the fifth edition took off.

Starting with the Basic Rules in 2014, and followed soon after by the core rulebooks, D&D’s 5th edition revitalized the game. Streamlined and dynamic, both accessible for newcomers and nuanced enough for veterans, the newest edition of D&D was a hit. But demand outpaced supply. In my FLGS at the time–Labyrinth Games in Washington, DC–they couldn’t keep the D&D books on the shelf; unless you pre-ordered, you were out of luck.

WOTC focused on releasing the core rulebooks, important supplements like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Tales of the Sword Coast, and massive campaign books. They also facilitated games around the country through the Adventurers’ League. But this didn’t leave a lot of time for minor products, like one-shot adventures or small rule variants.

This is where the DMs’ Guild came in. The game designers can release minor updates through this. More importantly, the legion of players and DMs creating adventures, character options, and home brew rules can make them available for others to use.

So what’s the downside?

It has to do with my memories of D&D back in the early 1990s. I started playing D&D after I found my dad’s Basic Set as a kid, and soon moved on to the then current second edition of AD&D. I bought the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but wanted more. So whenever we visited game stores (which were more common back then) and I had some money,  I’d grab another adventure to play with my brother. Now, I can still find those adventures, but it involves going to a website.

Some of my old D&D collection, being guarded by my daughter’s Puppy

The DMs’ Guild basically takes away this product line from FLGS’, which can be a problem. FLGS’ are under an immense amount of pressure, as Barnes and Noble and Amazon both offer easily-accessible alternatives for customers. But FLGS’ serve an important role in their towns, bringing gamers together and sustaining a welcoming community. My FLGS–Killer Rabbit Comics and Games–runs numerous events for local gamers, and has helped connect me with many others interested in playing D&D. If gamers can/have to go to their FLGS for the latest D&D content, this will do a lot to sustain these businesses. If new products are often not available in stores, customers will just shop online. Barnes and Noble will survive (maybe) just through customers occasionally buying the $50 rule books, but FLGS’ will suffer.

Like I said, DMs’ Guild is a great idea, which should be encouraged. So what can WOTC do to help FLGS’? There are a few options.

First, they could print some of these products. It could be the official D&D products, or best-sellers from users. But print versions would probably sell well. There are lots of D&D fans–like me–who want more content. WOTC could even mark them up, and they’d do well. This would bring business to FLGS’, but it would also ensure a steady stream of product releases to keep players from wandering away from D&D.

Second, they could leverage the excellent Adventurers’ League. This initiative has helped gamers to get together, often via FLGS, to play D&D. It’s actually how I got back into D&D after 5e came out. And it really helps FLGS’, as many of the players end up buying their D&D and other gaming materials from the store hosting their sessions.

So why not extend this, and make some DMs’ Guild content available for Adventurers’ League organizers? The printed versions of popular DMs’ Guild products could be sold through Adventurers’ League organizers–making distribution easier. Or WOTC could even offer some printed versions for free as an incentive for exceptionally successful hosts.

I know that WOTC cares about FLGS’, and don’t think DMs’ Guild was an attempt to hurt them. I think DMs’ Guild is a great idea. I just think there are a few ways to tweak it to make sure this great resource doesn’t hurt the local game stores that sustain D&D.


Crusader Kings 2 walkthrough: Restoring Charlemagne’s Empire, part 3

I have been interspersing my RPG discussions with a walkthrough of the excellent Crusader Kings 2, in which players choose a dynasty and see it through from 1066 to 1453. In this game, I was playing as the last Karlings–Charlemagne’s descendants–confined to one county in France. Over time, they have schemed and conquered in an attempt to return the Karling family to greatness.

Last time, Clotaire II abandoned his family’s long feud with the foreign French monarchy, and died peacefully, mourned by all.

Clotaire II was succeeded by his eldest son, Lothaire. Where his father was noble and beloved, Lothaire was devious and feared. A great schemer, he immediately set to work bringing down the hated foreign king. Lothaire formed a faction to push for gavelkind succession; as the King had two young daughters this would lead to a division of the realm. Lothaire used his spies to gather dirt on other lords and blackmail them into joining his cause, then launched his rebellion. He easily won, and the King changed the succession rules.

Lothaire then moved into phase 2 of his plan. He had his spies abduct the King while he was travelling through the Karling lands. Lothaire then executed the King in prison. This led Lothaire to be widely despised, even by those who were not fond of the King. But it worked. The realm was divided between the two daughters. Brittany, Aquitaine and Aragon went to the eldest, and France to the younger.

[all of this was accomplished through the Intrigue actions available in the Way of Life expansion. I got a little lucky it all worked out, but when you have a high enough intrigue in a character, it can be a useful way to rule your realm through underhanded means.]

Lothaire then began plotting to overthrow his new Queen. He did not get very far in this latest scheme, however, as he was assassinated by bowmen while travelling on the roads. His list of enemies was too long for anyone to know for sure who was the killer.

Lothaire’s eldest son, Francois, inherited the Karling lands. He was a genius, and immediately set about developing and strengthening the administration of the realm. But he worked a bit too hard, and died of stress after only three years.

His brother, Lothaire II then became Duke. Lothaire II saw the repeated failures and frustration of his family, which he attributed to personal egos getting in the way of the cause. So he came up with a plan with his sister, Denise. She would marry their German cousin, now the Duke of Franconia and Flanders. Lothaire II would make her his heir. The two would then work to break their land free of what remained of France and join the Holy Roman Empire.

Their plans came together sooner than expected when the Queen of France faced a rebellion in the southern part of her realm. Lothaire II declared independence and easily won, although he was severely wounded in battle. He died less than a year after gaining independence, and his lands passed to Denise.

Denise was a brilliant and shrewd leader, who should have been the greatest of the Karlings but she repeatedly faced suspicion due to her gender.

Shortly after coming to power, she swore fealty to the Holy Roman Empire. After joining the Empire, her intelligence and charisma earned her the respect of the previously suspicious German Dukes. She also became very close to the Emperor, although he refused to appoint her as a counselor position because she was a woman. She also used her managerial skills to develop her families lands further, making them some of the wealthiest of the Empire.

But she faced repeated intrigue to remove her from power. Her various nephews continued to conspire against her. Some tried to kill her, others tried to organize factions to overthrow her. She managed to undermine all of these plots, throwing her nephews in jail, one by one.

Turmoil on the Empire’s eastern border soon called her attention. The Mongol horde out of the east had been gradually conquering Christian lands. They had seized Hungary a few years before, and now turned their sights on the Holy Roman Empire. In a massive invasion, they conquered Bohemia and the Empire’s lands in Italy. After a short respite, the Mongols attempted to conquer the Papacy itself. Christian leaders all over Europe rallied to defend the Pope, including  Denise. She raised her troops, and spent some of her own money on mercenaries to supplement them. The Christian armies turned back the Mongols, ending their advance into Europe.

Denise spent the rest of her life in peace, dying peacefully at 66.