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…

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Out of the Abyss session 4: Entering Blingdenstone

Last week in this continuing walkthrough of D&D’s excellent “Out of the Abyss” campaign, the group made their way from Gracklestugh to Blingdenstone. The group consists of Navarre (half-elf rogue), Varys (half-drow ranger), Zinaella (half-elf paladin), Barakus (tiefling monk), and Brynn (gnome wizard).

After escaping the flooding temple with their new friend Glabagool (a sentient gelatinous cube), the group approached Blingdenstone. The tunnels had been sloping consistently upwards. This part of the journey was uneventful, although they spent one entire day hearing horrid shrieking from side passages. After a few more days, two deep gnomes appeared out of nowhere and ordered the group to halt.

Seeing Topsy with them—and apparently in no danger—they brought the group into an obscured tunnel nearby. They realized this was a deep gnome mine, and soon met Dasco Pickshine, the owner. The group introduced themselves to him, and told him of their journey. Dasco offered to let the group tag along on an ore shipment he had bound for Blingdenstone if they could provide protection.

They agreed, and were about to leave when Zinaella noticed a hand slipping into his pack. He grabbed the would-be deep gnome thief. Dasco was horrified, and Topsy noted how unheard of theft is among the deep gnomes. Dasco motioned to two guards, who proceeded to beat the thief mercilessly. All of the group knew this was also strange. They ran into a bit more trouble when they introduced Glabbagool to the deep gnomes, but they managed to convince them their friend was safe.

Everyone boarded the wagon with the ore shipment, where another deep gnome was waiting. Dasco introduced her as Nomi Pathshutter, who maintained the deep gnome’s earth elemental summoning stations. After hearing of the group’s travels, she told them of Ogremoch’s Bane—an evil force that corrupted elementals. She asked them for samples of any insane earth elementals they encountered.

The group travelled for half a day when suddenly two pools of strange-looking liquid rose up and attacked. They raced to what they realized were ochre jellies, but the group kept slashing at the jellies with their weapons. This caused the jellies to split and multiply, till there were soon over half a dozen attacking them. Eventually the group realized what was happening, switched their tactics, and destroyed all the jellies. Dasco thanked them for their help, and noted that attacks by oozes and the like were increasing in frequency.

They arrived at the gates of Blingdenstone, thick steel doors set high above the tunnel. Guards called down, asking for the group’s names and information. Dasco vouched for them, gaining them entry, but the guards refused to allow a gelatinous cube—even a friendly one—into the city. Glabbaool agreed to wait outside.

The group dismounted, and the cart was moved onto a lift that rose high up the cavern well. They ascended the narrow steps and entered into the gates. Guards led them through a maze pockmarked with murder holes. They then took them a narrow passage with slots for archers at either end.

They were beginning to feel intimidated—with memories of the dour duergar city in their minds—when they entered Blingdenstone itself. It was the first time they truly felt welcome in the Underdark. Warm light illuminated cozy homes dug into the walls, and friendly—but wary—deep gnomes moved about in every direction. Dasco said he had to unload his goods, but pointed the group towards the Traders’ Grotto market and the temple [Navarre wanted to find a way to get rid of his curse].

The group headed to the temple first, and found a friendly acolyte. After listening to their situation, he said the priest could likely help, but was away until tomorrow. While there, they laid to rest the remains of the deep gnome whose ghost they encountered in Gracklestugh. Suddenly, a ghost rose out of the ground. The group was friendly, and soon found out this was one of the deep gnomes who fell in a long-ago battle with the drow. The ghost mentioned some of his fellow ghosts remained lost and hostile, and asked the group to help. After agreeing, they decided to head to the Traders’ Grotto. This was a magnificent area, full of petrified mushrooms of all sizes.

They waded through the crowds and the stalls until they found Werz Saltbaron, the merchant they were tasked with bringing gems to in Gracklestugh. He acted very strangely when they showed him the gems, ordering the group to keep them out of sight. Realizing he was involved in something shady, the group managed to get double the payment he offered.

Heading away from the grumbling Werz, the group stopped short as they saw a deep gnome guard rise into the air. As the crowd around them screamed and ran, they realized what had happened: two gelatinous cubes had broken into the city! The group moved to attack.

They first tried to get the guard free. Barakus stuck an iron bar he had into the cube for the guard to grab, but he couldn’t reach it. Then Zinaella and Navarre tried slashing the cube open, but it kept reforming.

Meanwhile, the cubes had surrounded the group, and one lunged at Navarre, engulfing him. He took significant damage as the cube began to digest him; the group could also see the guard was near death.

They doubled their efforts, focusing on killing the cubes. A series of punishing blows from Barakus and Zinaella, and well-placed arrows from Varys managed to kill the cube containing the guard. He fell forward, nearly dead. Meanwhile, Brynn focused her offensive spells on the cube with Navarre, killing it just as he was about to fall unconscious.

The Traders’ Grotto erupted in cheers as the deep gnomes surrounded the heroes. The guard they saved led the crowd in thanking their new heroes, and the party was carried off to the Foaming Mug, Blingdenstone’s tavern.

The owner gave the group free food and drinks, and they celebrated deep into the night. The next morning, they were awoken at a horribly early hour by an insistent knocking on the door. A young deep gnome told them they were summoned by Senni and Dorbo Diggermattock, the city’s leaders. Fighting off their hangovers, the group headed out into the city.

The Diggermattocks were waiting in the assembly hall, surrounded by guards and retainers. They thanked the group for their efforts. In turn, the group asked for help reaching the surface. The deep gnomes informed them they could lead them to the elf temple they had heard about, which led to the surface, but could not spare any guides now: the city was in danger.

Blingdenstone was under attack by hordes of oozes, as the group had noticed. They needed to figure out why this was occurring or they would be unable to secure the city. Additionally, a group of wererats had seized part of the city. The deep gnomes and the wererats frequently skirmished, further heightening the city’s insecurity. The group offered to do what they could, and the deep gnomes told them of two operations they had planned. [I liked my dialogue here, so I am including it]

Senni said, “one mission would be to investigate the source of the ooze attacks.”

Dorbo, whispered to her, “tell them the name of it, tell them the name.”

Senni, sighed. “It’s Operation: ooze there.” All the deep gnomes, except Senni, giggled.

Dorbo then added, “the other is “Operation Exterminate.”

“With a question mark,” Senni cut in

Dorbo sighed. “Yes, with a question mark.”

The group was tasked with uncovering the source of the ooze attacks, and determining how much of a threat the wererats posed (and whether they needed to be driven from the city).

Before heading out, they stopped by the temple to find the priest. The priest was friendly, although he kept launching into long-winded lectures until his acolyte interrupted him. He said he would like to help rid Navarre of his curse, but was wary of crossing Lolth without more power. Their original temple had been defiled, weakening his connection to their deity. The priest therefore asked the group to cleanse their temple with a spell gem. The temple was in a portion of the city infected with Ogremoch’s Bane, so no one had been able to accomplish this task yet.

The group then set out on their quest. They first visited the wererat’s territory. The deep gnome guards reluctantly opened the doors that barred the passageway, then quickly locked it after the group went through. They sneak forward carefully, coming to a fork. One direction smelled foul, the other less foul, so the group turned in the less foul direction.

Suddenly four poison arrows shot out of the wall, all flying directly at Zinaella. He panicked, and didn’t even try to dodge as they all hit him [really bad dexterity check], causing him to pass out. Four wererats surrounded the group, and moved to attack.

Thinking quickly, the group began trying to talk down the guards. They promised they didn’t come for a fight, and even offered to put down their weapons if they can handle this peacefully. The wererats agreed [good persuasion checks], and took the disarmed group (dragging the limp Zinaella) to their leader.

There the group met Goldwhisker, the portly leader of the wererats. He explained they are deep gnomes afflicted with lycanthropy, and moved to this abandoned area. They resented the deep gnomes’ attempts to steal their territory, especially as they considered themselves as part of the city’s defenses. Specifically, they said they are under constant attacks by oozes and might have to flee soon. This would leave Blingdenstone even more insecure.

Goldwhisker said he wants reassurance that the Diggermattocks will let them live, and he’ll help the city against the oozes. The group agreed and returned to the deep gnome leadership. Unfortunately, the Diggermattocks were not convinced, and needed more proof of the wererats’ willingness to help [bad persuasion checks].

So the group returned to Goldwhisker, and convinced him to give them more to work with. He agreed to take the group through a secret passageway into the ooze-held area, to show them what they’re up against. The group followed, and saw hundreds of oozes gathered in a cavern. Beyond that was a strange-looking deep gnome who seemed to be able to command the oozes. With this new information, the group headed back [I’ll discuss this below, but I got a little lost in the book here—it was unclear how Goldwhisker would show them this, so I improvised]

As they were returning, they heard a voice calling for help from a side passage in broken Undercommon. The group rushed forward, and saw a black pudding advancing on a dust mephit and an earth elemental. The group attacked.

Zinaella, Barakus and Navarre all managed to hit the pudding, but the effects were not what they hoped. Acid sprayed onto all of them as they hit the ooze, injuring them. And when Zinaella slashed the pudding with his sword, it broke into two separate oozes [Barakus used his fists (ouch) and Navarre used the mace they got from Glabbagool]. Brynn, meanwhile, cast a ray of frost at the ooze, which fizzled and did nothing. So Varys showered the pudding with arrows until both halves of it shriveled up and died.

The dust mephit was very thankful. It explained that it and his friend—the elemental—were trying to leave the city when they were cornered by the pudding. They were treated well in Blingdenstone, and wanted to help, so they told the group of some information they had picked up in their travels: the location of Entemoch’s Boon. The pair them headed off into a side passage.

The group then returned to the Diggermattocks and told them what they found. The deep gnomes decided to hold a council, and invited the wererats. Also in attendance were Nomi Pathshutter, the friendly ghosts the group had encountered, the priest and acolyte, and representatives of the city’s armory.

The council quickly realized the seriousness of the threat they faced. The ghosts suggested freeing several of their number from evil influence, and the ghosts could join in. Nomi, meanwhile, argued that more earth elementals are needed, and finding Entemoch’s Boon would help.  The priest then chimed in, and suggested cleansing his temple would also help.

The Diggermattocks then turned to the group and asked for their further help. The group agreed, and offered to sneak past the oozes to take care of the Pudding King while the main force of the deep gnomes attacks. They also said they met a nice dust mephit who was friends with all the deep gnomes; at this the assembly burst out laughing at this ridiculous idea [I was getting tired, and thought it’d be funny for no one to know what the group was talking about]. The group brushed this off, and said they had the location for Entemoch’s Boon, at which the assembly was amazed.

The group also pushed the Diggermattocks to let the wererats stay in the city. The leadership was skeptical [the group kept rolling bad persuasion checks]. Eventually, Varys suggested they decide based on pure military necessity; they needed extra personnel and defenses, and the wererats would provide this. This convinced the DIggermattocks, and they reluctantly agreed to peace with the wererats [I let each group member come up with a reason to let the wererats stay and roll persuasion, Varys rolled well].

The council adjourned. The deep gnomes and wererats would begin preparations for the attack. While that was occurring, the group were tasked with helping improve their capabilities. They must find Entemoch’s Boon and cleanse the temple to aid in summoning Earth Elementals, and deal with the hostile ghosts to free up the ghosts to join in.

The group returned to the Foaming Mug for another good meal, and a good night’s sleep in preparation for the…Battle for Blingdenstone!

Just a few closing thoughts on this part of the adventure, as this post is getting long. I stuck with the middle of the road approach to random encounters on the travel; I used the set encounters and then a few random encounters that seemed fun (meeting the Society of Brilliance, the gas leak). This definitely was my preferred route. The set encounters are great, so it would be a shame to miss them. But unless the group really wants a long adventure in which they immerse themselves in the Underdark, I’d be sparing with the random encounters.

Blingdenstone was my favorite of the three settlements the group visited. It had varied encounters and will build to a great climax (unlike Gracklestugh). As I mentioned, I got a bit lost with Goldwhisker telling the group about the Pudding King. That was one of the many areas in which the book may just want DMs to improvise.

Finally, a programming note: my group decided to do one more session with Out of the Abyss then shuffle things up (including giving me a break from DM-ing). I’m running another series of D&D adventures (the multi-level dungeon I mentioned on Twitter), and the group may rotate walkthrough write-up duties, so these posts will continue in a different form.

The moment it clicks: Getting new players into RPGs

If you met my brother (the middle child of 5 in my family), you wouldn’t think he is into tabletop games. And he never thoughts of himself as someone who likes to game. He thought of me as the intellectual (when we were getting along) or nerdy (when we were fighting) brother, and those games were for people like me. But I finally convinced him to try Settlers of Catan on one family vacation and he loved it. On a later visit, the two of us played over and over, even trying some of the expansions. He loved Munchkin and Dominion just as much when we tried those out.

Even though he loved these tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs seemed a bridge too far for him. Maybe it was the lack of a board to ground the experience. Maybe it was memories of childhood, when our other brother and I would play D&D and exclude our younger siblings. Whatever the reason, he’d just chuckle and shake his head when I asked about trying a RPG. I’ve encountered this attitude among other gamers—they love games like Catan, but just don’t think they would ever like something like D&D.

But one recent Christmas, I finally convinced him and a few other family members to try one out, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Force and Destiny (see my discussion of it here). This game focuses on force sensitive characters learning how to become Jedi. I think part of it was the recognizable Star Wars universe, while the inclusion of a map and character icons in the F&D starter set I owned helped too. I also explained how the rules for this game differ from D&D, and are more inclined to story-telling rather than math (see my recent walkthrough of an adventure from a related Star Wars game for more on this system).

The adventure included in the starter set was pretty basic; the characters had to find a temple and rescue their mentor. My brother and the other players picked their character, and I GM’d. It started out kind of slow, everyone was pretty tentative when I asked the infamous GM question, “so what do you want to do?” But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The characters needed to cross a bridge blocked by a few bandits. As starting characters they were pretty weak, and had already been through a few tough fights. Charging the bridge directly would probably have led to a few of them dying in their fragile state. The party was deliberating an alternate path when my brother looked at his character sheet and saw he had a force power that could lift and move objects.

“So,” he asked me, “could I lift up the bandits and throw them off the bridge?”

“You can try,” I responded. And he did.

He rolled the required dice, got the necessary successes, and both bandits flew off the bridge. The reason why these games were so fun finally clicked for my brother. He started getting really creative with his force powers and other character skills, finding ways to deal with all other obstacles they encountered without resorting to melee combat. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get a D&D or Star Wars group together on his own, but he’d probably be open to playing another session when we get together again.

This is the moment we need to replicate if we want to get more people interested in RPGs like Star Wars: F&D or D&D. They need to realize these games aren’t just people running around pretending to be wizards, or completing complex mathematical calculations (although some games get close to that, as I’ve discussed). They are vehicles for translating creativity into open-ended gameplay. Of course, as I am writing I can see that sentence turning some potential gamers off. So what can we do to help new gamers realize this?

I think the scenario my players encountered in the F&D starter set adventure is one way to do this: a non-obvious puzzle requiring a creative solution. This wasn’t a locked room with various levers that had to be pulled in a certain order; such a puzzle may be fun for some players, but could end up rather tedious for others. But because the players knew they would struggle with a frontal assault on the bridge, it became a puzzle; they were incentivized to be creative.

We can see various versions of this in advice for new GMs. One example is The Angry GM’s guidelines for creating adventures, with an emphasis on “decision points” for characters that requires them to solve problems, and not just kill monsters. Another is the advice in Roleplaying Tip’s discussion of 5-room dungeons.

So when designing introductory adventures, we could be sure to include encounters that are open-ended and disincentive face-to-face combat. What do you think? Do successful intro adventures you’ve run or played as a character include this sort of situation? Have you seen anyone suddenly “get” RPGs through other means?

Out of the Abyss, session 2: Neverlight Grove

Last week, I presented the first part of our second session of D&D 5e’s “Out of the Abyss.” The party escaped the destruction of Sloobladup and made their way through the Darklake, coming ashore near Neverlight Grove.

Sarith figured they were a few days from Neverlight Grove, and Stool became excited. Their journey there was uneventful, although the ground changed as they got close. The dry, dusty soil they’d been walking on became damp and spongy. At one point they saw two creatures harvesting fungus; Stool explained that they were drove spore servants—drow who died and whose bodies were animated using myconid techniques to serve the community.

Finally, the group arrived at Neverlight Grove. After the horrors of their journey this seemed like a paradise. Multi-color mushrooms, some glowing in a pleasant light, grew everywhere, even from the ceiling. A forest of giant tree-like mushrooms was in front of them. Beyond, they could see terraces rising to the north and south, and to the east a broad cavern continued opening up before it narrowed into a ravine far to the east.

Stool excitedly rushed forward, and the group followed, picking their way through the fungus of the grove. After a short while, a tall myconid walked out of the wilds. This was Loobamub, the head of the Circle of Hunters. He greeted the group and thanked them for returning Stool to them. He was concerned about recent events, but directed them to talk to the grove’s two sovereigns for more information.

The group continued on, meeting with Sovereign Phylo and Sovereign Basidia, who jointly led the myconid community. Both were pleasant, although Basidia seemed reserved. Phylo kept discussing a Great Celebration that was coming soon, but was hesitant to talk about it. He did offer to bring the group to meet The Great Seeder the next day, but asked that they stay out of the Garden of Welcome until then. The group agreed, confused, and Basidia offered them a tour of the grove.

The group saw the rest of the Grove, including a myconid elder who was obsessed with building surface structures and another who wanted to sprout as many myconids as possible (both of which, Stool told the group, were not normal). They then met Rasharoo, head of the Circle of Explorers, and one of Basidia’s allies. While they were talking, Basidia remarked that Sarith seemed to contain spores he did not recognize, which was concerning; Sarith claimed to have no idea what the myconid was talking about. The two myconids then told them that Phylo and another elder myconid had been acting strange lately, cutting themselves off from group communing and gathering some of the community around them. They were working on something suspicious in the Garden of Welcome, and Basidia hoped the group could help.

The group agreed to check it out. They were shown a secret path to the Garden of Welcome along a ravine. They climbed in, snuck past the guards, and were met with horror and shock as intense as the joy they felt when they first arrived at Neverlight Grove.

The Garden of Welcome was more of a Garden of Horror. Humanoids of varying races were trapped in the decaying fungal ground, being absorbed into the decay. One drow, a member of a patrol who had stopped by the Grove, saw the group and begged them to kill her. She told them that Phylo had been working in service of Zuggtmoy, and to get our while they could. Before the group could react, she and the other trapped humanoids began screaming.

The reason was soon apparent. Yestabrod, the other myconid elder working with Phylo, appeared, but he had mutated into a larva-like creature. When he saw the party, he summoned several drow spore servants as well as two other myconids. Suddenly, Sarith started screaming, and turned into an additional spore servant.

The group leapt into action. Bryann hurled a fireball from her necklace at Yestabrod, while the others in the group engaged its followers. Navarre then closed with Yestabrod. The fight was going well, with the myconids falling easily, when Yestabrod released a cloud of spores. They hit Navarre and wounded him with an acid splash. Yestabrod then caused several of the corpses to explode, severely wounding some of the party members with further acid damage.

The party rallied, focusing on Yestabrod, with Kesara delivering a killing blow. As Yestabrod fell, they heard strange murmurings further on past the Garden, through a narrow ravine.

They entered the ravine and were overwhelmed with even more horror. This area was filled with even more rank decay, and they witnessed a captured drow being absorbed into the muck. The group then watched as two groups of spore servants reenacted a bizarre wedding in front of a giant mushroom tower. The group, barely maintaining their sanity, ventured inside. Floating in the mushroom was Zuggtmoy, the demon lady of decay. At this sight, the group screamed, with Brynn and Zinaella becoming incapacitated with madness. The rest of the group grabbed their fallen comrades, and ran, screaming…

And that was our second session. I thought it was great. I was a little more prepared than the first time, which helped. I also rolled all random encounters, and planned them out—along with terrain descriptions—to ensure that part of the adventure flowed smoothly. I added the Lost Tomb of Khaem fixed encounter as I wanted the group to get the magic sword, Dawnbringer, early. I need to work more of the sword’s personality (it’s a talking sword) into future sessions. I was a little worried we took too much time up with random encounters and not enough with the plot, so I’ll see what the group prefers for next time.

One issue, though, was Neverlight Grove. Like Slubladoop, a lot of the chapter involves characters walking around talking to people but not really affecting things. They’ll be asked to go investigate the Garden no matter what they do, so taking them to each of the Circles kind of felt like a waste of time. Based on my reading of the other chapters in part 1 of this campaign, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue moving forwards, though.

Our next session is coming up pretty soon (the summer throws off scheduling) so be on the lookout for more parts of my Out of the Abyss Walkthrough…

Issues with Star Wars: Force and Destiny characters

This is a wonky post, but hopefully it illustrates a broader point about character design in games.

My former gaming group had for sometime alternated between D&D 5th edition and Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Edge of the Empire focuses on the shadier side of Star Wars, with characters wo are smugglers, scoundrels and explorers. Recently, Fantasy Flight released Force and Destiny, which is focused on Jedi-esque characters using the force, which is only a minor part of Edge of the Empire.

Character creation in these games is rather different from D&D. Players start with a set amount of XP based on the race they chose. The player then chooses a career and specialization; a career is similar to a D&D class like paladin, while specialization is like the specific oaths that paladins can take. In Force and Destiny, for example, one career is Guardian; specializations include peacekeeper, protector and Soresu defender (a Jedi training).

After choosing race, career and specialization, a player must buy attributes and skills. This where the career and specialization come in. The specialization and career you choose gives you certain “career skills,” which a player can “buy” relatively cheaply with XP. Players can also buy “non-career skills”–other skills not included in their career–for more XP. And players can buy “talents”–specific upgradeable powers–that depend on their specialization.

Hopefully that’s kind of clear. Basically, the classes are very customizable, but career/specialization push you in certain directions.

Ok, now to the game. Force and Destiny (F&D) has an interesting set-up. You aren’t playing as parties of Jedi Knights, although this may be possible at higher levels. Instead, player characters are “force sensitives,” people with some affinity for force use. They have a variety of careers—pilots, scouts, warriors—and can add force powers and eventually Jedi-like lightsaber training as they gain XP.

So far so good. But as we were putting together a party we kept running into problems. None of us could find a character we were completely comfortable with. And we kept running into issues with party balance. We always tried to calibrate character creation so everyone’s PC has a unique role and nothing important is left out. But we kept struggling. No one was really specialized enough in information gathering. Those of us with combat-focused characters, like me, found ourselves with little to do outside of combat.

And this wasn’t just a rookie mistake. We’d all done this before, and we tried to work out a good party. It kind of felt like there was something with the character creation process that was causing complications.

So we looked into this, and found it. The characters were just a little off.

First, a lot of the career-specialization skills were either oddly mismatched or redundant. The Starfighter specialization had every piloting-related skill as career—piloting, of course, but also astrogation and gunnery. This makes sense if your PC is flying an X-wing, but that barely ever happens in the game. And when you’re on a freighter-type vessel—the usual way to get around space—one person has all the skills needed but can’t use all of them at once. So you either have redundancy—two astrogaters—or are missing important skills.

The Guardian specialization has career skills related to melee combat and medicine. This kind of made sense, but the attributes needed for melee and related skills (brawn, discipline) are not at all complementary with the skill for medicine, intellect. So you either have a character with weak stats in both or who isn’t making use of their character’s full potential.

One more example, the Peacekeeper. The Peacekeeper’s career skills make use of Brawn and Willpower attributes. But all the talents in the talent tree related to leadership checks, which depend on Presence. So again, characters will have trouble balancing this out.

Of course, the Star Wars RPGs’ process lets you customize your character. If you want piloting skills but that isn’t a career skill for your character, you can still take the skills, they just cost more. And you don’t necessarily need to make use of all the skills and talents for a specialization. So all these downsides could be overcome by spending XP for non-career skills or ignoring clashing elements of character design.

But that kind of defeats the purpose of the class system. If we can just have infinitely customizable classes, let’s use a system like Shadowrun’s or the Firefly/Serenity RPG’s. If there are classes, they should be playable. Star Wars character creation system is kind of halfway between D&Ds—with little customizability outside class options or multi-classing—and the games I just mentioned that are very customizable. Maybe in the end it’s an uneasy balance.

Out of the Abyss Walkthrough session 1, part 2

Last week I presented the first part of my walkthrough on our first session of D&D’s “Out of the Abyss.” The group escaped their drow prison in the midst of a demon attack and headed into the Underdark…

[I chose to narrate their travels through the Underdark with just a few random encounters to keep it moving along; the alternate was to roll twice a day. But I did have the group roll daily for foraging and navigation. I’ll roll for more random encounters in future travels].

The group stumbled through the tunnels under Shuushar’s lead. At one point they climbed down a cliff face thanks to a well-placed ladder—which they had Derendil tear down—and heard screams of terror in the distance down a side passage. They generally managed to find enough food and water thanks to occasional groves of fungus.

After a few days, they came to a narrow passage with two gas spores (fungal reanimations of Beholders) blocking their way. Brynn approached and cast burning hands on one. It promptly exploded, but the burst of spores it sent out knocked her unconscious and close to death. The rest of the group opened fire with their ranged weapons and killed the second spore. As they did, they all got a burst of memory; they saw a Beholder chasing some deep gnomes into a ruined elvish temple that had sunlight streaming in (gas spores sometimes release memories of their Beholder lives). Zenaella healed Brynn, including the disease she picked up from the spores, and they moved out.

The group continued on for a few more days without incident, although they struggled to find food and became exhausted [they gained one level of exhaustion]. Suddenly, a steam vent broke open and Navarre was hit with the steam, severely wounding him. He was still walking though, and they continued on.

As the group approached Slubbladoop, Shuushar became excited, but the group wanted him to go first and make sure they could enter peacefully. He told them he was not very welcome there—thanks to his pacifist teaching—and he’d prefer the group as backup. The group was a little uneasy–and irked, as Shuushar hadn’t mentioned this yet–but they continued.

After another hour they were surrounded by a kuo-toa raiding party. The group was wounded and exhausted, and found themselves overwhelmed as the kuo-toa attacked. Several of the group went down, and it looked like they were about to be captured, when a rain of spears came out of nowhere. Another group of kuo-toa killed the landing party and ran up to the group.

This group was led by the archpriest of the Deep Mother, the kuo-toa god. He said his daughter recently had a vision of the Deep Father. She denounced their ancient traditions, gathering followers of the Deep Father and conducting blood sacrifices. He asked the group for help. He would present them as fake offerings, and when his daughter was distracted, he would attack her with his followers.

The adventurers were skeptical, and pressed him for some assurance they would be safe (and actually receive a reward). He wasn’t very comforting, but they did get a sense he wasn’t lying. [this was a difficult encounter, because as far as I could tell there wasn’t much for the players to do but follow along, unless they really screwed up and attacked].

The kuo-toa led the group through their chaotic and filthy city. They passed the docks, where numerous sturdy ships were moored, and came to the priest’s quarters near the Deep Mother shrine. There they waited for a bit, managing to get a short rest, before they were summoned to appear before the Deep Father.

They were escorted out, and came to the shrine, a grotesque creation made up several dead aquatic features tied together, on a platform over the Darklake, with a blood-stained grate below it. The sacrifices occurred there, and their blood flowed into the Darklake below.

The priestess began the ritual when, suddenly, her father attacked. The entire area broke out in a chaotic melee. As the kuo-toa fought, the group saw the water foaming with blood, and realized a swarm of ixitxachitl (a kind of evil manta-ray piranha) were attacking some of the worshippers. In the chaos, one of the Deep Father worshippers grapped Turvy, stabbing her and throwing her into the water. Topsy rushed to help, but the group—realizing it was too late—grabbed him and ran off.

This horrible situation soon became worse, though. The group heard a deep rumbling that gradually grew in severity. Suddenly, the water near the city exploded in foam and out of it emerged a being seemingly spawned from their darkest nightmares; two-headed, tentacled, and roaring, Demogorgon was here!

The group recoiled in horror, and Brynn, Varys and Navarre became stricken with madness [bad roll on the madness check]. Brynn became enraged, trying to attack Barakus, although her lack of combat skills led to him not realizing he was under attack for a few rounds [a few natural 1s]. Varys and Navarre collapsed, weeping and laughing. Meanwhile, Derendil went crazy, attacking kuo-toa randomly.

The group ran towards the boat when they heard Ront scream from behind them and disappear into the crowd. They ignored this—as they weren’t very fond of him—and kept running, dragging Varys and Navarre along, while Barakus was held up behind them trying to fight Brynn and grapple her.

As they got to the boat they noticed Buppido run out of the crowd, wiping blood off his knife. They ignored this as well. They got aboard, with Varys and Navarre’s madness wearing off, and Barakus finally grappling the angry gnome wizard.

Once aboard they shoved off, rowing frantically to escape the city, which Demogorgon had begun to destroy. A near-miss of one of his tentacles threw Stool and Turvy overboard. The group got Stool back but had to row out into the depths with Turvy holding on by a rope when an ixitxachitl suddenly attacked Turvy, grabbing him in its mouth. Barakus and Zenaella both grabbed the rope, pulling Turvey and the evil fish aboard. They freed the deep gnome, and pushed the fish back into the water.

The group tried not to look back as they rowed away, trying not to be overwhelmed with terror by the realization that not only were they trapped in the Underdark, but they were trapped here with the prince of Demons…

And that was our first session of Out of the Abyss. It was a little chaotic (there’s a lot for the DM to remember}, but a lot of fun. It worked pretty well to have someone run the NPCs, although I should have given him a chance to read the campaign book first, as he was catching up as we went.

I was a little surprised and gratified the group moved so quickly to escape from the drow prison. When I ran as a player, the DM indicated we couldn’t break out of the chains, and we struggled for awhile to figure out what to do. This group also benefited from some lucky rolls to escape. But this is a definite sign of the importance of following your players’ lead, instead of trying to get them to use the cool encounters the DM came up with for their time in jail (the ones I had were pretty good).

I think it made sense to skip over a lot of random encounters between the drow outpost and the kuo-toa village, as I wanted to get into the heart of the story. But for our next sessions I’ll rely more on the random encounters to provide flavor and a sense of dread. I may follow the lead of some other blogs on this campaign and roll for the encounters first, so I can be prepared ahead of time.

So that’s that. We’ll be running our next session in early June, so I’ll be back with part 2 of Out of the Abyss then.

Out of the Abyss walkthrough: Session 1, part 1

My D&D group recently started the excellent fifth edition campaign, “Out of the Abyss,” which came out in 2015. I ran through part of it as a player with an old group, so I was very excited to get started. As I did with previous walkthroughs, I will be summarizing what happened in narrative form, with points about game mechanics [in brackets]. I’ll break up the first session into two posts for easier readability.

The group consisted of:

  • Navarre, a half-elf rogue
  • Zenaella, a half-elf paladin
  • Varys, a half-drow ranger
  • Barakus, a tiefling monk
  • Brynn, a gnome wizard

As this adventure includes a group of NPCs who accompany the party throughout the adventure, we had an extra player (from the event’s wait-list) manage the NPCs, with direction from me. The NPCs were:

  • Prince Derendil, a quaggoth who thinks he’s an elf
  • Ront, an orc
  • Eldeth, a noble dwarf scout
  • Stool, a myconid sprout (a kind of walking fungus)
  • Shuushar the awakened, a pacific kua toa (a normally violent fish-person species)
  • Buppido, a derro (a kind of mad, evil dwarf)
  • Sarith, a renegade drow
  • Topsy and Turvy, deep gnome twins
  • Jimjar, another deep gnome

There are interesting backstories and twists for all these characters, but I’ll reveal them as the players discover them.

The session started with the group captured by the drow, locked in a cell and restrained with manacles and collars. They had been there a varying number of days, and some had managed to acquire useful objects, like an iron bar or a shard of flint. While they hadn’t met before the adventure, the surfacers in the group got to know each other (with the exception of Ront). They’d been put to work on menial but difficult tasks by the Drow priestess in charge of the outpost. They’d also managed to get a sense for the basic layout of the outpost, which was a series of caves connected by platforms 100 feet above pool on the floor of the cavern. [I thought I’d start them out with some familiarity, to move things along]

It was evening, and the group was recovering from their day of work. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside, and the Drow threw in Shuushar and Stool. Stool landed on Ront, who was about to beat him up when Barakus intervened. Ront backed down, and glowered in the corner [Barakus rolled well on intimidation]

The group discussed what to do. Navarre was able to use the shard of flint he found to free Varys and Barakus, but it broke when he tried to free himself. The two freed prisoners arranged their manacles so the drow wouldn’t notice, and they waited till morning.

In the morning, the drow woke them up with buckets of foul, cold water, and threw in some bowls of mushroom gruel. Ront tried to steal Topsy’s, but Barakus intimidated him again, and he gave it back [we started a running joke about how bad Ront was at being an orc after this]. The drow announced they’d be back in 20 minutes to divide the group up for the day’s labor.

The group sprung into action. The freed prisoners situated themselves so they could surprise the guards, and the others were told of the plan. When the four guards returned, Barakus hit one over the head with his iron bar, and combat began. The NPCs were not very helpful, and Zenaella and Brynn wasted several rounds until they discovered they were in an anti-magic field and their spells were useless. But Barakus killed one guard, and Navarre took his keys to free everyone else. It was a tough fight, and Barakus was knocked unconscious after the drow teamed up on him. But the group managed to overwhelm them. [I had a couple days of encounters planned for the group as they prepared to escape, but this was pretty fun too]

The group snuck out into the compound, and saw they had two paths—into a stalactite hollowed out to serve as a guard tower (not very desirable) or a platform to the north. They headed north, ducked into a cave…and ended up face to face with two quaggoth. The fight began, and was going badly for the players, when a horrible buzzing and howling broke out, and alarms sounded.

The quaggoth ran, and the group followed. The outpost was in chaos as a group of chasme and vrock demons battled in the air—occasionally swooping down on a drow—and the drow tried to defend themselves. The group took advantage of the chaos and ran into the guard post. One surprised drow was inside, and they quickly defeated him.

They found stores of arms and supplies, and stocked up when two drow ran in from outside [I set a timer, and every few minutes something would happen, to kind of approximate the chaotic feel]. The group had a tough fight, as they were still weak from the first battle, but won.

The group stopped to look around, and saw that below them was a layer of webs over a deep pool. They thought they could jump onto the webs, then into the pool, but Brynn wanted to find her spellbook first. So they headed south to explore the rest of the outpost.

They saw a large platform where most of the drow were gathered to fight the demons, and another stalactite off to the side. The group snuck in there, and found a shrine to Lolth, the drow’s demon goddess. They searched the room, and found a few valuables, including gems in a spider idol’s eyes, which Navarre stole without thinking through potential consequences…

The group continued down into the stalactite and found what looked like the priestess’s room, where they discovered more valuables, some potions of healing, and all their gear. They suited up, and Navarre hollowed out some pillows to serve as rucksacks. While they were doing this two drow guards stopped by to investigate.

Barakus heard the drow arrive in the level above them, so the group prepared to ambush them as they investigated. But the drow saw the group, and began firing their crossbows down into the lower chamber. This led to a few rounds of inconclusive exchanges of fire until Barakus leapt up the ladder, grabbed one of the drow and—in an impressive display of his monk skills [and great acrobatics rolls]—pulled the drow down to the floor. This shifted the balance in the group’s favor, and they won, albeit even more injured.

They decided to run. The group headed back to the platform above the pool and leapt into the webs. Navarre, Barakus, Varys and few of the NPCs managed to free themselves on landing, and they noticed three giant spiders approaching. Navarre, not the noblest of heroes, jumped down into the pool, and Barakus and Varys followed.

Eldeth remained to help her friends, freeing Brynn and Zenaella before the spiders arrived. Zenaella tried to stop the fighters while Eldeth and Brynn freed the other NPCs. They managed to get all but Jimjar, Ront and Shuushar out when Zenaella fell before the spider’s venomn. Eldeth, in a burst of heroism, told Brynn to try and stabilize Zenaella then run; she handed Brynn her warhammer and asked her to return it to her family in Gauntlgrym.

Eldeth threw herself at the spiders. Brynn managed to stabilize Zenaella with a lucky medicine roll and the two of them jumped as the spiders killed Eldeth. Ront and Shuushar managed to break out, but Jimjar remained stuck in the webs, and the spiders soon killed him.

The group was now  free, on the cavern floor while the drow battled the demons. They were rather guilty about leaving some friends to die, and Ront was pretty unhappy in return.

Shuushar urged them to go to his home city, Slubbladoop, as it was relatively close and they could find passage through the Darklake there. The group agreed and headed out, although they heard a cry of “the prisoners are escaping” from above.

They headed into the Underdark….tune in next week for the conclusion of our first session.

“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.

Why I’m not a fan of Shadowrun/Two types of players

I was initially going to call this just “Issues with Shadowrun,” but to be honest if I don’t like a game as popular and influential as Shadowrun the issue is probably with me, not the game. That got me thinking about what became the real theme of this post.

It all started when a former gaming group tried to play Shadowrun. We created characters, started running the intro adventure, and it went nowhere. I spent days customizing my character (a ninja-type investigator/infiltrator) and learning the rules for evasion and using my grapping hook. And I never used any of them, as we spent our entire session debating rules as one person tried have his technomancer create sprits. We spent so much time on the rules of the game we never really had a chance to become immersed in it. (If you’ve never played Shadowrun and have no idea what I’m talking about, that’s fine, it’s just complicated Shadowrun stuff).

I complained on our group chat channel and we never played again. So I was annoyed that I spent tons of time on a character for a game I wasn’t excited about in the first place and then never really got to use.

At first I decided the issue, as I said, was with Shadowrun. It is a very complex game. There are different rules for semi-automatic, burst fire and fully-automatic guns. There are complicated rules for hacking into computer networks or using magic. And, to be fair, by mixing magic, complicated combat and technology the game has a bit of the most difficult to learn parts of other game systems. As a huge fan of D&D 5e I didn’t see why Shadowrun couldn’t be simplified along the lines of 5e’s advantage/disadvantage modifier system.

But then I thought about how much time I spent on my character, mostly after I’d closed my door to my office and kept glancing worriedly at the window to see if anyone was looking in (in a previous job, I am a very dutiful worker now). It was kind of cool to have such a complex, customizable process and I could see how someone could get lost in the very detailed rules for every aspect of the game.

So maybe there are just two types of players. Some of us get really excited about immersing ourselves in an abstract alternate world. We like coming up with character backstories, acting out what the character would do, writing blog posts about their history and personality (ahem). Others of us love the mechanics of translating adventures—combat, exploration, investigation—into dice rolls. Realizing that a burst fire from a machine pistol would do more damage but be less accurate, and seeing how this affects the number of and modifiers to your dice pool, is pretty cool.

Some games are geared towards the immersive. I think the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games fall into this category, as the dice rolls lend themselves to narrative story-telling and slightly abstract action. And then Shadowrun would be—as one of my former group members called it—more “crunchy.” In my opinion, D&D is the perfect blend of the two.

The challenge, then, is finding the right game for the different players in your group or being open to disagreement about your direction, as mine was after I whined about Shadowrun.

Are the Volo’s Guide Character Races Overpowered?

I recently got the excellent Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a new sourcebook for fifth edition D&D. This includes an incredible set of resources for DMs and players, including extensive information on several popular monsters (like Beholders and goblinoids), an expanded bestiary for the Forgotten Realms, and rules for playing expanded character races. These include some familiar to fifth edition fans (including the Aasimar from the DMG and Goliaths from Princes of the Apocalypse) and some that are new (like the Kenku, previously presented in the Monster’s Manual). There are even rules for playing monster characters.

This is all very cool, and I for one have always loved Aasimar (first encountering them as playable races in the “Neverwinter Nights 2” PC game). But as I read through the rules for creating characters based on these races, I began to notice something: they all seemed really overpowered.

First, they get multiple ability score increases. For example, Aasimar have an increase in charisma of 2 and a 1 point increase in either wisdom, constitution or strength depending on the sub-race you pick. Similarly, Firbolgs get an increase to Wisdom of 2, and an increase to strength of 1.

But they get other benefits as well. Most get some sort of extra skill or innate power. Goliaths, for example, gain proficiency in Athletics, count as one size larger for carrying capacity, and can reduce the damage they take from hits. Others gain spell abilities. Tritons can cast fog cloud—which they later upgrade to gust of wind—and can talk with aquatic creatures.

PHB Non-human races get some of these benefits, although (and here’s a debatable point) I think the Volo’s Guide races get a bit more. For example, Gnomes get a 2 point increase to Intelligence and a 1 point increase in either Dexterity or Constitution (depending on the sub-race). They also get a few other minor benefits, like “gnome cunning” or the forest gnome’s nature-related powers. But these seem less significant than the myriad benefits a player gets from playing one of the new Volo’s Guide races.

Granted, as I said, this is debatable. Non-human PHB races get the same attribute bonus, and it’s hard to weigh the other benefits. But even if the PHB non-human races can kind of compete with the Volo’s Guide races, humans can’t. Humans are designed to be flexible and adaptable. As a result, they get a 1 point increase in every attribute.. Or—if the DM allows it—they get a 1 point increase in 2 attributes, a feat and a skill. These are both great features, and make human a potent choice for character race if you’re not interested in maxing out attribute points early on. But even getting a feat—which can be very fun for low-level characters—can’t compete with a total of 3 attribute point increases and other magical benefits you’d get from one of the Volo’s Guide races.

So if we use the Volo’s Guide races, why would anyone ever play a human?

The only downside I can think of relates to role-playing. Humans are usually the standard race in campaigns, with other PHB races rarities of different levels depending on the specifics of the campaign. Volo’s Guide races, by contrast, would be spectacles in most settings. This should make them kind of difficult to play if—for example—there’s a 10% chance villagers will run and scream when a Firbolg character tries to talk to them. Also, each of these races has rather strict alignment requirements, and personality traits that could make some social interactions difficult.

This does kind of make sense—you get more power by playing these exotic races but it can make your life (and the lives of your party) more difficult in other ways. A lot of this will depend on the DM, however, and it’s possible a DM won’t really handicap players using the Volo’s Guide races via roleplaying. This will lead to a situation of “power gamers” always gravitating towards a Volo’s Guide race, making it difficult for players to justify using a standard race. Absent some mechanism of rewarding flawed characters (such as…maybe this one…), this can effectively limit the variation in gameplay.

I get that D&D isn’t interested in lowering attributes for different races; always getting an increase of some sort is more fun. But I worry that they went a bit too far with the Volo’s Guide races.

Am I being unfair?