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Encounters in the Unsettling Dimension

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 14:48

Here are some encounters that you could run in a truly alien setting, like another planet or a far realm. They’re pretty low-level, suitable for characters around level 5 to 10, or for, say, level 3 characters who are in way over their heads.

These encounters are mostly inspired by weird stuff I saw in a documentary about coral reefs.

Roll d12 on this chart while traveling, or d6 while stationary. This encounter table is based on this encounter table template which incorporates rules for weather, resting, and getting lost:

1: Make up an encounter that’s related to your campaign or to one of your characters. If nothing springs to mind: you meet a plane-traveling evil level-15 wizard from the world of Mystara. He/she is searching for a Sea Anemone of the Magi said to be lost in this dimension, and suspects the PCs of trying to get it first. He/she will not attack unless that suspicion becomes a certainty. He/she will trade help or information, but offers nothing for free. His/her skin is covered with weird flowers and he/she detects magic at will (see encounter 4).

2: 2d4 levitating, hand-sized, ovoid stars which cast bright and cheery light in all colors. Their touch is telepathic poison: saving throw or take d20 psychic damage from their nihilistic world view. Evil characters take no damage. AC 15, 2d8 HP.

3: 1d4 walking ten-foot-tall antlers. They charge and impale victims for 2d20 damage. Impaled creatures take full damage each round until they use an action to disentangle themselves. The antler can carry around up to 3 impaled creatures at a time. AC 18, immune to piercing attacks, 10d8 HP.

4: A field of human-sized flowers which snatch victims in their finger-petals, digesting them for 1d20 damage in subsequent turns. AC 12, 1d8 HP. The flowers’ only sense is Detect Magic, so they will only attack creatures under magical effects or with magical gear. Anyone who takes damage from a flower will sprout small, harmless flowers in 1d4 days. Until the flowers are pruned, the character can Detect Magic at will.

5: 1d4 quivering, jelly-like, transparent pillars, periodically shot with neon lightning. They travel like Slinkies. 2 in 6 chance that there is a sluggish creature inside (lumpy cone, fire-spewing sac, silver torpedo, teleporting lightning bolt). If any players push their way into the pillar, they are rewarded by being healed 1 HP for every 10 minutes they remain inside. AC 10, 10d8 HP, regenerate 1/turn.

6: Rot grub rain. Anyone whose flesh is exposed to the rain is infected.

7: Rotting, gooey meat surrounds a 10-foot-wide hole in the ground. Inside a three-room underground lair is a giant armor-plated shark (AC 18, HP 20d8) with a giant, exposed brain (AC 13). Called attacks on the brain do double damage but the attacker must make a saving throw or take 1d20 psychic damage. The shark can make a bite attack (3d20 damage) and a gaze attack at a different target (gaze: saving throw or the target and its equipment becomes soft and gooey: AC reduced by 5 until the target next eats). The lair contains 1d6x1000 GP worth of cut gems, a gem vein with a potential 5d6x1000 GP more in gems, and inch-tall miner octopi (each day, they mine and cut 250 GP worth of gems, of which they eat half).

8: A silent wave of purple light rolls over the sky. In every direction, the sky and ground are twisted and swirled, so the shortest path between any two points is a curve or spiral. Travel requires a daily DC 15 Intelligence check or the party is lost. This effect lasts for 1d4 days or until someone gets a natural 20 on one of the intelligence checks.

9: 1d4+1 pools filled with a heavy oil (if burned, burns blue and does cold damage) and small, oily, scaly creatures. If you dive into the pool and swim through a thirty-foot-long tunnel, you will emerge from a different pool. (Roll 1d6: 1-3: the exit pool is more than 100 miles away on the same plane. 4: the exit is somehow the same as the entrance pool. 5: The exit is on a different plane. 6: The exit is on the swimmer’s home plane.)

10: A waving fern which exudes a visible bubble, 30-foot radius. The bubble is buzzing with small, flying, colorful creatures of all descriptions. Any creature inside the bubble is under the protection of a Sanctuary spell until it does violence.

11: A mountain of curvilinear catacombs, terraced apartments, and caves of chaos. At the top of the mountain, inch-tall blind octopi labor to create new levels.

12: Inch-thick tubes of multi-colored, hyperdense stone (20x the weight of normal stone) lead in an intermittent trail to a human-length, flat, spined worm. Rear attack: poison spines, 1d20 damage, saving throw or paralysis for 1 minute. Front attack: The worm’s all-consuming maw telekinetically sucks in everything in front of it in a 20-foot cone (save or be swallowed) and excretes everything (including adventurers) as inch-thick stone tubes. Stone to Flesh restores things to their original shape, but dead. AC 20, HP 15d10.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to play 5e D&D using GP = XP rules

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 16:51

I’ve written before about how you can kind of use the old-school “1 GP = 1 XP” rules in D&D 5e. It works, if you squint.

I just wrapped up running a treasure-hunting campaign, where each gold piece of treasure gives the party 1 XP, and it turns out “it works if you squint” isn’t quite good enough for actual play. Also true about actual play: the more frequently you use a house rule, the simpler it gets. Here is the tautologically simple final version of my GP=XP rules.

Each monster’s “XP value” is actually its treasure value in GP

Turns out that trivial use of the symmetric property is all you need to preserve all of 5e’s baseline leveling assumptions, while giving characters approximately the expected amount of coin.

Here’s a fun advantage of this rule: each monster now has its treasure spelled out in the Monster Manual instead of in the DMG – for coins, anyway. I still flip through the DMG to roll magical treasure.

This system has another advantage over the stock treasure rules: coin hoards are now more finely graduated by Challenge Rating. In the standard 5e rules, every encounter from CR 0 to 4 has a treasure hoard of about the same value, around 400 GP; every encounter from CR 5 to 10 is worth about 4000 GP; etc. In my system, each 1/8-CR bandit has 25 gold, the bandit captain has 450 GP, etc.

There is a disadvantage, at least in theory: no variance. Every CR 1 monster has exactly 200 GP? Weird! At the beginning of my GP=XP experiment, I wrote up the following chart to randomize samey treasure. The chart was simple enough that I could memorize it.

Randomizing treasure: roll d6
1: No treasure
2: 1/2 normal treasure
3-4: Normal treasure
5: 1.5x times normal treasure
6: 2x normal treasure
Note: For unintelligent creatures, you could roll on this chart twice and take the lowest, and for greedy creatures like dragons, roll twice and take the highest.

You know what? In practice, I never needed this chart. I wrote it to solve a theoretical situation: “what if the players repeatedly fight encounters with the same XP total” – and that situation just never came up.

Does this rule match 5e’s implicit “wealth by level” assumptions? Pretty much yes, actually, except it’s a little stingier at high levels. But who cares, because there’s virtually nothing for sale to high-level characters anyway! But if you want to use these rules AND you’re playing at level 17 and above AND you think legendary magic items should be for sale, adjust their price so that they start at 20,000 GP instead of 50,000 GP. Everything else seems to work fine.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

mass combat belongs in the monster manual

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 17:36

D&D started as a hack on a war game, which is why OD&D depends on, but does not provide, mass combat rules. The original game included kingdom management rules and prices for castles and armies. The first adventure module, in the Blackmoor supplement, had rooms that contained hundreds of soldiers. You were expected to break out TSR’s Chainmail war game to use these things. In fact, as you got higher and higher level, Gygax expected that more and more of your time playing D&D would actually be spent playing Chainmail. That’s sort of like if you went to a Scrabble tournament and they said, “Good news! You guys are such good Scrabble players that now you get to play Monopoly.”

D&D went mainstream because audiences liked the fast, immersive, co-op game of the imagination, and they didn’t latch onto (or even understand the references to) the slow, rules-bound, head-to-head, miniature-requiring war game. So, in later editions, the Chainmail references were cut. Essentially, D&D’s intended end game, conquest and rulership, was removed. The middle of the game, grinding for money, was extended, even though there were now no castles and armies to spend the money on.

And this is a big loss for D&D. In any edition, high level D&D is not a solid product. High level fights are swingy, monster variety is sparse. And, worse, with epic battles and kingdom-building mostly offscreen, characters can’t leave their mark on the game world, except by saving it from ever more powerful dungeon monsters. Players and DMs alike generally try to keep away from war epics, because running big battles isn’t something D&D does.

To fill the hole left by the removal of Chainmail and epic-fantasy play, TSR and WOTC churned out stand-alone battle supplements every few years:

-OD&D introduced Swords & Spells, which was an updated Chainmail with special rules for each of the D&D spells and monsters. It technically allowed battling lone heroes against 10:1 (10 soldiers to a mini) figures, although it recommended avoiding cross-scale combat as much as possible.

-Basic D&D included War Machine: a sort of spreadsheet where you came up with a rating of each army and then rolled a percentile die to decide the battle.

-1e and 2e both published an edition of Battle System. This was another entry in the Chainmail/Swords & Spells tradition, but it came in a box with cut-out-and-assemble peasant houses, which was cool.

-3e had the Miniatures Handbook. Again, its mass combat rules were along the lines of Chainmail, featuring typical war game rules for formations, facing, morale, etc, using d20 mechanics.

-5e has two sets of playtest mass-combat rules, some iteration of which will presumably see official publication some day. The first playtest has traditional wargame-style rules, with frontage, etc. The second boils down every army to a single “battle rating”, in the Basic War Machine tradition.

All of these games perpetuate the flaw that kept Chainmail from catching on in the first place: in order to play them, you have to stop playing D&D.

D&D is not a war game. All the design decisions that make a good war game lead to a bad D&D game, and vice versa.

-Because war games are played competitively, they must be fair. D&D campaigns can only achieve longevity when they are unfair in favor of the players.

-Because war games are fair: war games must have complete rules. You can’t make stuff up halfway through without favoring one of the players. So you can only make a pontoon bridge if there are rules for it. D&D rules are incomplete by design. There are no rules in any edition for making a pontoon bridge, but if you can scrounge up some boats and lumber, the DM will let you do it.

-Because war games are complete: war games must have detailed rules. A good war game models the rock-paper-scissors of archery, cavalry, and spearmen, and provides big bonuses and penalties based on terrain, flanking, morale, fog of war, high ground, and anything else that might conceivably come up. D&D, on the other hand, features abstract combat rules that look nothing like reality. Core D&D combat is a barebones transaction of combatants trading swipes. More important than realism is simplicity, because most of D&D is not in the combat engine but in the DM and player improvisation that happens at the same time.

running an epic battle in D&D

D&D is great at handling small fights – say, five characters fighting a few trolls. Why can’t the same rules handle five characters, the town guard, and a dragon fighting against a skeleton army, a lich, and a dozen trolls?

What if the first edition Monster Manual had contained stat blocks for a skeleton horde, a town watch, and so on? Think of the stories we could have been telling all these years.

My alternate-history army stat blocks are pretty simplistic, but that’s what I like about them. A requirement for war-game standards of rules completeness and detail has been holding back high-level play for years. A D&D combat is great because of all the rules that Gary Gygax didn’t include. Let me talk about the war game rules I think D&D can live without.

Casualties. When half your archers are dead, you can fire half as many arrows, right? Nah. Just as a D&D hero at 1 hp fights at full strength, A 100-soldier army, even at 1 hp, is still a 100-soldier army. After the battle, hit point damage can be translated into some ratio of dead, wounded, and fled, at the DM’s discretion.

Facing, frontage, formation. These rules appear in nearly every war game. We need that level of detail like we need the First Edition grapple rules.

Figure scale. War games are not designed for varying figure scales: every miniature on the battlefield needs to represent, for instance, 20 soldiers. A war-game fight between a lone hero and a 20:1 army unit is usually wonky or impossible. On the other hand, if every army is treated as an individual D&D monster, a tenth-level fighter can battle on fairly even terms with a troop representing 10 first level fighters, which can in turn battle a troll or a unit of 36 goblins.

Time scale. Most war games have realistic but D&D- incompatible turns of ten minutes or more. I’m sticking with D&D combat rounds. If a massive war is over within a few six- second rounds, that’s fine with me.

If anything, D&D-style fights can be too fast. To make it more likely that everyone gets a turn, I’ve added a special rule in my army stat blocks, capping attack damage so that no army can score a one-hit KO. This favors the underdog (and the underdog is usually the PCs). Still, this is a special exception and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were unnecessary.

Leadership bonuses. Many war games assign static bonuses to troops based on the abilities of their commanders. In a war game, which doesn’t allow for referee discretion, this is the best you can do. But in D&D, if a player delivers a speech and leads a charge, or comes up with a clever scheme, the DM can assign appropriate bonuses. The more the players act creatively, the more vivid the scene will be – just as in a standard D&D fight.

Spell rules. We do NOT want a Swords and Spells-style gloss on every spell describing its interaction with armies. Here are my abstractions:
1) Damage spells ignore area of effect. An 8d6 fireball does 8d6 damage.
2) “Condition” spells are all-or-nothing. If a Bless spell can target all the members of an army, it operates normally. Otherwise, it fails.

Morale, flanking, setting ambushes, charging, fighting withdrawal, high ground, and every special case I haven’t already mentioned. First and and Second Edition have explicit morale rules. In other editions, morale failure is by DM fiat. If the local morale rules (or lack thereof) are good enough for 10 goblins at level 1, they’re good enough for 100 goblins at level 10. The same principle, “use existing combat rules”, applies for flanking (present in 3e and 4e), charging (present in every edition but 5e) and so on.

Here are the stat-block templates I’ve used for turning any creature into an army of any size. I’ve done first and fifth editions (my current favorites).

(crossposted/lightly edited from here)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Play Quest for the Crown 2!

Sat, 04/01/2017 - 16:18

I have a game for you to play! It’s a brutalcore puzzler called Quest for the Crown 2.

You may feel like a real video game genius after beating the game for the first time, but stick around to the end of the credits! The “second quest” is harder, and don’t get me started on the “third quest!”

Yes, it’s an April First game! But like Google Ms. Pac Man, it’s kind of a real game, although a jokey one.

QFTC2 is an alpha web demo of a longer mobile game that I plan to release in a month or so.

Play the Quest for the Crown 2 Demo!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs