D&D 5E Actual Play Part 2

 

Last time, I discussed my take on the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons rules themselves. What follows is a more specific discussion of running The Valley Of Tombs at CarnageCon as a persistent open world exploration adventure, a “Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG” if you will.

 

The Valley of Tombs

 

Figuring out what to run at a convention can be very difficult. I know that I much prefer run games than to play them: for every good game I play, there are two that are boring or uncomfortable or just plain bad. Ultimately, I want to be that game that is good for other players, and in any case I love running RPGs. It’s too bad there is not career in it.

 

Last year at Carnage I ran a two part Mutant Future adventure (“Out of the Freezer/Into the Fridge”) and I found that I really liked running multipart games. At the same time, that I was trying to decide what to run this year, I was playing a lot of Skyrim and the open world, exploration based adventure design that is so fundamental to that game really inspired me to try and recreate the experience on tabletop. The result, it would turn out, was The Valley of Tombs.

 

From a player’s perspective, the Valley setup is simple: an ancient region used over eons as a resting place for the mighty has been rediscovered, setting off a “gold rush” like race for not only riches but forgotten knowledge and ancient power. Player characters are contractors with the Finder’s Guild, which serves the dual purpose of giving them a place to fence their recovered loot (*for a 10% fee, of course) and a way to connect with like minded fellow explorers. They also pay for the simple act of discovery, using a magical journal and map. The players, of course, fill in the map and write in the journal, with the goal of creating a base from which future groups of players at different events where I run the Valley can start their own adventures.

 

I was very lucky at Carnage in that I had a very enthusiastic journal keeper who also happened to be present (with her husband) for each of the five slots I ran. That they were great role players who brought a lot to the table as well was gravy.

 

Prior to the convention, I had planned on creating the entire Valley, stocked top to bottom with interesting locations and encounters. That proved to be far too ambitious a goal, however — especially with taking classes for the first time in 10 years (not to mention the usual family and professional responsibilities). Instead, I sketched out the immutable features of the Valley (terrain and settlement locations that would not be changing) and created a few dozen encounters, both location based and “wandering” encounters. In the end, I think it worked out for the best.

 

Had I assigned every interesting location a hex in advance, the possibility that the players might accidentally sidestep the “fun stuff” was there. In addition, it would deprive me of my favorite thing about being a Dungeon Master: playing to your small, captive audience of players and giving them a tailored experience. Like many of the open world video RPGs that inspire it, the Valley is chock full of things to see and do (and kill!) but those things are not necessarily nailed down to a single location. That said, the experience at Carnage has helped me devise a balanced approach to exploration and storytelling that should make the experience even more fun for future groups.

 

I am not a fan of the “adventure path” style of play that currently pervades the RPG hobby. I much prefer stories to emerge out of events that occur at the table. Certainly, prep work is necessary and story seeds need to be spread liberally over the fertile soil of player imagination (to take a metaphor way too far) but too much predetermination is counterproductive. In my experience players have more fun if they feel like they are driving the narrative with their choices and actions. These two elements — the things in the world and how the players choose to interact with them — combine with the game system itself (not least of which is the randomness inherent in the dice) to result in “story.” Sometimes a character’s story ends with her at the bottom of a pit, pierced by goblin punji sticks, and sometime it ends with her slaying the dragon and saving the prince. In an adventure like Valley of the Tombs, either story is as likely as the other.

 

Some numbers from Carnage: I ran 5 slots of the Valley, for a total of 20 hours of play. I had 12 or 13 players total. Two players played every slot and 6 players played at least 2 slots. Only one PC died (dammitall). A total of 12 adventuring days occurred, during which about 20 hexes were explored. One “dungeon” was explored, consuming an entire slot, and another (the apparent prison of “The Lord of the Pit”) was found and the key to opening it unlocked, but the players chose not to open it. Player characters present for every session earned 3000 XP.

The Valley of Tombs was a joy to run and the slots at Carnage taught me a lot about how to make it even better. I will run it a few times between now and February, when I bring the Valley to TotalCon for 6 slots — 24 hours of hexploration and adventure!

D&D 5E Actual Play Part 1

At CarnageCon in Killington VT a few weeks ago, I was finally able to run my Valley of Tombs game. This is a 5th Edition D&D game designed to feel like playing an open world CRPG (like Skyrim) with an ongoing continuity and ever-expanding setting. I refer to it as my Massive Multiplayer Table Top RPG (MMTTRPG). AT Carnage, I ran a grand total of five slots (20 hours) and I just submitted the same event for TotalCon in Mansfield, MA in February (this time, 6 slots or 24 hours of table time).

 

I thought I would talk about my experiences at Carnage, both with the 5th Edition D&D rules and with the MMTTRPG format, as well as my hopes for TotalCon and the time between now and then. This post focuses on my experiences with the 5E game itself, while the next will go into how The Valley of Tombs ran.

 

5th Edition

 

Finally having run the game for more than a single session (plus one floundering fight versus a Tarrasque very early on), I can say that D&D 5E is probably my second favorite edition of the game, after BECM (you never forget your first) and just ahead of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It is unsurprising, then, that 5E feels very much like a blend between those two (seasoned to taste by various rules and systems found in every other edition of the game a few besides). It is possible that given enough time with the game, it will in fact become my favorite version of the game, but only time will tell. In the meantime, it is enough to say that I would rather run 5E than either AD&D or Pathfinder.

 

The primary reason is that 5E feels clean. Its systems are easy to grasp and run relatively quickly and smoothly. The core mechanics are intuitive and well integrated (with the very strange exception of the cover rules, which don’t seem to jive with the overall design goals) and it is a game that not only enables Dungeon Master input and interpretation, but demands it. There are of course some fiddly rules that take some effort to remember, it being a new edition and all, and it is easy sometimes to revert to some previous edition or Pathfinder rule. Part of the beauty, though, is that doing so will not very likely break the game and there are even a few rules from those games (gold = XP perhaps, or Pathfinder’s disease mechanics) that would enhance 5E play.

 

Character creation is easy. I found a nice little online character generator to help speed the process, but I had previously created some characters by hand with the PHB and it took about an hour to create a 20th level character: 30 minutes to create the base 1st level character and another 30 to level the character all the way up to 20. The choices after 1st level are limited, usually one or two things per level (perhaps more for spell casters), so it is a quick process to create a high level PC. That said, at least so far the game is missing a few things usually associated with creating high level PCs, like a suggestion as to how much and what sort of equipment a higher level character might have, but this is not insurmountable. The apparent default assumption of the game is that characters are not expected to possess dozens of magic items and weapons, and the math in the game is designed to flatten the power curve and reduce the importance of items on character capability. Much of this is dependent on information probably found in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (coming soon!) and that book will likely answer some questions as well as inspire a few.

 

We played without a battle mat or a grid (though we did occasionally use a little sketch on paper to illustrate relative positioning). Because the game is more strategic than tactical, it worked well. Simply asking players what their intent was and being accommodating but tough made combat move quickly and with no want for tension. Rather than counting squares, players were trying to figure out ways to gain Advantage, which suited me just fine.

 

Advantage and Disadvantage are, to me, the single most inspired aspects of the 5th Edition rules. Simply put, Advantage provides a bonus on an attack roll, skill check or saving throw in the form of rolling two d20 dice and taking the better result. Likewise, disadvantage affects the same kinds of rolls in the same way except that the the lower result is taken. Some character abilities, such as the rogue’s sneak attack, interact with Advantage or Disadvantage in specific ways, but otherwise the system is unencumbered by a large number of associated rules. One official rule I did immediately dispense with was the idea that one Advantage or Disadvantage inducing circumstance would negate any number of the opposite, and instead I went with a broader view: i.e. do all the circumstances of the moment suggest Advantage, Disadvantage, or an essentially balanced circumstance. It worked well and while players would sometimes try to negotiate for Advantage or against Disadvantage, I considered this a good thing that increased their engagement and added to everyone’s fun.

 

Related to advantage is a system called Inspiration, which basically provides a “free” Advantage based on things related to character goals, flaws and so on. Because we were using pregenerated PCs, I decided to dispense with giving Inspiration based on play acting and instead gave it for being generally awesome and increasing everyone else’s fun (whether through melodrama or humor or heroics or whatever) or for bring me, the DM, coffee or beer. Shamed as I am to admit it, I am bribable. I also use a special d30 for Inspiration and the rule is only one person can be in possession of that d30 at a time (meaning no one else can acquire Inspiration until the holder of the d30 uses it) but you can always use the d30 for another player’s roll. It worked well, except in a few instances players sat on their Inspiration for most of a session and so it did not see a lot of use in some sessions.
Overall, D&D 5E is a well designed, fun game that speaks to my style of play. It probably is not for everyone, especially since it is moderately dependent upon DM calls and it does not have the deep well of player character options that some people really like, but it is a good game. I look forward to mastering the system a little more every time I run it and finding places where rules from other games or editions enhance play.

Wicked Wednesday: Madra Nocht

Madra Nocht is a night hag who dwells in the Valley of Tombs, between the growing frontier towns of Threshold and Minehold. She is a creature of pure evil and she is as cunning as she is wicked. She is also immortal, endless and ageless. Her schemes touch nearly everything in the Valley, either as her handiwork or her allies, or something to be discarded or destroyed.

 

Her cabin is located aside a gently flowing stream. It is a small simple structure with an herb garden and a porch on which a dog sleeps. Only upon closer inspection can visitors see that only poisonous plants grow in the garden and the dog is in fact a three-headed Death Hound gnawing on too-small bones. By then it is too late, for Madra Nocht emerges from her dwelling, soul sack hanging at her side and wickedness glinting in her eyes. She may not attack the trespassers immediately — she is very likely not to, in fact — but she is a predator to be sure and is sizing up her prey. No mad beast, Madra Nocht needs pawns and servants, sport and playthings and she will take pains to determine which her visitors may be. Unlike some of her kind, she never hides her gruesome visage behind an illusion of beauty. She revels in the terror she creates and loves nothing more than the moment of horror when her victims first see her — except perhaps their last, terrified gasps for breath.

 

Madra Nocht needs not eat or sleep. She never does the latter, and is always up late into the night ranging from dream to dream in search of nightmares to empower and innocents to torture. She sees and manipulates them through her cauldron. The former, she does indulge on occasion. Usually, she limits her indulgence to children (which she has the local goblin tribes snatch from their beds for her) but she may make an exception for particularly troublesome guests. If she or her Death Dog subdues a would be hero, she devours them slowly over days, keeping them alive to watch her cook their flesh and feed their bones to her pet until the last thing they see is a fork coming into their eye. But that is a rare fate, reserved for the most egregiously uncouth Madra Nocht is an immortal and a power and she demands respect.

 

As stated, she needs servants to carry out her will in Valley, willing and otherwise. She threatens, promises and cajoles, lies and manipulates and entices. She has much to offer, from wealth for the greedy to hope for the forlorn to simple desire for survival. When that does not work, she shreds off pieces of a victim’s soul and holds it as ransom until some particular deed she might need done is complete. Attacking her is both futile and suicidal: if threatened, she simply escapes into the Ethereal Plane where dreams and nightmares live. If one can manage to kill her before she can escape, she is not destroyed: her body turns to smoke and she is trapped in the Ethereal until the next new moon. In either case, she follows such a defeat immediately with revenge. She hunts through the land of dreams until she finds her attackers and slowly, with horrifying pleasure, turns all their hopes to ash and eats away at their souls until they are but husks of themselves, at which point she commands these empty vessels to do such horrid and vile things that whatever is left of the victim goes mad with guilt and terror.

 

Game Rules: Madra Nocht is a fairly typical Night Hag as presented in the Monster Manual (page 178) with a few minor but significant tweaks. In addition to the usual night hag innate spellcasting abilities, Madra Nocht is an accomplished ritualist and brewer. She can cast nearly any spell that is available as a ritual and can brew any potion. She never uses potions herself and rarely uses ritual spells for her own benefit; rather, these are tools she uses to bribe would be servants and punish those who defy her. Also, Madra Nocht may plane shift at will between the Prime Material and the Ethereal only. She may do so as a bonus action if she is wounded and automatically does so if she is reduced to 0 hit points.

 

In addition to the normal effect of her Nightmare power, anyone affected by it becomes a sort of thrall to her. She cannot control their actions but gains the ability to read their minds, scan their memories and use their senses from afar. A victim who takes psychic damage from the ability gains a level of exhaustion is addition to the other effects and anyone reduced to 0 hit points by the power becomes a wight under Madra Nocht’s control.

 

Madra Nocht is considered CR 7 for defeating her in a single encounter or adventure, but given that she is immortal and driven by revenge, characters may gain XP for defeating her more than once (DM’s discretion) on a separate occasion.

 

Her pet is a Death Dog (page 321) with three heads (and therefore three bite attacks) rather than two. The save DC on it’s disease is 14 Constitution and it causes 2d6 permanent damage rather than 1d10. It has a CR of 2.

 

At Carnage Con, Madra Nocht used her nightmare power and threats to consume the soul of a part member in order to cajole them into attacking a group of harpies who were preying on Madra Nocht’s goblin servants. This is an example of the kinds of thing she might require PCs to do for her, rather than just try and kill them outright.

Magical Monday: Treasures of the Timeless Tower

My 5th Edition open world “massive multiplayer table top RPG” The Valley of the Tombs (VotT) finally saw actual play this weekend at Carnage Con in Killington, Vermont. While I will have a full write up based on the event in the near future, I thought I would use an element from VotT for this week’;s Magical Monday.

 

Among the location discovered by the adventurers during the 20 hours of VotT I ran this weekend was the Timeless Tower. Located atop a large hill that may or may not be a giant king’s barrow mound, out from which metallic smelling springs flow here and there, the Timeless Tower is a quat structure, just 50 feet tall and 40 feet in diameter at the base. From a distance it seems mundane, if in exceedingly good shape for being located in the ancient, lost region known as the Valley of the Tombs. Upon closer inspection (after dealing with the flock of Perytons living atop the tower) it becomes obvious that although vegetation has grown up on the stones, they are as perfect as the day they were hewn. In fact, the entire tower is unperturbed by the elements or the passage of time (hence the nom de guerre). In fact, the windows allow both light a wind through but no precipitation may pass into the tower through them — and adventurers, they too may pass with ease.

 

Haunted by the unquiet spirit of an abused servant and her daughter and full of tricks and traps laid by the vicious former owner, the Timeless Tower is a brief but engaging adventure locale in the Valley. It’s real worth is in its treasures, I think, so I present them here:

 

The Bookstand is exactly as it sounds: an ornate wooden device intended to be placed on a desk and table and upon which a book is supposed to be put for easier reading. The bookstand has a powerful enchantment upon it, however. Anyone who places a book on the stand gains a magical psychic link to the contents of the book. Whatever language the book is written in, the user of the stand may understand its contents (note that it does not actually translate the book so onlookers gain no special insight). Moreover, the user may magically turn to any page or even find any subject within the book with but a thought. Finally and most impressively, the user may consume the entire contents of the volume. It is a temporary effect, lasting only one minute, but in that time the user may call upon the knowledge and make a related skill roll (usually Aracan, Religion, or Nature but technically any knowledge based skill check is possible) with advantage. As soon as the knowledge is used, the information leaves the user’s mind. While the book stand may be used any number of times per day, the process of consuming an entire volume of information is mentally exhausting and any character who does so suffers a level of exhaustion for any such uses after the first. Note that the stand can be used to comprehend any written work that can fit on it, from tomes to maps to scrawled notes.

 

The Wine Chiller is a curious magical construct. A beautifully crafted silver wine bucket on a three legged stand, the wine chiller is magically enchanted in two ways. First, the interior of the bucket is always frosty cool and any bottle or other vessel placed inside is instantly chilled to the perfect temperature for consumption (it will not heat liquids, however, nor will it freeze them solid). In addition, the chiller walks around on its three legs attempting to service anyone within 30 feet. It is a stupid construct and does not know whether there is a bottle in its bucket, let alone if the subject of its attention possesses a wine glass. It merely stands by a subject for a minute or so, then moves on to another subject, visiting everyone within range and then starting the process over again. There are command words to make it be still or to come immediately, but they are long forgotten. The wine chiller seems ties to the parlor in which it was found and ceases to move of its own accord if removed, though the bucket remains chilled. It is likely it merely needs to be attuned to a location with another lost command word. It would fetch a pretty platinum to the right noble buyer should one discover the command words.

 

The Imperial Suite is a whole room that is a magical creation. Located on the second floor of the tower in a space no larger than a linen closet, the Imperial suite is actually a vast apartment in an extradimensional space. Through the open door a viewer can see the opulent room, with is huge bed and massive hearth, multiple soft couches and exquisite marble bath. Upon passing over the threshold, they find themselves teleported to the center of the room, at least 50 feet from the door. The room is warm but never uncomfortable and smells of perfume and pleasure. It is large enough to comfortably sleep six on the various couches and bed, but a small army could camp within if they rested on the floor. In either case, anyone who takes a short rest within the room recovers as if from a long rest, and anyone who takes a long rest within the room loses two levels of exhaustion and regains all used hit dice. No one can gain the magical benefit of any rest, short or long, more than once in 24 hours (although one could take a short rest to gain the benefits of a long rest and then later come back and take an actual, unmodified long rest later in the same 24 hour period). The suite is, sadly, immobile, and not apparently accessible from any location on any plane other than through the doorway to the room.

 

The Timeless Tower was full of other magical object, most enhanced versions of mundane items. The owner of the tower, whoever he was (it is known to be a he based on the depredations he performed against the servant and their daughter) left with most items of real power or value, apparently a very long time ago and with careful intention. Perhaps he will one day return and be miffed that some of his favorite baubles are missing.

 

Please come back on Wednesday when I give an overview of Madra Nocht, a night hag who haunts the Valley and has a penchant for manipulation and intra-monster politics.