Airships, what fun!

I’ve got a Kickstarter coming up for this very thing (and of course I do), so in combination with the fact I’ve now used this mechanic in 3 campaigns, as well as my general obsession with them (and what could I possibly love more than talking about myself), it’s time to talk about Airships.

Airships are floating boats of any variety, whether they’re zeppelins, wooden ships with magic sails, floating fortresses, you get the idea. The specific form of the airships will have some relevance later, but we have to go over some basics first.

If you’re including Airships in your campaign, you should probably think of a specific reason why.

How are they made? Magic, tinkering, both? Do they need to be maintained?
Do the Airships provide transportation for people? How about cargo?
Are they common? How long do they take to build?
Are they used for military support? How about direct combat?

Any DM who drops airships into their campaign needs understand that if the players have access to them (including by means of theft), your world will suddenly expands in scope. these ships provide your players with a certain degree of freedom, particularly if they need no additional and PCs to maintain or operate the airship. I prepared for this with a map on the scale of North America. It’s not necessary by any means to do that, there’s plenty to do in any given region or country. I do find it useful, however, to have on hand when players say “we want to take a vacation somewhere else”, in addition to other benefits. Just know in advance; an airship that doesn’t need to be maintained or operated by other NPCs, or are otherwise guaranteed to operate at the parties command, will unhitch your players from locations they’d normally have to struggle to leave.

It also reduces the relative threat posed by any given entity or event whose primary danger is its proximity to the players. That’s a fancy way of saying “if it’s not a hurricane or Dragon, it’s not going to light a fire under your players by necessity.” If you, like me, enjoy watching your players freak out about whatever’s on their plate, you may need to adjust the challenges you throw at them.

Don’t turn their airship into a punishment, though. Don’t get me wrong, giving the players an airship with hit points gives the players a fail state that doesn’t involve players dying or being captured. Absolutely use that to challenge them (or, should mischief take you, a new adventure hook; your ship is gone)! Understand however, the more any given possession or ability of the players needs to be micromanaged, and the longer it takes to resolve the effects of that position or ability (particularly in combat), the more likely they are to push it to the side whenever they can. Your players want to wear tri-cornered hats and call themselves pirates, not become a spreadsheet manager. I made this mistake in my first campaign. My players had the Celestial Wyvern, the bane of the first Host War, stolen from the nation of its creation, their pride and joy. Despite its obvious benefit in combat, the amount of time it took to resolve the firing of various cannons, howitzers, swivel guns, you name it wore the party down. It still wouldn’t be too much if not for the tracking and management of ammunition, their various weights, ranges, etc. afterwards. It brought down the experience as a whole, even though certain parts were fun. I was ruining a night at a five-star restaurant with an obligatory post-meal survey. The dread of resolving the aftermath of a combat started bleeding into the combat itself, and that dread certainly didn’t make resolving the battle any easier.

I also made a custom system for sailors to gain experience and abilities as time went on, giving the players an additional sense of progression and success. When I told them their crew had leveled, they got excited! When I handed them a well written six page document on how to generate the stats for 50 crewmembers, this excitement quickly faded. The fact it made them more effective in combat only made the problem worse; they couldn’t think of an excuse not to make use of the system!

I’ve since Capt. adapted many of the features of that document into simpler, abstracted, easily resolved mass combat systems. This is Matt Colville’s mass warfare system, by the way. Any warfare system that includes a simple way to resolve upkeep will do, but Colville’s system is both sufficiently fun to manage and play and adapt for my own purposes (I’ve already created three new kinds of units within) that’s at the top of my recommendations list. I inflate the cost of “crew” units, which allows me to roll the cost of ammunition into upkeep. I’ve also incorporated the various armaments into the stats of the crew unit itself, determining its power score specifically.

Since in Colville’s system the stats of any given unit, along with certain modifiers, determine the cost of purchasing and maintaining the unit, all I had to do was apply certain modifiers to roughly incorporate the cost of ammunition. The only things the players need to purchase individually are the armaments of the ships themselves. Remember when I asked whether airships in your campaign serve to function in combat? Remember when I asked whether they participated directly? If you want to handle that in a way that’s engaging, simple, and sensible all at the same time, you need to do something similar to the formation process. Or, of course, adapt someone else’s system (or even better, you someone else’s comprehensive adaptation).

There is a reason “The Airships of Brackas” is behind a pay wall, that’s because products like it solves problems like these for the GM and allow them to jump straight into the fun.

So these are the primary lessons I’ve taken from running with airships in my campaign. If I had to boil them down, they’d be:

  • Don’t let them take too much time to adjudicate in combat. Familiarize yourself with someone else’s system (like mine), make setting adjustments, and enjoy.

  • Players like having ships because they like the freedom and expanded opportunities they bring. Not for inventory management simulator.

  • Prepare for the scope of your campaign to expand if the players gain access to one. Start making monsters that threaten characters on or with airships (like the bestiary attached to Airships of Brackas).

Sky Pirates: Campaign Diary 3 (Disaster Strikes!)

Well, it’s what it sounds like.

Not entirely sure as to how long this will be, seeing as though it was pretty straightforward overall. Before dawn, the players attempted to sneak into the desert fortification they were scouting out. They went around the right side where some lumber was piled, stood atop it, and attempted to throw grappling hook onto the wall. It did, in fact, hit the wall. It just didn’t fulfill the purpose for which it’s named, and instead serve that of a tuning fork, albeit one that was fastballed at an adobe wall. the guard on the wall, one of two, took note. He began walking to the other guard tower, connected by a walkway on top of the wall itself. Alistair wanted to distract him with a prestidigitation, mimicking some wind nearby. I had him roll performance check to see how clever he could be with this; it was another fail. The rest of the party in the meantime, hold themselves up over the wall, once Alistair used his climb speed to go up and properly hitch the grappling hook. It’s worth noting at this point, they left the grappling hook behind.

What followed was the party somewhat poorly taking cues concerning the camps general alertness. After the first guard made his way over to the Southwest guard tower, he returned with the second guard. They conversed in their own tongue, but didn’t appear to be on high alert. The party very wisely didn’t try anything risky while the pair were together. The second guard went back to his tower, and the first one stayed on the wall, leaning over the parapet. This was roughly the only section of the night that the party succeeded in not making sufficient noise to alert somebody. the party had at this point gotten to the very top of the Northeast guard tower, at which 2 of them jumped over to the roof of the administrative building, while Gloridrod stayed on overwatch.

we were joined for the first time tonight by Ellis, who joined the group some time ago but was unable to show up for the first two sessions. I had (I thought) the perfect introduction for her character, in need of rescue from this camp. I screwed up, however; I didn’t give the character an opportunity to begin doing things while her guard was still there, sleeping. She didn’t get to act at all until one hour into the session, at which point her guard was quietly drawn out of the building for some purpose (for which I still feel bad). In addition, the party literally did not venture from the administrative building or guard tower for practically the entire session, much less before combat started. Therefore, they didn’t have an opportunity to find the cell, or really anything else.

When Alistair went on to the rooftop of the administrative building, he failed his stealth check. There was a hatch that led down to the second floor of the administrative building, which Braka went down. I mentioned that he noticed movement going down the steps to the first floor right as he made his way down to the second. I mentioned he was in a kind of master bedroom/office. He made some checks to listen into the first floor, and upon doing poorly, just stuck his head down and looked around. He didn’t see anyone, so he went back up and began looting the master bedroom. He stole some official looking documents off the desk ( written in the Brestrel tongue), saw a large metal chest, and noted an empty armor and shield rack, along with an empty scabbard. He decided at this point to attempt breaking into the metal lockbox with a crowbar.

His first check succeeded, which made some noise. Alistair, Gloridrod, and the guard on the wall all heard it. The crowbar had just gotten some purchase between the lid. Braka decided to rage (giving him advantage on the check) and have another go at it. He unfortunately failed the check, and promptly made even more noise. It sounded like shaking marbles inside of a metal can, except louder. Right around this time, the two characters on the rooftop noticed a lantern being hooded and un-hooded repeatedly from the Southwest guard tower. The guard near the northeast tower saw this as well, and hurriedly went inside (though not upstairs).

this is also when Ellis had the chance for her escape. Her guard had been woken by a knock at the door, and after a brief discussion (which she could not understand), exited the building. I think Ellis is new to certain aspects of D&D, and had some confusion as to how certain spells work. I know most of the spells of fifth edition, which in addition to allowing me to help players that get them confused with other editions, lets me understand just how difficult keeping track of them can be. She used dragon’s breath to spray acid across the wall, against which she rubbed her bindings and weaken the wall simultaneously. Bruising her knuckles, she been through the last two or so inches of Adobe sitting between her and freedom. Alistair actually noticed this happening, and there would have been an opportunity to share details (one in particular I’d sent to Ellis over dms) had something not first happened.

Braka approached the barracks, hoping to look through a window. I asked him to show me exactly where on the map (we used roll20 for this session), at which point I explained he was actually pointing to a door. He wasted no time (I’d hoped to point him to the nearest window) in telling me he would peek through the door, stealthily of course. He rolled a stealth check; natural one. Braka tripped as he moved to push the door open, slamming it open to a large number of awake, fully aware, fully armored Brestrels. The jig was up, and unbeknownst to the players until now, had been for some time.

You see, armor (and in particular medium and heavy armor) take some time to put on. Whoever was in the administrative building (presumably the jackal captain) made his way to the barracks when he was alerted, carrying his equipment with him. This was opposed to catching him asleep, unarmed, wearing a tunic.while he was making his way over, the party did not spot him, meaning he had time to wake the barracks, have them quietly get ready for battle, and keep them on high alert. Around two dozen Brestrels, awake and fully armed, as opposed to sleeping and defenseless in their bunks. the captain made his way to the front of the potential recruits, and began attacking Braka. He hits, and the magical blade bypasses Braka’s typical immunity. He’s at this point raged, so he’s taking half damage, but it put the fear of God into him nonetheless. Shots are coming from the southwest guard tower; the Brestrel inside has a heavy rifle, taking a hefty chunk out of Alistair’s hit points. The other Brestrels fan out. Some had between the smaller buildings to the north west to flank, some fire crossbows at Alistair and Gloridrod before ducking back behind cover, and the other storm the Northeast guard tower.

This is essentially the worst case scenario. I heard some players mention ( not entirely unreasonably) that had a certain thing I will mention in a moment not happened, things still would’ve been relatively fine. Besides the fact that they did a poor job of resolving the various issues leading up to this situation, I don’t think it’s entirely the case. Being a lycanthrope doesn’t protect you from being thrown into a canyon, and without area of effect attacks, the Brestrels superior numbers would’ve proved challenging at the least, and deadly at the worst of the party’s poor tactical decisions. These are, of course, what if scenarios. The party attempted to focus down the captain, seeing as though he was the only one capable (to their knowledge) of harming Braka with regular attacks. Once Gloridrod dealt the ostensibly killing blow, however, it became very clear that things were not about to go in their favor.

The captain’s body changed, transformed, his gear melding into his new appearance as a young, blue Dragon.

What followed was Ellis and Gloridrod escaping over the sand dune from which the party had originally approached, Alastair throwing himself into the canyon and casting feather fall, and Braka being reduced to unconsciousness by a lightning breath, subsequently subdued and captured. It’s definitely the first low point of the campaign; but not to worry. The party is already expressed their interest in a rescue mission, and provided they can evade capture before dealing with their opponents or facing enemy reinforcements with reinforcements of their own, it should make for an exciting comeback ( or at the very least, opportunity for replacement characters).

How Titanfall Battle Royale could've impressed.

Titanfall 2 is a game I still play to this day. Fast-paced adrenaline-shot matches that support a variety of playstyles help clear my mind if I’m dealing with writer’s block, art block, or just want to indulge myself a bit.

So, when I heard Titanfall was coming out with a Battle Royale mode, you know I was excited. The only Battle Royale game I played was fortnite, so I haven’t had an opportunity to get burned out on the game mode. Sure, it’s a bit of a cash cow, but that hardly means that it needs to be terrible (yes, even if it’s published by EA). I actually had a post on Facebook several months ago calling the Titanfall BR game.

A budding game designer myself, I had a pretty good handle on how it might work. Battle Royale games can be judged on how well they execute on the thriller aspect, which is in turn based on how well the game accelerates across time. Don’t worry if you don’t know what a of that means or you don’t have an exact grasp of it, it will be apparent when I explain how Titanfall can have it. Titanfall 2’s multiplayer is based on acceleration. Players acquire kills or achieve other conditions to raise their Titan meter, they gain a consumable boost at some point on their meter that makes them even more effective in combat, all until they gain their Titan. Once their Titan drops, it builds a meter of its own; until you reach a core, the use of which accelerates your effectiveness in combat in some manner.

Nothing terribly profound, right? I’m just describing Titanfall 2’s multiplayer. Wrong (kinda). The point is I’m describing a game in which the starting conditions of combat are very different from those present at the end of the game. People who are better able to navigate the increased effectiveness of (and therefore greater danger posed by) other players tend to shoot to the top of the leaderboard. Sound like we’re talking about Battle Royale yet? TF2 has other things going forward in this aspect; say you’re on a map, you’re in BR mode, and someone’s Titan drops. Every player in the area will see it; many of those players will then go on to attack it. Some of those players will get killed by other players, some of those players will be killed by the Titan ( building its core), and some players will do sufficient damage or get enough kills to drop a Titan of their own. Chaos, but it’s just the kind of desirable chaos in a Titanfall game and a Battle Royale mode just the same.

There are several interesting mechanics you can introduce here; maybe killing other players steals any Titan meter progress they have built up. Maybe the corpse’s kit needs to be hacked for a couple of seconds for this to occur (and I don’t need to tell you how that might increase the tension of the game). TF2’s single player campaign already established how picking up and deploying one-time use ordinances would work, right at home in a Battle Royale game. The same could be done picking up your tactical kit. Maybe you can unlock scopes and attachments for individual firearms as you progress, and can automatically apply them to a limited number of firearms you collect.

There are even several game modes you could implement here. You have a smaller player lobby in which everyone initially drops with the Titan. Players have the choice of ejecting at any time, so the loss of a Titan doesn’t necessarily end their participation in the game. They just need to change their strategy in order to survive alongside Titans, and change it again once more players eject from Titans instead of dying with them. For squad based Battle Royale, one player of each squad could drop with their own Titan ( elected before joining the lobby). It would also introduce the means for solo players to be competent ( but still at a disadvantage) in squad lobbies.

Finally, you could include TF2’s original multiplayers as an add-on, subscription, DLC, whatever have you (and introduce it to an even wider player base than the original’s sandwiched release).

You get the idea, there’s so much material to play with, and most of the assets have already been generated. Just one problem; the Titanfall Battle Royale game will apparently include no Titans.

EA instead elects to rest the entire game on TF2’s (admittedly fun) player movement system. Who cares? I’ll admit, about half of the games I play on TF2 are on the “Pilots only” game mode. That’s mostly practice for increasing pilot skills, though. It’s not the main drive of the game, the titular marker of the series. Who else could screw this up, but EA? Who else could spike such a wonderful and innovative IP into the ground with such a contempt for their audience and consumer base, but EA?

I wait with bated breath, for the death of that disgusting, industry wrecking conglomerate, and the Renaissance that will surely explode onto the market once IP like Titanfall are wrested from their cold, lifeless hands.

Sky Pirates: Campaign Diary 2

We had our second session of the sky pirates campaign, a bit shorter and straightforward than the first, but just as fun nonetheless. It’d been two weeks since the previous session so we have plenty of time to discuss what was going to happen next time, giving me plenty of time to prep. The party wanted to go on a raid! They had a bigger, tougher ship, more units, they just gained a level, and they wanted to try everything out!

Just to make things easy on them I explained where a prime location for raiding was. Between Joro and Rengkir , perhaps a bit to the west, was a large concentration of Brestrel camps and resources. If the call for reinforcements went out, convoys and ships could travel in either direction. Think of it as an invasion platform. I asked whether they wanted to hide behind an advance line wafer convoy to pass by, or just take the direct approach. The players wanted blood this evening; they wanted to hit the first thing they could see.

I told them they could see a medium-size ship and a small size ship a ways off. True to form, Alistair sent his hawk familiar Zeus on over. Both ships were very lightly armed, with ballistae and muzzle loaded swivel guns. Below however, was a large military convoy. There were two significant units of archers (one of which was actually riflemen), along with several wagons (two of which had a large number of swivel guns attached). I mentioned this was atypical for a convoy.

“Given the lightly armed ships, and heavily armed convoy” they asked, “would it be reasonable to assume they’re carrying some valuable equipment?” I told him that was well within the realm of possibilities. I try to stay away from giving a straight or certain answer by and large. Obviously I don’t do this for things at the players would have good reason to be certain about, but for everything else, I always want to leave room for surprises (even if it’s the equivalent of a supply closet).

It’s the typical setup; Braka hops on the Ornithopter, which speeds him onto the small ship as he attacks the ship’s mage. Alistair and Gloridrod are commanding their forces on the major ship. This was our first time use Matt Colville’s Warfare system, and the players grokked it pretty quickly. Their boarders (a cavalry-style unit I designed) attacked the medium ship’s crew, preventing them from firing on their ships. The major threat, then, came from the archers, riflemen, and cannoneers below. The party focused down the crew of either given ship, neglected the units on the ground, at first. Alistair boarded the medium ship while Gloridrod fired on the various mages and crewmen that attempted to stop him. Braka had the attention of everyone on the small ship, as they desperately tried to stop him from killing the only men on board who could harm the raging lycanthrope.

Once the ground units were up, they fired on the ships and their units. Additionally, a mage began using Battle Magic against them, as lightning and thunder stormed around their ship. This quickly freaked out the players, and they started splitting attacks. Gloridrod wanted to ask if there was a way he could affect the units on the ground. I told him it was certainly possible, but it’d rely on his creativity and the circumstances at hand. It was right up his alley; he asked whether the cannoneers had an barrels of gunpowder or something similar around, and of course they did! He asked if he could fire on it, I told him to make an attack roll with disadvantage based on his distance from it. He still hit, and I had to come up with something on the fly. I rolled a d6, determining the number of rounds -1 it’d take for the powder to detonate, unless the unit stopped it. I rolled a 1, so the unit immediately took a casualty! Gloridrod elected to repeat this process a few times as other units focused the cannoneers down, disbanding the unit right as the medium ship’s crew was dealt with.

Once again, the split-second decision of “Let’s take the ship we just cleared!” was made, and the players retreated. I did my due-diligence as a DM and mentioned they could fire on the archers (who had less range than they) until they retreated or disbanded, allowing them to take the loot. The party elected to retreat anyway, satisfied with selling the medium ship they’d taken and not risking the fury of whatever High Mage still lurked on the ground.

They returned from the raid, sold off the medium ship, replenished their lost crew, and set about planning. the party wanted to enjoy some combat that didn’t involve mass combat (I was expecting this), and asked Arales if he could point them in the right direction. He asked them some questions about what locale they’d prefer to go dungeon delving in, what sort of target they’d hit, and directed the party to a fortification on Brestrel’s southern border. The party determined whattheir crew would be doing in the meantime, set up a rendezvous point a day’s walk from the fortification, and told the crew to meet them back in five days.

the party made it to the fortification, of which I’ll post a graphic representation below. It seemed to be a kind of training/recruitment camp for the Jackal Legion, and the party spotted one representative of the Jackal Legion directing training. What happened next, happened last night, in the third session.

The training camp.

The training camp.

Campaign Diary: Sky Pirates 1

We finally had our first session of the online campaign two Sundays ago, and man was it a blast. We played for six hours, and virtually none of it was introductory work. All of what we might call session 0 was taken care of in the discord chat. This, for the record, was convenient as could be imagined. We essentially just jumped straight into the game!

First off, I explained the plight of Alistair Black and Gloridrod, the captain and chief gunner/quartermaster of a pirate gang, respectively. While on the border of Brestrel (which some of you may remember is the nation of the hobgoblins in my setting), a supernaturally sudden and powerful storm appeared, threw them off course, crashed their ship, and left the survivors in an unknown locale. The pair had their remaining 20 crew members pillage the wreckage for any supplies they could salvage, and began to head off in a random direction. I explained the ongoing downpour (along with this happening at night) was covering any visual indications of where the crash happened. They got the message; if they wanted any chance encounters with friend or foe alike to occur on their terms, they’d need to act fast.

I had them roll perception checks; they managed to spot a light off in the darkness, past the foliage and rain. Hardly difficult to see, given their surroundings, but they need to get closer to glean any more details. They instruct the crew to stay behind as they creep up, and see two hobgoblins next to a horse-drawn cart, apparently stuck. Some clever RP gave Alistair and Gloridrod a surprise round, and during the brief combat, the cart’s contents are revealed as the final PC, Braka Whitefang, is revealed as he uses his manacles to restrain a guard that got too close to his cage. A brief interrogation of the guard and Braka reveals a resupply airbase down the road, and Braka to be a friendly addition to the party. They collect the crew, and make their way down.

It’s still thundering outside, but the rain is ever so slightly lessening, and there’s a bit of ambient light. I explained the configuration of the base. To the south is an obvious guard tower, and a similar (but not identical) tower lies opposite of it on the northern end of the camp. To the east is a single story barracks. To the west is a pole barn of immense size, with large sliding doors on the side they can see. Smack in the middle of the camp is a don jon or administrative building. There were two patrols of guards, moving in a clockwise fashion but in irregular intervals (trying to take shelter from the heavy rain). The players discuss possible approaches for a little while, spending enough time I saw fit to change the state of the camp. I informed them a single deck medium-size ship and a small ornithopter pulled to the side of the pole barn they couldn’t see, and they spotted a small troop of soldiers run out to the double doors they could see. After a minute, they exited with another 40 soldiers.

It had the effect I was hoping for; the players immediately sprung into action. Alistair and Gloridrod would take care of the guard tower, while Braka and the crew would head to the far west side of the base to secure an airship. Here I switched back and forth before the characters, preemptively having them roll initiative. Braka successfully stealthed along with the crew to the west side, while Alistair approached and nearly detonated a trap on the door of the guard tower. They instead elected to climb, and disposed of the two watchers within (nearly alerting the entire camp in the process).

In the meantime, Braka assaulted the two guards who’d made their way to the west end of the (now identified) hangar. One of the guards actually managed to escape around the corner of the hanger. Gloridrod, the Warforged Artificer, was already lying in wait, as Braka had only attacked on Alistair’s signal. He took the shot, killing the guard. At this point, there’d been sufficient motion to warrant the other patrol approaching the guard tower. This resulted in a somewhat louder battle ( firearms are of course a feature in my campaign), in which Gloridrod fired a revolver. The party quickly regrouped, pillaged the hangar, set an explosive trap, and fled just as a daylight spell was cast over the administrative building. The party flew away on a hobgoblin-pattern medium ship and a gnome/hobgoblin pattern small ornithopter as the hangar burned behind them. Don’t worry if those terms sound confusing, you may well get an explanation of them at some point. Not now though, we’ve a story to tell!

Alistair at this point received a sending to head north from an unknown voice, promising him safety. He kept this from the party, but acceeded, and began their trek northwards. They reached the poorly-defined normal border, whereupon two combat skiffs began moving parallel towards them, each poised reach either side of the medium-sized ship. The players debated what to do, and after clarifying that diplomacy was probably not an option for hostiles behind enemy lines like themselves, the party began combat. Through clever maneuvering and use of the ornithopter, they kept fire off the main ship while focusing down one of the skiffs. The failing skiff attempted to flee while the relatively undamaged one covered its escape. The ornithopter flew past the defending skiff, however, and dealt the final blow, sending many Brestrel soldiers to their doom. The two ships then focused down the remaining skiff, which quickly met the fate of its companion ship.

The players first impulse was to loot the crashed ships, and sent down the medium-size ship to carry out the task. They wisely left the ornithopter in the air; Alistair noticed six combat skiffs and a dreadnought heading in their direction. He quickly signaled to the crew below, and they hightailed it north. After about three days, they came across an unidentified outpost. The players (wisely) pulled down the Brestrel colors they were flying on approach, and to skiffs approach them from behind to board. After brief introductions, the players were greeted and welcomed into the outpost, at which they landed.

They met a high mage named Arales upon landing. He congratulated the group on their daring escape, and offered them a deal. The outpost was well defended, but couldn’t proactively engage in assaults or remove threats preemptively without exposing themselves to danger. He suggested the party build a fleet to ferry their beanbag-sized balls around, and in exchange for harassing Brestrel forces and bringing back pillaged goods, they’d receive certain discounts from shipwrights and a safe place to stay. The party gleefully accepted, and spent some time carousing around town.

Before heading out, they wanted to visit the end and see if anything special was going on. I mentioned that’s were being placed on which of two hunters would slay a local drake first. The players sized them up as the two taunted one another and bragged. The first Hunter wielded a greataxe, and clearly had the brawn to move it around as easily as he would a knife and fork. The second Hunter had a crossbow, and the players managed to notice his bolts were covered in poison. Braka Whitefang, the were-tiger Barbarian, decided to take on the contract himself, and Alistair put some gold down on him.

They set out the next day; both Braka and the axe-wielding hunter failed their checks to track. They had no clues as to the Drake’s location until roars and the sound of battle reached their ears. Braka took the opportunity to shift into the form of a tiger, quickly outpacing the first hunter. He arrived to see the wounded drake attempting to pin the crossbow-wielding hunter. Braka leaped into the fray, claws and teeth raking and puncturing the draconic serpent’s hide. The crossbowman took the opportunity to take more shots at the creature, while the drake vomited acid upon Braka. The fight was extremely close; had Braka taken another round, the crossbowman would’ve gotten the killing blow. Luck was on his side, however, and he ripped the creature’s heart out.

Brutal.

I gotta hand it to the players, each time one of them does something on their own, they’re all respectful, patient, and engaged besides.

The players reconvened at the tavern, and debated on their next course of action. The first craft they built with the outpost’s shipwrights would have a hefty discount, and so it was decided they would gain more assets before having their ship built. “What better way to get more funds”, they asked themselves, “than privateering?”

I explained to them the situation of Brestrel’s advance line and border, the difference between the two, and what their characters would recognize as soft targets, more risky but potentially lucrative enemy units, etc. The crew decided to land and hide their ship behind the advance line of Brestrel, waiting for potential targets to ambush. A few passed by, but nothing particularly enticing; until a huge ship with a small escort was spotted. Alistair’s a bit of an odd mix on class features; he’s got two levels in fighter, one level in rogue, and the Magic Initiate Feat. Pretty cool character build! He’s got a Familiar from the feat, (a hawk if I recall), which he sends over to the Brestrel ships. Looking through its eyes, he sees supplies being loaded onto the smaller ship. As the hawk flies further, he can see the pair of ships actually lie between the party and a camp of Brestrel soldiers. By the time the hawk returns, the small ship departs from the larger of the two, towards the camp.

Here, the party puts their plan into motion. They hoped to use a flare to lure a ship in, but hadn’t come across any travelling alone. They expected the smaller ship would close in. On the spot, they decided they’d engage, pillage the small ship, and hightail it out of there before the huge ship came over.

Not quite how it went down. See, the small ship was already en-route to the camp, and was heavily burdened with cargo besides. The huge ship, being more heavily armed and prepared to assist smaller ships under attack, began lumbering on over. The ornithopter, holding Braka and Alistair (along with a few other crew), had be stationed in a different location, and a bit after seeing the flare fired, the huge ship passed over them.

Here’s where the action started; Gloridrod wasn’t about to give the larger, better equipped ship the first shot. As soon as they were in range, he ordered their crew to fire. The Brestrel ship, not expecting a distress call to immediately turn to combat, was surprised. All of the men they’d armed began taking position, and it was time for battle. The ornithopter was speeding up behind the Brestrel ship, and anyone on the ship was too scrambled to do anything that round. It’s worth noting as well that the Brestrel crew was understaffed, as many of their men went down to the Brestrel camp. Braka and Alistair swung down to the ship’s helm to fight while Gloridrod directed the crew.

Initiative was rolled; the players and the single enemies went first, then the various crews went (and there were some interactions between the two). The Brestrel ship’s weapons were powerful, leading Gloridrod have his crew focus the enemy weapons. Now, ship armaments are not made to target individual people. Howitzers make for poor marksmanship, unless fired against structures (or creatures of similar size, spoilers). What the party’s crew does succeed in doing is damaging the panels and deck near the Brestrel ship’s weapons. Combined with some clever target practice, the enemy ship’s siege howitzer fell into the second deck before it could be fired. Meanwhile, Braka flexed his abilities as a lycanthrope; being immune to nonmagical or non-silvered weapons, he let the Brestrels crowd around him, giving Alistair time to focus down the ship’s mage. It worked (mostly)! The mage did manage to pop off a Lightning Bolt before they could take her out, and to 3rd level characters? That’s a lot of damage (editors note: this blog is not sponsored by Flex Tape ).

The bridge was cleared out, and I informed the players that the rest of the crew would be attempting to re-take it. My question to them; how was Alistair going to survive, seeing as though Braka couldn’t take damage from them (not their weapons, anyways; I had another plan for that). Alistair literally tied a rope to the back railing and clung for deal life to the back of the ship as 40 of the crew bull rushed Braka. They overwhelmed him, pinning him to the deck; I had him make strength checks (easy enough, raging barabarian) to keep them from literally tossing him off of the ship. We’d already had a brief discussion earlier on “Is falling damage Bludgeoning damage? Because I’m immune to that.” He knew quite well being thrown off a ship 300 feet up would result in his death (always a way to challenge your players, no matter the circumstance). Gloridrod in the meantime had the crew fire down on the mass of Brestrels crowded around Braka, luckily not needing to worry about friendly fire.

With the enemy crew dead and a good reason to split, the party had a new idea; why not take the entire ship back to trade in? So they did!

We spent the last part of the session going over how we’d track ammo for the crew’s weapons (spoiler, it’d be rolled into the crew’s upkeep) and the design of the new ship/stronghold that’d be built for them; The Hurricane.

Our next session is literally tonight right after my buddy Caleb’s game and we’re adding a new player; I can’t wait!

Sensory disabilities in D&D

There was a tweetstorm a few days past concerning someone very upset with a conversation in “the facebook 5e group”, centered around deaf characters. I’m in a few 5e groups myself (most of them quite small), but I’m guessing they’re referring to the generic big 5e group. I’m not actually in that group, so I don’t have the original post on hand. Not terribly important, but hey, backstory. If anything, consider this a caveat for anything concerning this woman’s tweets; I don’t have the full context. Take that as you will.

Here are the tweets:

Oof.

Oof.

I can’t really help but comment on the attitude here. “Something I argue that can only benefit a table, party and gameplay!” One instance in which a deaf or otherwise disabled character negatively impacts the game comes to mind almost immediately; when it becomes an annoying distraction from rolling dice and killing orcs, in groups who like rolling dice and killing orcs. You don’t get to play the “Sympathize with what I think is fun, you couldn’t possibly have any other style of play at your table” game.

It totally flies in the face of the game’s social contract. Other people have tastes, preferences, whatever have you that differ from yours. Spending 4 hours trying to resolve basic communication between two players might appeal to some people out there. Go find them; leave other people the hell alone, unless they show an interest. It’s not too difficult to imagine why someone would think “Can someone invent a spell/potion/item to fix this person?” after yet another stealth segment ruined by a communication failure between teammates.

All that being said, I didn’t want to write this just to rag on some stuck up snob informing everyone else what “Real fun is”, and ironically getting upset with people for not sharing her tastes (whether that’s an accurate picture of the aforementioned or not). There’s a more interesting point to discuss here.

There isn’t much to reiterate on the point of disabilities hindering player characters, and that hindrance proving annoying to other players at the table. There would be problems if Master Chief’s legs stopped functioning every 10 seconds in-game, everyone gets it.

A given disability doesn’t always have to appear as-is in game, however. Certain issues can be adjusted for, like cripples having animal companions that double as mounts. What about disabilities like blindness? How do you “compensate” for something so objectively debilitating? The answer lies in how we approach the problem; specifically, a scientific solution versus a fantastical compensation.

The Witcher 3’s Phillipa Eilheart was a blind(ed) sorceress who attempted to regrow her eyes. She specifically attempted to grow the tissue on stones that served as a focus for the experiment, and wore an enchanted headband that assisted her in navigating the environment in the meantime. This is a scientific solution to a disability; negating the effects of the disability through whatever applied study exists in that world (yeah, that includes magic). The disability functions much like it would in real life. The character simply restores whatever bodily function the disability impedes, generally using things we don’t have access to in real life. There isn’t a functional difference between Eilheart’s enchanted headband and Tleilaxu eyes, only the narrative in which they’re found.

On the other hand, you have Toc the Younger, whose first appearance is made in Gardens of the Moon, of Steve Erikson’s Book of the Fallen series. Toc’s unfortunate affliction is quite the eyesore (I’m so terribly sorry). During a major battle earlier in the book, a chunk of burning rock slammed into his face, destroying one of his eyes. Besides the obvious detriments Toc, an archer, struggled a great deal in battle afterwards due to his lack of depth perception. Quite awful, isn’t it? Wondering if a healer of High Denul could fix it? Not so fast; Erikson has made a fantastical addition to Toc’s state of being. Our One-Eyed King of archers receives premonitions and visions from his missing eye, briefly alluded to as a common superstition concerning the blind in previous passages. This is a common theme in a great number of works, extending well beyond books. The Divine Tomes of Dark Souls 3 are written in Braille, and their descriptions mention great faith being placed in the words of blind church figures.

The fantastical addition is a compensating factor where disabilities are concerned. A blind character receives premonitions, as previously mentioned (and perhaps receives some manner of blindsight). A deaf character hears the voices of the dead. There are any number of ways to add a supernatural quality to a disabled character that are perfectly in-genre, and if pitched to (rather than demanding acceptance of) a D&D group, could be very appealing indeed.

List for the week (JAN 21)

We’ve got a lot on our plates folks.

  • First session recap for the Sky Pirates campaign (video and blog post)

  • Mechanazium Graphics

  • Mechanazium Special Edition Hardcover

  • Roll 20 asset design (airships)

  • Airship Models (Triton Ornithopter’s at the top of the list)

  • Blog post on sensory disabilities in D&D

  • Record a short excerpt from Eyes of the Forest

Having a kind of public calendar is convenient, I think.

Kickstarters, back-to-back (The Mechanazium)!

It’s Saturday morning (it’s two in the afternoon, but that’s morning for me) as I type this, and boy was yesterday a busy day. I closed my first kick starter, considering the project finally complete, and opened my next kick starter all in the same evening. The messages I’m getting back from backers about the alchemist class have all been very positive, and many of them have informed me that they intend to support this next project of mine!

And what is this next project of mine? It’s a 10 level mega dungeon, overflowing with original, professionally designed content from yours truly. The kick starter will run for 40 days, and it’s currently sitting at 2.5% funding, which is about what I need per day. I’ve secured some advertising space on the Dungeoncast, so likely to get a nice boost when those ads air as well.

I immediately had regrets about setting the funding goal so high; $10,000 is a lot of money for this kind of project, even when you consider on the one running it and producing content for it. I’ve now had the chance to sleep on it, and those feelings aren’t bothering me so much anymore. The circumstances of the situation haven’t changed in any way, mind you (other than perhaps starting out with more funding than I initially expected). I’ve simply knowledge that failure is a distinct possibility, will always be a distinct possibility, and that I’m bound to run into it at some point. No successful person has experienced otherwise.

So, Cheers to a successful, satisfying first kick starter, and Cheers to whatever learning experience I get from this next project (and hopefully, money)!

You can find my current kick starter here; The Mechanazium Part 1: A Megadungeon Adventure for 5e.

If you missed out on my last Kickstarter (the Alchemist Class), no worries! You can access it by subscribing to my Patreon.

Preparing to run an online campaign

I mentioned running an online campaign for some of the folks in the D&D Critposting discord, and got a pretty positive response off the bat. It looks like I’ll have four players, and we recently started going over expectations for the campaign in a discord of my own. The pitch was this; the players will be on an airship, where they go hopping from location to location to raid Brestrel. it’s simple enough as a premise goes, manageable for me running an online game for the first time, and generally appealing to players looking to kick down the door and kill stuff.

The players, having agreed to this, immediately started running over different things they could do in the campaign. I asked if they were more focused on RP, focused on big and flashy combats, one to check out strongholds and have an impact on the world around them, etc. I wasn’t expecting them to building a pirate fleet, building strongholds in the cool abilities they get from them, and other shenanigans they were hoping to get into during the course of the campaign. I very much love the group of players I’m currently running the game for; I enjoy hanging out with them. My natural inclinations as the DM however don’t really accord with their tastes insofar as playing a campaign goes (or, they’re only showing up to be polite in the first place). They’re very passive, and it always seems like I have to pull teeth For them to tell me what it is they’re doing next. This campaign is a lot more spoonfed compared to my previous one; I was hoping to provide a sense of direction to players while giving them the chance to engage the world full of cool loot and dangerous monsters on their own terms.

I never got an answer as to what the players were hoping to tackle next until the day before the next session. The only exception was this; when pestering players yet again and the group chat, when I reminded them we were playing tomorrow someone will have a sudden unavailability. It was then that I found out we’d actually be playing that night, and even then hours I could’ve spent prepping for spent waiting for players to let me know what they were doing. I had rattled off a very long list of things the players could be doing, could’ve discovered they could’ve been doing had they asked. The players actually picked one of those things, and I began prepping for the next session.

Things are better now; I tossed a small handout in the chat describing the place to be going to next, and immediately started working on a dungeon. They spent the entirety of the last session in that dungeon, and it’s still not over yet! I self indulgently sprinkled some lore blurbs into a puzzle solution, which immediately got the players thinking. All in all, it’s actually going pretty well! I’d say this very last stretch of the campaign will close in a satisfying fashion.

That was still about five or six months of somewhat unpleasant DM work. I’ve enjoyed just about every session we’ve had, for the record. It’s just that the things going on behind the screen suffered for the reasons explained above. I’m happy I learned the lesson; my next kick starter is going to be for a mega dungeon adventure, and finally getting through my thick skull that different types of players have different tastes will assist that product design.

Anyways, back to the online campaign!

I pitched the campaign to them; jump around on airships from location to location, wrecking the enemy’s shit and collecting loot along the way. This sort of campaign would allow me to draw up more isolated encounters and dungeons, placing them as I wished without having to do a ton of prep work. That last bit is a lie, I force prep work on myself. Can’t help it. “This airship system isn’t good enough, time to change it.”

Ugh.

The players seemed pretty excited, so I began informing them of the world, doing a setting writeup, etc. I asked what they were looking to get out of the campaign; if what the OSR guys are saying is (half) true, there’s a greater diversity of playstyles nowadays. I asked if they were looking for storygaming, epic combats, having an impact on the world around them, etc. I also asked if customizing their ship was a part of the game they wanted to interact with. Look at me, figuring these things out ahead of time. This excited them; I set about writing up a second iteration of my airship rules, complete with patterns (styles of crafting the airships, conveying different bonuses on them), templates (special kinds of ships like ornithopters), etc. They were really excited by it! So excited, that they immediately set about planning a keep, pirate fleet, and eventual city-state.

These are the types of players I am naturally inclined towards. “We want to make a dent in the world.” Fuck yeah! They glommed onto the setting detail, had some requests of their own that we worked through, etc. I think this is going to turn out really well. First session is tomorrow; I’m excited!

The "Mercer Effect"

There’s a reddit post floating around, written by a frustrated DM trying to deal with poor player expectations. These players absolutely love Critical Role. They constantly make reference to it in the group chat, they speak the dread incantation of “Matt does this thing this way”, etc. Matt Mercer himself actually responded to the comment, offering a pretty heartfelt response, tips on managing player expectations, and encouragement on maintaining your frame (great term from the manosphere) as a game master. I read this, then noticed Bleeding Fool (quality site btw) published an article as a…response? Solution? Not sure. Let’s go with “commentary”, to be charitable.

The author would like you to know that he’s rolling his eyes at Matt’s response, that there are things Matt just doesn’t get, doesn’t understand! Oh, our author is happy people are going out and buying the books, don’t get them wrong. There’s an issue with new people coming to the game; they have expectations, I’m told. They think everything is going to be like what they saw in last week’s episode of Critical Role! They’re not going to bother to read the campaign handouts, they’re going to brush you off and get upset when the blasphemous incantation of “you can’t do that” defiles their corporeal form.

Surely the end is upon us all.

The first dungeon Master I ever had (also named Matt, seems to be a lot of fantastic DMs named Matt) began his first game because of critical role. It was a huge inspiration to him, despite the fact his games were vastly different in style. Not only that, he turned us on to Critical Role as well! Our group really enjoyed the first season. We would talk about it often before, during, or after playing the game ourselves. In fact, we’d occasionally tease Matt with the quip “well Mercer does it this way”. The reason we all laughed in the first place was we understood it would be silly to expect the game to be identical to what we saw on Critical Role. It would be completely absurd to expect our DM to have a world as interesting and detailed as Exandria (though as far as I’m concerned, my friend Matt met and exceeded that goal), just as it would be silly of him to expect quality voice acting of us.

Now, apparently our author can manage the situation. He recommends we advertise our expectations as dungeon Masters to the people we are actually playing with. Then, if we find our players amicable enough, We should try to meet their expectations halfway. Players who have difficulty with this midsession should be spoken to in a respectful, but firm manner, so as to not further embarrass anyone or cause any kind of other disruption at the table.

This to me sounds eerily familiar! Almost as if Matt had mentioned doing exactly that in the reddit comment our author quoted.

Less eye rolling, Vince. More reading.

One last thing I wanted to point out is this bit on expectations. All new players, irrespective of whatever their knowledge of RPGs are, have expectations. Every single one of them. Some might be more subtle than others, may differ in focus (npc interaction vs combat), etc. All players come to the table with an idea, expressed or otherwise, of how things are going to go and how fun it would be. Those expectations may crumble during the first 5 minutes of play, or even before that reading your world doc (if you have such a thing). In any case, you will always need to explain what it is the game is about, and your expectations for player behavior. Critical Role didn’t cause this. It may have turned expectations into slightly less subtle expressions of what the players want out of the game, sure. That’s the reason for this discussion in the first place! Nevertheless Critical Role isn’t responsible, and given the vast interconnected networks of players, dungeon masters, designers, and everyone inbetween on social media? It seems silly to regard players having a more similar, vocal expectations of the game as some massive negative compared to the fact we can crowdsource the solution to these issues in part thanks to productions like Critical Role publicizing the hobby.

The "Draw 4" Solution (little victories)

In game design there’s something called a “death spiral”. You’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t ( or even if you have), The description typically goes something like this: player one begins to win. Player two begins to lose. Then, the rate at which player one begins Wenning seems to accelerate. For whatever reason, his edge or lead over his opponent is steadily growing. Player two on the other hand is obviously losing, but the key here is this; there are little to no options for player two to reverse the situation.

This is a particularly common experience in RTS games. If you’re playing against the AI, you’ve probably at some point thought “I’ve won, the computer just doesn’t know it yet. Time to go through the motions, there’s literally no way for the computer to turn this around.” You’ve unlocked all of the in game research and abilities, your fleet or troops or at max capacity, and you have to sit through another hour of gameplay wishing that there was a 32x speed because the AI isn’t smart enough to concede (or maybe it is, and it decided to filibuster your victory out of spite). On the other hand, you’ve doubtless quit a game or even deleted a save file because you determined there was no coming back from whatever defeat you had already suffered, even if they were early in the game’s progress. Maybe especially if they were early in the game’s progress.

Personally, I don’t view it as a gratifying experience.

Now I don’t have a solution for RTS games as far as this problem is concerned. But I know that other games have solved this issue, and I find the solution relevant to some of the irons I have in the fire. The drive to write this was stoked if you will by a conversation I recently listened to about Hearthstone (though the conversation did not recently take place). Card games are apparently relatively easy to create, needing little more than two or three programmers to handle UI and the actual player interaction, a ton of art from whoever you can get it, and the role of Yours truly, a designer to handle the mechanics. Consider this a public invitation to DM me if you have interest in such a project.

Ah, but there was a complaint about Hearthstone in this discussion. About a death spiral, no less! There was no cleverness to winning; the game was dependent on how strong the cards were, and whether the other player had encountered them before. There were no interrupts; things for you to do when it wasn’t your turn. This kept the game fast paced (good) but without any other cards to fill this role on the player’s turn, there was nothing to use as a “counter” (bad).

Now, obviously a “counter” isn’t limited to things that interrupt the player on their turn. A counter is simply something that hinders the opponents in their objective. Ever play Uno?
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. The Draw 4 card! Your goal is to ditch all of your cards in the pile, you’re down to your last 2 cards and your opponent has 8, suddenly BOOM, you have to draw 4 cards. There’s been a reversal in the trend, victory suddenly becomes less certain. Even if you do end up winning the game, there’s an element of satisfaction for the other player.. The game was a war they lost, but they got the joy of winning a battle; they had a little victory.

You can craft a “little victory” condition simply by introducing (in this case a card) an asset the player can deploy to hinder the opponent. Real strategy enters when these assets have 2 or 3 layers of counters that can be deployed.

This essay’s been in the backlog for a few weeks, it got pushed off with the lead-up to the kickstarter.

Describing the indescribable

There is a description of the far realms inside the 5E PHB, or maybe it’s the dungeon Master’s guide. The description follows through for pretty much all descriptive text sections that have to deal with anything Lovecraft related. It goes something like this:

It’s incomprehensible! Your mind literally can’t comprehend it. It’s too alien, too insane, doesn’t abide by the laws of this reality. Your mortal mind can’t handle it.

Boring, isn’t it? It tells you literally nothing about what it is that you’re seeing, experiencing, what the aftershock of such a sight might be.. It’s completely useless. It reminds me of a recent digressions and dragons episode.

You see a creature the likes of which you have never seen before, which is just perfect as descriptions go. Do I know how many limbs it has? Are any of them sharp? “You encounter a creature the likes of which I have not bothered to write down a description.”

I understand the natural inclination to leave something at “your mind can’t comprehend it.” However, as storytellers, we are charged with inventing depictions of the experience, and at this point even ending the story with a simple, fact of the matter “your mind can’t comprehend it” is no longer enough.Sure, we can say constructs of insanity and realms that lie beyond the constraints of our natural laws are beyond our means to explain. Fine! We are not here to artlessly explain how everything functions in a scientific context ( particularly not in the fantasy genre). What we can manage are the aesthetic or linguistic representations of things that lie beyond our full comprehension.

Consider the following:

The light around you is blue, refracted. Something like the surface of the ocean when viewed from beneath that lies too the left, then you’re right, then above you, then moving again. The source of the light is clearly behind it, but looks red despite the soft blue rays it casts.

Or this one:

A gray, tattered landscape lies before you, roiling like a flag, moved by a nonexistent wind. The very horizon shifts in ripples, bending the ground up, up, up until the cress over your head – a quick glance South reveals it to have never moved at all. A quick glance North shows the horizon did indeed crest over you, wrapping ‘round to diminish the sky to a thin line, and the ground 100 miles away lies only a few hundred feet above your head.

I’m no Lovecraft but, not bad, right? It’s a start, at the very least. Paradoxes are things we characterize as being logically inexplicable. Who cares about the explanation? In a moment of madness, the struggle to reconcile the incomprehensible with reality, the description of such an experience is what counts. I be willing to bet there’s a value to doing this inside a game like Dungeons & Dragons. Your players sitting across the table from you, in touch with reality.

Through a clever use of language, I believe we can ever so slightly nudge the player into the shoes of their character as they experience something horrific, or simply inexplicable. They are already engaged in the act of imagination; take advantage of that! Don’t be afraid to invent paradoxes and play with the incomprehensible; with any luck, the group activity this will create a feedback loop as nervous eyes look back to one another in confusion.

DOA: Runescribe

TLDR; the Runescribe was designed to fail.

I’ve only ever played 5th Edition D&D, but I love taking monsters, abilities, feats, spells, whatever have you from earlier editions, and usually that means 3rd and 3.5 (I rarely know which is which when I’m flipping through a supplement).

Back when I was playing my first campaign, the Runescribe came out.

UA_Rune_Magic_Prestige_Class_Page_2.jpg

Pretty interesting concept, right? It was to me, a natural fan of Multiclassing who was at that point getting familiar with the downsides of that aspect of the game. I figured something ostensibly designed to help you explore A character concept within Multiclassing would smooth out some of the issues that was previously having with it. I never actually got to play the rune scribe, the concept stuck with me for quite some time. I never really understood why WOTC didn’t revisit the concept in 5th edition.

I began designing some prestige classes of my own, sticking to what I figured was the formula of the prestige class presented. The principles of design were simple:

  1. Where core classes are generalized, and subclasses slightly less so, prestige classes should explore very specific concepts ( people who use shadow magic, mounted combatants, etc.).

  2. Prestige classes should be mechanically dense. Ribbons should be rare, and only ever presented in addition to useful mechanics. Just about each level should provide the player with some new ability, whether active or passive.

  3. Prestige classes should retain some of the limitations that were in mind when Multiclassing was designed. This manifested as setting a lower limit for when the prestige class could be accessed (level 5), and not including any ability score improvements.

I started setting up some polls, surveys, etc. If I wanted this thing to survive play testing, and eventually public release, I needed to know exactly why people disliked prestige classes in earlier editions. I received quite a few preemptive attacks and criticisms. “Why are you doing this, we already have subclasses! Don’t you know subclasses were introduced to replace prestige classes?”

Thank you, NPC! It never occurred to me to research the thing I was designing.

On the other hand, a quite a few people who were excited at the prospect of someone other than WOTC taking a stab at this. I suspect it was were very specific reason; I asked them what they hated most about prestige classes! Genius, I know. The response was nearly universal; “We hate the stupid prerequisites. We hate having to plan out a checklist from levels 1 to 17 just to make sure we can actually use the prestige class.” There were of course other complaints, but they were usually attached to this one.

I went on my way designing, doing quite a bit of play testing with my long-suffering friends at the table. I think it was a few months after I had started my page that Mike Mearls, Matt Colville, Matt Mercer, and Adam Koebel sat down for a chat about the design of the game. They did another one a few weeks later, but that’s besides the point. In one of these chats, the subject of the rune scribe was brought up. Mike shed a bit of light on the prestige class’s failure to become an official product.

Unearthed Arcana materials have a reasonably high bar to be considered for a future product. If I’m correct the threshold hasn’t changed, but nevertheless at the time of the rune scribe’s release, 70% of the follow-up surveys needed to be positive. Obviously it didn’t meet the threshold (this being something like two years after its release), but what I didn’t know was the exact ratio.

The rune scribe had a positive feedback rate of only 30%, also revealed by Mike to be the most unpopular Unearthed Arcana article released to date. 30%! How could it possibly be so low? Take another look at the Runescribe:

UA_Rune_Magic_Prestige_Class_Page_2.jpg

See that little section there? Prerequisites! Now, the normal D&D multiclassing rules include prerequisites. Nothing wrong with ‘em; it makes sense that stupid characters can’t take levels in wizard. Fine! We see two such requirements in the rune scribe. We also see the level requirement. Great balance tool for prestige classes! I can compare these abilities to 6+ level abilities, get away with front-loading, etc. There’s a problem; “Complete a special task”. I don’t mind if you and the DM come together when discussing a character and suss out exactly how or why he’s branching out mechanically. I don’t think anyone does; the issue comes in when weird pre-reqs like this get in the way of play, especially when they’re so stupidly designed. Can’t advance in the class without access to a specific NPC? Pardon the french, but fuck that.

So why include it? I have a suspicion; WOTC never wanted prestige classes to be a part of 5e. It’s not like they don’t have their uses. Having now designed several, I can say there are many concepts not served by multiclassing, but too specific to spread out over a 5e sublcass. Even those that could be spread out over a subclass would be better served in a dense, balanced prestige class. I can also say based on the aforementioned qualities, it’s a great template for more narrative focused deviations in the mechanics of a character.

So why wouldn’t they carry it forward? Well, based on the reactions and information I was collecting, WOTC’s prestige classes made a piss-poor impression on their ability to design class deviations. That was rectified with Archetypes and other names for subclasses, but prestige classes still leave a poor taste in the general player body’s mouth. People’s general inability to properly justify their gut reactions is rightly feared; feedback that goes beyond “I don’t like it” becomes increasingly suspect as the length of the complaint goes on. There can still be a justified complaint with the product at hand, but the longer the word count, the greater the chance the author made some glaring error in his complaint (which allows bad developers to dismiss it entirely).

Would you want to re-introduce a mechanic that your player base had no confidence in your ability to design properly (or rejected it as replaceable on the whole) in that kind of market?

I might well self-sabotage the product when I previewed it, and while I’m certain they’d never admit it publicly, I suspect the designers of D&D feel the same way.

This is all assuming the devs have some sort of competence when recognizing their player base’s satisfaction, and would certainly never tease a product touting an almost universally reviled feature.
No, never.

Some thoughts on character specialization

I might’ve lied. Technically this is a post on character specialization. However it’s primarily me ranting and raving and generally putting down other people’s thoughts on the subject using allegories and analogies that I have an emotional attachment to. Maybe you’re thinking hey, isn’t that what he always does?

You’d be correct.

I’ve been working on the Rebuilt Ranger recently, squeezing original abilities and spells out of my head like a pressed orange to what’s essentially the husk of the revised ranger Wizards Of The Coast released. There’s something of a shibboleth floating around the ranger class, a preprogrammed response to that afterthought-design cobbled mess. Everyone likes to talk about the Beast Master, and while I of course agree that it’s so miserably designed I practically hope WOTC never attempts a redesign of that particular subclass, I don’t like focusing on it! Poorly designed subclasses can still hold themselves together provided their built on the foundation of inappropriately design class. Likewise, a spectacularly designed subclass can elevate a poorly designed class (as unlikely as that particular combination is) so as to conceal some of core class’s flaws. For this reason, I focus on the Hunter. A subclass of impressive design, clearly focused on martial prowess with a host of well-designed abilities to complement a number of play styles. Unfortunately, the ranger still sucks. The Hunter would be even more fun to play or attach to a class that wasn’t half-baked.

That’s a standard intro I give to any conversation, post, or general essay on the ranger. Here though, I want to drill down on a specific debate on design within 5E. When is it appropriate to attach specialized class features? How specialized is too specialized? Do benefits against specific kinds of creatures take away from the fun of fighting anything else? That last one (aside from the fact I practically open this talking about the ranger) probably gave it away. I’m told what is ostensibly a core feature of the Ranger, favored enemy, can’t possibly do anything useful within the context of the game ( especially not combat). after all, if you’re especially good at dealing with a specific kind of enemy in combat, you’ll feel bad at fighting just about anybody else! How does the rest of the game feel about this? Ah yes, the forbidden question. Are there any other class features in the game that adhere to this apparently unshakable principle? Both the cleric and paladin have bonuses against particular enemies. The cleric has access to destroy undead, which functions as turn undead to any other living creature not immediately vaporized by it. Interestingly enough this is a channel divinity feature; every single cleric archetype comes with its own channel divinity feature. You can use that channel divinity as opposed to turn undead. How about the paladin? When he uses his divine smite feature (adds a bit of holy judgment to a weapon attack the paladin makes), The unfortunate creature takes additional damage if it is a fiend or undead. Not bad at all. What do both of these features have in common? They are not the end-all be-all of the class. In the cleric’s case, turn undead isn’t the only way to use his channel divinity feature. The paladin on the other hand, can apply divine smite to any creature, and simply gains an additional benefit if the creature is of a specific type.

No one really complains about not being able to fight undead in the case of the cleric, or both undead and fiends in the case of the Paladin. Their class features are satisfying enough on their own that fighting these enemies makes them especially useful: not simply useful. There is a difference. To further illustrate the point, imagine if you will that these holy warriors and men of the cloth had no special abilities or features to bring to bear against unholy terrors of the night? It might seem a little strange. Let’s suppose further that we spent several hundred words as a description of a supposedly core class feature describing how good these classes were at attacking these particular creatures. It would feel like a sham; you would wonder why it was there in the first place! The class itself might well mathematically check out in terms of its utility or skill in combat, but this obviously terrible design choice would leave you feeling underwhelming.

I think we can all see well enough that specialization enhances the specifically narrative elements ( how you think about your character and how it’s perceived by others) even if its only technical application is in combat. I sincerely apologize to all the people who think that storytelling and mechanics are completely divorced from one another, who will only read this apology after recovering from what was surely a solid five minutes of wailing and gnashing of teeth, spurred on by my previous statement. Moreover (steel yourselves, please), I think excluding specialization from where the narrative clearly made room for it is a recipe for disaster. Doubly so if the aforementioned hints from the narrative take the form of a 1,000 word description of a class ability.

If you want to make a big deal about how well the feature or class or spell deals with a specific problem, make sure it actually does. Features which deal with specific problems ( or simply do so especially well) should probably be tacked on to a generally useful class, not used as compensation for something underwhelming (side note, I might’ve just solved the poor transition from the 3.5 to 5E Ranger, you’re welcome). Thanks for reading.

Yes, morality is black and white (but)

I watched a few different videos recently, none of which prompted the essay (the title was sitting in my ever expanding drafts section), but nevertheless helped put this in context. Dael Kingsmill’s vid on alignment, Colville’s vid eo on alignment, etc.

People like to bring up the idea that morality “isn’t black and white”. There are general principles sure, but what happens when you bring those principles to specific circumstances? Insert ridiculous oversimplification of a principle in a snapshot moral quandary, and voila! Morality isn’t black and white.

It’s very silly. That’s not to say there’s no confusion to be had when it comes to specific morals situations; on the contrary, it’s because moral principles are objective that they’re difficult to suss out. We’ll take murder as an example.

Killing someone is bad! Wait, what if they break into your house, or try to kill you? Oh, I guess murder is ok sometimes! Nope, we’ve excluded things like self defense from the definition of murder. The aggressor excludes themselves from the protections of moral society (in this case, right to walk around unmolested, bodily autonomy, etc) by way of his aggression. The victim’s rights supersede the aggressors, as the victim was hitherto adhering to moral society’s demands. The circumstances may vary, but this general principle can apply to every circumstance (referring to real life, not snapshot moral quandaries).

Let me pose the morality is not populated by some gray area, but is instead pixelated. From the outset it may appear grey, but zooming in (addressing the circumstances by priority and relation to moral principles) reveals the pixel as black or white. Viewing morality as black and white can theoretically be an oversimplification of circumstance, but more likely the person is addressing the circumstances (whether they’re correct or not).

Designing Spells for the Artificer

This is definitely more of a stream of consciousness post, I’m thinking through various principles for designing spells for my Artificer player. He’s the only guy in our group that’s attending school abroad, so I try to toss him extra goodies to entice him to show up for games. It works (about 50% of the time)! Jokes aside, he largely only fails to show up when he can’t. Anyways, those goodies take the form of crafting primarily. Whenever my player is away, he’s on the airship crafting firearms, potions, magical oddities, you name it. We ran into a bit of a problem though; he wanted a self-winding grappling hook. I’ve got a good grasp on the mechanical advancement of the world and how its limitations differ from those of real life (you can check this post for why firearms will never become widespread in my world). Long story short, it wasn’t gonna happen (not in the form he wanted at the very least).

Being the ever generous DM, I made him an offer; why not create a spell that did what he was looking for? He was an intelligence based caster, after all. This excited him a great deal, and after a short delay, I set off to work!

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Not bad for a first draft, right? It’s even cooler for the artificer, because he gets an ability that let’s him place spells in items! He can literally place this spell that uses a grappling hook as a material component into the grappling hook and hand it off to another character. There’s a bit of wording to fix, I need to say “alternatively, you can swing up to 60 feet away, provided the anchor point is at least 20 feet above you” or something.

You get the idea, though! The moment this concept played itself out it my mind, I started thinking of other artificer spells. It’s such a unique class, of course it would benefit from unique spells! What would they look like?

The Artificer’s ability to place spells in an object is a factor in any spell I design for them. Material components normally are not important beyond a gold cost. The Artificer could of course cast spells into unrelated objects. It’s incentive enough to make spells that focus on altering equipment for me, however. I’m attracted to that variety of narrative/mechanic synergy.

Next is action economy. The Artificer has plenty of things to do with his action already, mostly shooting things with a firearm. As such, anything that isn’t a bonus action spell should probably have some sort of significant effect. I understand that’s horribly unspecific, so I’ll try to drill it down in a sentence or two. Bringing a party member back from the brink of death with a cure wounds, forcing multiple creatures prone with grease, etc. Something that cures or deals a status effect is “significant”, or perhaps is better stated as “changes the conditions of the battlefield”. Spells shouldn’t simply deal damage, they should augment damage. Anything worth casting with his action at such a low level spell would not be balanced in the least, the dude has 1/3rd casting progression. No, the spells need to impact the battlefield in some manner other than damage. Damage is a nice rider if the spell takes an action, but I should look to balance bonus action spells.

Finally, we have spell levels to watch out for. Anything I make for the Artificer can be picked up by the Bard at level 10 with magical secrets, but I’m not terribly worried about that. My primary concern is multiclassing. Since I’m as much of a power gamer as power gamers can be and an avid fan of multiclassing, I usually know what to watch out for. The more the spell is meant to synergize with the class I’m designing it for, and the greater investment a multiclasser has to make to get that “prize spell”, the less I need to worry about it. Things shouldn’t be so far down the line that they can’t access it, on the contrary. I want players to actually feel special with the artificer. Is a 3 level dip enough of a cost to get a new take on misty step, or cast a special spell on a grappling hook? I think so.

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Let’s look at another spell I designed somewhat spontaneously.

By the time the artificer gets this, he’s at least 13 level. It fits with his class, it’s an excellent secondary damage boost (6d6 with the thunder monger from his class, 2d8 from the spell, all to 2 targets, one of which doesn’t require a roll to hit). It’s far enough in that I don’t have to worry about any nasty “I dip in, now I’m OP” multiclassing (though dipping out of the class could make for some interesting combinations). It fits his theme (spell requires a firearm, he’s all about mechanical weapons, can literally implant the spell in the gun for later use, etc). I’d say it fits my principles!

I already had some additional ideas for spells (which will sadly stay out of view until I release a supplement focused on them)!

Another excerpt from Eyes of the Forest

One, two, three, good. The rope had already gone taut; Locirrrus glanced down, pale eyes squinting as the flare’s light stung. An insectoid shriek echoed up the shaft, and the skittering was now quite audible above the river’s burble. A flurry of chitin covered legs was beginning to crowd around the flare, but Locirrus already had his hands around the grate. He pushed; nothing, the grate didn’t so much as budge. He shoved again, harder. Rusted as the iron was, it did not yield.

I’d say I hope no one’s other the other side of this but, they had their chance to help if they did, didn’t they? He lit stick of glairo, filled to the brim with the explosive powder. Even so. “You’d best duck for cover!” he shouted at the grate. He the stick and his hand through the grate, gently rolling it to the side. The staccato tapping of legs on stone grew nearer. Locirrus looked down; only the silhouettes of his would-be assailants were visible, having already passed the still-burning flare. He jiggled the rope, then pressed his back against the wall, and began drawing it up with both hands. The silhouettes stopped, then shrieked once more before scurrying downwards. Must sense the motion. They were finally visible to him; three-sectioned insects, six legs apiece. Each was probably the length of a child were it splayed out. Two sets of mandibles adorned their eyeless heads, and every thorax ended in quills and barbs. Now. He cut the rope, and the creatures followed the dying flare. He placed a hand on each side of the ladder, and began sliding down. Figure I’ve got about 10-

The explosion shook the ladder and walls around him. Instinctively, Locirrus fumbled at his shield, pulling it over his head. Think you forgot to grab the ladder, champ. His right hand smacked the ladder before grasping it. His momentum carried him lower, and every nerve in his shoulder screamed in agony.  Gods, any longer and that’d take my arm off. Debris struck his shield, every blow numbing his left arm. The ambient light from his flare no longer lit the shaft, and neither was the flare visible looking down. Locirrus could hear skittering once again. The hail of rock and iron over, he re-strapped his shield and swiftly pulled another glairo stick. He shaved about two thirds of the fuse’s length off before lighting it, and let gravity do the rest.


Why I hate raids (Warframe and Destiny)

I had an excellent back and forth with my friend Chris (who plays Alan the Paladin in my current game) over xbox live the other night, and wanted to recount some of the output of that conversation here. Destiny 2’s Forsaken DLC dropped about a month ago while the group was on vacation. We all have Destiny 2, but I’m the only one who has it on a different console. I didn’t have an xbone at the time, and was waiting for my friends to buy it on PC. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen (they were reasonably dissatisfied with the original product), I decided to just buy it on my PS4.

We’ve had a few back-and-forths on the game since, and now that Forsaken has come out, my friends are all playing it again. I don’t have the game on that console, and seeing as though I view Destiny 2 as popcorn entertainment (and its first DLC as a disgusting pile of unmentionables), I not to purchase the second DLC and Forsaken.

Also, I was seriously pissed off after Curse of Osiris. I never played Destiny 1, so I was somewhat ignorant of Bungie’s “Abuse our playerbase for a year” policy. Never again!

This backstory is all relevant, I promise you.

In a roundabout sort of way, we came to the subject of raids. I started eviscerating them; I’d only played a few leviathan raids, and all I had to compare them to were the Jordas Precept and Law of Retribution raids from Warframe (neither of which I had high opinions of).

My friends were, understandably, a little annoyed; the Raids are the only real challenge in the game! High level enemies, which I pointed out actually come out to attack you! The enemies in the game world mill about, not really doing anything. The player walks over, kills half of any group present before the even react, and the ones that do have time to react barely get any hits in. The player kills the remainder, taking virtually no damage, all to walk to the group of enemies 50 feet away that ignored the whole ordeal for some reason.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So we return to raids, where the screaming hordes try to overrun the players. That kind of tension is fun! I definitely think Destiny’s raids are its best content (PVE anyways). Ditto for Warframe’s raids, at the time they were active at the very least. They’re “endgame content”, and it seems the playerbase for both games were starving for that sort of thing. We’ll get to that some other time, though.

So, I agree that they’re the best content Destiny (low bar) and Warframe (significantly higher bar) have to offer. Nevertheless, I think they’re designed poorly. We’ll start off with the Cabal Emperor fight, because it demonstrates my point and I am very, very, very disinterested in discussing other sections of the leviathan.

The fight against the Emperor goes something like this: boss is invulnerable (because of course he is). Adds stream in while the boss starts shooting face lasers at you (like you do). Half of your party stays to fight the boss while the other half feeds instructions to you in an extradimensional space. The people in the psychic realm have to tell you what symbols pop up on the Emperor’s forehead, and the people in the boss room have to jump on pads with those symbols on them. The people in the psychic realm have to do this a few times, and once they do it enough times without falling out of the psychic realm, the boss loses his invulnerability phase and the players can kill him.

Sound like BS yet?

This is obviously something of an abridged version, but what am I specifically not mentioning whatsoever? Player skill, player choice, player’s strategy. It’s not completely absent from the raid; there’s a bit of positioning that players have to engage in when reading the symbols out to the boss room group. Certain party compositions will function better than others. What are those parties doing, though? Following the path the developers set out for them, or fail. The devs have put in a right way to win, which is on the internet within 24 hours of the raid going live, and it simply falls to the players to follow those instructions, or lose. No dynamic play, just have a mic, do whatever role you took for the raid, and hold down right trigger. The raids are puzzles, to which there is only one solution. You read the developer’s mind (or the online text of someone who already did), follow it, or fail.

Fun, right?

I want to say The Law of Retribution and Jordas Precept Warframe raids were better, but they were not. Not as far as design is concerned, anyways; I was more entertained by Warframe’s raids, but that’s because Warframe is more fun than Destiny. No, at the end of the day, it was the same deal. Follow the designer’s path set for you, or fail. The Warframe raids certainly had more to offer in terms of wiggle room; I mostly attribute that to the plethora of classes (frames) and builds you could then combine them with. I can be entertained by something while pointing out design flaws (provided fixing those flaws could produce a better experience).

By this point, there’s almost certainly someone thinking “well it’s easy to criticize without proposing anything better”, and indeed, that’s correct. Chris actually brought this objection to my attention when we had our discussion. I mentioned that these are puzzles, and only have one solution. He shot back that good puzzles only have one solution, and this set me off. I pointed out games like Deus Ex solved this issue literally decades ago; the best puzzles have multiple solutions. Those solutions are created by the player, using the tools at their disposal in combinations that bring them closer to their goal. Warren Spector (who designed games like later Ultima installments and the original Deus Ex) talks about this concept at length. If you know the name, you probably know his 2 stock stories on the subject (one of which I’ll retell here).

Spector was watching a tester play through some urban island level he’d played through himself some ridiculous number of times. The tester came up on a building he had to enter, with three threats to his success: a guard, standing at his post near the door, a clearly visible IR detection system (laser across the door), and a patrolling pair of guards. The player took out his pistol (the weakest pistol in the game), grabbed an explosive barrel (red, of course), and began walking towards the entrance. Warren was biting his nails, thinking “Is that gonna work? Is that gonna work?” The player tossed the barrel at just the right moment, and shot the barrel as it neared the guard, patrol, and IR system. With the weakest weapon in the game, he solved 3 problems, and did it all in a way the developer had never thought of.

That is how puzzles should be done. I’m not sure Bungie has the predesigned assets, competence, or even willingness to acknowledge feedback that might account for this kind of adjustment. There’s another developer I listed here though, and they’re the complete opposite of Bungie in…well, just about everything now.

At some point in the very near future, I’ll be going in-depth on assets DE already has access to in Warframe, and how they could mix those together for a challenging, open-solution raid or even just a high level mission.

UA: Dragonmarks Review

I haven’t paid too much attention to Unearthed Arcana articles in recent months. I’ve spent a lot of time sussing out why I feel so dissatisfied with WOTC lately. I’ve been testing my own material out to see what solutions they might be able to fix, but that’s a story for another time. I felt somewhat spontaneously like checking up on UA, finding that the last one is about 2 weeks old.

First impression: definitely impressed.

They first released Dragonmarks as feats way back when, 2016 I think. A character I’ve actually just started playing again has one of these feats, specifically from the 2016 UA. That matters, because they’ve taken an interesting turn with this release: your first dragonmark is tied to your race. Your Dragonmark is your subrace, affecting ability score improvements and such. The benefits to this are varied, but a new mechanic attached to these benefits is something called Intuition Dice. It’s a free D4 to the related check or action. It’s essentially guidance; not terribly interesting, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be the focus as much as they are a compliment to the other benefits. Additionally, these Dragonmarks being designed as subraces took over the brief dissatisfaction I had in them. Races are mostly employed for the distribution of started ability scores. There are always other benefits, but they tend to be ribbons or at least ribbon-adjacent. As such, I can’t really be so hard on them for not holding my interest. Or can I? You know, I think I can. Sure, more interesting mechanics might make other races “invalid”. Who cares? It’s made for a different setting: if there are a plurality of starting options that are more powerful than those considered “standard”, that’s fine! You’ve created a separate level playing field.

Wait, I’ve just invalidated myself. On second reading, all the really interesting bits are at the end of the descriptions. Score 1 for confirmation bias! I retain my original view of most of them. Mark of Healing, Handling, Passage, Sentinel, and Shadow are all very interesting. There’s enough that “my interest” can be sustained with not just one but a few options, so final judgement, I can’t complain. Mostly.

Now, onto the original Dragonmarks (now called Greater Dragonmarks).

These are mostly identical to their original incarnation (as far as I can tell the spells provided are identical). Nevertheless there are additional benefits! The feats now offer an ability score increase (+1 to one of two stats specified in the dragonmark). In addition, two of these feats (Sentinel and Scribing) regain their spells on a short or long rest, an interesting deviation. I have to admit, taking the Sentinel Dragonmark (as well as its subsequent feat) is extraordinarily appealing to me.

I love this Unearthed Arcana, I think it adds some useful levers to the game, and it has my brain spinning with different ideas. I think I’ll make it available to my players the next time I start a campaign!