Forgotten Realms, it’s not me, it’s you

We had a bad experience at Gamehole con with our 5e game and it wasn’t completely because the GM was terrible (he was tired, wasn’t too great at adapting to three extremely experienced players at the table) but more because the module he was running was completely derivative crap. Orc attack on a village, cave with orcs in it, Zzzzzzzz….

Since the game I’ve been thinking of what the main issues with that session and did the 5 whys with myself to suss it out.

  • Session sucked, why?
  • Adventure was boring, why?
  • Generic ho hum: Orc attack, Orc cave, why?
  • In a setting where that’s obviously common and accepted. why?
  • Forgotten Realms.  Why?
  • It’s the default setting for all D&D 5.

The root cause of this, and it’s not my normal whipping boy Pathfinder, it’s Forgotten Realms.

I started D&D when there was no real campaign world,  it wasn’t even slightly defined for us when we bought the box sets at Hobbyhorse. There was Greyhawk and Blackmoor and stuff like that, but unless you looked hard for it, kids starting with Holmes or Moldvay didn’t get that full in the face– it was OUR world to create and it started small with the first adventure. Whether it was X-1 (I worried about where on my world map that island was quite a bit in grades school), Hommlet, or with just characters at the entrance to a made up dungeon or trapped in a chateau that had no fixed location or full placement in a realm at all,  the setting grew outward from the first adventure as the DM and players desired or required from that initial small kernel adventure and became more defined by other kernels like Castle Amber or the G series. The monster books also defined our world, with tons of odd things on my map coming out of the acquisition of the Fiend Folio.  Death Knight empires were now laid down on hexes! What we had was a ton of space for imagination and very little constraint by over definition of the setting by the modules at the time’s authors.  This is exactly how Greyhawk came into being. Dungeon first, then local environs, then out from there.   I really appreciated in INTO THE ODD how the author has the first expedition start at the dungeon entrance and has a local map on pages after that and the larger area maps/keys after that in the book; implicitly stating that this is the order in which players should encounter such things.  Dungeon – near environs – realm.  The onion is peeled from the inside out.

While I was vaguely aware and mildly interested in Greyhawk, I never much looked at it while in my very hardcore grade school and early middle school days of playing D&D.  Later came Dragonlance and while people must have loved it, I felt all of it was garbage in a really shitty setting.  Dragons can be cool and horrifying (see Dark Souls and Glorantha),  I run them in my 13th Age game as either incredibly violent fiends or …something totally different.  But when you have dragon men and little dragons and big dragons and an empire of dragon men it’s all just shite to me.  The closest I got to it was the gold box games on the Apple 2E, which were quite good.

Dragonlance must have sold a lot because next we got Forgotten Realms and D&D has suffered for it ever since. Yes, this likely had to do with Gygax’s ouster from TSR in 1985, and the end of Greyhawk at that point, but Dragonlance had paved the way a couple years before for a default, shytte setting.

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but Forgotten Realms is the absolute essence of generic fantasy.  It has every trope one can possibly imagine rolled into one ‘land’, every race is represented, all screaming out ‘potential’ for great adventure, but ending up absolutely mundane. The pseudo-medieval culture, architecture and technology levels are extremely trite, and border on the shear horror of steampunk.  For awhile there I thought I was just jaded and had experienced too much to enjoy such simple things in Forgotten Realms (for example, the lackluster Neverwinter nights games), but then I thought back about how much I disliked Dragonlance as a kid, wasn’t interested at all in the Greyhawk box-set after I got it and had switched instantly to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as soon as I became aware of it.  This was as a pre-teen, so it’s not like I had some eclectic, jaded taste or anything.  I just looked at the WFRP cover with it’s punk-esque adventurers in a vicious Early Modern setting and found it incredibly awesome compared to some Clyde Caldwell, Elmore or Jeff Easley’s unicorns and dragons paintings that adorned Forgotten Realms stuff.  Not surprisingly, I don’t think my tastes have changed that much since late grade school, and if anything the forgotten realms has gotten more generic, less interesting and certainly more treadover trite!

Now we have 5th Edition D&D established, dare I say loved, and clearly superior in all ways to Pathfinder, yet as much as 5E has going for it, the game has a core problem that for me make it much less appealing than it could be– it’s still stuck in Forgotten Realms. It may not be forever, but for now, everything out for it is set squarely in the totally generic fantasy, risk free, “base” D&D setting.

What’s also sad is that the sandbox adventures that are being put out for 5E are exactly what I want in a campaign: sandboxes, cool optional encounters, lots of characters, gazetter shit when you need it and not just gazetter shit for the sake of gazetter shit, and a huge lack of railroading in most of the adventures.  The two that are IMO the best: Strahd and Out of the Abyss, are the least Forgotten Realms of the set.  Strahd actually feels very out of place in the context of Forgotten Realms, which is solved by it being a pocket dimension rather than a real part of the map (which is stupid).  I’m not saying any of the adventures are automatically bad because they are set in FR, but I am saying that they are automatically generic, mundane fantasy in many ways, and will take work to rip them out of FR.

With the newest Against the Giant’s 5E module, I think it’s time for Forgotten Realms to be left behind by 5E forever, with the exception of the Demonweb pits.  There are other settings from the TSR era that are far more compelling, notably Dark Sun, and I would really like to see something sword and sorcery, maybe Stormbringer /Hawkmoon, maybe at this point WOTC could get the WFRP license and meld that and 5E.  Others have suggested stuff like Pendragon.  Low fantasy works well in 5E.   Or shit: STAR FRONTIERS!  Despite what 5E has done with clinging to the high fantasy, generic setting, D&D is not Forgotten Realms in the same way that Vampire the Masquerade is set in the World of Darkness and only World of Darkness.   It’s not just a craving for OSR or nostalgia to openly state I’d love to see more of THIS:

meazel2

and less of THIS:

larry-elmore-031

 

Some 5E thoughts while stroking the variant human dongle

I am in a Strahd game with Matt and others and we made characters from scratch and dared each other to roll (which happened) rather than points buy. Since it’s 4d6 out of order and pick the best, you are going to get some good rolls, and fuck yeah I did.

I made a fighter, rolled 18 str, great weapon combat style and great weapon master feat via the Human variant (+1 to two stats, +1 skill, +1 feat).  It turned out every player went Human variant, and we all have extremely different characters.    I can’t see a reason why anyone would play anything other than this.  You want to make a fantastic assassin?  Variant Human.  Awesome sorcerer?  Variant Human.  Basically a two-hander rivaling GUTS? Variant Human.  This is at 1st level.

I think this is by design.  My limited exposure to 4E, 3rd edition and Pathfinder lead me to believe no one ever chose humans because those games are games solely of ‘testing your stats’ optimization, and the other fantasy races did this better.  Optimization matters quite a bit less in 5E because it’s not trying to be the beardy twink game that 3E is.  What’s attractive about the variant humans in 5E is specialization.  You could (should?) play a game only with human PC’s and you could have a ton of very different characters, even at first level and it would be great.  By design? Remember, as a human, you are unique, just like everyone else.

Secondly, while 5E isn’t explicitly a miniatures game, they will get busted out from time to time.  I ain’t playing with these shit assed Pathfinder/D&D pre-paints. They are terrible. Reaper bones are a slight level up, but still not great.  Given that, and the fact that my brother will do the same thing, I’ve upped the aesthetic a bit and built a couple guys tonight for this weekend’s game from a company that actually knows how to make miniatures.

5egame

Yes, they are not painted yet, yes they are still drying from being glued, and they need flash removed, but look at those badass landsknecht motherfuckers, compared to this shytte:

shytte

Next I’m looking at either Frostgrave or some of the Perry Twin’s foot knights box sets if I’m feeling a bit more 15th Century.

World of the Lost session 2

Lost

Had to wait an extra week to play but here we are with the 2nd World of the Lost session report. Here is the first session.  As this was a playtest as well, I went in a different direction this time with a straight up fuckall deathcrawl compared to the open ended city session last time.  This was not what I was expecting to run when I first set out to do the playtest, but here we are.

Characters.  We only had four for this session.  One player bowed out because he said he can’t play RPG’s on roll20 and one no-show.

  • Rainer Keeling – MU with a leather mask to hide his face (1 hp), Move earth, Mass Suggestion and Stone Shape
  • Van Hagen – Specialist
  • Bernard Dreu – Fighter
  • Udo Quattlebaum – Fighter (w/mancatcher)

The characters woke up tied with vines outside of a ruined temple after a night of carousing in Khirima.  They woke to the screams of another of the Portuguese  from the caravan they had traveled with crawling on the ground with his tongue cut out.  Above him stood a tall, severely pregnant African woman with a wild wreath of red hair holding a bloody knife.  The very Ekene they had been sent to kill!  Around the crumbling stones and edge of the jungle were Ekene’s retinue, many with Leopard kilts, long spears and some with steel drums.  She seemed displeased.

She watched the characters slowly wake up to the sounds of the jungle and mid-morning sunlight flitting through the canopy and then told them (in Hausa at first, which none of them spoke since the translator was still passed out, then broken English) that they must beg for their lives for even thinking of harming her.  They babbled excuses at her that they hadn’t done anything and after a few of them actually begged for their lives, she called her guards over to remove a large slab from the steps of the temple.

Musty and chilled air poured out over the temple grounds, and the characters were untied, given their weapons and equipment and bade to go into the black space under the tomb to bring out anything they could as repayment for the offense given by their plotting.  While they had their pistols and weapons, Ekene confidently turned her back on them, basically daring them to strike her, and went and sat on a portable couch to watch while getting fanned by her retainers.  The drummers started up and the characters put their armor on, loaded their pistols and descended into the darkness.

The tomb was chilled and the air heavy. The stone of the temple was impossibly smooth granite and this caused some concern as they hadn’t seen anything like it in Khirima. They hit a wrought iron door first that Udo unlocked easily (a fighter who had +3 tinkering). This lead to a small, empty room with bas reliefs of priests worshiping a humanoid in long robes with a crow’s head.  They hit another iron door, but this one was not locked…

In the hallway beyond this door, the characters started to learn that Ekene wasn’t the nicest person.   Bernard fell into a pit trap and took 8 damage (I allowed a WIS save), and as the group pulled him out of the pit, Van Hagen hit a tripwire and was hammered by a swinging log on a chain from the ceiling  (taking 3 points of damage– I’m listing exact damage cause it’s important later) and barely missed being thrown back into the pit himself (I allowed a WIS save for this as well).

Beyond the trapped hall was a large tomb complete with a sarcophagus, and two steel statues; obviously some sort of protectors of the tomb.  Bernard threw his throwing axes into the room to see if he could trigger a pressure plate, but to no avail.  When he went to pick them up, the statues came to and after their long wait for intruders to pummel, started attacking.

Bernard used the (new) Guard action to hold them off and to push his AC up to 19.  Down to 2 hp it was lucky the statues didn’t hit him. This luck will run out.  Meanwhile, the other characters prepped the log to try to swing it at the statues as they came through the hall. Stuck between the pit and the statues wasn’t the most pleasant place to be!

Rainer had Shape Stone (a 5th level spell), so when Bernard ran back into the hall to kite the living statues into the log, he cast it on a block of stone above one of the statues and pinned it to the floor for a bit.  Meanwhile, the other statue got the log directly in the chesticle, and was thrown back into the tomb.   Rainer fired his brace of pistols at the one he had pinned, but to little effect except a misfire that he burned his session Luck points on (also to no effect), so Udo then used his mancatcher to toss it into the pit, destroying it, and they hammered the other one with the log again.  Great job in the combat as there were no attacks with normal weapons (other than the pistols).

The guardians down, it was time to loot the tomb.  The characters did a bunch of search rolls (luckily no wandering monsters) and found a trapdoor made of stone at the top of a dais, and a small keyhole in a sarcophagus. After many failings at rolling the dice,  Rainer decided to simply Stone Shape the trapdoor, and things went quite awry.  Being his second spell of the day, he had to make a Magic save with 5D6, which failed and the spell was miscast!  An alien light filled the tomb and all characters re-suffered their last damage.  Bernard was  killed, and Van Hagen was down to 1 hp.  Since they had never taken any hp of damage, Udo and Rainer both doubled their hp.  Udo up to an incredible 14 hp (at first level) and Rainer up to a WHOPPING 2 hp.

rollin 1's all night!
miscasted.

We had to call it for the night.

Adventure notes

Needless to say, there’s lots of room for stuff in World of the Lost.  This tomb fit in pretty well for a non-plateau encounter.  I like Ekene, pregnant and fucking pissed as she is, and she ain’t one of the main module characters as written, but she is in mine!  World of the Lost has “make this your own” all over it without that making being a lot of work.  While this was just a two session game, and didn’t even scratch the surface of the content, so I’m looking forward to going back to the World of the Lost again.

System notes

This is a 0.1 playtest so there are some burrs. I like the spell system, but it’s a bit strange as players have zero control over what they get, a bit like the Arcanum from Into the Odd. I’m used to miscasts from WFRP and especially 8th Edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle so fuck yes to that. However, I think nearly all the spells need to be rewritten to fit the totally random method of selection. A daunting task and one that might fuck with backwards and forwards compatibility.  Of note as well, if designers are building adventures, it’s possible that they would assume that parties may have specific spells at certain levels. With the no level requirement and random spells, this may be impossible.

Frankly I would just directly steal the Warhammer Fantasy Battle cast and miscast rules.  The MU has a pool of D6’s based on his or her INT score (calculated just like the CHA and WIS saves) except these are used to cast spells. The formula would be XD6’s + level vs spell’s casting number, X being the number of dice the MU wanted to use to cast a spell.  Casting number would be the number of pips needed to successfully cast a spell. 1st level spells are cast on a 6+ for example.  MU chooses the number of dice they want to use from their pool (say they have a 2nd level spell that casts on a 7+, they might use 3 dice giving them a 9 average roll + their level to hit the casting number).  Spells never go crazy if they fail to cast, spells only go crazy when the power used to cast them is too much for the MU to handle!   If two 6’s come up, you roll on the ‘really bad’ miscast chart.  No matter what, the spell is cast if two 6’s come up, but other stuff happens, bad stuff (see picture below).  A 4th level magic user (with a +4 base to the casting roll) would rarely need to roll more than 1 die for 1st or 2nd level spells (D6+4 vs casting number of 6 and 7 respectively), so would have zero chance of a bad miscast.  Even with 2 dice to make sure, the chance is very low.  A 6th level magic user would never need to use casting dice to cast 1st or 2nd level spells.  The magic dice pool is refreshed every long rest the character takes that would also give back at least 1 hp.

miscast

Combat was fine, I’m not sure about the new armor rules  so just went with the old version.  The guard action seemed to be of use but there is both a firearms and ranged ‘combat style’ that seemed a bit redundant.

The skills are interesting now that everyone has them, but I think the Luck skill is by far the most important skill to get.  It can make impossible rolls possible and help the specialist be able to use every single skill in the game with just a small spread of points (by level 13, a specialist with points in luck left has statistically 100% chance of success in all skills if he spread just 3 points into every skill there is). In addition, if Steve had saved his luck for his miscast, things could have gone better. So rather than INT being the go to stat for Magic User, high CHA and Luck is the ideal to keep those miscasts off.

A bit we didn’t like was the -4 hp save/partial save mechanic.  at -4 HP, while the full save equals ‘passed out but survives,’ the partial save means the same thing as a failed save: death with no chance of healing or recovery (it just takes longer).  The feedback loop of a partial save (not that easy to get on 3 or 4d6) makes it feel like it should be a better outcome, like you are out and will die in 1d10 rounds, but can be saved by another player somehow.  Also, the death saves are based on Wisdom (non magical), which was a bit odd.

Damage healing was very harsh in the new version, especially with no clerics and no access to healing magic except randomly.  Expect characters to drop like flies if they get into combat after combat.

Lastly, I had to make saving throws for the monsters and didn’t know how many D6’s to roll. They can no longer ‘save as a fighter of X level’ anymore (X=HD).  Maybe I missed something in the book.

My biggest issue with the playtest packet is that I put the LotFP current ruleset on a high pedestal for my D20 gaming.  The rules are really perfect for the style of play and totally compatible with nearly everything put out by the OSR (DCC, S&W, LL) and likely 5th Edition as well.  I don’t want it to change as drastically as this playtest doc suggests the new version might.  I just want something that I can use with little trouble if I grab stuff as disparate as Secret of Bone Hill, Idea from Space or Out of the Abyss. I think if the LotFP fans grind on this with long months of playtesting, there could be something great out of it.

Haunchieville Heroes!

I played in a modified Pathfinder game this past weekend and while it was fun despite the clunky rules, it reaffirmed my hatred of the overuse of demi-human and non-human characters, especially flipping to this from running Runequest Vikings and Lamentations of the Flame Princess more recently. The entire group, with the exception of my character, were short people– one dwarf, one halfling and shockingly one of the players actually agreed to play a gnome(!?) which I still find unbelievable. The issue with this type of party is that the stories your are going to be telling, regardless of the module or adventure, are going to be akin to cartoon D&D stories with nearly all the characters being comic relief, which is exactly what it turned out to be. What’s more, with this many shorties, the adventure should be an entirely short-person story, like the fight of the haunchy’s vs their larger oppressors; sort of like playing as Ewoks in a Star Wars campaign vs the evil storm troopers rather than anything bog standard– because the party is magical short people and not made up of regular murder hobos.

The reason for playing Demi-humans in some modern versions of D20 (3.5 and 4th for example) is primarily one of optimization. Examples (which may not be accurate): Dark Elves have X trait that combos with Y class to make an uber-powered character once they hit 5th level, Halflings are ALWAYS the best thieves so why would you ever take any other race with that class, and due to their racial abilities, why would you ever play a non-High Elf magic user? D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder are solely about character progression and optimization: this is their core appeal. Since XP in those versions comes from fighting, most of the optimizations are for combat only and you get into the trap of: ‘I need XP from fighting, and I have to get that XP as rapidly as I can so I need to optimize and if I don’t optimize, other optimization-freaks in the party will castigate me.’

Now, I’m not ripping on gonzo or heroic fantasy per se, non-humans have their place (except for gnomes of course who need to stay in the fucking garden), but look at our party in 13th Age: one Human Paladin, one Wood Elf ranger, one High Elf Sorceress, one Halfling bard and a Human Barbarian. The original group had a Dark Elf cleric as well. When you are a GM and you create stories for this type of group, they are demi-human stories. The first adventure was a mission that the elves were on for the Elf Queen, and the humans were ancillary characters (at first). Since 13th Age is like the Feng Shui of D20 games, that is: mega gonzo, with cities on the backs of behemoths and armies of demons invading everywhere, this is not out of sorts. At the lowest levels you are thrown into fights with Dragons and hordes of trolls, etc. so it feels more natural to have ‘magical’ beings around from the outset, but even then you are in danger of your party becoming a ‘comic relief’ party instead of something people take seriously. The difference in 13th Age for the XP optimization trap is that the GM determines when the level up happens– there is no XP. While this seems subtle, this is a huge motivation for characters to do things outside of combat to advance their campaign goals and nothing, NOTHING is on an on-rails adventure path where fights must happen to garner the characters enough XP to advance the story.

I guess in my experience with the comedy races/classes: Halflings are always hammed up, barbarians and the oft-maligned Bards (of any race) are also usually played a bit hammy. Elves are for the most part very serious and humans can run the gamut from serious to HAM. Teiflings, really just a different type of Dark Elf but they seem less serious. Gnomes– just should never be played or included in any fantasy setting with the exception of this. Unless you are looking to play cartoon D&D.

If you have too much Ham in your races and classes (note the Bard and Barbarian are both dangerous in this regard because you could double up with a barbarian halfling or a Dragonborn Bard…), your game is going to descend into HAM regardless of the seriousness of the material you bring to the table as a GM.  While it’s certainly personal taste, I just want my games more like this:

oldhammered

Rather than this:

gnomefucks

Interesting ass article on D&D 5 and why they weren’t at Gencon

There was a WTF with everyone I mentioned it to that there was no TSR-style castle for D&D at Gencon, and yet there were many books around and certainly people were playing it.  Needless to say, people are playing it outside of gencon a great deal.  There’s going to be a point soon where people stop calling it 5E, and just call it D&D.

We’ve stayed away from the march of the splat books, the new character classes, new spells, all that stuff. It’s thrown some people for a loop. But what we’ve seen is a very strong response to the game overall. People seem happy with it. That’s always good.

That said, read this and you can see the tactical decision not to be there.  I still question it, but it makes sense.

Ampersand on Black

 

13th Age Campaign first session

Ended up being one big battle, but was a good time.  Trying to do some sandboxing with 13th Age to see how it goes. I have an overall plot in mind if the icon rolls and players let me pull it off, if not, there are many other plots to be found in the 13th Age.   Even though one of my players will read this, I won’t lie, this is all a precursor to EYES OF THE STONE THIEF which is a champion tier adventure.

Comments on Roll20.  I’m not sold on the amount of prep I have to do, but that’s not the worst thing ever.  I am a lazy fucking GM (I think Exalted sucked all the non-lazy GM out of me) and I just want to sit down and play after reading some modules on the bus.  13th Age, like LoTFP, let’s me do that as long as I don’t have to memorize everyone’s class powers.  Yet with roll20, if I think there is going to be a set-piece battle, I have to build it out with maps and tokens and all that.  Once the players are off the first few session rails, this may be more difficult to prep for before hand.   I may go to narrative rather than miniature based combat which is the same as how I play face to face.  Let’s see what happens.

After this session, one bit of tech I will ALWAYS use in D20 games forever anon is the Disadvantage/Advantage rule from D&D 5th Edition. It’s just a really easy way to give a bonus with out a +1 or +2.  Crits happen more with Advantage, and Fumbles with Disadvantage and I think that’s great.  What could be easier?  I know it probably slowed the game down a bit when I gave it (mostly to the ranger who was stunting) but it was worth it.  I bet this leaks into Lamentations play as well.

I’m not going to give away what happened, as I may elude to what is to come too much. There is a point where the story arc may near it’s end and then I’ll post a big thingy about it.  Suffice to say that the Halfling Bard was gravely wounded and was worried he had died at 0 HP– conditioning from LotFP no doubt.