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?