Saturday, November 14, 2015

Campaign Changes & D&D 5e Review

So we started a new campaign a few months back (August?). The Tolkienish North Kingdoms campaign has been set aside althought not totally shut down, but there was alot of cruft accumulated around the characters that was making it difficult for them to have fun, coherent adventures in some ways - one character was a king of a dwarf hold, the other characters his advisors. That was a cool set up, but I DM for like 6-9 people and taking subplots and politics is really hard with that many people. I introduced some overall challenges, and the PCs certainly still went adventuring. The one problem with so many players with high-level PCs, though, is that it takes awhile to do even 1 adventure - and if I introduce other hooks, they may jump on those and then lose interest in the main adventure - not in the sense of deciding to do something else, but all their preparations and plans and deeds leading up to the main adventure get forgotten week-to-week. Ah, such is the game, so that will always be a problem, just need to work on focusing and managing it better. What I really intend to do is make sure we keep playing the same world and same PCs so it's not so much an issue. There were alot of interruptions for these "main camapign" characters that were totally my fault - I wanted to tinker with the rules, went through several rules changes, and played several one-offs and so on, so I had kinda fucked with the continuity myself.

Before returning to that North Kingdoms campaign, we did a serious, like 6+ month, jaunt with D&D's new Fifth Edition. We started with the Beginner Box and then I quickly added the Player's Handbook rules. Lots of things are fun about 5th edition, and I think for groups of say, 4-5 players, I could handle it. The impressions that mirror my own best are probably at Hack & Slash blog and Natalie's thoughts here .Character creation is relatively easy, there's lots of stuff on the character sheet that accumulates as the PCs level, the characters are pretty "empowered," and the rules mostly get out of the way - roll high, sometimes roll 2 advantage/disadvantage - in a way that makes sense.  The monster rules are pretty fun too, and I liked alot of the stuff in the DMG.

BUT there were problems. First, from the player's perspective (and mind you, I play with friends who don't read the books or work on their characters except at the table) the class abilities were WAY too complicated. Like, one friend was playing a cleric, but all the channeling v. spell slots were confusing (frankly to both of us at first, until I reread the rules several times). Some of the powers were different just for the sake of being different, which was stupid - like Perserve Life heals a maximum of half your hp, but the cleric has exactly 23 hp to distribute daily and shit. This is some video game thinking that should be absolutely exorcised at a live-pen-paper RPG - simple clear abilities and spells that don't overlap (you don't need 3 different kinds of heal, just have more cure light wounds). I know people who enjoy 3e and Pathfinder and certain video game clamor for this shit, but that's because they spend too much thinking about RPG rules as a closed box instead of strong guidelines for narrating what your character does with friends around a table. In general, all the special spell schools and just gobs of spells for each class was also confusing to players - I couldn't remember what all of them did, so there ended up being alot of looking up shit or "why bother" casting a spell type shit that happened. I also didn't like how many spells I had to keep track of for NPCs and monsters.

The next issue was for me: bags and bags of hit points. Campbell at Hack & Slash has talked about this too - in terms of how higher level characters not only have so many but everyone starts just dishing out the damage.  For me, although I love its many virtues, D&D's main problem is that when characters get up there in HP-count the narrative fiction elements start to break down - human beings absorbing hits that would kill regular human beings (think 1HD humans and demihumans) 5-10 times over. When you think about the Lone Survivor SEAL dude and how much punishment he took without dying, I think there's an element of this (and in more fantasy and Arthurian fiction and our movie action heroes), so it's basically fine but I don't like it getting so out of whack. I also don't like how MMORPG-style level dependent it makes everything: it doesn't matter that a dragon is massive, it has only 100 hp, while a 10th level NPC "assassin" monster has 68 hp. I'll take older school set HD thank you very much, giants and kings with 10-14 HD please.

The other major effect that I really didn't like because of these giant HP bundles was that it really turned the direction of the game towards comic-book style fantasy superhero. Again, there's always a tendency in D&D towards this, but I think in basic D&D it's much tamped-down (see Lamentations of the Flame Princess!). PCs started killing flying adult dragons in pairs with ease, enemies had to be bigger and scarier and more magical and more shut down powered.  5th edition is great at handling this mechanically, lots of that was still fun, but I couldn't keep adventure plots and adventure hooks and the world setting alive and sensical unless we start moving to planar territory. That's great, but it's not the D&D game I wanted to run - which trends much more towards Warhammer or Game of Thrones in feel, even if fantastical.

So all this leads me to a future post which will discuss the homebrew rules based on Basic/Lamentations/Beyond the Wall/Blood & Treasure that I've been using.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Kings in the North

Kingdoms in the North (click to enlarge)

The main mannish kingdom in the north is the North Kingdom, ruled from Kingstower (Bran-Mindas). But the old king, Heidrek, has grown feeble and a war of succession has broken out between his three sons after a plague swept through the land.

The eldest son King Robert (formerly Prince) rules Kingstower and all the nearby lands, as pictured on the map in red. He has allied with King Shotey and the companions of Khazad Dum in his fight against his other brothers. King Robert's wife Griselda was healed by the companions when they brought back an herbal cure from the elves of Telrast. King Robert is proud, but he is in difficulties: his army was defeated trying to cross the Blue River near Riverhome and he has lost all the lands west of the river. Only his castle as Stoneford protects his dominions, and Hurin's raiders sometimes slip through on the coast. He also was initially suspicious of the companions as they took his ailing father King Heidrek from his castle, when they believed Heidrek had been wrongly imprisoned there.

King Robert before Kingstower

The second son is Prince Tancred, who the companions brought the aged King Heidrek to until they learned of their mistake and Tancred's sorcery. Prince Tancred tried to have the companions imprisoned after the failed to pledge loyalty to him, but the companions slaughtered the warriors he sent to capture them and escaped after stealing a Seeing Stone from Tancred's keep. Prince Tancred retaliated by beheading Heidrek's loyal old seneshal and herald "Pigeon" (Hanulf), whom the companions had befriended, and sending the head to Shotey in a box. This act led Shotey and the companions to ally with King Robert to make war on Tancred.  Prince Tancred rules the towns in purple, and he has reportedly welcomed a host of orcs from the north to serve him. In Reedhollow, the companions killed the lord of the town (and his lady wife) to free the halflings there from his, according to the halflings, misrule and tyranny. They left Reedhollow in the keeping of its new Mayor, Butterbottoms, and Prudence Noaks has been declared the "Savior of the Town."  The banner of Prince Tancred is a raven.

Prince Tancred
The third son is Hurin, who is only 16 years old. He has the loyalty of all of the keeps in orange nominally, but it is widely rumored he is a creature of King Ragnar, whose hall he was sent to as a ward in the peace treaty between King Heidrek and Ragnar years ago (Ragnar's son at Heidrek's halls died of the plague). King Ragnar rules from Dunhill and his Castle Danorith and controls the halls in black. To defeat Robert, Ragnar and Hurin hired Variag mercenaries from the Great Plains to the south. Sure enough, their combined forces badly defeated Prince Robert's armies at Riverhome. Due to his hatred of the Variags who defeated him and partially to cut off the head of the snake, Robert asked the companions to kill their Khan as part of his alliance with Shotey. The companions have now learned the Khan is encamped near the Redhorn, one of the tallest peaks in the Stonecrowns.

King Ragnar the Bold

Finally, there are the elves. Their numbers are faded after their endless wars against the orcs and the Dark Lord north of the Stonecrowns, but they are wise and strong. Their leader is Prince Araval of Telrast, a high tower looking over the bay.

Prince Araval wearing his war-helm

Sunday, August 23, 2015

North Kingdoms: the Search for Shotey

After the death of Shotey, the companions gathered his body in Nymeria's raven cloak and set forth to find the Witch of Oakrest who had sent them to kill the ancient spider, Goliant. Perhaps they reasoned, they could ask her to bring back his spirit from across the Veil.

After they departed the spiders lair, gathering the previous gemstones they found there, they met the Old Man of the Wood sitting atop his evacuated horse. He demanded gifts for the affront of not paying him homage when the companions entered the forest, and he lecherously looked upon Nymeria. The companions agreed but asked if he could use his powers to bring back Shotey. He warned them of the dangers of piercing the veil between life and death, but agreed.

The companions set out south through the forest to the Sarneth Marshes for a Moon Lily blossom needed for the Old Mans ritual. They stopped at Broadheath to buy supplies but quickly discovered the tale of how they slew the lord of Oakrest had spread through the lands on the lips of the bard they encountered in Oakrest at the feast hall. The companions fled Broadheath and plunged into the swamp.

Evading the will o the wisps through clever use of magic spells, the companions returned in time with the moon lily and Shotey was reborn, though with visions of an Balrog's smoke-breathing face before his eyes.

the Witch of Oakrest's House

After the resurrection the companions left the Bleakwood and headed back to Oakrest, which they found burned to ashes.  They searched for the Witch, but she was gone from her house and her animal familiar suspected captured. The companions returned to Oakrest to search for scraps of metal to constitute some armor for the dwarf king, they fell upon a band of drunken Variags in the night. The companions moved into to attack...

a variag veteran

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Death of King Shotey, Long Live the King

During the battle against the ancient and terrible spider Goliant, dwarf King Shotey valiantly faced off against the spider in single combat, hacking at it from below. In a serious of critical blows from the beasts terrible fangs, dripping with the most potent venom in the north, however, Shotey was slain and Goliant's mandibles rended him into pieces. The other companions tricked Goliant into staying emerged from his lair with clever spell use, and then slew the ancient foe in vengeance. Much experience and valuable gemstones were gained, but at the loss of the mightiest dwarf in all the north.

The companions vowed to see the witch of Oakrest about a resurrection, or at least give Shotey a proper burial. 

Companions present:
King Shotey the Second of his name
Davon Thornwood the Drunk Druid
Pru (briefly at the end, someone remembered to play her)
Mayvis the catman 
Sir Bloodaxe Magistus (and his squire and squires horse)
Bowie Glitterboots
Hazad the merciless
Ellazon the wise

1600-1700 xp each
4 diamonds from Goliant's eyes
4 emeralds
8 precious sapphires
A horn, banded in gold, known to deafen and frighten the weak willed
A old sword, carved with cirith runes

Thursday, August 6, 2015

blog update

The problem I've noticed with my hands off style and seat of my pants DMing is that the players lose track of all the campaign details and plotlines I put out there. Players normally can't even track the 1-3 major NPCs they interact with, but they do remember their enemies or random friends (some street urchin, Dr. Sir Bubblesworth, the Squirrel, Esq.).

So I've resurrected this blog so I have somewhere to put the session recaps for my offline, ongoing basic d&d campaign. There's a ton of PCs (like 8) and plot hook stuff has also been getting lost, so I'm going to try and post on the regular. It's the same campaign that started with a modified Caves of Chaos and half-brewed ruleset from 2013, and by far the longest running d&d I've ever done.

A blog seems like it'd be also convenient for posting house rules and other resources (I'm planning some spell list posts), probably some setting description resources so the players can actually remember things. I've got an ambition of putting up a review of some rpg stuff I buy too. I'd like to do some rule theorizing as well, but we'll see.

Expect a flurry of background resources and setting info, hopefully with regularly updated session recaps (to keep me honest) to follow and keep the blog alive.

Into the Bleakwood: Session Recap 3

The companions entered the Bleakwood to hunt the ancient spider, abandoning for the time being their broader quest to kill the Khan of the Variags for their ally King Robert.

Entering the wood, they learned of an oppressive spirit that had been spotted: the Old Man of the Bleakwood. He had been sighted with bear companions, riding an emaciated horse, and palpable gloom came with him, according to all who had seen him.

After many days journey, the companions scouted out the lair of the ancient spider: a giant woodfall with many bewebbed trunks, dark and foreboding.

nothing should be implied from this picture, vaguely representing the woodfall tunnel of the spider
They then attacked with fire and tangles against the spider, entrapping it with entangling spells. The ancient spider's hunting spider-companion also beset the heroes. Battle was joined, stabbing and webbing!


After emerging from their encounter with the spider's of the forest, the companions entered the town of Oakrest.

At first their way was barred by a guardsman, who was killed for asking for a bribe. (Right, I think so? He may have just been bribed...). The companions tried to buy provisions but the wary townsfolk would not sell without the lord's permission.

So they entered the hall and were greeted with a feast. Among the men of the lord's hall, were several Variag barbarian horsemen who shared their fermented horse drink with Davin the Drunk, a druidic type.

The companions talked with the Variags and the minstril and told tales of their bravery and dragon-slaying in the past. They also meet with the witch of Oakrest, who offered a task for Nymeria and the companions: slay the ancient spider, broodmother of the spider's they encountered in the past, and she would reward them. She gave some poison antidotes to them and a healing balm.

The lord then offered them a place to sleep at night. He then betrayed them in the room where they slept, but the companions made short work of him and his guards, killing several. They then departed into the Bleakwood.