Friday, July 31, 2015

a return to the surface
[5e Dwimmermount]

We were missing the player who plays the party wizard, Sulla, last session. Rather than have him split from the party somehow I just ran Sulla alongside the group, paired his initiative with Tsetsig's, and always announced what I intended to do with him so other players could veto or give commentary on what they thought Sulla would do.

I've been treating the random encounter tables for Dwimmermount as a finite list of monsters.
For the Path of Mavors, level 1, the random encounters listed "gelatinous cube (1)" which I translated as "there is 1 gelatinous cube somewhere on this level" and likewise when the same entry appeared on the next level down I only ever had one gelatinous cube appear.
This means I look at the random monsters as the active components to the level, which are sometimes a part of the factions and groups that are also on the level. But as the forces are whittled down in the rooms, I look at the random encounter list and think "what do these guys do when their friends are no longer in the rooms? what do they do when they find their friends' dead bodies?" or I look at the more beastial monsters and think "when this creature isn't roaming, where does it nest?"

Last week, the session ended with Horatius exiting the cloning chamber and running smack into a pack of rust monsters. The party made short work of the four beasts, and only Ilona came away from the fight with a damaged weapon - everything else used was magical.

The noise drew the attention of some nasty fellows coming down the hall, and as Horatius looked around the corner he saw the troll that had killed Braak followed by his holy warrior friend and two other miscreants. All of the PCs each uttered the word "Micma" to prevent the teleport trap from affecting them, and one of the troll's friends noticed and loudly announced "That word, Micma, must be what turns off the teleport trap!"

Levity dropped a stinking cloud in their enemies' path and one of the troll's friends unleashed a fireball into the party. Several fireballs were thrown on both sides and Levity worked hard to keep his companions alive and fighting. The troll fell to Horatius'es blade and one of Sulla's firebolts, and the battle ended when Sulla placed a crown of madness upon the dumb fighter accompanying the troll who then attacked his wizard friend. They had one friend left, an elf, who ran.

This is the rival adventuring party I mentioned before. The party could have easily TPKed from these guys and some of the characters did almost die. The stats I gave them are:
Greenfellow, straight Troll stats out of the MM, but his double claw attacks were replaced by the flaming sword which did magical 2d10+4 damage while he was wielding it
Tarf the dumb wannabe palading, Gladiator on page 346 of MM
the elven rogue, Spy on page 349 of MM
Gimble the short wizard, the same stats and spells as Sulla - the party wizard

The second fireball that the party got hit by was incredibly weak though (
I rolled a 15 on 8d6!) and if Levity hadn't made his saves from the fireballs then the quick healing he performed might not have happened.

At the end of the fight, Horatius picked up the troll's sword and he heard a voice telling him to kill orcs. He dropped the sword immediately and Sulla began casting detect magic as a ritual while Tsetsig cast identify as a ritual on the troll's sword, but after 1 minute the teleport trap activated and the party was forcibly split up!

Every time somebody declared they were doing something I kept asking "Right here?" and nobody announced that they were moving away from the trap, so I figured it would activate on them. No sense in giving them the benefit of the doubt. I rolled for random monsters for each group that split up but nothing was encountered. The teleportation ended up being nothing more than a nuisance, this time.

They reunited and sat just outside of the teleport trap while Tsetsig took the troll's sword then cast animate dead on the holy warrior (who had been dubbed Paladumb by the players). They decided to work their way to the elevator and return to the Path of Mavors.
They found the elevator easily enough, it was right where they expected it to be (after aligning the maps) but it wasn't operational. Horatius found the secret door to the power room behind the elevator. Levity was the only one who could make out the instructions on the control panels and powered up the elevator. They returned to the first level and Ilona instantly sought out Rigob to inform her of Poach'es death.

Rigob spoke of more soldiers and people coming from the town below, all were brought by the priest of Typhon, Louys Herint, and Ilona decided to confront the priest. Horatius led the way. When they got to the chapel they found him writing letters while two personal guards lounged behind him. Horatius confronted Louys by burning the letter he was currently writing, one of the guards stood and a fight seemed imminent. Ilona interrogated them and determined that one of the guards had let the troll in. Tsetsig commanded him to kneel and Ilona cut off his head - though it took two swipes of her axe. Ilona then informed Louys that he was not to bring any more people to Dwimmermount without her authority, otherwise she would take his head next.

Then they divvied up their loot, Krishka and Puzz insisted on bringing the rest of their people up from the lower levels (which they did without complications), and then Tsetsig and Sulla returned to town.

It took about 2 hours to play out the scene with the priest and then determine who was going back to town and what was being bought. Mostly minutia, but everybody received about 300 gold and 375 gp worth of gems. In previous games I've always played with a silver standard so that seems like a lot to me, but something tells me 6th-level characters should be getting more from a dungeon crawl. I've decided to start using the treasure rewards as written from now on - though I will continue to add quirky magic items wherever I see fit.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

the Saturday night game

I rarely post about the game that I GM on Saturday nights. We don't play every week, and scheduling conflicts sometimes means we only play once a month. It's a 5th edition D&D game set in the Forgotten Realms and Planescape and it's played mostly by the book with very minimal house ruling. I wouldn't normally run a campaign like this by choice, but I inherited the game from the original GM who preferred to be a player and when I first started GMing I pitched a couple of ideas but they were both vetoed and the other players didn't want to reset the whole campaign either. As a result I've been very disorganized with it, sometimes not planning anything ahead of time. Other times having lots of plans prepared, but since the game is played outside of my home one thing I consistently do is forget to bring something with me and then I have to make everything up anyway. I'm incredibly self-conscious about running a game so carefree and loose, but the other players all seem to be enjoying themselves and I never feel pressured to bring a tighter story into play.

Until now.

One of the PCs is a master thief, the Ferret, who has been rivaling his former mentor, the Black Fox. The Black Fox, also known as Koban Tarvis, started using the name Black Ferret in a very deliberate way to tarnish the Ferret's reputation and when they last crossed paths the Ferret threatened to kill the Black Fox. The Black Fox threw Ferret some information that sent him scurrying after a stolen artifact but Black Fox also had no intentions of being cowed and didn't stop using the name Black Ferret.

Fast forward six months in the game and the PCs have just arrived back in Waterdeep to find that in their absence the southern wards flooded and during the flood a blizzard hit town and froze almost everything. The dock ward suffered the most damage, and many people are staying inside but the city hasn't stopped functioning. Couple this with several outbreaks of diseases that are all being credited to the Black Ferret, whom "everybody" has heard of.

Upon learning this last fact, the actual Ferret is pissed that Black Fox is still using his name and immediately wants to start hunting him down so he can kill him. The player detailed exactly how Ferret would go about finding the Black Fox and I had to say "Let's wait until next week to go over those details."

In the moment that I dropped that information about the flooding and the diseases and the Black Ferret, in my mind I was thinking "I really want to run Forgive Us with this group, I think this is the perfect opportunity." And it was! Eyebrows waggle, toothy grin.

In the downtime between sessions I worked out all of the details of the module so nothing would be contradictory. I've got two players who might recognize the Forgive Us module so I've changed a few things as well. The disease worshipping cultists were a hidden sect of Talona worshippers. In fact, Talona fits the adventure so perfectly that its almost like she was tailor-made for it. The name of the tavern is now the Widow's Cat and I'd already given them a map during the last session that nobody understands thanks to a mysterious patron named Lord Purple, the Lord of Secrets (also known as Lord Purpon, the Hoarder).

In his own way, Lord Purple is assisting and petitioning the halfling wizard in the party, Kirani Gemgather, to work for him. Lord Purple helped all of them escape a horde of demons in the Abyss.

I could probably have started this last session with "You've tracked down the Black Fox to his most recently known base of operations, a little tavern called the Widow's Cat" and the party would have gone in without a thought, except I didn't want to throw the adventure at them like I'm expecting them to go in crossbows ablazin'. Instead, the map they had mentioned the Widow's Cat and they went straight for the tavern crossbows ablazin' without any prodding from me!

Despite the creepy nature of the adventure, and the abandoned tavern, I don't think anybody was truly scared until they made their way into the vault. They found a dead body with a hideously long tongue in the cellar and the cleric, Brigga, cast speak with dead to great effect.

"Who are you?" - "I gave them a name but since it wasn't important now I don't remember it."
"Who killed you?" - "My friends."
"What is this place?" - "The secret vault beneath our hideout."
"What is in the vault?" - "My friends."
"Who has the keys to the door?" - "Kurt Anheim, Will Speck, and Koban Tarvis."

It took some doing to get there, but once they had the door open they entered into the rooms of the vault and I foreshadowed the diseased occupants by putting one of them in the corner of the second room, shivering and slowly turning to face them. When it fully turned around it ran toward them and was killed pretty quickly. The rest of the vault that lay in darkness was swarming with more of the diseased and they rushed the party. Kirani fireballed them as they got nearer and Eriel stood her ground cutting them down as they approached.

Because this was 5th edition D&D, I gave the things in the vault these stats:
AC 14, HP 22
+2 attack (additional +2 if within 5' of another Thing, additional +2 if target is already grappled per Thing grabbing them)
no damage, but hit = grappled + Constitution saving throw vs DC 20
each failed save marks one of the Death saving throw circles, if the third circle is filled in the PC becomes a Thing

I think I made them pretty fucking deadly considering 5th edition's power levels. The PCs got really lucky however. Only one PC managed to avoid getting hit and only one PC failed their saving throws against the Things. Brigga the cleric actually almost died but cast lesser restoration on herself just before she might have marked her 3rd death saving throw. Inspiration was spent all around the table, but in retrospect I probably should have forced a saving throw for making a melee attack against the Things too.

The PCs were able to loot the vault, they just swept everything off of the tables into sacks and then booked it back to their inn because they were too creeped out to stick around. I may hit them with more disease saving throws because I haven't determined what all of the loot is yet and I probably won't use the stuff from the module word-for-word. But most importantly, they didn't explore anything beyond the main tavern and the cellar.

They heard dogs barking but didn't investigate. Additionally, they know (via player knowledge) that there's another group exploring the place, but they were feeling icky from having fought weird tentacled-flesh sickness monsters. It's possible they'll end up going back there, but even if they do Waterdeep is super fucked now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Daughter of Baba Yaga
[a Sorcerer Origin for 5e]

(inspired by Timothy Brannan's tradition for Basic)

Daughters of Baba Yaga
Your innate magic comes from your ancestry which can be traced back to a powerful witch or mystic. Only the women in your family have this sorcerous blood, but few study and foster the powers it can harness. Any witch that shares a lineage to Baba Yaga can recognize one another on sight regardless of how distant their familial connection might be.

Ritual Spellcasting
At 1st level, choose one spell from any class with the Ritual tag. The spell must be of level you can cast, as shown on the Sorcerer table. The chosen spell counts as a Sorcerer spell for you, but isn't included in the Spells Known column of the Sorcerer Table. You can also cast the spell as a Ritual. When you gain a level in the Sorcerer class, you can replace the chosen spell with another spell, following the same requirements

Occult Servant
Starting at 1st level, you always have a familiar at your command, as per the find familiar spell. If it is killed or destroyed, then after you've completed a long rest you can summon it again from its pocket dimension as a bonus action.

Unseen Witchery
Starting at 6th level, as long as you have at least 1 sorcery point to spend you can detect invisible or concealed creatures of the beast or humanoid type within 30 feet of yourself even if they are behind cover. You cannot sense the presence of undead or constructs, nor can you pinpoint exactly where a living creature you can sense is, but you are aware of when living creatures come near.
Additionally, you can now cast Bestow Curse as if it were part of your available spell list.

False Form
At 14th level, you gain access to the Shapechange spell and can cast it as if it were a 7th-level spell, but when you cast it at a lower level you may not apply Metamagic to the spell. Additionally, you can now cast either Animate Objects or Polymorph as a Quickened spell without spending Sorcery Points, but only if you have the Quicken ability and no other Metamagic may be applied to the casting.

Witching Hour
At 18th level, you stop aging. You are unaffected by any kind of magic that prematurely ages you, and you will never die of old age. After you spend one or more Sorcery Points roll 1d20 and on a roll of 19 or 20 you instantly recover one Sorcery Point.

Monday, July 20, 2015

My players meta-game too much
[5e Dwimmermount]

Table talk included banter about my last blog post, specifically the rival adventuring parties they might cross paths with and the fact that Melissia was, in fact, probably not a woman trapped behind a magical door. Last week they were really keen on freeing Melissia from the room she was trapped in, but this week they couldn't care less. So Melissia is now somebody else, and that somebody else is now Melissia. This means Melissia is going to starve to death if they don't get her out of that room, and fuck it, she's the daughter of a powerful noble and wizard, so there's probably good rep and rewards to be earned from rescuing her. And the somebody else will be far less helpful to them when they finally do encounter her. Or him.

My players who insist on using player knowledge for their character's actions will now simply have to ask themselves: Is Patrick lying on his blog?
Maybe. But there's only one way to be sure.

So, what happened this session?
Bik and his entourage of minotaurs in the throne room were taken down. The players won initiative and got judicious use out of Stinking Cloud and Fireball, and Bik was dead within 3 rounds despite his virtual immunity to poison (this was imparted from a magical item he was wearing, see below).

While the fight was going on, the minotaurs in the dining hall heard the battle, grabbed their axes, and proceeded to rush in, but by the time they started coming into the room the dust was settling and Tsetsig had started casting Animate Dead on Bik's corpse. The second combat took about the same amount of time (7 rounds), but the minotaurs all died tried to rush into the room.

The ratkin that were accompanying the party, Krishka and Puzz, were severely injured and much healing was spent making sure they survived while Horatius went around the room and made sure all of the minotaurs were dead. And then an accounting of Bik and his treasure was performed:

A chest of the mundane held everything, it was only after they dumped out the contents that they saw everything for what it truly was.
A scroll of Knock
A scroll of Speak With Plants.
A wand of magic missiles (per the DMG).
A bag of holding (per the DMG, except this bag has a 1% chance of summoning a spectre every time it's opened) currently holding the corpses of three ratkin - Tsetsig removed two of the corpses but held onto the third (for animating later).
Everice (an ice cube that never melts)
Spike of woodland suicide (the players got a huge kick out of this one)
Amulet of Hope (when worn, shines like a candle, the light will point into the direction of the closest non-portal exit)
1908 silver
1 gold devouring coin (will devour gold coins when placed with them - Ilona wants to spend this at a bank)
Bik's silver crown (worth some gold)
Bik's battle axe (does extra +2 damage, requires attunement)
Bik's bracelet (+2 AC, requires attunement)
Bik's leather belt of Kythirean annhilation (damage resistance to poison, inflict double damage against plants, protection from plants - plant attacks have disadvantage, requires attunement)
Weirdstone (gives advantage on wizard/sorcerer spellcasting rolls, if either dice roll a 1 the wizard/sorceror suffers a mutation, requires attunement)

I outsourced half of this hoard from Goblin Punch because Arnold's ideas appeal to my gaming sensibilities. I've been using his ideas for other parts of the dungeon already so it would be fair to say that if you've been reading his blog for the last year then you could possibly see where some of my inspiration for changing Dwimmermount has come from.

The characters retreated to the cloning chamber to rest. Ilona placed all of her coins into the Chest of the Mundane and some of the magic items were divvied amongst the characters.

Horatius got cloned.

Since I established that the ratkin had been using the cloning chamber to replicate food for themselves (there are four chicken and a single sheep in the cloning chamber) I gave Krishka a relatively good ability to operate the machine. Still, she only succeeded on one of three rolls.

Horatius'es clone came out opposite gender and with a very different personality than his own. He's impulsive and adventurous, and she's careful and cautious. For now, she's a follower, but Horatia is also only a 1st-level Fighter which means could be easily killed by many of the things living on these lower levels.

We ended the session with Horatius exiting the cloning chamber only to be confronted by four rust monsters trying to sniff their way in. (I kept forgetting to roll for random encounters so I decided to just have one and rolled up the rust monsters randomly.)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Megadungeons are pinball, and the party is the ball
[5e Dwimmermount]

While I was thinking about the party's progress through Dwimmermount, it occurred to me that their foray into the first two levels was careful and planned but now that they're encountering more of the factions in the lower levels they are bouncing around exploring and pillaging and destroying quite randomly. Like a game of pinball, the ball comes out at the top in a predictable and measured way but then gravity and the bumpers propel the ball into new directions and you have no idea if it will sink down the center of the table (TPK) or if it will fly along the sides of the bumpers to be smacked upward and propelled through the turnstiles and targets again.

Today I asked the player of Horatius to show up early so we could hash out what happened to him when he split from the party.

Turns out, Horatius almost got killed. Repeatedly.

Braak had mentioned he saw a mimic and he led Horatius and Poach back to a room closer to where they first entered this level. Braak pointed out the room, there was no door but inside the floor was lined with silvery-black mushrooms. Horatius stepped into the room to investigate and promptly fell asleep.

The mushrooms are a sleep trap, and after both Braak and Poach failed their saves as well I decided this was the perfect opportunity to say that Horatius had been asleep for an indeterminate period of time.

Horatius awoke to see Klayqus above him, pleading for him to wake up and help him and his friends. A human wearing the old, battered plate mail of an Adamas soldier was fighting some of the thorgrim alongside a gigantic 7 foot tall, green-skinned repugnant man with a flaming sword. The flaming sword skewered one of the thorgrim, and Horatius tried to plead "These guys aren't evil, they aren't going to hurt you." The green man saw Braak and shouted "Goblin! Kill the goblin!" That settled it for Horatius, these guys had to die.

These are Greenfellow and Tarf, from here. Scarleaf and Gimble will be with them the next time they appear.

The green man charged and Horatius tried to stop him, but failed to do much. Braak ran into the room of silver-black mushrooms and the green man followed while the plated human killed another thorgrim. Braak was stabbed through the chest and was almost certainly dead, and the green man was moving to Poach'es still sleeping body to do the same to him. Kalyqus turned to Horatius and said "We should run."

They fled north, down a corridor to the west, and into a circular room filled with pipes, seemingly a dead end.

Klayqus turned a wheel attached to one of the pipes and sliding wall revealed itself. Horatius was escorted through several secret doors until he arrived at the main thorgrim camp, Klayqus explaining who Horatius was as they encountered every new thorgrim. Horatius had begun to learn the Beastial tongue and was picking up some of what was said, but not all of it.

Klayqus pointed down a corridor and said "The ranine are this way, perhaps your friends are as well?" and Horatius continued onward. He found dead ranine, burned to a crisp, and a few more trying to hide from him. He threatened them with his sword and asked where the wizard that had fried their friends went, they said "Downstairs." Horatius returned to the room with the tapestry and the now-destroyed animated statue and ventured down to the next level.

Encountering another statue, he warily approached it and it spoke the name "Micma!" in an echoing voice. Horatius continued on, fighting a rust monster in the next chamber, finding a secret door concealing treasure, continuing west he was bespelled by confusion and then fell into a pit with a black pudding.

I wasn't trying to kill his character, I never even rolled for random encounters, but he was rolling really poorly whenever he fought anything or rolled a saving throw.

Nearly dead, and stumbling north, he found a minotaur slaughtering ranine with a heavy axe. The minotaur asked if he was friends with the wizard and Horatius impulsively replied "No." The minotaur was also nearly dead and asked for help getting back to his king, Bik. Horatius agreed and they were soon separated by the teleport trap.

Horatius saw light coming from the door where his friends were and his arrival was soon followed by the minotaur, who recognized Sulla and attacked. After a brief fight the party took steps to secure their resting place.

We went slightly backward in time. The last session ended with this rest ending, but now at least Horatius had returned to the group.

Shortly after Horatius reunited with the party, the minotaur found his way into the resting area and attacked Sulla. After a short battle, the ratkin were asked to keep guard while the party rested and healed, and while they rested they debated about what their next action should be. The ratkin insisted that Ilona meet with their leader, Krishka, and so they set off down one of the corridors to find her.

Using ratkin instead of wererats was a big departure, but it allowed me to expand on the connection with sapient rats. The ratkin are the only race within Dwimmermount that I set up to automatically be allies with anybody coming in since their primary agenda is to escape, this means the party did not receive any XP for making an alliance with them.

Upon finding Krishka she asked if the way out of Dwimmermount was clear and Sulla explained they would need to be escorted if they hoped to make it past the horngorblin patrols as well as the mercenaries following Louys Herint, the cleric of Typhon. When asked how they managed to survive for 200 years Krishka explained that there was a small farm where they could produce meat.

Another addition on my part, I put a few chickens and sheep into the cloning chamber and decided that Bik has the key because he killed the former ratkin leader for it. The ratkin have been cloning the chickens and sheep whenever they need more food, but now they're starting to starve because the minotaurs have the only key and won't share.

Ilona was keen on having a guide who knew the layout, even after Krishka drew a map of the level.

Ilona insisted on being shown where this chamber was, and Krishka explained that they wouldn't be able to get in. Along the way, Sulla and Horatius discovered that saying "Micma" would deactivate the teleportation trap, making the level more accessible. They found the cloning chamber doors and couldn't get in, as Krishka predicted, but Horatius found the alteration chamber and they began experimenting with the canopy. Horatius was healed slightly, but Ilona insisted they move onward and confront Bik.

They passed a set of double doors and Horatius tried to open them. A voice spoke from the other side "Hello? Is somebody out there?" and they determined that a woman was trapped behind the doors. Nobody could force the doors open so Sulla explained they did not have a way of getting her out of the room and they would be right back as soon as they found something.

This is Melissia (page 202) and I figure she's absolutely desperate to get out but isn't going to make any offers until she actually sees those doors open. Her powers are slightly different in 5th edition compared to, say, 2nd edition and I don't really like that, so I'll be scanning 2nd edition stats when the party returns to this room.

Incidentally, the past few sessions the Knock spell would have been extremely useful and I've put a single Knock scroll into Bik's treasure hoard. They could use the scroll on Melissia's door or Sulla could spend a week trying to learn the spell. Actually, I've put a ton of minor magic items into Bik's hoard because I assume the ratkin would have amassed a lot of items and the minotaurs are basically slaughtering the ratkin and taking their stuff. The evidence of ratkin deaths has been minimal so far, but a pile of bodies will likely be found in the next session.

Ilona was now determined to confront Bik and led the party down the halls she believed would end up where he and his minotaurs were camped. Indeed, they stumbled into his throne room. Bik almost immediately singled out Levity as somebody to negotiate with since Levity had small horns, and while Levity tried to mollify Bik and make peace with him (in Beastial) Sulla interrupted and soured the conversation by challenging Bik's self-proclaimed authority.

A fight was about to occur, but it was the end of the session...

Friday, July 17, 2015

quick clerical NPC stats [5e]

Acolyte: 1st-level
+3 attack ; 1d6+1 mace , 2 unarmed
AC robe 10 ; scale 14
HP weak 5 ; average 10 ; strong 18
Speed 30
Wisdom +2 ; Medicine +4, Religion +2 ; passive Perception 12
Languages Common, +1 relevant
Spellcasting Modifier +4 ; DC 12
Cantrips sacred flame, spare the dying, thaumaturgy
Spells bless, cure wounds, sanctuary
...of Knowledge: Arcana +5, History +5, +2 relevant Languages, plus spells command, identify
...of Life: +3 hp recovered w/ cure wounds or healing word, plus spells command, healing word
...of Light: cantriplight, warding flare (imposes disadvantage on attacking creature 2/day), plus spells burning hands, faerie fire
...of Nature: Animal Handling +4, cantrip druidcraft, proficient in heavy armor, plus spells animal friendship, speak with animals
...of Tempest: wears chain mail AC 16, 1d6+1 trident (thrown, versatile), thunderous rebuke (use reaction to attack with 2d8 lightning/thunder 2/day), plus spells fog cloud, thunderwave
...of Trickery: give ally advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) rolls, plus spells charm person, disguise self
...of War: wears chain mail AC 16, 1d8+1 longsword, when attacking can also Attack as a Bonus action 2/day plus spells divine favor, shield of faith

Cleric: 5th-level
+4 attack ; 1d6+1 mace , 2 unarmed
AC robe 10 ; scale 14
HP weak 15 ; average 25 ; strong 40
Speed 30
Wisdom +3 ; Medicine +6, Religion +3 ; passive Perception 14
Languages Common, +1 relevant
Spellcasting Modifier +6 ; DC 14
Cantrips guidance, sacred flame, spare the dying, thaumaturgy
Spells bless, command, cure wounds, guiding bolt, sanctuary ; blindness, hold person, prayer of healing, spiritual weapon ; bestow curse, dispel magic, spirit guardians
...of Knowledge: Arcana +6, History +6, +2 relevant Languages, plus spells command, identify ; augury, suggestion
Channel Divinity turn undead, knowledge of the ages (gain proficiency in one skill or tool for 10 minutes)

...of Life: +3 hp recovered w/ cure wounds or healing word, plus spells purify food & drink, healing word ; lesser restoration, spiritual weapon / gentle repose
Channel Divinity turn undead, preserve life (restore 25 hp to one or more creatures within 30 feet - points are divided amongst targets, no more than half hp total)

...of Light: cantriplight, warding flare (imposes disadvantage on attacking creature 3/day), plus spells burning hands, faerie fire ; flaming sphere, scorching ray
Channel Divinity turn undead, radiance of the dawn (dispels darkness and does damage to hostile creatures)

...of Nature: Animal Handling +4, cantrip druidcraft, proficient in heavy armor, plus spells animal friendship, speak with animals ; barkskin, spike growth
Channel Divinity turn undead, charm animals & plants (like turning but each beast and plant is charmed to be friendly to priest + allies)

...of Tempest: wears chain mail AC 16, 1d6+1 trident (thrown, versatile), thunderous rebuke (use reaction to attack with 2d8 lightning/thunder 2/day), plus spells fog cloud, thunderwave ; gust of wind, shatter
Channel Divinity turn undead, inflict maximum damage with thunder/lightning damage spell

...of Trickery: give ally advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) rolls, plus spells charm person, disguise self ; mirror image, pass without trace
Channel Divinity turn undead, invoke duplicity (creates illusionary duplicate, spells can originate from and gives attack rolls advantage when within 5 feet)

...of War: wears chain mail AC 16, 1d8+1 longsword, when attacking can also Attack as a Bonus action 3/day plus spells divine favor, shield of faith ; enhance ability, magic weapon
Channel Divinity turn undead, gain +10 to Attack roll

High priest: 9th-level

Archpriest: 13th-level

Pope: 17th-level

Acolyte of Light : 1st-level
+3 attack ; 1d6+1 mace , 2 unarmed
AC robe 10 ; scale 14
HP weak 5 ; average 10 ; strong 18
Speed 30
Wisdom +2 ; Medicine +4, Religion +2 ; passive Perception 12
Languages Common, +1 relevant
Spellcasting Modifier +4 ; DC 12
Cantrips light, sacred flame, spare the dying, thaumaturgy
Spells bless, cure wounds, sanctuary, burning hands, faerie fire
Reaction: warding flare (imposes disadvantage on attacking creature 2/day)

Cleric of Light : 5th-level
+4 attack ; 1d6+1 mace , 2 unarmed
AC robe 10 ; scale 14
HP weak 15 ; average 25 ; strong 40
Speed 30
Wisdom +3 ; Medicine +6, Religion +3 ; passive Perception 14
Languages Common, +1 relevant
Spellcasting Modifier +6 ; DC 14
Cantrips light, guidance, sacred flame, spare the dying, thaumaturgy
Spells bless, command, cure wounds, guiding bolt, sanctuary, burning hands, faerie fire ; blindness, hold person, prayer of healing, spiritual weapon, flaming sphere, scorching ray ; bestow curse, dispel magic, spirit guardians
Reaction: warding flare (imposes disadvantage on attacking creature 3/day)
Channel Divinity turn undead, radiance of the dawn (dispels darkness and does damage to hostile creatures)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I think level drain is stupid.

I love Dwarf Fortress! It's brutal, unforgiving, and it doesn't care about helping you learn how to play. The lesson of Dwarf Fortress is that eventually, no matter what, you will lose. You will learn from losing, you will grow into a better player, and you will become better and stronger and smarter. But I do not want to play that as a tabletop RPG. That is the closest comparison I can make of what level drain embodies for me, an inescapable death spiral for the character and a "reset button" for the player.

The way level drain was first described to me, and the way I've always envisioned it ever since, was that when your character gets drained they don't lose xp. Instead your level drops but your xp is still used to calculate when you level up. If you don't see a cleric and get a Restoration spell cast then you're simply stuck at that level as you level up. So if you're a 7th level fighter (125k xp for level 8) and you get drained down to level 1, if you manage to acquire 125,000 xp afterwards then you go up to level 2 - until you see a cleric, if ever.

But it turns out that was a houserule.

It would be fair to say that I have never played with a GM who used level drain as described by the rules. Either the GMs I played with didn't understand exactly how it was supposed to work, or they understood it but modified it to fit their personal style. The only time I have encountered level draining monsters were as a cheap way of stripping a PC of their levels. When I started GMing I never used monsters that had level drain abilities, and the one time I had a vampire NPC I just houseruled it as a Constitution drain that would heal the vampire of hit points.

1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What the rules say: Referred to as energy drain, it causes the character to lose a level without a saving throw. Hit points and abilities from the experience level are lost, and xp is dropped to the mid-point of the next lower level. Characters reduced to zero level can never gain xp again, and zero level characters die when they are drained of a level.
Monster descriptions: Brief summaries of the effect, but descriptions assume you have access to the PHB and DMG.
Recovery options: 7th-level cleric spell recovers a single level by restoring lost experience points to the minimum needed to recover the lost level. There is a time limit of effectiveness based on the cleric's level.

The first time I had a character get level drained, the GM basically isolated my character and forced me into a one-on-one encounter with a spectre, and he only realized as I was about to die that I didn't have a single weapon that could have hurt the thing. I have only ever seen level drain used in this manner, as a personal "challenge" or as a punishment by a pisspoor DM (with one exception, the original Ravenloft module and the third time I ever played D&D). But even if that weren't my experience, the concept is pretty flawed simply because it's not very elegant.

Let's assume an 8th level fighter is going up against a vampire, an 8 HD creature. Seems like a pretty even match, right? But the vampire wins initiative. Suddenly the fighter is 6th level and it's no longer an even match, and if the circumstances of that situation mean the fighter is trapped or was forced into this fight then you're basically playing a game of "Who wins initiative?" followed by a game of "How long can we keep this character alive through sheer luck of dice rolls?" and all because you lost the first round of initiative.

I can't imagine where this might be an acceptable game mechanic because it ranks right up there with "let's have your 14th-level character make this saving throw or else they die" in terms of how fun it is.

Zak Smith has told me that I just need to play smarter, but this statement assumes the GM is smart too (and also assumes the GM isn't some sadistic dickhead who GMs with something to prove). The GM is responsible for setting the stage and delivering information to the players about their environment, and if the information is paltry or even nonexistent, or the GM deliberately ambushes the player, then you're never given the opportunity to play smarter. I've played games where I've never even been given the opportunity to run away, or running away was simply not an option from how the GM described the scenario.

Let's say my character has been asked to hunt down a vampire that's tormenting the little town of Barovia and I ask the GM how he uses level drain, the GM says "vampires have traditional level drain." I would likely try to do everything in my power to avoid confronting the vampire directly. I'd turn his servants against him rather than face him head on. From my personal experience, no GM would ever allow such tactics to work, they would always force a direct confrontation with the main villain or simply allow all of your schemes to spoil in some way.

The same Zak Smith uses level drain for his vampires in Red & Pleasant Land and in that adventure it seems completely appropriate, there are no ambushes or Gotcha! moments written into R&PL. A good GM with smart players could have a grand olde tyme evading the dark machinations of the vampire lords in Voivodja, but if it were me I still wouldn't use level drain as its written.

Let's examine my reasons why.

Exhibit A: Absurdity
A character's xp and level are meant to be an abstract way of determining how skilled and learned a character is, just as hit points is an abstract way of determining overall health and fatigue. Levels are not just a way of giving your character hit points but they also represent stuff your character knows. Fighters know better moves, wizards learn better spells, thieves learn how to sneak and pickpocket better, and so on. When those things disappear because a wight touched your skin it just doesn't make sense because it's not called memory drain.
There's a counterargument that levels don't represent memory but overall skill. When your level is drained you are becoming sluggish and less skilled, hence the loss of skills. Then why doesn't level drain actually do that by draining skills and abilities? Why the abstract overall level? My answer to that is: see Exhibit D.

Exhibit B: Houserules + Paperwork
I have never seen a GM, nor heard of a GM, who uses level drain by the book. Why keep using level drain if nobody actually uses it the way it's written?
The DMG suggests that to be truly accurate when PCs level up you should instruct players to write how many HP they earned as a string of numbers on their character sheet. This was back in 1st edition when you didn't have proficiencies and skill checks and you also had level-based saving throws that weren't tied to ability scores. In both 1st and modern editions, unless you're doing that with every aspect of levelling up then the paperwork involved slows down play, and I would want the mechanic to be elegant and simple. I suspect the reason most people houserule level drain is because of this complexity, the tedium of rewriting a character stops the action at the table.

Exhibit C: Recovery is a bitch!
Unconsciousness and petrify have magical solutions which can end them in one casting. Death is a variable because some GMs don't allow Raise Dead or Resurrection in their games, but according to the rules a single spell can still solve that problem. In comparison Level Drain is not simple, recalculating HP, losing abilities and erasing xp and on top of that Level Drain requires multiple castings of Restoration to correct, and even then you've lost the xp forever so you can't recover completely.
The Restoration spell will only bring the character back up one level per casting, and even then your xp is only restored to the bare minimum of what was necessary to get to that level. That's lame all by itself. The mechanic is simply a way to divest a PC of experience points. The xp lost is completely and utterly unrecoverable. I don't even mind the rule that it might require multiple castings of Restoration to return to the level at which you once were, but the permanent loss of xp is just unacceptable to me. That is primarily why I find the effect so tiresome and nobody seems to want to argue a case for justifying or overlooking this part of the rules.
If a single Restoration could bring you back to what you were at pre-draining (without any loss of xp) then I would likely have less of an issue with it. But then I'm just houseruling it, aren't I?

Exhibit D: Cheap
How do you know it's cheap? There's no save. It just happens. This is the biggest factor about why I think it's dumb. Level drain isn't even in the same category as a save-vs-death or vs-unconsciousness or vs-petrify. Those things suck, but at least they're still simple effects and you get to roll dice.
It's not scary to lose xp and levels permanently, it's eye-rollingly boring. Especially if you're less than 1000 xp away from your next level and some GM springs a level drain on you then you're basically fucked. It's a cheap shot, and Gygax was the king of cheap shots!

In summation
I'm already playing RPGs to have fun and cut loose and I don't like the idea of tracking each individual HP roll every time I level up, or tracking my skills either. Just playing as a wizard and tracking my maximum ability scores in DCC was pretty time-consuming (but not to the point of making that game completely unfun). Furthermore, if I'm playing a high level fighter and I'm only 1000 xp shy of level 9, get drained to 7, then still manage to defeat my enemy and get a Restoration spell, I would still have permanently lost hundreds of thousands of experience points. That's stupid. I would rather play a houserule where I can still recover that lost xp, or in a different game altogether.

More comparisons & addendum

2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What the rules say: Virtually identical to 1st edition rules except the effect is clarified for all classes with extra paragraphs.
Monster descriptions: Simple descriptions that assume you have a DMG.
Recovery options: Identical to 1st edition, however Wish is made note of as a spell that can cure all lost levels with a single casting.

3rd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What the rules say: Energy drain is simplified into a cumulative negative effect applied to ability/skill checks, attack rolls, saving throws, hit points, and character level. Saving throws now apply to avoid the energy drain and experience points are unaffected. The rules are completely absent from the PHB and the entirety of the effect's description is in the DMG.
Monster descriptions: Simple summaries which refer to the effect and explain what the saving throw is to avoid.
Recovery options: The cleric spell, Restoration, has been brought down to 4th level but otherwise is identical to the 1st and 2nd edition versions of the 7th-level spell Restoration. A new 7th-level spell, Greater Restoration, recovers all lost levels from an energy drain with a time limit measured in weeks rather than days.

I was expecting there to be a bit more variation between 1st and 2nd editions, but this just shows that 1st and 2nd edition rules changed only in miniscule ways while 3rd edition introduced the first radical departures from the original ruleset.

4th edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What the rules say: Never mentions level draining in either the PHB or the DMG.
Monster descriptions: Previously level-draining monsters have direct damage attacks with names that are called "life drain" or "soul siphon" but the words level drain and energy drain are never mentioned anywhere. Just reading the Vampire entry without the context of an undead lord it reads like a blood sorceror with tons of attacks that can only damage a single target. Lame.
Recovery options: Rest for an hour and you'll probably be fine (I fucking hate 4th edition).

5th edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What the rules say: Nothing. It doesn't exist anymore.
Monster descriptions: Monsters that used to have energy drain have been replaced with abilities that lower hit points permanently. This is, to me, scarier than the traditional level drain, however the effect is nerfed right out of the gate since every ability describes that the permanently lost hit points can be recovered after a Long Rest, 5th edition's mechanic for "sleeping it off." The vampire in the 5e Monster Manual just seems like a crude version of Lugosi's Dracula.
Recovery options: Restoration no longer exists. Lesser and Greater Restoration still exist as 2nd- and 4th-level spells, but they now apply healing to different damaging effects.

Losing level drain from the rules completely doesn't seem right. Powerful undead, especially vampires, should have some kind of special attack that you can frighten PCs with. The whole concept behind level draining is that a character drained below zero level becomes an undead version of themselves. You can leave a similar attack in place of level drain and still have an ability to frighten PCs into picking their battles and running away if they need to.

Let's take a look at how some of the OSR systems handle level drain starting with the ones most similar to, or mimicking, the original AD&D rules...

Labyrinth Lord
What the rules say: Alternately refers to effect as energy drain, drain energy, or level drain. Rules are explicit that there is no saving throw and the character loses HD and abilities associated with levels lost, but doesn't mention xp loss.
Monster descriptions: Repeat incomplete summaries of level drain rules, and some descriptions are explicit about losing xp to the minimum of the new level.
Recovery options: Restoration spell recovers one level but with a time limit based upon caster level, also recovers xp to minimum of restored level.

Adventurer Conqueror King
What the rules say: Rules are explicit, calling the effect energy drain. There is no saving throw and the character loses abilities associated with the levels lost, including reducing xp to minimum of new level. Rules also explicitly call out that only ritual magic can reverse the effect.
Monster descriptions: Do not summarize rules but simply refer to the effect as energy drain.
Recovery options: There is no Restoration spell. Wish is called out as an appropriate ritual spell for recovering levels but there is no mention of recovering xp.

Castles & Crusades
What the rules say: Calls the effect energy drain and allows a Constitution-based saving throw to avoid. Explicitly calls out loss of abilities and HD associated with levels lost, and xp is reduced to halfway point toward next level. Characters can be drained to zero level, but drained below zero level causes death.
Monster descriptions: Each monster description gives a brief but comprehensive summary of how the energy drain works.
Recovery options: Restoration spell recovers one lost level, and Greater Restoration spell recovers all lost levels and abilities. Both have time limits based on the level of the spell caster, and neither mentions recovering xp.

What the rules say: Rules are explicit, calling the effect level drain. The character loses abilities associated with the levels lost, including reducing xp to minimum of new level.
Monster descriptions: Alternates between calling it level drain and energy drain, but otherwise simply lists the effect and doesn't repeat a summary of the rules.
Recovery options: Restoration spell recovers one level, has a time limit based upon caster level, and brings the character back to minimum xp for level restored.

Adventures Dark and Deep
What the rules say: I don't own the Game Master's Toolkit
Monster descriptions: I don't own the Bestiary
Recovery options: Restoration spell recovers one lost level, has a time limit based on the level of the caster, and doesn't mention recovering xp.

Adventures in the East Mark
What the rules say: No explicit description within the rules.
Monster descriptions: Referred to as energy loss, it causes a loss of HD and abilities but there is no mention of losing xp.
Recovery options: Restoration recovers all lost levels but must be performed within 24 hours of losing them.

The following OSR systems deviate in significant ways from the original AD&D rules...

Swords & Wizardry
What the rules say: No rules given and no mention of xp loss.
Monster descriptions: Describes effect as level drain, and adds whether the characters dies or becomes the monster in question if reduced to zero level. Effect is described as if level is just another separate set of hit points.
Recovery options: Restoration spell recovers all lost levels.

Dungeon Crawl Classics
What the rules say: No section explicitly describes it.
Monster descriptions: Some monsters have a "drain xp" or "vampire bite" ability that drains xp if a Will save is failed, and nothing describes what happens if xp drops below the current level - probably nothing because in DCC losing 1 point of experience can be potentially devastating. Ironically, there is no vampire in the monster section of the rules.
Recovery options: The Restore Vitality spell only recovers lost ability scores and there is no apparent way of recovering lost xp.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess
What the rules say: Describes the traditional effect of level drain but offers a fairly powerful and brutal Constitution drain rule as an alternative time saving rule.
Monster descriptions: There are no monsters in the rulebooks.
Recovery options: There is no spell for recovering lost levels or lost attribute points.

I really like the way LotFP handles level drain because losing Con is a simple way of tracking the loss of energy and your maximum HP will degrade as you lose Con, plus in the LotFP rules the draining is actually more brutal for a high level character and could be used with a low-level character and still be an equal challenge because it only takes a few drains to die from it but it's always based on the character's Constitution, which rarely goes up and down from level to level.
Unexpectedly, I also really like the DCC method where the character loses 1 xp per drain, even though that's a devastating effect and it's still permanent the character won't lose levels from the effect and will only be pushed back from earning new levels - and ironically, the opposite of how the rule was first explained to me.

How I would bring back Level Drain while running 5th edition D&D

I would let my players decided between two options:

1) use LotFP's alternative system for Con draining. This still gives most characters a lot of breathing room since it only drains 2 Constitution at a time, but give the Vampire double the effectiveness and you've restored a monster to a semblance of brutality that modern players will gasp at. The 4th-level spell Greater Restoration is required to recover this lost Constitution, a Long Rest simply won't cover it.

2) modify the monster entries in the 5th edition Monster Manual so that instead of permanently draining hit points or ability scores convert the damage dice to an XP loss multiplier. 1d4 Strength damage? No, 1d4 x 100 experience points. 4d8 hit points? No, 4d8 x 100 experience points. These effects all have saving throws built in so if you fail the save then the experience points are lost permanently, just like in DCC. This way spells don't need to be modified to accommodate the new rule and a Long Rest still just won't cut it!

Yup, a house rule!
Why not? Everybody else does it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

simple wasting disease

roll a saving throw
success = you shake off the disease with little more than a headache and a sniffle
failure = you lose Constitution immediately and then again every morning until your Con reaches zero or you receive magical healing
how much Con? = roll 1d4+1, divide Constitution by that number (round up)

my Con is 18, the roll is 2 (1+1), you lose 9 Con and you'll be dead by morning
my Con is 9, the roll is 5 (4+1), you lose 2 Con now and 2 Con every morning until you're dead

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

"You realize I could kill all of them right now?"
[5e Dwimmermount]

Missing another player this week, the beginning of our Dwimmermount session started with a diversion in order to justify one character's absence and another character's return.

The party heard a bellowing roar echoing from the hall and chamber behind them, and Ilona went rushing back down the way they had come to find the source of the noise. They found Poach surrounded by four squat frog-like men with spears. Poach was bruised and wounded but seemed to be holding his own. The party engaged the frogmen and cut them down rapidly. Poach led them to another room where they found Levity tied up in front of a hideous statue of a frog creature carved out of charred wood. Tsetsig destroyed the statue while Levity explained he had been exploring, looking for one of those mimics, and was captured (again) by the frogmen, the Ranine.

Braak mentioned to Horatius that he thought he saw one of the mimics in another room closer to the stairs and the two of them split off from the group to find the mimic. Poach followed.

Levity led the group through the corridors back to where he had been captured and they found a group of a dozen ranine. Sulla cast a fireball into the center of the group of the frogmen and every single one of them died instantly. From another room, a ranine peered out and surveyed the carnage, he was wearing copper loops around his wrists and ankles and rings jangled from piercings in his lips and nipples. He immediately retreated and the party followed, quickly killing or cowing the other ranine with this cultist.

Rather than wait for them to search rooms, I just had the lead ranine cultist on this level poke his head out of a door and lead them straight to him. I was surprised at how easily Sulla's fireball took out the entire group of them and was expecting them to just slaughter the rest of these guys. I used bullywug stats for the ranine, but I gave them a shrink ability and the cultists can cast some spells (obviously).

They interrogated him and asked him what his people were doing in Dwimmermount. He only spoke Bestial so Sulla questioned him and translated for Ilona. He explained that his people came from a place called the Deep Hollow and they were chased out by giant lizards, they searched upward for a place to breed and many of their people were killed by the Dead Ones but they escaped when they found the Water Ways. The Water Ways led them to this area and they have been fighting "the Black Men" since they arrived (Klayqus and his people, the Thorgrim).

There's not a lot of explanation for why the ranine are on these levels. The book says they come from the Deep Hollows level but they clearly didn't traverse the hallways to get all the way up to this area. I used my best judgment while the players were interrogating them, and gave scant details about the Ossuaries, then in a moment of inspiration decided to give the ranine malleable bones and the ability to shrink their bodies and squeeze through tight spaces. The "Water Ways" was born. None of the players have questioned any of the ranine further about the Water Ways, but if they do this will essentially be the water pipe travel method that is detailed in the introduction.

They tried to negotiate a treaty with this ranine and he spoke of their high priest, Groak, who resided one level lower. "If he's down there, then why are you up here?" "Me told you-wor already, we need more room-wor." "Take us to him, now." and that was that. This ranine cultist, Mona, led them through a few halls and rooms, down stairs, past two groups of other ranine. They were stopped once by another cultist, Bem, who insisted on going with them to find Groak.

Mona and Bem led the party to the cistern in the Hall of Lesser Secrets (level 4, room 30) and Groak was not there, but they did see about two to three dozen other Ranine within the cistern. Another cultist, Gax, stepped forward and challenged Mona and Bem in the Bestial language, saying these creatures don't need to negotiate with Groak because he would just order their death. Levity could understand Bestial and remarked "We are very outnumbered down here." and Sulla replied "You realize I could kill all of them right now? One fireball in the center of this room would do the trick." and since Mona could partially speak Common he stepped toward the door, trying to stay behind Sulla, and spoke in Beastial to Gax "These creatures can understand everything you say." Gax relented and explained that Groak had gone to inspect the trapped corridor, and led them to the western double doors that led to the teleportation trap on this level.

The party experimented with the teleportation trap, accidentally getting split up. Ilona got lost into darkness with Sulla. Tsetsig heard and saw a group of minotaurs fighting ratkin, and judging them to be inferior beasts decided to quietly slip away and ignore them. Levity found a jail cell. Their efforts meant they collectively were learning that each circular area acted as a teleportation pad, and that the destination was random.

You can see the fruits of their efforts on the right, you can also see how I fucked up one of the maps

One of the ratkin had seen Tsetsig and followed him, but after being caught by the teleport trap Sulla was the first to encounter the ratkin. The ratkin immediately recognized Sulla as human and spoke in Ancient Thulian "Do you come from outside of Dwimmermount?" which began a conversation about Queen Ilona's expedition and how the ratkin had survived inside of Dwimmermount for 200 years.

When I first read Dwimmermount, the wererats were the only faction I could imagine being allied with the players because their goal was simple and didn't confront other characters on any level: to escape. I didn't like the lycanthropy aspect of the faction and that's when I wrote up my ratkin race for 5th edition.

Tsetsig, being teleported again, found a series of doors and decided to start opening them, one led to webs and he closed that one, and Ilona caught up with him by the time he opened a second door and saw a statue of Turms Termax. Tsetsig stepped forward to smash the statue, but the statue came to life and smashed him, nearly killing him in one blow.

I'm using stone golem stats (minus the Slow ability) for all of the animated statues.

Hearing the sounds of battle echo in the corridors, the other characters began to frantically jump through teleporting pads. Levity found his way to the fight with the animated statue while Sulla got teleported near the fight between the ratkin and minotaurs. Seeing two ratkin dead and one survivor surrounded by four minotaurs, he lobbed his fireball at the minotaurs and managed to kill three of them. The ratkin ran to Sulla's side and the remaining minotaur charged with his battle axe and struck Sulla down with one blow.

Sulla spent the rest of the fight rolling death saving throws, but the last ratkin pulled him back down the corridor and they both got teleported. Sulla ended up next to the first ratkin he met, Nirkz, and the second ratkin, Puzz, found the fight with the stone statue. The minotaur chased after them both and found the ranine!

The fight with the stone statue was long, and if Levity hadn't been there to heal Ilona she might have fallen to the stone statue's fists. Battered and beaten the party retreated along the corridor and ran through teleportation traps until they were all in the same corridor. They debated trying to rest in the hallway but Tsetsig opened a door, hoping this would be an empty room that they could possibly rest in, and found the armory and weapon storage.

The party didn't bother to bar the doors but simply began to rest quietly with Nirkz and Puzz, the ratkin, keeping watch for them, and that's where we ended the session.

We played far enough along to get to the end of the rest - in truth, I wanted to see if there would be a random encounter (there wasn't) and everybody wanted to learn my new resting rules. Tsetsig and Sulla both wanted to identify the magical suits of armor in the armory and that took an hour, the remainder of their rest took 5 hours. Horatius might have found them and rejoined the party by then, but we won't really know until next Sunday.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Re: why I love Apocalypse World

For a long time I never paid very much attention to the indie RPG scene. I was aware of Indie Press Revolution but I didn't know who Ron Edwards was. I had played a few indies due to a very enthusiastic friend, and for the most part I enjoyed seeing new game mechanics along with the unique scenarios one could encounter from thrusting these games onto players who didn't have any expectations. What I didn't enjoy was that every game seemed to last for only one or two sessions of play, and in such a short span of time I often felt that there was no room for character growth. They were neat little experiments but I came away from most indie games with a sour taste in my mouth and only a handful of good experiences.

The first time a game of Apocalypse World was suggested by somebody in my group I was wary. I had heard of Apocalypse World, though I couldn't tell you what I heard people saying about it beyond describing it as "sexy." I expected that it would be a short game, and that it might have an interesting hook but that after playing it I would also likely forget most of the rules. Ultimately, this expectation is why I didn't fight the suggestion and just said, "Sure, let's try it." I treated playing Apocalypse World like ripping off a band-aid: I was going to get it over with as quickly as possible.

We were given choices of characters to play. Similar to D&D classes, each character starts as a playbook, a character that fits within the genre and conventions of the post-apocalyptic setting. There are 11 playbooks in the rulebook accompanied by 9 more “limited edition” playbooks that can deepen the setting, or make it weirder. There is also a player community that has created over 50 more playbooks for expanding character creation into stranger, crueler, or more horrific directions.

Since my main point of reference to post-apocalyptic settings was one of my favorite films, The Road Warrior, I eyed the Driver, a character with a powerful vehicle who was better behind the wheel than outside of his car. I also got interested in the Hocus and the Brainer because they were psychic characters that had some unique moves related to coercing other characters. When it came time to pick characters I chose mine last. That was a mistake! Other players had managed to choose every character I had been interested in. Out of desperation I grabbed the Chopper, the leader of a rambunctious biker gang, because I (incorrectly) believed it was as close to the Driver as I could still get.

During the first session, one of my gang members was being assaulted by somebody and I said to the GM, the Master of Ceremonies (MC), "I pull out my shotgun and shoot him." I rolled the dice and received the best result possible. The MC asked "Where are you shooting him, exactly?" and I said "As close to the head as possible. What do I roll for damage?" She replied "You don't. He's dead, you blew his head off."

I was stunned into silence. No hit points? No damage? He’s just dead? “That’s what you wanted, right?” the MC asked me. Oh sure, I guess. I had never played a tabletop game before where that kind of power is given to a starting character and is just a single dice roll away. I dived into the game after that and became a murderous wrecking ball knocking over players and NPCs alike in my quest for power.

There is no alignment system, no faux morality scale to judge one’s actions upon, and this freed up playing so I could actually discover where my character’s sympathies lied. I discovered that I was playing a control freak, every setback and each failure felt like an opportunity to rush forward and wreck my opposition. I was the ultimate murderhobo but my prize wasn’t money or magic or anything luxe and fancy, it was simply to declare myself the most unstoppable badass of the wasteland. Anybody who challenged me ended up dead or disfigured. By the time the game ended four months later I had already retired that character, but I never wanted to stop playing the game.

- - -

"There are a million ways to GM games; Apocalypse World calls for one way in particular. This chapter is it. Follow these as rules. The whole rest of the game is built upon this."
- excerpt from the Master of Ceremonies chapter, Apocalypse World

Apocalypse World has a very specific method for GMing the game. The MC is given an agenda to follow with the instruction that everything you say and do is meant to follow this agenda. There are principles of conduct to follow that assist the agenda, and these principles maintain an emotional distance between the MC and the world so that they don't play favorites. There are even rules for what to say, which help to highlight how the MC is in charge but is still playing the same game with the other people sitting around a table.

Characters have very broad abilities called Moves that when executed successfully allow them to push NPCs around, give them things, and can even define new aspects of the game world. Sometimes these Moves come with a heavy price, and failing the roll of one of these Moves can come with a heavier price. Every time you roll the dice, the state of the game can potentially change regardless of success or failure. The characters can’t prevent everything bad from happening, the slow march of entropy eventually seeps in and crumbles away at any status quo that the players try to cement.

I imagine there are numerous internet forums and essays on blogs where the author says something similar to "When you roll dice and the character fails, saying 'nothing happens' is boring." I've heard this sentiment expressed and restated in different ways and I don't know who first said it. I'm sure it was probably first addressed as a bit of generic GMing advice because I can remember hearing the statement as far back as 1993. The Master of Ceremonies chapter in Apocalypse World follows this philosophy not just in advice to the MC, but provides solid rules (the Agenda, the Principles, the Hard Moves) that drive this sort of play. Failure always has something interesting or challenging to throw at the player and every time a player rolls the dice something is either going to happen or going to change.

At it's crunchy core Apocalypse World has a pretty simple mechanic for determining success. You roll two six-sided dice then modify it by one of your character's stats, -2 is the worst and +3 is the best. Other factors could adjust that modifier, but usually it's just one of your stats. If you roll 10 or higher, that's the best possible result. But if you hit between 7 and 9 you get a partial success, or a success with a cost. If you roll 6 or less, you missed the roll completely and the MC gets to make a hard move. Sometimes this hard move is in addition to some negative effect of the roll you were making.

Why does the MC get to make this hard move? Because the MC never rolls dice.

Instead, when a player rolls the dice and they fail the roll this generates the hard move for the MC to use which in turn keeps the action going and sometimes presses the player to make another roll. A hard move is something bad that's going to happen and that you know is likely to happen, or it's letting the player know that something bad is going to happen. If you're in the middle of a gunfight and you miss your roll, it’s obvious to everyone at the table that you're likely to get shot, which could be the MC’s hard move -- the character gets shot.

But the MC might instead declare that a barrage of gunfire forces you behind cover and you lose sight of what's happening, or you might see one of your opponents has a grenade in his hand and he just pulled out the pin, or you might realize that the tractor you're taking cover behind just had a hole blown through the gas tank and the ground at your feet is quickly pooling gasoline. These are all variations of the same hard move, and there are about two dozen hard moves that the MC could use, each is a narrative decision which metaphorically throws a brick at the player’s head. The MC is instructed to always follow up a hard move with the question “What do you do?”

All of these pieces work in concert. The MC’s Agenda tells them what to push for in their Hard Moves, the MC’s Principles keep them brutal and honest and impartial when a Hard Move is called for, and the MC’s Moves keep the game moving along briskly and unpredictably. Follow the rules and Apocalypse World teaches you how to be an effective and exciting GM that is capable of devising challenges on the fly while also being able to sit back and allow the players to drive the action of the campaign. This has always been what I wanted from a GM and what I’ve always striven to do as a GM.

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Apocalypse World is built upon a simple philosophy of scarcity. The characters of Apocalypse World do not have ready access to food, water, shelter, safety, or health. How the players push their characters forward to secure these things often defines what a campaign is about just as much as how a campaign will unfold.

When players create their characters during the first session, this actually builds the skeleton of what a campaign will become. Each player establishes their character not just by the playbooks they selected and the abilities they chose but also by defining who their character is, where they came from, and how they got here. Through the character’s growth in experience, all the way to retirement, the players inform the campaign world around them just as much as anybody else at the table does. It would be fair to say that the players are more in control of the world than the MC is, because the MC merely builds off of what the players give them.

In the game I played, my character was always seeking to overthrow tyranny and injustice. In the course of four sessions I had traded one tyrant for another, and in two more sessions I became the tyrant myself. The MC never prepared for these upsets of power or the turnabout which put my own character into the spotlight. Following the rules allowed the MC to always stay one step ahead of me, and using my character’s Moves brought me to the eventual conclusion that she was just as much a villain as those who had come before her.

Characters in Apocalypse World have their retirement coded into their character sheets, the Playbooks. As you gain experience from session to session, you acquire Advances that expand your character thematically and allow them to “level up.” Some of the “upper level” Advances involve abandoning your current playbook and taking on a new one, or creating a secondary character to play. With my first character, I began to fill every Advance and got access to the “upper level” Advances fairly quickly.

When I brought in my second character I felt like I had made a real achievement because I had succeeded at so much in such a short amount of time. Looking back, I never finished any goal that I had set for myself yet I had ended up with a character who was in control of the local community, was relatively secure, had access to plenty of food and water, and feared by many if not all who came into contact with her.

One of the Advances reads “Retire your character to safety” and by the time I had filled everything else on my first character, it was the only one left for me to choose. I chose the moment of my character’s retirement - the player is always in control of what happens to their character - and could have prolonged it forever if I wanted to. In the end, I asked “I don’t think she would leave for a safe place. Can I retire her as a threat?” and the MC answered “Sure, that’s cool.”

As I write this, I haven’t played Apocalypse World in months. I miss it.