Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
 
D&D 5E House Rules: Randomness

Dice are the "third party" at a Dungeons & Dragons table. While the DM and the players both contribute to the interactive story-telling, dice determine the outcome of many attempted actions. Extreme rolls can lead to extreme situations like one-shot kills, and that obviously can also lead to memorable situations in the story.

In 5th edition the dice play a bigger role than in 4E for several reasons: There are fewer rolls of dice in a typical combat, because combat is shorter, thus each roll has more importance. The "bounded accuracy" of 5E means that when you roll a d20 for an attack, proficiency check, or saving throw, you add only small numbers to the result; compared to 4E the player's choice of for example being proficient in a skill plays a smaller role in determining the outcome, and the random dice count for a larger part. And finally many spells now deal more dice of damage than in previous editions, while hit points aren't as high than in 4th.

One of the dirty little secrets of Dungeons & Dragons (and other systems) is that a surprisingly large number of DMs cheat by fudging dice. They roll behind the DM screen and then announce the result they want, not the one that the dice said. That is often done with the best of intentions: If the archvillain of the story only gets a few rolls of the dice in combat and ends up rolling low on each of them, he might well end up not being very memorable. The players can't see how dangerous the villain would have been if he had rolled higher, they only see the actual outcome of no damage dealt at all and a boring combat against a harmless villain. On the other hand the DM might also fudge the dice to prevent a total party kill caused by a series of lucky rolls.

Personally I do think that randomness should play a role in the game. I would like to roll my dice openly as much as I can and even got some more easily readable dice for the 5E campaign (in pairs for advantage rolls). But there is at least one exception where I prefer a predictable result over a random result: Character creation.

There are different rules options in 5E on how to create characters. You can take a fixed set of values, you can use a point buy system, or you can roll dice. For my campaign I will use the standard array of fixed values for everybody. My reason for that is that the weight of a random roll on character creation is far too big. A character rolling way above or below average will feel the consequences of that in every attack, every skill check, every damage roll for the whole life of the character. A standard array character putting his best score on his main stat and using a race that gives at least +1 bonus to that stat arrives at a +5 value for his attack roll. If players roll for stats, some might end up with a +4 attack bonus, while others have +6. Over the many, many attack rolls that these characters will make over the course of their career that ends up being a huge difference. I don't want one player being permanently disadvantaged just because he rolled low on character creation.

Sunday, April 23, 2017
 
Printing plastic orcs - 4 years later

4 years ago I made a post about printing plastic orcs, explaining why I was printing cardboard squares in 2D instead of making the monsters for my tabletop roleplaying games by 3D printing. Most of what I wrote at the time is still true: There still isn't software available which generates models to print with a selection of postures and weapons. Well, the software exists at Heroforge, but they don't give you access to the models for home printing.

One thing that changed is that at the time a 3D printer was $1000, and now I got my printer for less than half of that, and there are models below $300. A spool of PLA is still expensive, at least $20 per kg. For the printer I am using the nasty trick by XYZPrinting of using an RFID chip to only allow proprietary PLA to be used raises the cost to about $50 per kg ($30 per 600 g spool). I even wasted more money because Amazon wasn't very clear about what XYZPrinting spool is compatible with which XYZ printer, and I ended up buying a spool for wrong type. (Pro Tip: If you need a spool for an XYZ da Vinci Junior, the part number needs to start with "RFPLC...", not RFPLA... or RFPLB...). However the price per 1-inch scale miniature is still very cheap. The printer automatically makes hollow figurines, so a typical plastic orc ends up being just 2 grams. Even at $50 per kg that is just 10 cents per orc. Compared to a Reaper Bones miniature that is actually very cheap.

The other important thing that changed is the availability of models that are legal to use without copyright. My main source in Thingiverse, But there is also an artist who released the whole Monster Manual worth of miniatures on Shapeways, and you can find blog posts with lists of D&D miniatures or search engines. So while I still don't have an editor to create models, I got quite a lot of choice of different models to print to use in my game.

One limitation of printing miniatures is that with a PLA filament anything you want to make needs to be at least 1 mm thick. I wanted to print some skeletons as a typical low-level monster appearing in D&D, and a lot of the models available couldn't be scaled down to 1-inch tabletop scale, because the bones were too thin. Finally I found one with a "solid" rib-cage, which printed just fine. One thing I learned is that most of the time it is best to print miniatures with the "supports" on. That prints sacrificial extra stuff around your miniature which supports the parts that hang in the air, like outstretched arms or weapons. But even with supports, miniatures designed with thicker parts come out a lot better than minis with a lot of fine details.

In summary, while printing orcs and other monsters for D&D is still a niche application, the current state of the art of 3D printing is well up to this task and produces usable results at an okay price. While printing is somewhat slow, at least 20 minutes per mini, even on my small printer I can easily print out several models at once and just leave it running while I am at work or asleep. So I have a growing army of miniatures for use with my upcoming 5E D&D campaign which I am quite happy about.

Friday, April 21, 2017
 
3D Printer XYZ da Vinci Junior 1.0w review

After some deliberation I finally decided to buy myself a 3D printer. I got the XYZ da Vinci Jr. 1.0w for €471 over here in Belgium. I could have gotten it from Amazon.com for $269, but then the electric plug would have been wrong, and as the box is huge it would probably have cost a lot for shipping. Buying it locally meant that I ordered it on Tuesday and got in on Thursday, and if there is a problem I have a shop to go to complain.

The box contains not only the printer, but also a small spool of PLA to start printing with (it's just 100 meters, while a full XYZprinting spool is 240 meters / 600 g), an 8 GB SD card, a power transformer with the world's shortest power cable (1'), and a bunch of tools for maintenance. There was also some print bed tape that provides better adhesion of the printed object to the bed.

I used a laptop with the provided USB cable to set up the printer. The software was on the SD card, but then updated from the internet. There was also an automatic update of the printer firmware. Once I had used the USB cable to set up the Wifi, I didn't need any cable any more, and I could even control the printer from the desktop PC (which doesn't have a Wifi card but is on the same network). That is why I bought the 1.0w version, because I could install the printer in a separate less used room instead of next to my PC. 3D printing is more noisy and smelly than 2D printing, although not extremely so.

The installation of the printer went so fast that I was already printing the first figurines on the same evening. And the quality of the figurines I made at home was the indistinguishable from the figurines that I had previously printed on somebody else's $2500 Makerbot 3D printer. However my printer is limited to 15 cm x 15 cm x 15 cm size of objects, while the expensive printer can make much bigger things. Which right now I wouldn't want to, because 3D printing is a relatively slow affair: It takes me already half an hour to print a 28 mm scale D&D figurine, which is just about 1 m of PLA filament or 2.5 g. Printing something big can take all day.

The only thing I find really annoying about this brand of printers is that XYZprinting sells you proprietary spools of PLA (or ABS for other models of printers) which come with an RFID chip. The chip prevents you from using cheaper no-brand PLA from other sources. So now I'm paying €30 for a 600 g spool instead of €25 for a 1 kg spool of PLA filament, basically twice the price. There is probably a way to hack those chips, but I haven't looked into it yet, because I don't want to void my warranty yet. As far as I have tested up to now the printer consumes about 2 meters of filament per hour printed, so even a 600 g spool with 240 meters does last quite a while.

My biggest remaining problem is that I don't have the tools and skills to create my own things to print. On a 2D printer I can print the text I wrote or the photo I shot, but on the 3D printer I need to search the internet for somebody else's .stl file to print. There are lots of them around on sites like Thingiverse. And there is free CAD software like TinkerCAD to create basic models myself. But what I would really like to have is something like the editor from Heroforge to create custom miniatures for D&D. Unfortunately the FAQ of Heroforge states that they aren't selling downloadable files yet, you need to print the miniatures with them.


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Thursday, April 20, 2017
 
Solving the sandbox problem in D&D

Much of the discussion of role-playing games, both pen & paper and computer versions, revolve around the question how linear or scripted the story should be. There are a lot of very fervent fans of the so-called "sandbox" mode of play, in which a player can do everything he wants to, and has complete freedom. Unfortunately this idea is mostly appealing as an ideal, while the practical implementation of it is always running into major problems. The most fundamental of which is that any content in a game has either to be prepared or has to be randomly created. When the content is random, players usually don't care about it very much, because the randomness is frequently quite obvious. Don't like this random dungeon? Well, move on to the next one, it doesn't matter! But if the content is hand-crafted and prepared, this implies that there is some thread in it that players are supposed to follow, which limits their freedom.

Several of the official WotC published adventure books have clearly been written with the idea in mind that because sandbox is popular, the adventure needs to be presented as a sandbox. But the dungeons and encounters are prepared, and so the adventures are never completely a sandbox. Furthermore the 5E books are spanning a wide level range, going for example from level 1 to level 15 in a system that only has 20 levels. So not even the order of the dungeons and encounters is sandbox, because you don't want the level 1 characters run into the level 15 dungeon or vice versa.

Now one possible solution of this would be to throw the sandbox part out of the window and just present the dungeons and encounters in the order in which they clearly are intended to be run. However that would be falling from one extreme into the other. It would be better to come up with a system in which players have choice, but also enough information about the difficulty of various locations to be able to predict the consequences.

That isn't as easy as it sounds. I remember from playing Everquest that there was a /con command (for "consider") that told you whether a monster you saw ahead of you was of an appropriate level. In WoW and other modern games there is usually some other sort of indication or outright level information. Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have anything like that in the rules. And even in a given dungeon of a specific level, some encounters are much easier and some are harder than the average. So the first monsters encountered might not yet give you the information whether this place is too hard for your group. It is also a bit annoying in terms of flow of the game if you have the choice between various dungeons, don't know their level, and need to find that out by trial and error, running away and trying another choice if your first guess wasn't correct.

What I think I will do is give players a partial choice; not every dungeon in the book, but an awareness that there are several places where they could go. By adding some information about which of these places is easier and which is harder, the players can choose whether they want to do the dungeons in order of their levels, or whether they want to skip ahead for some reason.

One final remark on the WotC "sandbox" adventures is that they are frequently a mess with regards to presentation and finding information. I will have to read the adventure several times and take notes just so that I as the DM know where everything is. The one adventure that I found really well presented is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, which is the adventure in the Starter Set of the 5th edition. Unfortunately that standard of helpfulness hasn't been sustained through the rest of the published material.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017
 
D&D 5E House Rules: Resting

One of the interesting aspects of Dungeons & Dragons is that people can fiddle with the rules, either by interpreting them differently or by adding "house rules" to their table. So I thought I would create a column on this blog in which I describe my house rules, as well as the reasoning behind them. I'm starting with a rule I already mentioned, about creating a house rule that determines a chance for a random encounter during a rest.

The rule is that I will assign a danger level to any location that the players want to rest at. The danger level would be 0 if they rest in a typical inn, 1 if they rest in a typical wilderness setting. But if there are predictable dangers around, the danger level can go up to 5. So if the group decides to rest in a haunted cemetery, or in the middle of a kobold-infested dungeon, the danger of somebody disturbing their rest will be high. Once during a short rest, and four times during a long rest, the player standing guard has to roll a d20. If he rolls equal or lower than the danger level, a random encounter occurs.

Why do I need this rule? 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is using a system in which some classes depend very much on limited resources which replenish after a rest, while other classes work with a steady output without limited resources instead of in bursts. A group that could without problem take a long rest after every fight would favor the burst classes and be somewhat unbalanced not just between classes but also with regards to the monsters. Many DMs solve that by saying "You can't rest here!" when they feel the environment is too dangerous. I don't like that solution, because it is arbitrary, and against the general principle that a DM should always say "Yes, and ..." instead of "No". If the players *want* to have a long rest in a danger level 5 area, they should be allowed to, and have to deal with the consequences.

One of the fundamental questions of any pen & paper role-playing game is who controls what happens. I've been playing as a player in sessions where the DM was in complete control all of the time, with very little player agency, and rarely a roll of a dice, and that can be very boring. Good D&D uses a mix of DM control, player input, and randomness created by dice to end up with a game session that nobody could foresee and is thus interesting for all participants. For this resting house rule the players control when to rest, the dice determine if something happens, and me as the DM controls what exactly is happening. The exact random encounter that will happen isn't set in stone, because it depends on the situation. The "spending the night on the graveyard" scenario and the "spending the night in the kobold den" scenario will obviously result in different random encounters. And a short rest on a road might result in a random encounter which is a traveling salesman instead of a combat encounter.

What I am not doing is, as suggested elsewhere in the Dungeon Master's Guide, to fiddle with the duration of a short rest and long rest. One hour for a short rest and eight hours for a long rest (with a maximum of one long rest per day) seems perfectly fine for me. I am also not changing a rule which is maybe a bit less logical: Interruptions do not invalidate a long rest, as long as the interruption is less than one hour. Which means that theoretically a group rolling a 1 on each of the 4 danger rolls during a long rest might have their night interrupted by 4 combat encounters and still be fresh in the morning. Sounds strange, but the alternative that every fight invalidates a long rest might end up with the players never getting the chance to recover, which wouldn't be playable either.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017
 
Zeitgeist: Final session

In the previous session the group started to explore an ancient Ziggurat, looking for a golden seal. They had overcome a colored light puzzle and battled some monsters and now entered a new room.

This room contained a strange structure made out of copper plates connected by ropes to form a sort of pyramid. The uppermost part had a white crystal set in the middle of a small copper plate. The middle copper plate had 8 x 8 levers, which basically produced one hole out of 64 possible in that plate. The lowest plate had a strange map, which Eldion identified with a history check as being a very old world map before the shift of some continents. Below that plate was an opening to insert some flat object, 75 cm wide and 150 cm long, but only half a centimeter thick. There was no obvious immediate use for this structure, so the group moved on.

The next room was nearly empty, except for a similar symbol of 7 concentric circles as they had found previously at the entrance of the pyramid, this time with the 4th circle marked. With the notes from the dead archaeologists they were able to identify this as relating to the planet of water. So Aria poured some water on the symbol, which appeared to magically switch something, but the effect only lasted until the water had run off. But by placing his water skin on the symbol the switch was activated for longer. [DM's note: What the players didn't know was that this deactivated a rather deadly flood trap, which made the rest of the dungeon much easier.] The room after this contained a fire trap, which was deactivated by putting a torch on the concentric circles symbol relating to the plane of fire.

Avoiding a number of unexplored rooms the players arrived at the final destination, where they found a number of corpses. This time not only archaeology students, but also the three tiefling mages that had been sent by Caius Bergeron, the sponsor of the expedition, to recover the golden seal. That golden seal was at the other end of the room, having visibly been moved from the wall, where it had sealed a strange opening. Closer examination revealed that opening to lead to some strange portal leading to a void between planes. The tieflings had apparently tried to protect themselves from whatever was behind the portal by drawing pentagrams on the floor, but somebody had disturbed the pentagram and the protection hadn't worked. From traces of the ensuing fight the group could conclude that this was the source of the strange alien monsters they had encountered earlier.

On the corpse of one of the tieflings they found notes describing their mission in more detail. They had been sent to recover the golden seal, which had the shape of a door, 150 x 75 x 0.5 cm. The tiefling had noted that the seal was needed to teleport a "colossus" to the prime material plane, and that the seal was to be delivered to a tunned near Mayor Macbannin's manor on Cauldron Hill in Flint. From that the group could conclude that the construction they knew was going on in the parallel Shadowfell plane under Cauldron Hill was in fact a colossus, and that there was a plan to attack the city with it by bringing the colossus out to the prime material plane.

But before doing that, 4 of the 6 players wanted to try out the strange structure with the world map, having noticed that the golden seal was exactly the shape of the object missing from it. Two players didn't want to do that, and left the ziggurat as a precaution. The others put a light on top of the top copper plate, which was increased by the white crystal. With the levers they had the choice of 64 different locations on the world map. Thinking that it might summon some monsters at that location, they chose a location in Danor, before putting the golden seal in. However the seal powered a teleport and the 4 found themselves in the middle of a field in Danor, from where it took them a week to travel back to Flint. The other 2 players, in front of the ziggurat, had to deal with the Voice of Rot, an immense Titan that had been awoken by the use of such powerful magic. Fortunately they had thought in the previous session to bring an offering for the Voice of Rot, a boatload of rotting animal carcasses, and were able to send him back to sleep. They then took the golden seal and traveled back to Flint, where they were joined some days later by their teleported friends.

At the RHC in Flint the audit had discovered irregularities of the head of the local branch, Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, and she had fled. The group wanted to send an army to the location of the colossus, but were told to scout that location first, as their story appeared somewhat implausible. So they went to the tunnel's location, and found that the tunnel was very short and led to nowhere. However a good perception roll was able to see that halfway down the tunnel the walls, floor, and ceiling were lined with rusty iron. Having used iron circles to teleport between the Shadowfell and the prime material plane before, they used the amulets they had for this from the raid of the mayor's manor to enter the Shadowfell.

That way they came to the inside of the Shadowfell version of Cauldron Hill, which was hollow. A huge colossus was being constructed inside. The tunnel led to a structure high up, over a bridge to a dome which appeared to contain an elevator and some control mechanisms. However inside the dome the group was met by the three main villains of the campaign: Lady Saxby, Caius Bergeron, and the head of the thieves guild, Lorcan Kell, with some of his goons.

A big fight ensued, with the group being level 6 and the enemies level 10, so the characters sustained some serious damage. However they managed to take out Caius and the goons relatively quickly. Meanwhile Lady Saxby had moved towards the entrance of the dome, attacking the spellcasters at the back of the group. Now she was attacked there by Merian, who used a power to teleport here over the side of the bridge. Catastrophically failing here saving throw against that, Lady Saxby fell to her death a thousand meters below. That really turned the tide, as Lady Saxby was the hardest enemy in the encounter. Lorcan Kell didn't stand a chance all alone and was quickly dispatched.

The group had killed the villains and exposed the conspiracy to attack the city with the colossus. Now they could get reinforcements in, arrest the technicians below and neutralize the threat. They were celebrated as heroes of the city and we ended the campaign with this triumph.

In our next session we will create characters for a new campaign, using the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules which were just released in French.

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Monday, April 17, 2017
 
It's the combat, stupid!

I recently bought Sword Coast Legends on Steam, because I was interested in a game using D&D rules, either 4th or 5th edition. However I ended up somewhat disappointed. Sword Coast Legends is using the names of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons spells and abilities, but combat plays more like World of Warcraft, in real time with hotkey buttons having cooldowns. Even if you pause very frequently you don't get the same experience as in an actual 5E tabletop game.

Unfortunately I know far too many games like that, which use the setting of Dungeons & Dragons or the Forgotten Realms, but all use real time combat. Turn-based D&D games, like the SSI Gold Box series from the early 90's have become pretty much extinct. The last one I know of, Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter, was a Facebook game that shut down back in 2012. Of course in the current flood of mobile and indie games there are a bunch of turn-based role-playing games that aren't half bad, but then these don't use the Dungeons & Dragons rules.

I find that curious, especially if you consider that 4th edition D&D was very much a tactical game, with less focus on the role-playing part. The large number of different powers would have made a great tactical turn-based computer game. While tactical combat in 5th edition is a lot lighter, it would still work as a computer game. And a game using the D&D turn-based rules as written would be a great opportunity to try things out, or play D&D when your friends aren't available.

So if you hear of any turn-based Dungeons & Dragons games using 4th edition or 5th edition rules, let me know!

Sunday, April 16, 2017
 
The future of 3D printing is niche

I have some limited access to a filament 3D-printer of the kind too expensive to buy for home use. But my local electronics super-store has a €800 3D-printer which even includes a laser-scan turn-table which allows you to "copy" things in 3D. Sounds brilliant, but I have enough experience with the technology now to be aware of the disadvantages as well.

For example some weeks ago the hinges on the filter-holder of my coffee machine broke. What if I could scan the thing a print a replacement? Or maybe replace the broken battery cover on an alarm clock or other small plastic items like that? The reality of things is that this simply doesn't work. Not only is the object that you print the wrong color and the surface isn't smooth; it also is completely the wrong material: Poly lactic acid (PLA) isn't great at withstanding heat, so I wouldn't use it in a coffee machine. And the material is a lot stiffer than the polyethylene or polypropylene that most plastic items in your household are made of, so the closing mechanism that requires a bit of flexibility wouldn't work and frequently break. At least PLA is one of the least toxic plastics, so you won't poison your coffee with it, unlike with some other options. In the end the best option was to google the type of my coffee machine and buy a replacement part online.

So a 3D home printer is mostly good for decorative items. But as the layers are very visible and usually the item is just mono-color, the items aren't really all that decorative. What it works reasonably well for is printing little plastic figurines for my role-playing games, especially low polygon models. So if I need a bunch of those, should I buy a 3D printer?

One issue here is cost. You can get a lot of Reaper Bones miniatures for €800, and that is just the price of the printer. The material for 3D printing is generally overpriced (that is at least 10 times the market value of the plastic used), and some companies started to make the materials even more expensive by putting the filament in a cartridge without which the printer won't work. On the other hand a plastic miniature is only between 2 g and 5 g at 25 mm scale, which means a spool of filament will last you quite a long time.

My main obstacle to buying a 3D printer is size: The model with the laser scanner is basically a cube with a side length of 60 cm. Meaning it has the size of a small washing machine (except for the height) rather than the size of a printer. However I could go for a smaller size printer which is about a 40 cm cube, and has WiFi connection, so it doesn't need to be close to the computer. And that one is less than €500. Smaller printer means smaller maximum size of the object printed, but even for the smaller model the print volume is 15 x 15 x 15 cm. So right now I haven't really made a decision, but I'm still toying with the idea.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017
 
The sand of your sandbox is getting into the gears of my game!

Dungeons & Dragons is only a set of rules. Many decisions of game design, which in a computer game would be done by a game developer, in Dungeons & Dragons are left to the DM to decide. Which means that a DM frequently has to deal with questions of good game design. One of those questions is whether to run a more linear, story-driven game, or more of a sandbox game.

Compared to a computer game, a sandbox is easier to create in a pen & paper roleplaying game. In a computer game, you need to create the whole world that can be visited in advance. In a pen & paper the details of any place can be created when the players are actually visiting it. You might have some campaign material describing a city in half a page or less, but once the players go and explore the city the interactive storytelling between DM and players creates more and more detail of that city. With a thin book of a campaign setting and a bunch of random encounter tables and random dungeons you could fill years of a sandbox campaign. Which might be fun to the people who like sandbox gameplay very much.

So after reading some good reviews (unfortunately I missed the more realistic review), I bought the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Storm King's Thunder, which promised a great sandbox campaign from level 1 to 11. And after studying it in detail, I am very disappointed. Because the sandbox part is only one chapter in the book (admittedly a thick one), and is only supposed to last the time it takes to get from level 6 to level 7. And I don't really like the structure of the rest of the book (Warning, spoilers ahead!):
  • While the low levels in 5E are generally fast, the chapter getting the players from level 1 to 5 is ridiculously thin. They basically explore an empty village in which goblins in groups of 1 or 2 are dispersed to get to level 2. Then they get attacked by orcs and make level 3. Then they visit one short dungeon to make level 4, and then they get attacked twice while traveling to make level 5.
  • Level 5 gives an illusion of choice: It could happen in three different locations! But each of the locations has the same basic story, an attack by giants looking for something. And of course being attacked in this adventure gets you another level.
  • Level 6 is the sandbox part. So while up to now the players gained a level every time they sneezed, they now play 60 pages of the book to get to level 7. Because the level gain is linked to ending the chapter, this is a sandbox that rewards players to explore as little as possible. If you want to permanently discourage players from sandbox style roleplaying, this is exactly the way to do it: "Here is a sandbox which you can explore to your heart's content, but you'll only gain a level if you stop doing so and follow the linear story again!".
  • Level 7 is okay, a dungeon to get to level 8.
  • Level 8 has actual choice, there are five different locations which you can visit to get to level 9. Unfortunately you can't visit more than one of them, so of the 63 pages describing the locations, the players will only ever see one fifth. And the players have no way of knowing what the five locations are about (other than the type of giant), so they might well not end up with the locations which would be most suitable to their preferences.
  • Level 9 to 11 is a linear story. There aren't all that many encounters between two levels.
I believe the fundamental problem with this printed "sandbox" adventure is the need to be at a specific level for a location, because the locations come with combat encounters of that level. If Dungeons & Dragons didn't have levels, the adventure would probably work well enough with some tweaks. But as it is the players are rewarded for rushing through chapters, because it is the end of the chapter that gives the level-up reward.

I do think that one could build a great sandbox campaign out of Storm King's Thunder in combination with the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. But that would require ditching the chapter that gets the players to level 5, and using the sandbox part from level 1 to 7 (Including the attack on town part at the appropriate moment). The rest of the adventure could be reworked to require the players to visit all five giant locations instead just one of them. That would still be a more linear adventure though. The main work for all of it would be having to rework all the encounters as they happen to whatever level the players are at the time.

For my campaign I will first read some other adventures and see whether something less sandboxy isn't more suitable for my group.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017
 
Granting experience points in Dungeons & Dragons

When Dungeons & Dragons first appeared over 40 years ago, the concept of experience points and levels was new. Today many, many different games have experience points and levels, even if they aren't really roleplaying games. Character progress is an extremely popular concept. But finding the best system to grant experience points and levels is still not easy, especially not in a pen & paper game like Dungeons & Dragons.

Of course Dungeons & Dragons has rules for granting experience points. These mostly cover the players being rewarded for slaying monsters. Every monster has an xp value, and at the end of the fight you divide the xp of the monsters by the number of players and that is how many xp everybody gets. In 5th edition there is an added element for that, a curios multiplier that goes up with the number of monsters: x1.5 if there are 2 monsters, x2 if there are 3 to 6 monsters, x2.5 for 7-10 monsters, and so on. The argument for that is that more monsters have more attacks, so 5 monsters being worth 700 xp together are more dangerous than one monster of a higher CR that is worth 700 xp alone. Where that logic fails is if you consider it from the point of view of the monster: The multiplier applies only to the number of monsters, not to the number of players. And if the danger of monsters goes up more than linearly with numbers, so should the danger of the group of players go up more than linearly with numbers. That is a permanent problem in my home campaign, which at 6 players is on the large side for adventures designed for 4 or 5 characters.

The idea of dividing xp by the number of players is also problematic if you consider that it means that a larger group goes up slower in level than a smaller group. Published adventures frequently assume that the players are of a certain level at a certain point, but if there are more players that might not be the case. Unless of course you change all the encounters to add some more monsters to keep the level of challenge for the group the same for the larger group. That doesn't always make sense, although some adjustment is certainly advisable for groups that have more or less than the recommended number of players.

In my 4E campaign, the adventure didn't give out individual experience points at all. The adventures were organized by chapters, and at the end of some chapters you were told that the players would now gain a level. That is probably the easiest way to handle level-ups, but in 5th edition the method has its issues: Because of the multi-combat nature of 5E, adventures frequently have side-quests and optional encounters. If you give out levels at certain points in the story, following side-quests becomes a whole lot less interesting. You certainly don't want a Dungeons & Dragons game to degenerate into a MMORP-style "grind for xp", but if you want to encourage players to explore, giving out experience points for the encounters resulting from exploration is a good way.

You can of course also hand out experience points for clever ideas, solved puzzles, overcome traps, or good roleplaying. This is basic behavioral economics: Give out rewards for whatever you want the players to do, and they will frequently do it. However then you'll end up with a potential other problem: Do you give out xp for everybody or individually? Players aren't equal, and every table has some players contributing more ideas and others contributing less. Give out individual xp, and you'll end up with level differences between players. To caricature it, the player already hogging most of the spotlight also ends up being higher level and stronger than the others. Not a recipe for good teamwork. Which is why I prefer to give out xp equally to all group members, even if it was not all of them who actually solved the problem.

So for my 5th edition campaign I think I will use a mix of different methods: Everybody always gets the same xp (including the person who didn't turn up for that particular session), but xp are granted for various things, not just for killing monsters. And at certain points in the story I might give out "story xp", which increases the probability of leveling up at the end of a chapter rather than right in the middle of it.

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Monday, April 10, 2017
 
Zeitgeist: Digging for Lies - Session 5

In the previous session the constables of the RHC decided to visit a ziggurat in the High Bayou region of Risur, as a strange weapon that had caused problems in Flint had come from there. So in this session they set out to do so. After a train ride of one day, followed by another day of travel overland, they reached the limits of civilization at the edge of a large swamp. Due to some information they had that one of the titans of Risur, the Voice of Rot, was living in that swamp, they organized a boatload of dead animals as an offering. Then they set off towards their destination in pole boats.

The way had been marked by the archaeologists and was easy enough to find. But the swamp was dangerous terrain and at some point they were attacked by an ettercap and half a dozen spiders. However that encounter proved to be rather easy, with being immobilized in spider webs being more annoying than dangerous. So they traveled on and reached the dock the archaeologists had built close to their camp.

In the camp they found three corpses of archaeology students, but no signs of the tiefling specialists Caius Bergeron had sent. Searching the camp gave them a general map of the ziggurat (an excuse to reveal the whole poster map to them without bothering to hide the unexplored bits, because that wasn't really necessary in this case) and a planetary system map of their world. On the entrance of the ziggurat they found a symbol of a white stone in the middle with 7 concentric circles around it, with a dot on the 6th circle. The star map suggested this means that the ziggurat was dedicated to Apet, the plane of distance.

Inside they found three mummies, visibly missing the staff, sword, and amulet that had been sent to Flint and caused their involvement in this case. Aria wanted to burn the mummies, but as they were bog mummies and not bandaged mummies that wasn't all that easy, so they gave up on that idea. From there they could turn left or right and for no specific reason went left. That led them to a big room with several platforms over a deep pit filled with monsters, and some rainbow-colored transparent walls of light. There were also stones freshly painted in those same rainbow colors. This turned out to be a puzzle, where touching the stone of one color would raise a bridge and wall of the corresponding color, but lower the bridge and wall of the complementary color. After some fiddling they managed to raise all bridges and lower all walls to reach the exit.

However behind the exit two flashing orbs waited, attacking them. The monsters from the pit behind them also started climbing out and attacking. Eldion used a new group teleport power he just had received while gaining level 6 at the end of the previous session to move the whole group behind the attacking monsters instead of being surrounded by them, and from there the fight went smoothly. However this took some time (in the real world), so we stopped the session there.

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Sunday, April 09, 2017
 
What 4E taught me about running 5E combat encounters

If you lay all the editions of Dungeons & Dragons from basic D&D to Advanced D&D, 1st to 5th edition side by side, the one edition sticking out as being noticeably different is 4th edition. I tend to refer to it as "D&D Tactics", a game with a heavy focus on combat encounters for long, tactical battles. Which is really fun to play, but not everybody's cup of tea, and requiring a lot of prep work from the DM. Which is why I started to play 5th edition D&D in a local RPG club, and am planning to make a 5E campaign myself for my group.

So to get into the swing of things I'm watching YouTube videos of people playing 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and I notice one thing: Many of the DMs on YouTube under-utilize their monsters. Yes, a 5th edition monster is a lot simpler than a 4th edition one. But even lowly kobolds and goblins have traits, and I rarely see them used on YouTube. Maybe it is the stress of recording a play session, maybe the DMs aren't all that experienced, but I am thinking that I could do better.

At the most basic level a monster has offensive stats (to hit and damage) and defensive stats (armor class and hit points). You *can* run a monster using just those basic stats. For example a goblin has AC 15, 7 HP, +4 to hit, and deals 5 damage on average. A grimlock has AC 11, 11 HP, +5 to hit, and deals 7 damage on average. The two monsters have the same challenge rating, so you could reasonably have a fight against some goblins and a fight against some grimlocks in the same dungeon shortly one after each other. Are the players going to note the difference? Maybe. The goblins are harder to hit, but have less health and deal less damage. The grimlocks are easier to hit, have a bigger chance to need more than one hit to die, and deal more damage. But that sort of detail can easily be lost on the players, who might perceive both fights to be very similar.

What 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons taught me is that with very little extra work, I can make those monsters a lot more memorable. The goblins have a trait that allows them to disengage or hide as a bonus action. They shouldn't be played staying stationary next to the player character once they attacked him. Especially since 5E rules allow you to move both before and after your action. So they can move next to a character, attack him, disengage, and use their remaining movement to get away at least a bit. If they are somewhere where they have cover, they could shoot from hiding with advantage, and then move and hide again, with the passive perception of the players against the goblin's stealth check determining whether they players know where the goblin is. The grimlocks could be in a dungeon room with a darkness spell cast on it, where their blindsight would give them some serious advantages.

While using those abilities to the fullest clearly make the monsters more dangerous, that can be a bonus if your players are experienced too and would simply slaughter low CR creatures that just run up and hit them. And the players are sure going to remember that fight against the grimlocks in the magical darkness, or those pesky invisible goblins much better. Remember, D&D isn't a MMORPG where you just want to grind mobs to gain xp and loot. The goal is to have fun, and that means making combat encounters a bit more interesting than just using basic stats.

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