Wednesday, June 20, 2018

D&D 5e Official Alternate Classes

The Classic 4: Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User and Thief
This started with one of my players wanting to play the new Blood Hunter class. I wasn't entirely against it, as frankly I've pretty much embraced most of the official material released for 5e--except of course when I haven't ... But it got me to thinking. What classes would be allowed in our next campaign? I mean we currently have a dual classed Ranger/Mystic and it has worked fairly well. At first it is always a pain because you have to familiarize yourself as DM with the particulars of the new class, but like most of D&D just play it for awhile and it will sort itself out.

One thing I knew I didn't want to do was to extend my goodwill into the land of home-brewed madness available on say D&D wiki or D&D Beyond. The trouble is I've gone out looking for some list of material actually released as unofficial material in say Unearthed Arcana that hadn't made it into a rule-book yet, but that did at least come from that source. It was hard to find. In fact if anyone has seen one please point me to it. So this is my unofficial attempt, as it were, to list in one place the unofficial material on D&D Classes. Not options, there are tons of those and many of them made it into Xanathar's Guide or other places. This is for actual classes.

The Unofficial Classes (From WoTC) for 5e

And that my friends is it. Yep. I have searched fairly high and low and actual separate classes that have come out of the WoTC design team are these three. And none have made it into official rule-books. The BloodHunter is on D&D Beyond as a possible class separate from other home-brews but the other two are unofficial play-test material on UA only. And I actually like this a lot. 

One of the things 3.5 did wrong was the vast proliferation of classes from the head company itself. This is a mistake in my opinion. I prefer the 1e/2e approach of base classes, the 4 by 8 approach of the four base classes Fighter, Thief, Cleric and Magic User and the expanded classes of Barbarian, Ranger, Paladin, Bard, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Monk. Now the proliferation occurs where it should occur: within those classes itself. The archetypes, most frequently called options, are where the expansions occur. This I have no problem with. I also have no problem with the three limited classes above. If my players want to use these additional classes or any option from official sources in the base 4 x 8 group I am perfectly fine with it. What I am not too keen on is the multiplication of home-brew classes out there. Let me correct that--I have no real problem with the actual creation of such classes, but I am not okay opening my campaign up to them. If you want to play an ParaElemental Beastlord, well let's find a way you can do this within the existing class structure.

I could tackle options next, but I think I am more particular about races. Optional races will probably be my next topic, but I'll have to see. Until then, happy gaming!

[caveat lector: the Mystic was actually revised from a previous Mystic incarnation, I have posted the most recent version. The Ranger also had a variant offered in UA, but I skipped it since it really isn't a different class.And yes, I do know that the Thief was not one of the original D&D classes, it was added as an optional class in the supplements.]

Monday, March 26, 2018

Golem Death Trap Room -- A Playtest

The party had explored the entire upper level of the Slaver's Stockade. Things had gotten quite weird the further along they went, with more and more sinister clues that the giants were involved. Nefarious purposes seemed to be coming from multiple directions, but what seemed lacking was any evidence of where the slavers escaped to. Carefully backtracking their path they re-inspected one suspiciously angled hallway and lo and behold a secret door!
And behind that secret door a heavy, black, velvet curtain obscured what was beyond. The Ranger sent his magical companion into the room to scout out the environs, and after a tense few minutes the small creature scampered back telling the tale of a strange octagonal room...
The party had entered from the lower right hand corner, the door opening inward into the hallway. The room is made of old, heavy stonework. An identical curtain covered the lower left hand corner (a clue that there is a second secret door leading downward into the dungeon depths below). On the floor in the center of the room is a octagram design etched into the floor and filled with some sort of immovable (and enchanted) metal. But what looms above everything in the 20' high room is a massive metal statue holding an impossible large steel sword. The thing may be an empty suit of impossibly large (9' tall) armor. As the party enters a dim purple light illuminates the area, as if coming from the very air itself. 

Two other things occur as the party enters the room. They hear the secret door behind them close and lock. They also may perceive (DC 16) a hiss coming from the two upper portions of the wall on the left and right. Nothing else will occur yet with this, but a DC 20 perception check will reveal two small holes, one on each wall, at about 7' in height, angled slightly downward and the slight smell of "cave gas" (natural gas or methane). 

This room is designed to be either a death trap or a challenging obstacle the clever party can perhaps foil with minimal damage. If the party avoids stepping onto or into the sigil in the center of the room it will have no effect. But if they purposefully step into it they will find they are trapped within the confines of the symbol they are trapped there. They may move about and attack with ranged attacks outside of the circle, but may not leave. They also will find that a powerful dispel magic effect exists within the confines of the octagram and that only nonmagical attacks will work. The possible exception is that if the person inside the circle has magical missile weapons they will be thrown as a nonmagical device, but will regain their magic once outside the device. In our case the Ranger, who is also a Psion, had the advantage of using psychic attacks with damage other than psychic (acid). 

The other bad thing about being stuck in the center of the device is that it makes you very subject to the two flame traps that are positioned in the upper left and right walls. Every 12 seconds (every two combat rounds) a cone of flame, describe by the red triangles on the map will blast outward doing 3d6 damage for each cone (6d6 inside the octagram). DC 18 Dex save inside the octagram for half damage, DC 12 Dex save for the area in the cone outside the octagram.
The golem will attack at the most advantageous time, but will not willingly enter the dispel magic area. If he does he will immediately be rendered inert (since he is a magical construct) and collapse into immobile helplessness. He will also be unable to move out of the are of effect. Behind the Golem faintly inscribed on the wall are several magical glyphs. A DC 15 Arcana check or a detect magic spell will reveal the command word to inactivate the glyph in the center of the room allowing anyone trapped therein to leave, and removing the dispel magic effect.

Note the command word does not cancel the flame traps, as they are mechanical and triggered by the locking of the first secret door. A DC 20 perception check will reveal the very subtle button device set between two stone blocks by the inside of the lower right secret door. This button unlocks both doors (lower left as well) and shuts off the flame traps. The flame traps have enough for 6 charges (two combat rounds) before being spent. 

Overall the room played out fairly well. The party druid actually cast thorn whip and pulled the Golem into the sigil rendering it inert--but they hadn't figured out that it was a dispel magic zone. They only knew the Ranger couldn't get out after he ran into it. He was still able to use his psionic abilities since they aren't magical. The idea, of course, is that the party figure out the are is a dispel magic zone and use it to get the Golem inside. An added wrinkle could be that flames can recharge the Golem--metal golems are recharged by fire damage--but a DM could rule that the recharge is a magical effect and not able to work in the circle. This didn't matter for my party since they had already found out flame recharge it when the mage cast a firebolt at it. So once it was pulled into the circle they pulled it to the ground below the bulk of the flames. 

The challenge level for such a room is high and will vary depending on your group. But the Iron Golem alone is a CR 16 and the traps are between 7 (flame traps) and 10. The Dispel Magic containment trap is also high, since if you get a spellcaster caught in there, or a PC with a powerful magic item the party has just had their power majorly nerfed, so you could scale it between 8 and 12 depending. For a party of 7 at roughly 8th level I would say this was a hard encounter to just below deadly, depending on how they play it. It literally could be a death trap if they aren't smart and coordinated with their efforts. 

As far as where to put the room, I like it as a hidden area that must be overcome in order to get to the next level or major milestone. Not necessarily the big boss, but it would work great as a Red Herring if you are using the 5 room dungeon design process (which is called the trick or setback in the link). Although it can just as easily be run as a guardian if you would like with some tweaks. For us it worked great as the hidden "A-ha! There it is!!" room which enabled passage to the second level of the dungeon, and the escape route for the slaves. 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Real D&D

Okay, let's face it. If we had the chance most of us would step through the magical gateway into a real D&D world.

Or would we?

I have often played this thought experiment over and over again with myself, and as is usually the case, fantasy is much more appealing than reality. Even the reality of fantasy world made real. The first obstacle is general fitness to even be considered a capable adventurer, and the second is the training to be anything more than a liability.

This little daydream is really nothing more than that. But it's one I think bears fruit for gamers for a number of reasons. It also helps elucidate some of the reasoning behind old school D&D. You see the original game had players roll 3d6 in order for your stats. In fact the DM actually rolled them, but that changed early on. The idea here is that you are randomly inheriting a character born into the world, by and large average by the 3d6 bell curve. This simulates reality in our world, where most people end up being more or less average within a certain range. in other words not particularly exceptional. And if they were exceptional they weren't exceptional in more than one or maybe two areas. This is life.

These rather normal people simply chose to become adventurers. This premise implies a number of facts about the whole idea of fantasy adventure. That you could be normal and go out and have an adventure. The other premise of the game is that by taking a class, you were only slightly better than average in some set of skills--that of a fighter, a cleric, a magic user or a thief. And this was assumed to be due to a lengthy apprenticeship in those arts from at least age 10 or 12 on. Starting ages for humans were listed in the DMG as
  • Clerics           = 19 yrs    = 7 to 9 yr apprenticeship
  • Fighters         = 16 yrs    = 4 to 6 yr apprenticeship
  • Magic Users  = 26 yrs    = 14 to 16 yr apprenticeship
  • Thieves          = 19 yrs    = 7 to 9 yr apprenticeship
And in that time based on character class training 

Clerics learn to fight reasonably well, to turn undead, and to cast one spell--and in some version not even this until second level.

Fighters learn to fight well and use a variety of weapons and armor.

Magic Users learn the basics of magic and to cast one spell, and perhaps a few cantrips (in UA).

Thieves learn simple self defense and the rudiments of their craft but except for climbing walls are successful less than a third of the time. 

In other words, even adventurers, though slightly better than than zero level humans in some skills, are pretty average, and progress slowly through the ranks of their class to become heroes gradually better than a commoner. And commoners fight as well as almost any class at first level, except for fighters, and some don't improve beyond this until 6th level!

This is a far cry from what we are used to in D&D post 2000, where you are not just imagining what it would be like to be an adventurer, but you are allowed to dream big and be a powerful hero from the first moment the game starts. And heaven help the commoner who would try and defeat you, and DMs start to measure commoners by a whole new yardstick:

But I'm not here to talk about power creep or the value of playing an RPG where you start as a superhero or a slightly above average joe. To each his own and all that. 

What these early assumptions did for us, was make travelling to a fantasy world as ourselves a believable dream. And I mean ourselves as in our skinny, pot bellied, bad backed, asthmatic, pimply faced, flat footed selves and actually standing a chance at surviving! Becuase that is what our characters did. We may have a a 5 Dex and a 6 Con, but we identified with tha! We may not have liked it all that much, since in our mind Beaurigaard the Brave was a musclebound Olympic level warrior, but we really knew he was just a grunt with clear weaknesses--even though his strength might be 15. And what it communicated to us was that the important thing was how we played Beau based on our ability to think and strategize and use those strengths and even his weaknesses to his advantage. And moreover, what we realized was that even though we weren't as strong as Beau the fighter in real life were weren't as clumsy as he and maybe not even as sickly. In other words, if we were smart and careful and built up our skills we too might be able to be an adventurer and not only survive but perhaps surthrive in a fantasy world!

This made the dream that much more believable and that much more fun. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Exploring the Underworld: A 5e Experience

Not being one to let gray grow on an idea, I took my own advice last session and we spent the entire session in primarily exploratory play. It worked well with the storyline so far, since the last retreat the party made to recoup after the fight with the Ogres and Trolls gave the Slavers a good 8 hour lead on them. I figured it took four hours to clear the slaves out and another four hours on the road, gave them a good head start.

If you've never run the Slaver Series each module makes it very clear that the Slave Lords and their Network, which I have worked into the Lord's Alliance, are very crafty and cunning. They are shrewd and ruthless assassins and thieves and will not hesitate to take advantage when it presents itself. Well in several failed frontal assaults they Lords have lost to the party each time. Thus this last time they realized it was better to leave the adventurers trapped in the stockade apparently pursuing them into the dungeons underneath, when in actuality they had already vacated the caves through exit 39 (see below).

I also decided they would leave all the traps activated and a few more, as well as summon several nasty beasties to be left behind with the other natural denizens of the cave to deter and slow down the party. In the spirit of the Mythic Underworld I also redesigned the map--I don't have the map with me right now, but I'll try and remember to post it later--to include portions off map connected to the deeper and darker Underworld.

The idea here is that what we are talking about is a whole other world under the earth--not exactly like the UnderDark, which serves a different purpose--that is or may be or eventually will creep its way into any region under the earth, no matter how near or far. I used the Cave regions primarily (in the NW quadrant) and area 17 as my primary infiltration points of the beginning of cancerous growths, or old festering wounds of evil that were never quite healed and kept from abscessing into the main dungeon.

Essentially my thinking was that the Slave Lords and the Drow, when they took over the stockade and rebuilt the fort in and amongst the ruins of the original keep, they found that the dungeon had become infected with nether regions of the Underworld. The Cave regions, in fact, of the Upper NE quadrant had always been connected to things deeper, darker and more sinister. However, the Drow and the Slave Lords had walled off those portions to keep them in check as they did their business. And nothing says "open me" to a group of XP hungry adventurers like a large thick iron door, crossed with chains and padlocked, hung with a hastily scrawled sign reading "Under NO circumstances is this door to be opened!"

But keeping out the chaos when one is so close to it is like trying to hold back a lava flow from hell, or perhaps more aptly poisonous gas through a window screen. It's gonna get in. But this brings up an important point about the Underworld. Those who traffic in evil, and especially those who choose to execute their dark deeds in places beneath the surface of the earth and away from the light of day begin to become all too comfortable with the malign and twisted influence of Chaos. They are used to reality feeling warped, diseased and dangerous. They become a part of the disease themselves and seek out its deleterious influence to further their own aberrant schemes.

So it was that my adventurers entered the portion of the castle that was not rebuilt by the Slavers, but the older more ancient and shadowy stone portion of the ruins that led downwards into the dungeons below. Now, remember, that the Slavers had left with the slaves, leaving the Adventurers to deal with the traps, puzzles and denizens they had left behind; in addition to whatever might have crawled out of the now unlocked, unchained and open doors which had barred the dark from dungeon below the fort. So immediately the castle seems to take on an abandoned, silent for ominous feel.

First they tackle a complicated series of doors previously used to dispose of slaves and "drop" them into cages below. Now the area is magically trapped with a high level magical sleep spell. The creepy words on the door "Somnus Loductor" (Latin for Sleep Inductor and used as a magical glyph to anchor the enchantment now on the area). However, a comprehend languages having translated the words, the adventurers falsely assumed that this was some elaborate method to "anesthetize" slaves before transport. I won't bore you with a play by play, but suffice it to say it led to a good half hour of intense and exciting play as they worked their way through and past this nefarious trap.

The next exploratory phase involved the party in a strange and somewhat creepy section of the dungeon where an escaped slave and his two female charges were hiding in the walls. The escapees constructed an elaborate haunting hoax in this section of the dungeon (this is a part of the original module) which led to a scary confrontation in which the party accidentally kills all three of the poor escaped souls hiding behind the walls. The ethical dilemma and argument this caused was brilliant and offered an excellent example of alignment based roleplay among the party.

The point is there was technically no combat in all three and half hours of play, and the party had a blast working their way through this very interesting and challenging portion of the dungeon. Atmosphere was thick, tension was high, interest was keen and all in all it was one of the best sessions we've had in awhile. Several of the players were commenting about the castle as if it were a foe in and of itself "I am beginning to hate this place!" and "What is this freakin castle trying to do to us?!" and one suggestion that they actually excavate a section themselves and drop it into their own base of operations back in Phandalin.

All of which I point out to support the notion success when the dungeon begins to take on the tone of a Mythic Underworld and exploration, critical thinking, roleplay and immersion in the setting begins to rise to the top. I had mentioned last time that my hope is to minimize combat frequency, increase combat deadliness and play more with exploration and interaction with the setting and its denizens. Adventurers get the feeling that they aren't just on a military style mission, but that they are exploring a very dangerous and insidious place that is somehow out to get them! The very heart of Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Thoughts on "The Dungeon as Mythic Underworld"

An Excellent Example of Mythic Underworld from Hydra Cooperative
I found something that inspired me. To be honest, I had first heard about it when I read Philotomy's Musings back when it was just a web page. I believe it was Philotomy (aka Jason Cone) that first coined the phrase, but he was not its creator as much as its "namer". For the idea of the Dungeon as Mythic Underworld, as Philo makes clear in his writings, really harks back to the way D&D was originally played in the late 780's (my term for the late 70's early 80's). He describes the experience as exploration of a megadungeon that,

"should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency, but it is an underworld: a place where the normal laws of reality may not apply, and may be bent, warped, or broken. Not merely an underground site or a lair, not sane, the underworld gnaws on the physical world like some chaotic cancer. It is inimical to men; the dungeon, itself, opposes and obstructs the adventurers brave enough to explore it." (Philotomy's Musings pg 22)

I love this concept for several reasons; but before I enumerate them allow me to share, if I can, a bit of the feel of gaming in this way. I started gaming in 1981 with a group of older guys (I was 12 they were like 13-14) with AD&D. They had learned to play with OD&D + Supplements, but we used the 1e hardbacks exclusively when I played. I recall several salient moments in my early play which highlighted the over the top gonzo weirdness of D&D, going through modules like White Plume Mountain and Expedition to Barrier Peaks particularly. The general oddness and sci-fantasy "fun" made one believe literally anything was possible. D&D wasn't the classical medieval high fantasy game we think of today. Rather it was a strange brew of Lovecraftian menace, Moorcockish chaos and the Dunsanian bizarre. Of course none of us could have described it that way at the time--that simply was D&D.

What was also really clear is that the guys I was playing with simply made up most of it as we went along. This last part is what I'd like to highlight most clearly--we made stuff up as we played. Mostly it was the DM, but players were just as zany and hairbrained as any half mad dungeonmaster unleashing the craziness of his own twisted imagination upon his hapless players. To say the modules were a guide, is putting it mildly. They were more like fuzzy suggestions of some ideas you could use with this map. At least that's the way things were for the first few years. This style of play is actually very conducive to "Dungeon as Mythic Underworld" if you're comfortable improvising and imagining on the fly. It is not the only way this has to be done, but it certainly helps.

I have a personal belief that this is the way that early games went with Gygax, Arneson and the others as well. Proof of this can be had in the papers that have been shared online of the original Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor adventures--and the reason why they went unpublished for so long. Their  campaign materials consisted of maps and notes of sessions made just before and often as they happened. Putting them together in some kind of coherent order was almost impossible unless the DMs themselves did it, and even then they often couldn't do it. The fact is that it is hard to capture what really happened at the table when it may have had less than 2% to do with what you hastily scrawled in your prep session.

Dave Arneson is still renowned as a DM par excellence, and yet when they tried to create the Blackmoor supplement the writers and editors were so frustrated with his notes they had to rewrite most of it, and he was never satisfied with the finished product. It didn't live up to his vision of the campaign, and in fact nothing they tried to produce probably could have. Dave was better live than in Memorex. Most of the magic and the connections and depth of his adventures and campaigns were in Dave's head--not in his notes. And even if he had written them down, and he had, noone could quite make them come alive like Dave. Take, for example, the Arneson papers that were bequeathed upon his death. A literal van load of paper stuffed boxes and stacks and reams of papers and notebooks that were sort of symbolic of Dave's creative mind. It was the way he gamed and the way he wrote. Noone yet has been able to produce anything usable from them. Yet even Gygax lauded Arneson as a better DM than he himself was.

Now, obviously the game changed. Much of what Gary wrote did make it into reasonably organized print. However, even today the PHB, and DMG are criticized as poorly organized, baroque, and horribly indexed examples of how to not write a game book. Irregardless of the fact that these were the first books of their kind, and a vast improvement over the original three LBBs in terms of organization, and readability, they are indeed reflective of a style of gaming that was prevalent in the day. It was the beginning of a direction that would lead to the tightly written, more rules oriented, games of today. Even the early modules, mostly tournament reprints designed to be well organized for the tournaments in question, were sparse and not overly detailed. Often rooms are briefly described with a note of a monster, stats and treasure or left completely empty.

Filling in the lines, the motives, the details, were held to be the province of the DM themselves. In point of fact, Gary and the early designers all wrote into the first three books and the supplements that the point of the game was to do the imagining yourself, write the adventures, create the worlds, take the few rules we have written and "imagine the hell out of it!" Such was the way in which the early games were meant to be played. It was a surprise that players wanted more printed material, especially modules and it was only after how lucrative they realized such products could be that they started churning more and more out and eventually changed the approach to a "right" way to play D&D (c.f. Dragon Magazine circa iss. 76 and onward). All of this can be uncovered and confirmed in some of the histories written, interviews given and the excellent video casts given by Tim Kask and others.

It doesn't mean it was the right way to play, or that other ways were somehow wrong. I'm not saying that. As Tim Kask himself says "If you're having fun, you're doing it right." The point here is to give you a framework against which to understand, to grok, the idea of Dungeon as Mythic Underworld. It isn't just rooted in a style of dungeon design it is rooted in a style of play.

A "Megadungeon" whatever you might define that as, is rarely a finished product. And not only because it is generally considered to be infinite, but rather because it is simply too big to detail beyond reason. And reason dictates a style of detail that doesn't go much beyond

1. Entryway: four large columns stand in the center room, cobwebs, large spider.
2. Cloak room: 8 rotting pegs line the north and south wall, pile of motheaten cloaks are on floor
3. Empty
4. Confused rust monster HP 29
5. Storeroom: rots grubs in grain barrels
6. 10' spiked pit trap center of hall

So for example, these brief descriptions are designed to act as markers for what could be used, and elaborated upon as the DM sees fit. Running as is would be a bit dry, so the DM spices it up as she goes weaving together the environment represented by the above descriptions, the players' actions and the unfolding results of their actions.

But how do you turn a series of encounters like this into an actually Mythic Underworld? Assuming the descriptions above are part of a megadungeon or a portion of the MU (Mythic Underworld) it could go something like this.

The columns actually have series of lights in them, mutlicolored, that flash on and off at seemingly random intervals. A light on one column is burnt out and appears to be able to be depressed. The reason for this is innocuous, they are left over signal lights from a technologically advanced race that used to inhabit the region at one time. When you push on the one button it sizzles slightly and flickers briefly. As the characters are no doubt fiddling with lights the spider will drop on them from the webs above gaining surprise. Dangling in the spider web is the remains of an old half rusted cyborg. He at first appears like a human sized warrior in plate armor. His human half is desiccated, long ago drained of blood and fluids, but with a sufficient intelligence check they can get the robotic part working partly. His head will come to life, a red light faintly glowing where his one robotic eye would be. If they wait long enough the cyborg will begin to respond to questions, but his universal translator is broken and a character will have to cast comprehend languages to understand it. He may serve as a useful guide through portions of the dungeon, but if brought to within 100' of the central command jewel it will become hostile and seek to kill the party with its remaining laser eyes--though they are weak now and only do 3d6 damage per hit. In no case can the cyborg move and will have to be carried and continually nursed into running order.

And you get the idea ... that doesn't even begin to introduce the polymorphed rust monster who used to be an apprentice to a dark sorcerer who now makes his abode in the dungeon--hence his confusion. The point here is, and I just made all this up now, is that the weirdness comes into play as you move along. And so does the developing story of both the dungeon and the campaign.

Believe me, I have tried writing all this out ahead of time. In fact I just spend all day last Sunday prepping for an encounter in my current adventure and ended up using none of it. I mean zero. The party did something else, and I ended up deciding that the smart thing for the remaining bad guys and their leaders to do was to cut and run. But honestly, it all went great, just not as my well written and prepped 12 pages were expecting.

I end up making most of it up as we go out of the barest of bones of a plan and the actions and decisions that occur as we go. Of course every session doesn't have to be gonzo weird, but knowing that none of it has to make perfectly logical sense, relives a ton of pressure from a harried DM. The idea of a Dungeon World designed on these principles is a great help in this regard. The problem is that it is just a dungeon. What we really need is an approach that includes the upper and the lower worlds. Enter Faerie. That is what inspired me about the old post from Monsters and Manuals linked to above. That the Wilderness as a Mythic land of Faerie is every bit as cool and useful as the underworld concept. One could argue that this is what the designers had in mind when they wrote The UnderWorld & Wilderness Adventures of the OD&D set and the Expert Book of the Basic line. Both books were focused not just on dungeons but wild untamed magical wilderness areas as well. And the Mythic world of Chaos a la Poul Anderson's Three Hearts series was just as much about the untamed wilds above as the dark labyrinthine recesses under the ground were.

But let's talk about the reason I really love this. The idea that here be monsters, beyond the maps and domains of men, drives the adventure fantasy of the game and echos the weirdness in our own reality. What I mean by this is that for monsters, magic and wonder of fantasy to stay magical, wonderful and frightening it must remain unpredictable, essentially unknowable, and dangerous. Having spent a large portion of academic and armchair study into evidence of the unseen, the paranormal, the mythic and the supernatural in our world, one thing is clear. That when these things happen everyday normal reality takes a hike. Part of the reason these experiences thrill and interest us is precisely because they are strange. And I'm not just talking about a unicorn happening to walk out of the woods. We're like, "Oh my goodness look at that strange animal I've never seen before!" And after a while if I see it enough its just a horse with a horn on its head.

True fantasy and magic are not just something we normally don't expect to see. True magic, unreal experiences are exceptional because they bring with them, a sense of unreality; a feeling that the fabric of the universe being pulled a part at the seams, and you might just be going a little bit mad. These things, are what what makes the Mythic mythic. It is what the definition of fantasy is in my mind. If we live in a world that is as natural and mechanistic as our seems to be, but where goblins are real and some really smart people can do things with magic--sort of alike an undiscovered science--then the wonder begins to lose its power. Goblins are just another biological species, and can be dealt with as rationally as any other potentially dangerous species--like a bear or a wolf or a lion. In fact we really don't need them to define fantasy--an extended family of twisted serial killers would work just as well, or a widespread epidemic of rabid dogs. If magic is just another science that anyone with enough smarts can learn then we should use chemistry and physics to replicate it. My brother was a chem major for a while in pre-med and also an avid D&D player and I recall him telling me that just about any spell D&D mentions can be in some way replicated with science and technology.

So what makes magic magic? In a word, weirdness. True magic and magical beings are strange, unpredictable, ultimately unknowable, and though we can learn some rules of thumbs and general guidelines for dealing with it, they never quite make sense, and are apt to change at a moment's notice. Magic doesn't follow the normal everyday laws and rules of reality. Now, don't get me wrong. Like Philotomy pointed out, they (MUs) should have a certain amount of verisimilitude and internal consistency. But they should also be bent, warped and chaotic--cancers gnawing at the world.

This essential ethos was built into D&D in the early days in the essential dichotomy between the lands of Chaos and the Lands of Law. And therein we have the heart of the conflict of the world of D&D. The lands of men with their castles, kingdoms, baronies and villages are the Lands of Law; and the outer wilds, the dark depths beneath are the sprawling realms of Chaos. The two constantly at war one with another, Rule and Misrule locked in eternal battle. And it is the brave, bold and foolhardy D&D adventurer that dares venture down and out into the realms where Chaos breathes and strange magics twist the world to its maniacal whims. These are the few souls who know something of the strange beauty and terrifying nightmare that is the Mythic UnderWorld and the Odd Courts of Faerie.

This is at the heart of Old School D&D and the style of DMing that thrived within it. Something I am going to be incorporating more and more into my own 5e games.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

5e Challenge Ratings

Let's face it, the 5e characters in my game right now kick some serious ogre butt.

Ow! You kicked my great big ogre butt!
I mean in our last encounter through a series of unfortunate events our players, of which there are six eighth level and one seventh level, kicked the collective butts of two beefed up Trolls, four Ogres with very sizable HP allotments, 7 gnolls, a gnoll pack lord and a Fang of Yeenoghu and 8 hobgoblins, a hobgoblin captain and a hobgoblin warlord all in the midst of a a fireball induced fire hazard. According to Kobold fight club this is a deadly encounter that exceeds the exp recommendations for deadly by 19,150 experience points (this is for adjusted experience). I'll admit, the bard did fall in combat with the hobgoblins, and was hit while at zero for an automatic crit and two failed death saves, but was quickly revivified by the cleric. They spent most of their spell slots and did come into the battle at full HP and spell slots.

All of this goes to reinforce the fact that, in my opinion, the combat building mechanism for 5e is broken. I have seen different approaches which all pretty much break down into various approaches on tweaking character levels vs challenge ratings. I am going to suggest something similar in this post, but much simpler.

Sizzaxe's 5e Combat Encounter Building Rule of Thumb

  • Match CR levels for character levels 1 for 1
  • A character at level 1 should fight a CR 1 monster for a "fair fight"
  • Etc. for each level higher. 
  • Encounters lower than this match would be considered hard for the monsters
  • Encounters higher than this match would be considered hard for the characters
So, for my group I should plan encounters for 6 CR 8 level critters and 1 CR level 7 critter. In other words, My group might fight 6 Hezrou
And a Drow Mage
Which Kobold Fight Club says is 38,300 experience points beyond the threshold for deadly--exactly double the encounter they actually fought in the last session. 

Too much? Well, let me opine for a moment. Ever since 4e (and to some extent 3.5 had already made the shift, but less so than 4e), D&D became about combat. The game was designed to highlight the tactical and strategic game of outplaying your opponents on the field of battle. To a certain extent this was neat and indeed could be said to hark back to D&D's wargame roots. And arguably D&D has always been about combat, as the majority of the "rules" in the game have been designed around resolving, enhancing and expanding the combat component of the game.

However, I would be quick to add, and argue vehemently for my point, that D&D has always been about more than combat. Yes, combat has always been a critical and exciting part of the game--irreplaceable even. I mean, come on, there is something to be said for combat in a game that at its heart is about killing things and taking their stuff. But even in that statement we see a whole other part of the game--taking their stuff--which has been left behind or at least overlooked in the modern game. experience isn't really awarded for treasure in modern games so there's that. 

But it isn't just that, its that D&D is about amazing, wonderful, and weird encounters and interactions. It loses the amazing if all we are doing is substituting a different skin for the foe and slugging it out. Combat should be deadly and players cautious about taking that route. When you do this is shifts the focus of the game. I think the CR build of 5e is partially at least designed around making characters more able to have lots of combats and enjoy that part of the game. Cool. But what if we enjoy or at least want to experience more of the other part of the game?

I have seen other tweakers (bad name for gamers who like to play with the rules) suggest alternate experience models, like treasure only when PCs spend gold won on adventures, others who suggest models based on the three pillars and giving experience for each one in greater or lesser degrees. Heck even WoTC via the Unearthed Arcana column put out an optional rules suggestion to this effect. Those in this last camp have begun to argue that even though the game is supposed to be based on the three pillars of Combat, Exploration and Roleplay/Social Interaction the game itself does not support such an approach as there are only mechanics for combat. Heaven help us if the official game writes mechanics beyond what are already there to adjudicate those, but that's for another post.

But me? I think I am going to go simple. 1 CR per PC level as a sort of default for encounters. Gonna be tough, and its gonna be fun. I expect more creative thinking, more exploration, and more social interaction as a result. I'll let you know how it goes. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

I Have No Idea What I'm Doing

So ... new look? Yeah well, sort of. Truthfully, I have no idea what I am doing. The last six entries I had planned for the blog have been relegated to eternal draft-land, with no idea of when an actual post might appear. Part of the reason for this is my own confusion about where to take the blog and my future online gaming presence.

I recently went through a rather self reflective period in my gaming due to a disagreement in my game group involving rules and editions. I contemplated trying to return to what I love to do--go back to simply gaming old school 1e. I also contemplated taking a break from gaming altogether. I thought about breaking my group up. I even thought about writing my own game--again. In the end I settled on the fact that right now I'm playing 5e. My group is growing in more ways than just number of players at the table. The gamers I am, playing with are all invested in 5e and say they are enjoying themselves. With that in mind, I decided I was just going to give myself over to playing 5e, and playing it well.

I have been running a rather rules-less version of the game with me making up rules on the fly based on my previous knowledge of 1e, but that was no longer cutting the mustard. Time to really start to play this game the way it was designed. Yes, it's a pretty flexible game to begin with and even me making rulings hadn't actually broken anything. But I had not truly given the game itself a fair shake. It was time to do so, and with my current group it was the right thing to do.

So where did that leave my blog? Where did that leave my theorizing and philosophizing which are decidedly seated in an old school ethos. Was I to try and "OSR" the 5e rules? Hadn;t that been what I had been unsatisfactorily trying to do for the past two or three years? I was not going to run that treadmill again. No, even though I am old school gamer it was time to admit I was not successfully playing "old school".

I can't say I won't play an old school edition in the future. Hopefully I will. Hopefully the hobby will return to its golden age more so than it has. But for now, it was time to push the pause button on trying to figure D&D out and instead start trying to figure D&D Next out. I was making myself unhappy with the game and with my gaming. Moreover my players were starting to pick up on it. This is not a new phenomena. It happened with 2e; with 3.5 & PF and then with 4e. Now it was happening with Next. I had never really given myself over to any of the new editions. I sort of played with the appearance of their rules, but underneath it was some sort of old school melange of what I recalled and ruled on the fly. I have now decided to really play 5e. Play it as if this was the game I was playing and not just the book sitting on the table.

But that doesn't help me much with this blog. Is the uncharted space into which I now sail my RPG starship (hence the new design graphic) best served by this blog, or a redesign of this blog, or a new venue entirely? I have a Facebook page I use for my local gaming group and could focus my efforts solely on that outlet. But, truthfully, I have sort of grown cold on the Facebook bug. I've limited my interaction there to one or two visits a month now and pared down my contacts to only a hundred or so and those are mostly family. I could create a new 5e focused blog, a new blog for my gaming interests generally, or a different vehicle altogether. To tell you the truth I'm a little confused as to what to do. I've even considered dropping the gaming blog and focusing on one of my other interests.

All this to say, who knows what comes next. I would say stay tuned, but then nothing may be on this channel for some time so ...

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Room to Move

So in my redesign process of A2, I thought I would just limit the fort and dungeon portions to the tournament sections. However, some of the non-tournament sections are important on the story development end of the module, which is pretty important to work in. So I fairly quickly decided to leave in most of the extra bits. I may cut the madman's quarters out, but he could be fun if played right.

I am also beefing encounters up. The fort makes heavy use of hobgoblins and gnolls, but most of these patrols and bands, both as written in the dungeon itself and in the wandering monster tables are far too soft for my party. I have a party of seven fairly healthy 7th level PCs with a decent selection of magic items and spells. Challenging them has at times proven difficult. I have found that higher level monsters alone or in small numbers are not nearly as powerful as I would like them to be. Therefore, I have beefed up both my humanoids in number and strength as well as relying on more powerful groups such as trolls--it is the in TrollBark after all.

But even this has not been my biggest frustration. It used to be, but I am gradually getting a handle on 5e mechanics and design theory to mitigate nerfed encounters. No, what I am really struggle with is room. Room to move and conduct encounters and allow for more than a simple frontal assault in most dungeon environs. We do use minis and a mat for battles and often to guide exploratory sessions. I have always been more of a theater of the mind kind of DM, but as I've mentioned before my players really prefer minis and maps. They have gotten better about mapping on their own, and I usually just draw the immediate relevant environ on the battlemat. But what I've found is that the five foot square is incredibly limiting.
Now, a certain degree of this is due to the fact that we are using miniatures that are based on a five foot square game, and a holdover of 3.5e and certainly 4e that were designed to be played this way. When we played back in the day we naturally assumed that three could travel abreast in a ten foot wide corridor, and even fight as such in certain limited circumstances. We also assumed the ability to move about in combat more freely than five foot spacing rules generally allow. Taking a look at the above map of a 25' x 35' room, it seems very crowded with 3 human sized minis and one large sized mini. Is this realistic? That is a fairly large room by today's standards and yet it seems crowded for even a three person party. Now imagine us playing a seven person party with a wolf companion for the Ranger... Yeah. You get the idea. Again, part of this is the artifact of having minis designed on a base for five foot squares. However, as we go about working out encounters, to the extent that we do use minis, combats seem much less exciting and dynamic than I have been used to in the past.

And take a look at the picture at the top of today's post. Granted it's an artists rendition, but you also get the idea that five feet steps might be a bit too wide if you get my drift. In real life things are apt to get a lot more crowded and dynamic than what the artificial 5 foot grid allows or replicates. for instance, here are some other examples:

One can easily see in both these medieval combat recreations that actual engagement in combat is not a five foot square operation, but a much more chaotic and close quartered affair. However, I think the matter is best illustrated with this video of the Medieval Combat World Championships on boht sides of the coin, take a look and then refer to my analysis:
Okay, notice how the battle begins. We have, for all intents and purposes a rather large dungeon room outlined by the fence. A roughly 50' by 50' enclosure with approximately a dozen knights on each side. As they approach notice the Polish team in red. They are spread out about five feet abreast and there are ten of them almost in a line. As the time and action permits they are spread at about a five foot square pacing, but it doesn't last long. Once combat is engaged everyone is very close, and it is very rough and tumble. Definitely not a five foot pacing. You can sense how spacious the area is when most of the fighters are engaged. At one point you have seven fighters actively battling in a space no larger than a ten by ten foot area. At no time does this 50' x 50' region seem overly crowded.

One more quick example. Let us take the rather medium sized room above of 25' x 35' and consider what kind of spacing we have available. We have a total of 35 squares to work with. If the room has three items of furnishing we are down to 32. If there are 8 in the party we are down to 24. Let us say we have an equal number of foes in the room to the party (if we are designing a combat challenge) we are now down to 16 unoccupied spaces. That seems like sufficient, but you start having players moving around as well as monsters in an effort to engage and be strategic things start to seem very crowded and limited. When in actuality, though such a room is considered crowded, a fight you might have half of the critters in the room bunched up in a 10' x 10' space battling for their lives. And thus seems alot less crowded.

So, what's the solution? Obviously using minis with a base designed for 5 foot grids is not going to easily allow us to implement some kind of a different combat arrangement. We could go with theater of the mind and allow for closer combat and more dynamic actions and thus not feel constrained by the artificiality of the five foot grid. However, minis have their use, and players seem to like them to clarify what the DMs description my not clearly outline, or that their imagination is not quite able to conjure in enough detail.

So I have been thinking about redrawing the adventure maps and increasing the dimensions by say a factor of 1.5. But that makes the space much, much bigger. For instance a 25' x 35' room becomes a roughly 50' x 40' room. But I haven't come up with any more elegant solutions.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Redesigning A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade

So we just wrapped up the assault on Highport--Slave Pits of the Undercity (A1). It didn't go exactly according to plan, but that's what makes these things so fun sometimes. In case you have been following this somewhat broken campaign arc, we are in the Forgotten Realms and I placed Highport on the Isle of Mendarn. Granted, Mendarn was a slightly more affluent and powerful port than Highport in Greyhawk, but I downgraded it a bit and resurfaced it with a humanoid invasion. And as my last entry made clear I set the Slaver's Fort from A2 in the TrollClaws back on the mainland.

The escapade at Highport ended with the Slavers magically collapsing the Temple and undercaverns in a failed attempt to crush the party. The party notified them rather early of their assault and it was a running battle from that point on. The Slavers evacuated themselves and the slaves before the implosion, however, and were caught by the escaping characters at Tymorra's docks where they saved about half the slaves, burned a slave ship and defeated the bulk of the slavers if not the top guns of the enterprise thus far. They are still chasing Neznarr from Phandelver along with his cohorts, Halia the betrayer of the Lord's Alliance, the Slave Lord assassin from A1, and a myserious elemental controlling drow sorceress.

At any rate they are about ready to return the slaves and set out for the Troll Claws. However, I am struggling with the tight design of the fort and the close quarters of the adventure as a whole. Though I like the basic premise, and truly hope my players are sneaky and choose the more surreptitious entry we'll see what happens. That and I have a rather large party of 7 players and one wolf companion. Accordingly I have decided to give A2 a close read and a redesign to make it more suited to my party. I am thinking about defaulting to the tournament maps for the adventure, but am going to need to do some remapping regardless. I'll keep you informed as I go, along with the changes to encounters and stats yo give you an idea of how I'm approaching it.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Campaign Oultine

Yeah, I've been a little stuck in work lately. Every time I think I'm getting a little ahead, I just end up stuck deeper. As the recent month long break in blog posts, no doubt attests. But, Christmas Break just landed! Yay!! And for those of you who don't know, I'm an educator and though we don't get as many workdays (and hence the pay) throughout the year, we do enjoy several unusually long breaks. Yay!! And, other than fun family stuff, I'll have some free time to catch up on my posting. I know you've all been waiting for this ...

Today I wanted to share some of my plans for the campaign over the next few months, and what we might do thereafter. It's kind of a mini-study in how to take old 1e modules and tool a campaign for 5e, but honestly, I'm a going to run a little thin on details.

Our last campaign was in my homebrew world of ArborDale (the main city we were playing in and near) and centered around the rising of an ancient Necromancer in the Broken Finger region to the northwest of ArborDale. We played 5e characters through to about 8th level and called it quits to start a new round of characters. The players were new to 5e by and large and wanted the chance to spread their design wings and try new classes and builds. By the way, I did cover some of this campaign in previous posts, but never got around to a blow by blow--something I've always wanted to be better about.

So we started a new campaign set in the Forgotten Realms (since I had the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and it gave us some more build options) and ran The Lost Mines of Phandelver. It ran quite well, and near the end I wove the main villains of that campaign into the Against the Slaver's campaign from 1e and 2e. A1 to A4 were 1e tournament creations and not perfectly suited to campaign play, but rather more old school episodic play. So I drew some from the Against the Slavers of 2e and before long we were dealing with a hex crawl through the Mere of the Dead men to get to the start of the slavers adventures. By the time we started however, my players were a bit too strong for a 1e 4-7 adventure. Thus I had to retool some of the encounters to make them more of a challenge, and strategize a bit more. This worked well, as the Slavers series is about thinking as much as hack and slash and thus far things are clicking along nicely. In fact, in the last session they were about to headstrong and ended up alerting the inhabitants of the temple and were almost killed before they fled down into the dungeons below. They ended up spell spent, out of healing and about to enter the belly of the beast. The next session found them trapped in a massive cave-in as the majority of the slavers retreated with the slaves to the docks. A furious battle occurred which ended with a cliff hanging moment as the slavers pull away from the docks and the players can;t attack the ships without condemning the slaves to drowning. We are playing again this Sunday so we'll see if they can manage a full victory or are left once again chasing the slavers into the sunset.

Assuming they survive, they will have the option of staying on the slavers' trail, as they are developing quite a hatred for them. In which case the plan is to run through A2 through 4 afterwards. I set A1 on the isle of Mintarn, but changed the name to Highport. A2, the Slaver's Stockade, will be set in the Troll Hills near the Troll-Bark Forest. I am structuring it as a waypoint, or holding pen for slavers moving south into Amn and Tethir. The Slavers Lords, a shadow branch of the Zhentarim are spreading north to capture slaves which are being by and large sold in slave markets in Amn and Tethir. On a larger scale, the Zhentarim are using the connections of the Slave Lords thieves' and assassins' guilds to infiltrate the Lord's Alliance and the governing bodies of small towns throughout the Sword Coast region. The connection between the Trade Way and Coast Way has always been dubious and not well maintained--hence the Slaver's Stockade. This hill fort now sits along a newly made road that runs from Dragonspear Castle through the Fields of the Dead and to Baldur's Gate. Of course, the region is known for its vast and wily Troll population and the Slave Lords have bargained with the local menace for protection through the region in exchange for the weaker and younger of the slaves. Thus I've woven into the A2 storyline both the troll influence as well as the political machinations of the larger forces involved. The Winding River provides an entry to the region, where slaves can be transferred via slave barge to the Upper TrollClaws (the mountainous region just south of the Troll Bark) and the Stockade along what is being called the Troll Road.

However, the origin of the Slave Lords and their associated Thieves' and Assassins Guilds, The Zhadow (Zhentarim born Thieves' Guild) and the Silver Pin (a group within the Zhadow that acts as its assassination arm) are unknown to most even in the Zhentarim. Which is where the Drow enter the story. If the players get past the Stockade it will be clear that the slavers are connected to a Drow plot (it is already becoming clear that the Drow are somehow involved). The information they uncover in the stockade will lead them to the Aerie of the Slave Lords, tucked away in the GreyPeak Mountains. There, they will discover that the Drow are clearly calling the shots and using the Slaver Network to inflitrate the Lord's Alliance in preparation for some greater invasion into the Sword Coast.

As they follow the leads after defeating the Slavers in the Aerie, it will be clear that the giants are being stirred up to action to harass the northern regions. This will lead to some sort of a G 1, 2, 3 mash-up deep into the Silver Marches, which eventually will lead to D 1, 2, and 3 and the real plot of the Drow working with Lolth to take over Faerun. The 

elemental aspect from the Giants and Lolth will also play heavily into the overall story arch.

Quite ambitious, I know. My players are relatively new to D&D, and have never heard of most of these modules, let alone played them, so that should be great. However, we are talking about a fairly long campaign arch. By the time we are done, though we should be to level 15 or so and getting a taste for high level 5e play. It takes us a little longer to level up as we only play 3 hours at a stretch once a week for most sessions. And I have to weave the sessions together a little better as a lot of between module play can lead to increases in level that puts them out of the written play range for the module series in question. I learned that going into A1. But these are relatively easy things to manage.

Retrofitting the modules to work for 5e is a bit easier, since 5e does 1e quite well, but in my experience you have to up the power levels. 5e encounter building is already unbalanced in favor of the players, and 1e monsters are not quite tough enough to withstand a party of 5e players. That being said however, I like to leave many of the 1e monster abilities in tact as they are tougher and more unforgiving and represent more of an actual risk and challenge. But HP value, AC, melee damage number of attacks and such have to usually be increased. I wish there was some sort of decent conversion for these things but it's really more of a gut thing. That, and I am okay with one encounter being too hard and another being too easy as balance is not my favorite thing in the world. Wish me luck as I continue tinkering ...

Now, to get the far future rolling, I'm really digging the Midlands Setting that I reviewed in my last post. I am thinking about starting a new campaign there when we finish the current one. Though ultimately, as I always do, I will go with consensus of the players. It's important that they are excited about a new campaign and into the direction and milieu. So we'll see what happens when we get there. As for now, We have miles to go before this campaign sleeps, and many promises to keep.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Low Fantasy Gaming in the Midlands

The Midlands at LFG
Can I just say Stephen Grodzicki has outdone himself? What an awesome piece of work we have in this, his newest release. For any gamers looking for an original, gritty, low magic, swords & sorcery setting, you need look no further than the Midlands. There are several things to love and admire about this setting supplement, but perhaps the design element I love the most is the ability to pick it up and play a game within the Midlands with this book alone. There is no need to create your adventure before you give your players a chance to explore this mysterious and dangerous realm, or to buy one of Stephen's other great adventure releases. What you get in the Midlands is a well done sandbox setting with numerous useful GMing tools and a series of ready to play sandbox adventures as well! But, I get ahead of myself. Allow me to proceed in a more orderly fashion to give you an idea of what's under the the covers here and why I am so excited about this supplement.

First off, as you can tell by the front cover, the artwork is gorgeous. Stephen has several talented artists contributing to his work, and all of them do a fabulous job of bringing to mind some sort of a blend of adventure, intrigue and danger that might just have stepped off the pages of Lankhmar, Hyboria, Dying Earth, or out of the Dreamlands. And yet together creating something original and unique. The artwork inside follows the basic style of the first release, in black & white, which I personally love. It give the game a feel reminiscent of the original brown books (only more artistically fine), yet one can easily tell the updated mechanics have produced something new and compelling.

Which brings me to my next general observation: Mr. Grodzicki's writing style. Writing in a manner that is easy to read, direct and still powerfully evocative is not something easy to achieve. I, for instance, do not seem able to achieve such an effect without lots of work and exercise of my poetic muscles. Thus my writing often comes across as a bout of stream-of-thought logorrhea. Stephen though, writes with a beautiful, crips, powerful style; incredibly visionary in its ability to communicate the essence of his game and his setting in the fewest words possible. And for most of us with shelves crammed full of gaming supplements, and hard drives overly fragmented with digital gaming files, a fun yet easy to read supplement is a godsend.

Several examples from his LFG work include,

"Magic is not only rare, it is dark and inherently dangerous. Sorcery is a power not meant for mortals, and adventurers engage with it at their peril." p. 4

"Luck is a flexible and ephemeral quality however, and it has some additional uses (eg: party wide retreats from combat)." p. 11

"Demons are darkness and corruption incarnate, utterly depraved and malicious." p. 94

And from the Midlands,

"A sandbox setting is ripe for exploration and discovery, daring players to explore the unknown and unearth lost secrets. In the Midlands, most of the region is unmapped and unknown; full of locations no human has set foot in for centuries, if not millennia." p. 9

"The last of the dwarves, known as servitors, languish in Dol-Karok; shackled and enslaved by the Circle and their own racial goldlust." p. 18

"Juro Venosteri, a master thief and assassin, is lurking in one of the three rooms. He intends to take over the Red Hooks, and winning the tourney is another step in his grand plan, earning him the fame he needs. He wears an eyepatch, having lost an eye to a Nydissian warrior years ago. He has cultivated an unhealthy hatred for all southerners since, and will target them first." p. 171

The Midlands is not only designed to be a sandbox setting, but as Stephen puts it, the kind of campaign he played in growing up. And this is exactly the kind of play I was used to as well. The Midlands is open enough to allow rotating GMs, and self contained play sessions. By self contained, I mean that each "adventure" can be played as a unit isolated from other adventures, thus allowing GMs to develop the world collaboratively by choosing to focus on different areas within the overall setting. I would love to implement this in my current campaign.

Which brings me to a brief mention of another reason I love this setting. Though, ostensibly, the Midlands was created as a follow up supplement to the LFG game, it can be played in any reasonably D&D-esque system. In fact, when LFG first came out I was so excited because I was looking for something that played more like old school D&D in a hard core S&S milieu; but my players were somewhat loathe to leave 5e. In the Midlands I have the perfect opportunity to play in a setting designed for such a milieu, but that could very easily be played in 5e. Whether we make it a transition to LFG itself, or simply continue play with 5e in the Midlands, I think I would be much happier than I am now with the campaign we are playing in 5e.

As for the specifics in this supplement, after setting the groundwork for what the Midlands is, Stephen writes a short history of the world which I felt drew on just enough Swords & Sorcery tropes to define itself clearly, but also novel enough to seem fresh and exciting. And here's something about myself you may not have known: I absolutely love serpent-men! And the fact that serpent-men are present in Grodzicki's campaign setting is not the only great thing, most self respecting S&S settings have them somewhere, but that he offers a bit of a new spin, at least one I had not heard before.

"In other periods, monstrous dynasties prevailed. Cruel serpentmen enslaved the warmbloods until the world suddenly cooled, forcing a southern retreat to more humid climates." p. 14 The Midlands.

Here again, in that powerful but brief style we are given a seed line that a dynasty of Serpent-men ruled as slave lords over the the "warm-bloods". And that they did so during a period of a warm, possibly very humid, earth. And that when the earth cooled and the climate changed these serpent folk retreated to the jungles further south. I love such little seeds that spark and fuel my imagination on which I can riff, creating my own unique expression of what is possible within the Midlands.

However, the go-to foe in the Midlands is not Serpent-Men but, appropriately for the genre, men. From dark cultists, to brigands on the roads, men and the evil in their hearts or their domineering, self righteous zeal pose the most common threat in the Midlands. Though the cannibalistic Skorn, a rough half orc type, is inhuman enough in its culture to make it seem certainly monstrous. Which is a classic example of Grodzicki's Midland design. Taking a familiar trope --the orc/half orc type--deepening and changing it just enough to make in new and interesting. But men alone are not the only danger in the Midlands. In a nice but brief bestiary Stephen highlights some of the native monstrosities that lurk in the further corners of the world of the Midlands. Stephen doesn't waste time covering every monster that has been covered a million times in other supplements. You'll find no goblins or gnolls here. The Midlands book presents about 27 unusual, unearthly, demonic and dangerous examples of the types of wicked critters that crawl the face of the planet with the races of men (with three more "normal" exceptions). Each one is, as mentioned above, a seed of weird, Lovecraftian goodness that clearly highlight one of the basic principles of LFG and the Midlands--true monsters are rare, and beyond frightening. Midland monsters are true monsters--mutated horrors of madness that none would want to encounter, let alone hunt down, kill and take the stuff of. In fact any "stuff" such beasts might guard or use would be so demoniacally horrid and cursed that sane men would aught but seek their utter destruction by hammer and fire, salting the earth with its ashes afterwards. No, the mad delusions of a world gone wrong presented in the Midlands is perfectly suited to its purpose and tone.

I love the short section on Laws of the land, giving GMs a good idea of how to handle the inevitable situation when cutpurse, rogues of adventurers run afoul of the ruling powers. And speaking of ruling powers, the Gods and "divinities" of the Midlands are a delightful blend of earthly fantasy and Lovecraftian twistedness which are developed into one well designed whole. Again, reminiscent of R.E. Howard and his kin with their use of the earthly and the unusual in a tantalizingly real version of fantasy.

I love the magic design in LFG, and the Midlands gives us more cool spell names that gives the hum drum spell types we are all too familiar with a new twist. Such names can again can be used as seeds for how to describe and understand the nature of certain spells in a more sinister and dangerous way. For instance I can cast Hold Monster in just about any version of D&D I play, and a lot of games that aren't too D&D at all. However, in the Midlands I cast Crush of the Warp! What the holy hell?! Crush of the Warp? How frickin cool is that?! But doesn't it just make your mind teem with incredible possibilities? What in Gehenna is the Warp? Am I warping space time to hold, nay crush, a monster in some sort of dimensional grip until he can break it? And could I perhaps research to make such a spell that can use this force to literally crush something into dimensional dust if I was powerful enough? And what if the spell fails or goes wrong, as is very possibly in a Midlands game? Have I unleashed  small rip in space time? Or, have I inadvertently crushed myself, or my unwitting comrades, into subcellular goo? I just love this stuff!

But we're not done yet! As I kept reading the Midlands I realized that no matter how much I was enthralled with the first 42 pages, it got better! Next comes the descriptions of the major areas of the Midlands. And though we are not talking about hundreds of nations here, but rather a handful of well described locations, each one a cornucopia of adventurous possibilities. Warning, for some players reading past this point might contain spoilers so advance forewarned. For instance, there is Crow's Keep where the serpent sorceress Rinwolde controls the destiny of the city from the shadows cast by dying Uldred. The well-ordered streets of Dal Karok ruled by the Circle of Five and their feuding houses. The distant Nydissian city of Melek, "her vast slave pens ... the magic hunting Ordo Malefactos," and "the Orogien fighting pits." Here the Skorn horde is faced most directly on the furthest populated outpost of the Midlands. Other such mysterious, shadowy, and dangerous places as Northgate, Port Brax and Vorngard all await the exploration of brave reavers under the creative powers of their GM.

I simply loved the coverage of the locations here, just as I do the geographic wonders such as the Argos Plateau, the Drelnor Forest the Sunstone Ranges and the Suurat Jungle. With his just enough to whet your appetite for adventure style, Stephen has laid out for us a classic and original Swords and Sorcery setting in which we can risk our lives for gold and possibly glory, though such things are as fleeting in the Midlands as the winds that blow across the Trackless Moors.

Numerous other inspired goodies lie hidden within the Midlands campaign setting, such as the GM tools of NPC ideas, Party Bonds, rival adventurers, street names, new classes, and random encounters by region. However, I want to end with my favorite part of the whole work: The last 210 pages of the book! That's right, 210 pages! the Midlands weighs in at 366 total pages including the front and back cover. And more than half the book is my favorite part. If you buy the Midlands for no other reason than this part alone, your money would be well spent. For Stephen in this last section provides material usable by any GM in any campaign with very little adjustment. What you have here are essentially 6 City adventures, 8 Forest adventures, 3 adventures set in the Ice and Snow, 6 in the Jungles and 8 set in or around lakes and rivers! That is a total of 31 adventures! So you are not just getting a setting in The Midlands supplement you are getting a library of adventures to keep you and your group busy for potentially years to come. Now, don't get me wrong. Each adventure is about 6 or so pages long equivalent to the adventures you might have found in Dragon or Dungeon magazine of old. But they are, as the rest of the Midlands is, well written and detailed enough to run right out of the box, while still retaining lots of sandboxiness for GMs and players to romp within. I simply can't say how much I appreciate this part of the book in a setting supplement. I am not sure I have seen such an effort in other similar works. Bravo Mr. Grodzicki!

Of course, there could be a slight conflict of interests if you do run Midlands with rotating GMs if everyone has the supplement. These last adventures would have to be guarded from each other somehow so as to not spoil the fun. So if you are going to run it this way, be sure to take a look at page 147 & 148 at the Rumor Table, and decide who would like to run what and avoid reading other GMs picks--player's honor here! The same doesn't necessarily apply to the setting material in the first of the book. In principle it would be more exciting as a player if you didn't know all the setting and monster stuff ahead of time. But the book is written with enough open flexibility that with a creative GM there will still be tons to surprise and explore as you go. And reading the setting guide for players does give a great feel for what you are getting into, and developing the spirit of the game, so I say just go for it.

And that, my friends, is some of what I think makes the Midlands such a great product, and why I am going to build my next campaigns around this adventurous new world. I'll be sure and fill you in when we get there. We are about midway through our current campaign with several months yet to go, but I can't wait to get into the Midlands both as a player and a GM!

The Midlands at DriveThruRPG

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