5 Things I wish I knew before my first D&D home-brew session

I just finished running my first home-brew D&D session at the excellent Killer Rabbit Comic and Game store in Williston, VT. I’ve run several published D&D adventures, and run a home-brew Star Wars: EOTE adventure (which I discussed in earlier posts), but this is the first time I’ve tried out my own ideas in D&D. I’ll have a series of walkthrough posts soon, but first I wanted to present a few general takeaways on the process.

These started as notes to myself (a newer DM, who gets the rules but is still learning how to run the game), and I thought others may be interested.

 

  1. Keep it simple

I, like most newer DMs, felt pressure to prove my creativity. I wasn’t creating a world (this was set in Forgotten Realms), so I wanted to express myself through the plot itself. It was a straightforward “stop the monster threatening the town” story, but there was complex political intrigue, red herrings, an open-ended structure and difficult moral choices.

It basically worked, but it was tough. The open-ended structure led to some unexpected events, which can be difficult for a DM to improvise. Handing out the necessary clues sometimes distracted me from game mechanics (and vice versa). And the red herrings led my players to head down the wrong path (which I guess was kind of the point, but I’m not comfortable enough as a DM to do that often).

Again, it went well, but for my first adventure I wish I’d had a simpler plot. There is pressure on DMs to not just create great dungeons, but to come up with compelling mysteries and memorable social encounters. We should keep doing this, as it broadens the scope of D&D. But for our first home-brew adventure, a well-thought out dungeon crawl with some good puzzles and memorable NPCs can help us hone our craft before trying a sandbox thriller.

  1. The players will screw up all of my plans

I knew this, and have been told this so many times, but I forget how supremely players can mess up what I’m doing. Some of this is natural—the game is open-ended and based on creativity, so players may readily come up with solutions to encounters that I hadn’t thought of. Some of it is also mischievous—players like to do things their own way, not follow the DM’s lead.

Two quick examples will illustrate. In one mini-dungeon (a bandit camp dug into a hillside), I’d prepared an ambush. The entryway was guarded by sleeping goblins, and when players became confident and rushed ahead, they’d bump into a guard room of orcs and ogres. But the players had their warlock turn invisible and investigate, then, when he reported back, they shouted down to the goblins to ask if they could come in. So I had to think up how goblins and orcs would negotiate instead of running my great ambush.

The second was the boss battle. I had prepared three stages, following The Angry GM’s advice. The boss would appear defeated, but reform and attack with new powers or allies in each stage. The goal was to get the boss through a portal to Shadowfell. The group’s fighter decided she would try and grapple and shove the boss into the portal. Her roll worked, and I didn’t want to say “no” (see below), so the boss battle was kind of easy.

There’s nothing to do about this, besides being adaptable…and not placing your boss next to the portal it needs to be shoved through.

  1. Work out how encounters will resolve

This sounds obvious, but can be easy to forget. When creating monsters to fight, you want to think about their motivations and goals, otherwise it’s just attrition-fight after attrition-fight. This is even more important when it is a social interaction or clue-finding encounter, as there are several different ways it can be resolved.

This came up a few times in my home-brew adventure. One encounter involved the group “rescuing” a woman from the aforementioned bandits, although she hadn’t actually been captured. I had to improvise what the bandits and woman wanted, as I hadn’t completely written this out. At another time, members of a law and order society show up to intimidate the group into following their plan. Again, I was a little vague in my notes, and had to resolve this in an ad hoc manner.

These encounters may be fine if you’re ok with improvising through social interactions. But I suspect many newer DMs (like me) aren’t, so some guidance is needed. The published D&D adventures have “Development” sections in encounters that can go multiple ways, and a brief write-up like that will help a lot in the future.

  1. Don’t be afraid to let characters die

There were a few times the players were overwhelmed. In one fight I had way too many monsters so the group started falling. And after my failed boss battle (see above), I had the group try to escape the dungeon—which was actually a castle submerged sideways in mud—before it sank. This was really fun, as various characters got knocked over by mud flows or sailed through the air when the castle shifted. It proved difficult, though, as poor dice rolling could cause characters to end up buried alive in the castle.

In both cases I helped them out. In the first, I tweaked some die rolls to save them. And at the end of the escape encounter, one player flubbed his acrobatics check to jump through a sinking and spinning window. Every else made it. Technically, he should have just sunk with the castle, but I felt bad and let him jump into the mud and claw his way out.

Some of this is being a newer DM, as I am afraid of my players getting mad at me. But in the future I will let characters fall—it adds urgency to the game.

  1. Lay out all ground rules in advance

This is kind of similar to the well-known Same Page Tool, a set of guidelines to calibrate different modes of play. But this is more about making sure the DM’s preferences for a lot of unwritten or optional elements of play are known.

In this case it had to do with multi-classing. In between adventures the characters leveled up. One player asked if he could multi-class his character and I said no, as there wouldn’t be any opportunity to learn a new class while the group was travelling between adventures. I didn’t realize that another player had multi-classed his character without asking, though. This wasn’t a big deal, and the first player wasn’t upset, but in the future I’ll make it clear that any multi-classing requires an in-game explanation.

So when starting a new home-brew it’s worth thinking through any situation that would require the DM to make a ruling, and set it out in advance. This includes Unearthed Arcana content, classes and races outside the PHB, use of feats, among others.

So those are some things I wish I had known before I started. To be fair to me, I did some things right, which may also be useful to newer DMs. Here are a few (briefly):

  1. Prepared an adventure portfolio

I scanned relevant pages from the Monsters Manual so I could easily access states, and printed out the maps and adventure module I wrote. This way I didn’t have to flip through multiple books while running encounters.

  1. Never said no to players

This really got to me with some previous groups—we’d keep raising possible actions with the DM and he’d say “no, that wouldn’t work,” over and over. So with my group, I never said no. Some things I knew wouldn’t work—like casting a spell through a dimensional portal—but I didn’t tell them unless they performed the relevant knowledge check. Others I didn’t want to work, but if they rolled well enough we figured it out. And some ideas I hadn’t thought of, but I let them try. This made for some pretty fun failure scenes, like when a fighter tried to run and grab a flying monster but rolled a natural 1, resulting in nearly leaping off a bridge into lava.

  1. Adapted based on player feedback

After the first session of this adventure, one player noted the combat was a little one-dimensional, as I was relying on groups of similar monsters. So I changed this up in the concluding session by having different types of monsters fighting together. This isn’t always possible (especially in published adventures) but it’s worth trying to incorporate player feedback into session as you go.

So there are my takeaways. I’d be happy to hear any thoughts from your experiences.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, concluding thoughts

In my last two posts I presented a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE) adventure I wrote. This is a great gaming system that lets players be part of the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, playing as rogue and smugglers who inhabit the Outer Rim. Unlike the D&D mechanics, which involve numerical calculations, EOTE uses custom dice. These dice gives the Game Master (GM) and players resources to craft a narrative together.

In this final post of the series, I have some thoughts on GM-ing EOTE for the first time, and on running an open-ended adventure.

EOTE is in some ways good for new GMs and in some ways bad. It’s very abstract; you use range bands instead of distance, and setback, boost and difficult dice instead of modifiers. So there are fewer tables to memorize than in Shadowrun or even D&D. At the same time, it’s very narrative and interactive. Each dice roll includes failure or success but also advantages and threats; advantages and threats give benefits or raise challenges beyond whether or not something succeeds. So the GM must be able to interpret this on the fly. For example, a slicing attempt might succeed but with threats; one could decide the player gained the information he sought but alerted a rival hacker in the process. And then there are destiny points—chips the players and GM flip to give their side an advantage. The person using the destiny point must come up with a story reason to use it, like a character remembering he’d learned details of Rancor anatomy giving him a boost to an attack or finding an extra grenade in his backpack. This is fun, but can be a bit much to handle alongside the normal tasks of running the game.

And as I mentioned, I tried to make this as open-ended as possible. The group had to retrieve the lightsaber, but they could do this on behalf of the Empire, the Rebels, the criminals, or even themselves. They also could have returned it to the old lady. Unfortunately, they chose what I saw as the least likely option—working with Oparro—and I hadn’t exactly planned how this would go. It worked out, but I stumbled a bit to figure out what to do. Also, I had a big speech planned for the old lady that would give some backstory for why she had the lightsaber and set up the next adventure. The group had no interest in talking to her, and ignored her.

So open-ended adventures can be good, but the GM needs to stay on his or her feet and be prepared for the unexpected. You also need to fight the urge to force the group to do what you want. If the plot can only be resolved in one way, then the adventure isn’t interactive enough. It’s difficult to write a complex RPG adventure that leaves room for player choice, but it’s worth it.

I also had a few thoughts on the mechanics. Both the group and I made judicious use of destiny points. The party was able to rig up a bomb during the ambush of Oparro by flipping a destiny point to find bags of explosive materials. And I used a destiny point to make their attempted betrayal of the Rebels harder, causing their speeder to stall out. But in the end I made this adventure a little too easy for them. Despite the setback dice I gave them for speeding through the swamp, they still caught up to the lightsaber thief before he reached the old lady’s hut (which would have screwed up my ending). And I was afraid of Donaldo’s ship destroying them as they escaped, but by decreasing the difficulty I took away some of the ending’s tension. I’d remember this for the next Episode…

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lighstaber I, part II

Last week I presented the first part of a walkthrough for a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire adventure I wrote. The party was hired by a crimelord to retrieve a mysterious item from a renegade employee. This turned out to be a lightsaber, and the group found themselves caught between the crimelord, the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. They gathered their information and prepared to meet the renegade employee to retrieve the item…

The time of the meet now approached. The group was still undecided about who they would work for, but did want to find this mysterious item. They surveyed the meet’s location—a spot near the edge of Trader’s Plaza. The group found signs that someone had set up a position from which they could watch—and snipe the group—if needed from a nearby rooftop. Alex set up a bomb near this position (using a destiny point to uncover explosives), and Sarek set himself up on another rooftop to provide cover. Changkaishek and Alex would hide in the alleyway during the meet, while Bint would do the talking.

Finally, the time for the meet arrived. Oparro arrived with a Barabel guard—a big lizard-like humanoid—and his Rodian slicer. When he realized Bint was here to collect the item, he became hostile and threatened them. Then the group sprung their trap. Alex detonated the bomb, killing what turned out to be a Gand sniper. Sarek, Bint and Alex opened fire. Bint and Alex killed the Rodian, while Sarek scored a critical hit on the Barabel, severely wounding him. Meanwhile, Bint grabbed Oparro and threatened him if he didn’t give up the item.

Bint rolled very well on his intimidation check, so Oparro offered the group 15,000 if they would help him deliver it—as they’d just killed most of his crew. They agreed, and accompanied him back to his ship where his pilot was waiting with the item. Oparro opened a safe, and the item was revealed to be…a lightsaber. Everyone looked in awe at this rare relic for a moment, when suddenly a concussion grenade went off. When they came to, the group saw a man with the lightsaber fleeing on a swoop bike.

Thinking fast, the group piled into Oparro’s speeder and took off after the man. Even though the swoop bike was faster, excellent piloting by Alex allowed them to close with him, and Sarek destroyed his bike. As this chase was occurring, the group realized another speeder was shadowing them on one side, while a TIE shuttle was tracking them overheard.

The swoop bike crashed in a clearing containing an old hut. The group rushed to the man, grabbing the lightsaber as he babbled something about the guilt they would feel for stealing this. Meanwhile, the speeder—which they saw contained the Rebels—and the TIE shuttle (containing Donaldo and some crew) arrived. Both groups got out, and called on them to turn over the lightsaber.

Suddenly, an old lady came out of the house, and everyone turned to her, drawn by her powerful presence. She told them the lightsaber was all she had left from her dead husband, but they might as well just take it since they’d already disturbed her peace. The group was not really interested in this “sidequest” (their words) and formulated a plan to get out of here. They decided to drive over to the Rebels, acting as if they would join them. Then they would toss a grenade into the Rebels’ speeder, fire on Donaldo’s team, and take off in the confusion.

This did not occur as planned, however, as when Alex punched it the speeder’s engines gave out. They had taken considerable strain during the chase as the speeder was not designed for rough driving. It came to a stop near the Rebels, as the Rebels and Imperials began exchanging fire. Alex tried to fix it, but fumbled in his nervousness. Bint managed to convince one of the Rebels to repair the speeder just enough so they could take off. As soon as they did this, Bint tossed the grenade at the Rebels and the group sped away.

They dropped off Oparro, and rushed to their ship. As they were powering up, the space traffic control informed them they required permission and a flight path before leaving. Ignoring this, they took off, barely dodging incoming ships to get into orbit. When they emerged from the atmosphere, they saw Donaldo’s ship bearing down on them.

Alex manned the controls, trying to get the ship far enough away from the planet. Meanwhile, Bint and Sarek attempted to plot a course using the astrogation computer. Neither of them were very skilled at this—and they were heading to a rendezvous point in the middle of nowhere based on coordinates from Oparro—so they fumbled at their attempt and had to redo the calculations (the players kept failing astrogation checks). This gave Donaldo’s ship a chance to close with them and open fire, nearly crippling their ship before the calculations were complete and the made the jump to light speed.

They arrived at the rendezvous where Oparro was waiting. He said he had to set up the payment with his “other buyer”—who he refused to identify—and asked for the lightsaber. The team initially refused until Oparro gave them a valuable relic as collateral. He then told them to wait for him on the planet Chordaan.

Next week I will discuss my thoughts on creating and running an adventure in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Lightsaber I, Part 1

This is another in my series of walkthrough posts, in which I run through what happened in a game session. See my earlier posts on a D&D 5e session. This post deals with a different RPG, Fantasy Flight’s excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (EOTE). This game focuses on the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, with players creating rogues, smugglers and exiles who adventure in the Outer Rim. It’s my favorite of the Star Wars RPGs (I’ll blog about others later).

In this post I’ll talk about a module I created. I’ll talk about the backstory and what happened when we ran it. I’ll also include notes on game mechanics [in brackets] as I did with my earlier walkthroughs. Unlike my earlier walkthrough, I’ll have an extra post discussing thoughts on creating and running an original module for EOTE.

My former group was alternating between D&D and EOTE, when our EOTE GM became interested in trying out a new character. So I volunteered to run the group. There were some premade modules available, but I was interested in trying to write my own.

I decided to make a three-episode adventure revolving around a rediscovered lightsaber. In the opening adventure, the group would be tasked by a crimelord with retrieving the lightsaber (although they don’t yet know what it is) and gradually they become embroiled in broader turmoil, as the Empire, the Rebel Alliance, and a fallen Jedi all get involved.

I designed the first episode to be as non-railroady as possible (characters get to make a lot of open-ended choices). The basic plot is that the group was hired by Deg-Lilek, a Twi’ilek crimelord, to retrieve an item (revealed to be the lightsaber) from a rogue employee, Oparro (a Toydarian). In addition to Oparro and Deg-Lilek, the lightsaber is sought after by a rogue Imperial agent, some Rebel spies, and its original owner, the widow of a Jedi who hid after the Purge. When I wrote it, I had no idea what path the group would take, which was kind of fun.

The group included Sarek, a Chiss big game hunter; Alex, a human mechanic; Bint, a Draal doctor; and ChanngKaishk, a Wookie brawler. They gathered at Deg-Lilek’s compound on the smuggler’s moon of Nar Shadaa after being summoned. The crimelord told them one of his employees—Oparro—had gone rogue while recovering an item for a client; Oparro claimed he had another buyer and was holding out for more money. Deg-Lilek wants the group to travel to meet Oparro on the planet of Atzerri, pretending to have his money. They are to retrieve the item however they see fit, and will be paid 5,000.

The group agreed, and headed to Atzerri. Shortly after arriving in the system, however, an Imperial patrol craft stops them and requests to inspect their ship. The group knew they’ve done nothing illegal (yet) so they shut down their systems and prepared to be boarded.  The Imperial commander, Donaldo, turned out to be Deg-Lilek’s client. He is annoyed that Deg-Lilek failed to deliver the item—which he hopes to deliver to the Emperor, going around his chain of command, to gain his favor—and wants the group to get it for him. He’ll double what they were being paid. Not having much of a choice, they promise to help and he lets them go.

They then landed on Atzerri, a swamp planet with very little governance and a wild, sprawling capital city. The meet with Oparro was scheduled for the next day. The group passed through the chaotic Traders’ Plaza—a kind of giant space-souk—where they tried to get information on what Oparro was up to. They then continued to gather information in Dak’s Cantina, a prominent watering hole near the Plaza.

While they were walking around, two encounters happened. First, late at night after leaving the cantina, they were ambushed by a group of men in an alleyway. They dispatched them easily, killing all but one, whom they incapacitated and left in a dumpster. On one of the bodies they found a datapad with information on themselves as well as Oparro’s group, and mentions of a woman still being safe despite the item’s theft.

The second encounter happened the next day. As they were walking through a busy avenue off Trader’s Plaza, a group of men surrounded them. One, a Sullustan, asked them to step into an alleyway to chat. He turned out to be a member of the Rebel alliance. They were hoping to gain the item for themselves; while they didn’t know what Donaldo was up to, they thought frustrating the Empire was worthwhile. They couldn’t offer as much money as Deg-Lilek or Donaldo, but they promised the Rebel alliance would help the group in the future. Again, the group agreed—just because it was difficult to argue when they were surrounded—and left.

The adventure concludes in next week’s post

Origin Story: Badger, part 2

Last week I discussed the backstory of Badger, a D&D 5e forest gnome rogue. This week, I’ll discuss the mechanics behind the character. This is in my Origin Stories series of posts, see here for an earlier one.

Badger was inspired by the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. This sourcebook included information on where each of the races in the PHB fit into the Sword Coast setting. It mentioned forest gnomes tend to live by themselves deep in the woods. That got me thinking about why a forest gnome would be adventuring. One possibility was a druid trying to fight off threats to the forest, but I was more intrigued by the idea of a well-meaning rogue cast out of his society.

This would be a pretty basic rogue, with most of the flavor going into the backstory. But the forest gnome race gives him a few extra skills, which I’ll discuss below.

He’s obviously a forest gnome, and I gave him the outlander background to fit his story. And chaotic good is the go-to choice for a good rogue.

For stats, I prioritized dexterity (a must for thieves, for which forest gnomes get a bonus), and constitution. He also received a boost for intelligence as a gnome, and I gave him respectable wisdom. I admit I struggled with this, since according to his backstory he should not be very wise, but wisdom ends up being really important for perception, which a forest gnome rogue should be good at.

For skills, he has the usual sneaky thief skills-stealth (with expertise), sleight of hand, perception and acrobatics. And his outlander upbringing gave him skills in athletics and survival.

He’s armed with a short sword, shortbow, and dagger. And Badger has darkvision, the minor illusion cantrip, and the ability to speak with small animals from his forest gnome race.

So for this, I tried to craft an outdoorsy rogue, who melts into the forest rather than the shadows. And as he’s a bit of a wanderer, I downplayed the social skills in favor of sneaking and exploring.

What do you think? Any other ways you would have crafted Badger?

Origin Story: Badger, part 1

This is another in my “Origin Story” series of posts, which I started with an earlier one on Randulf, a Lovecraftian warlock. These posts talk about the backstory of a character I created, as well as the mechanics of how I translated that backstory into a 5e D&D character.

This time, I’m talking about Badger, a forest gnome druid I created as a sort of sidekick to Randulf. Hope you enjoy it:

Alvyn “Badger” Folkor was a forest gnome living in a gnome village deep in the Cloakwood. His parents were rangers, protecting the village from wild beasts and invaders, and Badger trained to follow in their footsteps. He spent much time by himself in the wilderness, chatting with small animals for information, tracking outsiders to ensure they didn’t bother his village, and living off the land. But he was always rather free-spirited, and chafed at the restrictions his parents and village placed on him. When he wasn’t exploring the wilderness, Badger found it difficult to stay out of trouble. He would frequently “borrow” items from other villagers, get drunk and pass out in the village square, and embarrass himself in other ways. The growing frustration with Badger came to a head when he attempted to sample the latest gin produced by the village distillery and accidentally caused the still to explode.

The village elders asked Badger if he would be happier wandering free to explore the Cloakwood and the world beyond. Badger sensed they were trying to get rid of him, but was excited at the thought of no longer having to sit through his father’s lessons on dendrology. So he set out, leaving behind a very relieved village of forest gnomes.

Badger made his way first to Beregost, where he found the locals easily angered with his “borrowings” and “accidental” property destruction. He drew on his forestry skills to elude capture by the sheriff, and headed north. At each village, town or city he stopped in, the story was the same; he walked off with some food or goods, got drunk and tried to pick fights, or knocked over statues and mills. The local authorities came after him, and he disappeared back into the wilderness.

He eventually became quite the thief, although he never thought of himself as a rogue. Badger lived comfortably travelling up and down the Sword Coast, pilfering food and supplies and entertaining himself by running away from the powers that be. Eventually he made a mistake, however, and attempted to pick-pocket two travelers deep in the Mere of Dead Men outside Neverwinter. They caught him, and ignored his protestations that he had accidentally pulled their coinpurses from their pockets.

The men were impressed with Badger’s skill, however, and recognized his good nature. They revealed themselves as Harpers, and gave Badger the choice between joining them or going to jail. Naturally, he became a Harper.

After a few trial missions, they assigned him to his partner, a dour, half-mad warlock named Randulf Cardr. Both Badger and Randulf were mystified by this pairing, but the Harper leadership hoped Randulf could discipline Badger’s penchant for crime, while Badger’s well-meaning chaos would uplift Randulf’s sagging spirits. The jury is still out…

Thoughts on the role of D&D in Firewatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A great upheaval,” walkthrough, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Great Upheaval” walkthrough, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is charisma overused in fifth edition D&D?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any thoughts?