Friday, December 23, 2016

Curse of Strand - Death House: our experience

First *spoilers* warning.   I will try not to give it all away but if you are going to be a player in Curse of Strand do not continue reading.

Death house is the optional opening adventure to Curse of Strand.  This gives DMs a place to start
characters at first level, introduce the module, let players organically grow their characters and build some party cohesion so the group is ready for the real deal to begin at third level.

I am a player in this adventure and do not have any DM insight other than observations I can easily make from my long experience as a DM as well.  Overall I thought the module set the tone appropriately though it was populated with some corny dungeon trappings here and there (mimic for example).  The entire module behaves and feels like a trap, which is I suppose the point.  Ideally you barely get out alive with the feeling the house, the world, and most importantly Strahd is against you.

Unfortunately for us near the end of the module we had a huge breakdown in player smarts.  Rather than rest up again for full power and spells we pushed on to the final encounter at less than half strength.  Next, a demonstration of the amount of damage the big bad could do was promptly ignored.  The big bad movement limit was ignored tactically and then inexplicably three of our five characters decided, one by one, they could melee combat it only to be eaten.  This left our wizard character who was down to cantrips only and my warlock character.  The wizards only damage cantrip was resisted by the big bad, so I was basically left kiting the beast with my Eldritch Blast.   By the time I had finally worn down and defeated the creature, death saving throws had long gone by unsuccessfully.

There are decades of D&D experience in this group, and it has been many years since I witnessed such a sorry string of poor decisions.   We cursed ourselves.  This is of course my opinion, and my fellow players and long time friends may not see it the same way.   As we attempted to escape the house, the seriously wounded wizard went unconscious, and only repeated castings of false life thanks to my invocation selection fiendish vigor kept me standing.   We ended the module with my warlock at single digits in hit points holding an unconscious gnome wizard.  We were as close to a total party kill I have ever been without crossing over.

So now we start the real adventure.  Unfortunately most of the goals to know and grow the party we failed.   We do have a story to tell, which is the way of D&D after all.  I will just role play my angst and distrust after Barovia's first attempt to crush me.

Next up: Sandbox vs linear story progression.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Playing Curse of Strahd on-line

Due to some real life issues, my regular game is on hiatus and my son has stepped in and is running The Curse of Strahd, the adventure from Wizards of the Coast.

Playing On-line

First off, we are playing this via Roll20 on-line.  This is the first time we have run a campaign this way.  There has been attempts kick start a game on-line before but we are just jumping in because there is no other alternative.  We have gone from face to face gaming to an on-line session without much preparation.  The group is not the regular group either.  It is a combination of parts of my regular group, parts of my son's regular group and an old friend from the other side of the country.  Nice that the unfortunate circumstances allows us to reconnect with old friends.

We are trying to balance learning the tool with playing the game.  We do not need to take advantage of everything Roll20 has to offer.  Our thinking is less is more.  We typically roll the dice in Roll20, but you don't have to - we trust people to roll the dice on the side.  We are using the built in 5E character sheets, the saving throws and initiative tracking are proved useful.  Sometimes the built in capabilities do not function as we expect - whether it is operator error or not is unimportant.  We do not want to spend time trouble shooting during game time and instead prefer to keep the game moving.

To simplify matters, we are using Skype for voice communication, with some people using the same computer for Roll20 to run Skype while others run it on a separate phone or tablet.  We may not really be simplifying matters but it got us started.  We have not been using video to conserve bandwith, computer cycles and/or screen space.  Personally, I have been using a separate tablet for Skype with ear buds.  Some folks are still trying to talk via their PC microphone, and it works poorly.  Additionally, I use a second monitor to display my character sheet and notes so I do not have to interrupt the screen map or chat window.

Though Roll20 gives a spot for handouts, we are using that minimally and the players are sharing information via Google Drive.

Overall, though we have only had a few sessions, it is working well enough and we are pleased with progress.  The relative different comfort levels people have with the technology is telling though.  It can stall the game when someone has a 'tech' problem.

Next up, some thoughts on the module itself.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Show That Never Ends: farewell Greg Lake

The last of the bass guitar major influences of my youth has passed way.  Previously we lost John Entwhistle of the Who, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Chris Squire of Yes.  This week we lost Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Some people remember the first time they heard an influential piece of music or artist, but that is not me.  For me it is more of a journey with my key memories happening somewhere along that journey.  I do not remember when I discovered Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

A digression.  My children do not really remember the time before music anywhere/everywhere.  Before Pandora, iTunes, and even before the Sony Walkman there was simply no easy way to take the music with you.  You had to go to the music.  Now we go to 1977 my freshman year at University.  I was not much of a socialite, preferring my own company during study times.  So study halls and most public places held little attraction for me.  I discovered the library had a music room/radio station.  The room was setup with couches, and each had large knobs with letters from the beginning of the alphabet, and huge educational style headphones with indestructible 1/4" jacks.  Across the room was the attendant (radio station DJ?) behind a sliding glass window and on the wall next to the window was a chart where they slide in an identifier for what was spinning on the turntable related to the letter on the alphabet.  I don't remember how many choices there were, probable about a dozen.  You could dial in what was playing, including listening to the radio station, or go up to the window and make a request.  Eventually your request was placed on a turntable, the identifier put up on the chart in an open slot.  Put headphones on, dial to you letter, get music.  This was music away from home in 1977.  End digression

On a visit to the University Music room to study (which was as often a nap) I sat on an open couch, dropped the heavy headphones on my head and started to wander through the letters for something which would fit the mood.  Looking up on the chart I saw ELP - Brain Salad Surgery.  This would be a solid four years after its release date, and I had never listened to it and knew nothing of it.  I tried it
and to borrow lyrics from Karn Evil 9, "Guaranteed to blow your head apart".  I was stunned, amazed and hooked.  For most of the rest of the year, as often as not, you could find me during a study in the library listening to Brain Salad Surgery, if it was not on a turntable, I requested it, I wonder if I wore out their copy.

To this day the music still moves me.

  • The haunting sounds of Jerusalem
  • The progress rock Toccata, based on a classical piece and which is a prime example of what ELP is all about
  • Greg Lake's warm vocals in Still...You Turn Me On
  • The oddity, Benny the Bouncer, to show case Emersons keyboard range and chops
  • And the main act, Karn Evil 9 - we all know "Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends."  

Is it perfect? No.  Benny the Bouncer does not really fit and interrupts the flow, and Karn Evil 9 3rd impression ends the album abruptly and leaves you feeling like there should have been an additional song for some closure.  I nit pick - I still love this album.

Sometime later, I discovered Greg Lake had been in an earlier band - King Crimson.  Again, I had my head blown apart.  In the Court of the Crimson King: An Observation by King Crimson was dark, brooding, whimsical and like nothing else.  Sometimes I find it hard to listen to the harsh 21st Century Schizoid Man, though it is a master piece.  I never find it hard to listen to The Court of the Crimson King.

As a budding musician in the late 70s, playing in what was really a classic rock band there was little chance we were going to play any ELP during our sets, and I don't know if we could have pulled it off anyway.  However, ELP affected my style and my thinking for good or ill.

What is it about Greg Lake which influenced me so much?  It was necessarily his prowess on the bass guitar itself.  I don't find him challenging John Entwhistle or Chris Squire for their place in lead bass playing.  I guess it was more his influence on the band's music (as I perceived it from afar), his tremendous voice, and something about his presence in the pictures and rare videos I got to see.  Bass guitar is more often about holding things together and driving things forward from underneath so the lead instruments and vocals can shine.  I felt Lake did this exceptionally well in a groundbreaking area where there was little to draw upon.

Although he played many different basses over the years, I was impressed with the Rickenbacker that he and Chris Squire used, and still have my original model 4002 stereo Rick.

Again from Karn Evil 9:
Come inside, the show's about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you'll get your money's worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
You've got to see the show, it's a dynamo
You've got to see the show, it's rock and roll, oh

Godspeed Greg Lake.  You have left quite a legacy here and they must be rejoicing that the Greatest Show has moved to Heaven.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

When the players have other ideas, also known as, I did not see that coming

Last outing the players did not achieve what I expected.  Which, on the whole is not completely surprising, as the adventure almost never goes the way I expect it to go.  I do not view that as a bad thing at all, but it does have complications and repercussions.

My Game

I run a story driven game, as opposed to a sandbox.  It is the type of game I like to run as DM, and my players agree to play in it and seem to enjoy it.  Some might view any story driven game as a railroad, as opposed to the 'complete' freedom of a sandbox style game.  I do not see it that way at all.  I do not see a sandbox as complete freedom, nor do I see a story game as a railroad.

I do want the players to make the story within the boundaries of the environment I create.  This has often been referred to as player agency.  I want my players actions to have significant and meaningful interaction with the world, and their actions have consequences and alter the world.

RPG bloggers have debated story driven vs. sandbox and railroad vs. player agency many times, and my intention is not to revisit it all here but rather share my latest experience.  If you want to read about the debates, search for those terms - you will get lots of hits on lots of blogs with thoughtful and insightful commentary on the differences, pros and cons.

My Campaign

We play in a homebrew world, and most of the adventures are of my own design - though I am not above tossing in adventures/encounters from published sources.  The characters are part of a team which have pledged service to a human king, have called themselves Justice Crusaders, and generally go about doing good in the name of king and kingdom.  The latest story arc has the characters defending the kingdom from invasion by an unfriendly island kingdom.  Though clearly the oppressors, the invaders feel they are in the right and their cause is just.

Recent Campaign Events

The Justice Crusaders discovered the enemy plan to wipe out a small elven kingdom which had the potential to be an ally in repulsing the enemy.  The enemy created some diversions with mercenaries to make it look like the primary invasion when in fact the enemy main force was to land, and with the support of two local orc tribes, march on the elves.  With the orcs coming from the east and south, and the main enemy army from the west, they intended to slay every last elf.

The human king has directed the Justice Crusaders to enlist the help of the elves, which means, the Justice Crusaders need to save the elves first.  As part of saving the elves, the Justice Crusaders:

  • successfully reclaimed a human village from an orc subjugation, and discovered more of the plan
  • rescuing captured villagers who were being marched to a life of brutal slavery with the orcs
  • made a daring raid inside an orc stronghold which housed over a thousand orcs to remove the enemy provided incentive for those orcs to march on the elves

The last item was at the request of the elven leaders, who made it a requirement for getting some help from the elves to repulse the imminent invasion and for further help in fighting the enemy.  So far so good.

No Adventure Survives An Encounter With Your Players

Here is the summary of the events as I planned it out.  (note to my players: there are no spoilers here, you already lived through all this)

  • The enemy invasion happens on a fixed date/time, and the characters do NOT know the date/time but only that it is imminent
  • The characters have a series of challenges to overcome to get to the invasion site in time to attempt to prevent it which included the items noted above which were successfully navigated
  • The characters have a choice of priorities, and need to make a choice between breaking the siege of a small human city low on food or preventing the invasion
  • The invasion is from three heavy ships on three different beaches at the same time and each consists of about 100 well trained and armed soldiers and 40 war clerics
  • The characters by themselves would be insufficient to stop all three simultaneous landings by simple use of force, some additional help or subterfuge would be required
  • Potential resources were provided in the adventures if they could convince them to join the cause, elves and an enemy mercenary company

So what happened?

About that enemy mercenary company...  The Justice Crusaders did intimidate it into surrendering rather than destroy it, setting up the possibility of getting them to change sides.  Then they pretended to guard the mercenary company while they and the elves scouted the landing sites.  Hours go by, and the mercenary company discovers it is no longer guarded by its captors, so it peacefully retakes the town it gave up when they surrendered.  Some hours later, the Justice Crusaders return to find the town is again in the control of the mercenaries, and the Justice Crusaders are livid (some good role playing here) that the mercenaries, after finding themselves unguarded would find it necessary to do what they were paid to do.  More intimidating, some battering around of the mercenary leader, and many harsh words later, the mercenary company is now back as captains but this time with a decidedly unfriendly view of our heros.  Now in order to scout the landing site again (they do not know the landing time), they need to leave the elven unit behind to guard the mercenaries.

Scouting this time they encounter an enemy hobgoblin unit with worgs and a giant.  Dispatching them after a good fight yields a rescued elf prisoner who has information regarding the landing site, and a good place to listen in to the plan.  The heroes take advantage of the listen, learn the plan, and are nearby when the enemy advanced landing party is ready to give the signal to start the landing.  There hiding spot is close enough to attempt to interrupt the signal, but awkward enough getting out of and into the combat to make it a challenging encounter.

So what happened?

The heroes decided it was too risky and retreated from their hiding spot to a more advantageous attack position.  The result?  They steam rolled the encounter, absolutely crushing the enemy advanced landing party...  several rounds after they gave the landing signal.

Low on resources, the Justice Crusaders by themselves decide they are not in a position to thwart all three landing groups, so they rush back to town to get the elves and to recruit the mercenary company.  You know, the one where they just created a hostile relationship.

I let them role play it, gave them some rolls and all that, but they just couldn't make the connection.  There is now an invading army on the ground in a place where I was not prepared to have one.

The Story Continues

Though not prepared, I will go forward with this because it is what the player actions ultimately decided.  It does create work for me as DM, but hey - it is what I signed up for when I created this epic story where the players really do decide what happens next.

Now excuse me while I figure out exactly what the enemy thinks of all this and would do.  I am sure it will be epic, and I am equally sure the players will surprise me again.

The dice never lie.

Monday, May 2, 2016

D&D 5E common mistakes

Dungeon's Master has a good post on common 5E mistakes.  Many of these are related to 'conversion' mistakes, changes 5E makes from previous versions but maybe we are still using the old version rule.

The post can be found here.  Or here is the full URL -

I did pretty good, I only missed the spell ready part of #8.  There is one area that I cannot confirm, it is the >20 on the second bullet of #10.  I have never heard of that.

Otherwise, I nice list and useful for your players.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

My Converted Campaign: Converting Magic Items

As I mentioned in my last post, bringing over magic and masterwork items as is, or as now described in the core rule books would HUGELY break the bounded accuracy of the game. The current campaign was based on the 8th level characters having legendary weapons which effective balance quite a bit to start, and then add in the copious amounts of magic stuff 3.5E and I allowed in the game would create a difficult to manage situation. 

I wanted to:
  • keep the story continuity - limit items just disappearing
  • avoid making the players feel like they lost out
  • have some sense of just how much of what I do allow them to keep impacts what kind of challenge I need to throw at them
  • not make a stupid mistake and need to retcon something because I broke my campaign
After only played in the Lost Mines of Phandelver up to a 3rd level character, this may have been a tall order to meet.  I read the rule books multiple times, went on line and read other peoples experiences, and relied heavily on other editions of the D&D gaming experience I have acquired since 1979.  Here is what I did.

Items Which Mostly Stayed The Same

Magic Weapons

If they had a +1 weapon in their possession, they may keep it. If they had any > +1, it is now a +1. This did not include their legendary weapon (campaign specific weapon)

Magic Armor

Magic Armor is rare and the maximum plus for anyone to own at this time is 1. If they had +2 armor, we discussed if it might have another advantage instead of the additional plus.

Bracers of Defense

This would be another rare item with a maximum of +2 AC, and it requires attunement.

Cloak of Resistance

If they had one of these in their possession the max I would allow is +1 (bonus to all saving throws), and it requires attunement

Items Which Changed

Masterwork Weapons

These are now nicely made, perhaps with fine materials, metals and gems, and worth money. They no longer have numerical advantages in combat.

Ring of protection

This would instead be a lessor item with limited uses/charges:
  • Use a bonus action to activate, the next attack roll against this character within the next 1 minute is at disadvantage.
  • Roll d6 for number of charges. No recharge.

Ability Score Plus Items

If they had one of these we converted it to a limited use item related to ability

Amulet of Natural Armor

We converted to a limited use item
  • Use reaction to gain resistance to one weapon damage type for one attack; bludgeoning, piercing, slashing. 
  • Roll 2d4 for number of charges. No recharge

MetaMagic Rods

If anyone had one of these I asked them to assume that any metamagic rods they had were items which had charges and the last time they used it was the last charge it held. These items do not really fit any more, as far as I can see reading through the spell descriptions. I don't think they are worth the time to figure out how to make them fair, easy and fit.

The Game Specific Legendary Weapons

In our campaign in 3rd edition, I build the campaign around a group of legendary weapons which once located, with the approval of the King who you were supposed to support, would become soul bound to a character for its life.  This was a sort of permanent attunement.  As part of our conversion I just ruled these weapons used up an attunement slot. 

Additionally these weapons are crazy powerful.  At 8th level characters they had unlocked +2 weapon status and a host of other abilities and damage bonuses.  Now, this really does stretch bounded accuracy.  To compensate, I have been treating them as 10th level characters for building encounters and I may need to bump that even to 11th level.  Of course I do have to manage the top level challenge rating of what they encounter and watch closely to make sure there is not an ability they cannot handle as 8th characters, especially with a max of 4th level spells.

Experience point calculations because of this bumping up of challenge are not a problem, I do not experience points for this campaign.  After what feels like the appropriate amount of time I let them level up.  The players are fine with this and it eliminates some overhead to managing/tracking the game.
So far this is all working out fine.  The limited use items are largely gone now, mostly consumed during dangerous moments as the players learned their characters in the early sessions after conversion.  It turned out to be a good safety net, and now its gone.  I can now operate in a more magic stingy environment better suited to the new 5E rules and the transition did not feel forced.

As a side note - I do not recommend creating this problem.  Knowing what I know now about 5E I would definitely done the legendary weapons differently but they were created in a different time and place.  The campaign survives and thrives, and that is what is important.

The dice never lie.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

My Converted Campaign: Character Conversion Retrospective

Last year a made a number of posts about converting my homebrew campaign edition on its return from hiatus from 3.5E to 5E.  I wrote about my plan for character conversion here.  If we get to play once a month we feel fortune.  So here we are, a little over a year later and fourteen games under my belt as DM and a little time to share some thoughts.

Basically I am happy with my decision to rebuild characters rather than convert.  I think I made the right choice to use the default array, even though the original characters were rolled.  As much as I grew up in the everything is random rolled first edition environment, I like that I understand the relative power the characters have, and all the characters have about the same relative power.  Although I am not saying that each class is equally powerful, or each player's character choices are equally effective.  5th edition characters really do rely heavily on their stats for their bounded accuracy power - or in other words the addition of a small number of points to a success role feels very powerful in this game.

The players initially grumbled about not being able to exactly match their previous score, but in the end they built characters which for the most part feel like their earlier edition counterparts, and more importantly play and role play close enough that no one feels in game a character is significantly different. Important note: we converted eighth level characters to eighth level characters and I have not had them level up over the course of the game yet - my focus is on them learning the new rules, and their abilities.  I expect to start letting them level up soon. Fourteen games in and everyone is enjoying the game and focused on the story and the challenges facing them.  Success!

Now, there are places where the conversion had challenges, or is still untested.

Paladin/Sorcerer multi-class character: We had some concerns how this would play out, as the original character was a bit of an optimization experiment, or in other words depended quite a bit on some specific 3.5E rules for combat tactics.  My impression is the character is still at its core what it was before, a hard to hit, hard hitting against a single opponent, fragile if you get through its AC build.  No question in my mind a full effective contributor to the game.  Now, some of the spell and attack combination tactics this player used previously do not work thanks to changes in spells and the buff limiting concentration rule, as an example the player no longer sees the enlarge spell as pragmatic use of a spell most of the time.  The net effectiveness in combat has been replaced by the smite feature.  Most of his spell slots get burned using smite, and of course the extra slots from the sorcerer often go that way too if they don't get used by a well timed shield spell.  I am open to be a little more lenient if this player wants to swap out spells.

Mounted Combat fighter: Our fighter build his character to be a mounted combat monster.  That does not translate as well to 5E, as there is only one feat and feats are harder to come by in 5E than they were in 3.5E.  Now, in practice in our game mounted combat opportunities were hit or miss.  If they ended up doing in city, in building or in dungeon adventures it certainly was not conducive to a mounted rider.  About half of our campaign is in the outdoor or wilderness, and sometimes it goes in long spurts of one or the other.  Having advantage from horseback against hordes of orcs certainly gives the feel of something special for this character, but the feat does not give advantage against large creatures (makes sense) so even out of doors the positives from the feat are limited.

House Ruled Ranger: One character had a house ruled ranger (does every game have one of those?) which was basically a woodland expertise fighter without spells.  I have not been happy with the ranger options in the Player's Handbook, or the unofficial test versions published by WoTC.  Since this player did not return after the hiatus, it has not significantly effected our game.  I used his character as an NPC, and hand waved a bunch of rolls, which was no problem.  I am hoping the player will return in the future, even for just a cameo, and I am determined I can build another house rule ranger to give him the feel he had!

Cleric Domain Conversion: This is largely untested.  Our cleric did not return after hiatus, and converting NPCs is just not the same.  Overall, I am pleased with what I see in the cleric options, but that is not the same as seeing how the conversion of a cherished character is implemented.

Magic & Masterwork Items: Bringing over items as is, or as now described in the core rule books would HUGELY break the bounded accuracy of the game.  As it was this campaign was based on the characters having legendary weapons which effective balance quite a bit to start, and then add in the copious amounts of magic stuff 3.5E and I allowed in the game would create a difficult to manage situation.  I had to cut back on the magic.  Sounds like a good topic for my next campaign conversion post!

The dice never lie.
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