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.

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 lies too the left, then your 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 it crests 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. Looking North again, you can see it never moved at all.

I’m no Lovecraft but, not bad, right? It’s a start, at the very least. Paradoxes are things we characterize as being logically incoherent. 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.

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)!

Weekly Statblock: Ebrietas

Ever on my Bloodborne kick, I made this creature on vacation for a session that same day. 

The party was Dennis playing Asura, Chris playing Alan, Matt playing Sael, and two others from our primary group! My friends Caleb playing Kevlier and Megan playing Kieron joined us for the session, bringing a Druid and Paladin to play.

I'll probably go into the non-combat details of that session some other time (I tried out some new storytelling techniques), but for now, the boss of that session is here.

Ebrietas.jpg

So, you wanna stat Gods? This is a good start! Ebrietas's strategy for attacking is pretty simple. First, cast Crown of Stars. The sooner you cast it, the more mileage you'll get. 4d8 as a bonus action every round is nothing to sneeze at, and her +12 bonus to hit makes it fairly consistent. Next, start using legendary actions for Magic Missile. There were 2 paladins in the party facing Ebrietas, both with high armor class. You can already see where this is going. If you really focus a single person, it can end up somewhere around 30 damage per round. That accelerates to 60 once Ebrietas drops below half hp.

After the first round, start blowing other high level spells. Synaptic Static is devastating, dealing psychic damage and producing a pretty negative effect on a failed saving throw (which is intelligence, not a common save). Maelstrom was also excellent. The creek in Ebrietas's lair widened to accompany the Maelstrom's size, and at a 30 ft radius, it was excellent for area denial. Area denial works both ways, of course. That is, until, Ebrietas starts using her "Fly" legendary action. 80 feet of movement easily carried her from one side of the lair to the other.  I did end up using Chain lightning, but against my players in particular that was sort of a bad idea.

The Rune Spells are a subsystem I designed, the Elsry rune being the most esoteric (on purpose). I used it several times to Halt (the second level variant of the rune) Alan, freezing him in time. Once a character interacted with him however, he was good to go. I think I used Halt all 3 times she was able to cast it, and all on Alan. That’s all that kept her alive for so long, he’s such an absurdly tanky character.

This was a beast of a creature; I’m happy with how she worked out.

 

Another Condition: Weakened

My long suffering page followers were hit with a barrage of COME WATCH MY STREAM posting (and indeed you should) while I played For The King, specifically their Frostbite Mountain adventure. I had a great time, and it scratched my D&D itch to boot. I’ve been thinking over a lot of the items, skills, spells, and in particular status effects. Video games are better equipped to handle a multitude of status effects than your average RPG by far. You have more time to engage with the game than if you were depending on scheduling something out with your friends, the game adjudicates the status effect’s impact on gameplay by way of the developers coding, etc.

Status Effects in RPGs depend on the players to properly adjudicate the effect, and the DM in particular. So, status effects need to be clear on how they impact the game, concise in their clarification, and from a mechanical perspective can’t bog down the game. This lends to fewer status effects that are featured in a multitude of spells and abilities. The interesting variation comes not from several different iterations of the same status effects, but the twists and circumstances of the individual skill or spell that produces it. I see plenty of requests for new abilities and even spells, but very few for new effects, and in all honesty that’s probably for the best when it comes to your average homebrew designer,

I’m not that designer. Also, a new status effect is more of a tool specifically for people creating content, seeing as you need some sort of delivery system for a status effect to even come up in the game. When considering what I wanted out of a new status effect, I decided on a damage boost (against the target effected).

So here it is.
Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it takes.

There’s a few issues with this, but let me hit you with the inspiration. “Frozen” in For The King causes the target to suffer an additional 25% damage. Now, vulnerable obviously deals an additional 100% damage. Frozen in FTK lasts for more turns, but that’s besides the point. I don’t need to duplicate it to the exact.

First, the question of Resistances and Immunities. I need to include a small disclaimer of those. I could simply say that it has no effect if the target is immune to the damage type. I could assume the game master is happy to make a target normally resistant take normal damage. Applying vulnerability to a creature normally resistant to an effect isn’t something people normally need to deal with. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that situation has existed even as a possibility until the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, with the addition of the Grave Cleric. Its channel divinity feature makes the creature targeted vulnerable to the next attack against it. Do resistance and vulnerability cancel each other out? I certainly think so, and I’m sure everyone I play with would agree.

That’s not quite my standard for placing caveats in my design. If I can clear things up without inflating the word count too much, to me that’s preferable than any unnecessary amount of confusion. The questions Mearls and Crawford in particular have to suffer shows it doesn’t hurt to include some extra clarification.

Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. If the target would normally be immune, it takes no damage.

Not too bad! We should fix two last things. First, “Frozen” is probably a bad name for the status effect. It’s a port from something else; D&D has a ton of monsters to use. While it makes sense in the context of For the King, there’s no specific relation to ice or frost here. Next, the last sentence on immunity sounds redundant, so we’ll change it up.

Weakened: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. Targets which are immune to the damage suffer no effect.

Now we’re cooking with gas! Weakened makes far more sense when it comes to the effect. I don’t have to worry about any dissonance between the condition’s name and its effect on a creature like Frost Giants or Rhemorazes. This should provide some interesting levers to play with when designing homebrew content. In fact, I have to make a magic bow for Kevin’s new character.

Might see some use!

Changing Spells I

Well the poll on my page was clear, and the Charger revision is going back to the drafts for awhile.

You terrible people. 

All's well though, spellcasting is one of my favorite topics when it comes to games in general. Now, I love magic in tabletop RPG's in particular because there's such a variety of actual spells. Far too many they could get a game like sky room, there's just too much programming and development of assets that would go into developing 1/10 of the spells D&D has (that's not including situations that would involve their application, though most are combat focused so it's layered with other things). 

However if you're like me, you might find spellcasting and D&D a little stale after a while. You're constantly looking up spells that don't have the concentration tag's you can layer some active effects, combats only last three or four rounds, and there's all the spells you can't really justify casting over something else. There may be a situation one in a million where casting wall of sand would aid the party in combat. Perfectly reasonable assumption. However, there will never be a time in which casting wall of sand is a better tactical option than casting haste.

So, my first choice for editing spells within D&D is screwing around with the concentration tags. Now, I've already gone into elsewhere what my current system for managing concentration is. For those of you not quite looking to rip off that band-aid yet, no worries, I'm going to try something a little different here that hopefully exposes the process.

We're going to run down a 5 step plan for determining whether you can take concentration off a spell without breaking the game. There's plenty of obvious spells to choose from, but I'm going to see if I can't run down a list of more difficult choices (can't grow if you don't challenge yourself).

1. Compare the spell to haste.
Haste isn't actually the linchpin here but it's a useful example. Chances are, if you play for a year or more, certain casters have a signature spell. It's the best, the party moves around it, it's the first suggestion someone makes when they want to solve an issue, it's the first thing someone casts in combat. In the game I'm currently playing, literally every player has some sort of martial competence. On top of that, we find ourselves kited often (mostly bosses fleeing from the raging half-orc with two greatsw-ALL HAIL KAINO THE MOUNTAIN) so the speed boost is gravy. Any other concentration spell I cast is weighed against the speed and damage boost 2 or 3 of my party members are receiving at that time, so it's rare that I drop anything else on the field. Spike growth COULD be cool in some situations, but I rarely have the excuse for it. For these reasons, haste is my go-to.

2. Evaluate the opportunity costs of the spell. 
What happens when a character drops concentration on another spell to cast this one? How does the battlefield change? Is it more valuable to maintain concentration on a hold monster or fog cloud then switch to this one? Will it see any use? If you drop in this instance the concentration tag, does it displace the other spells? Obviously if you remove concentration from the spell they can deploy the effect alongside a concentration effect.

Let's say we've got a spell, single target to keep things simple. It doesn't deal any damage but incurs a pretty hefty status affect. Not something that hurts a creature's action economy, just makes it worse that using the actions it has available to it. That spell sounds pretty fun, and it is! It has to pretty hefty downsides though. It offers a saving throw for the effect obviously not bad enough itself, and that save is Constitution based. Monsters tend to be decent at Constitution and strength saving throws. Next, the spell offers a repeating save. The spell can fail well before it would naturally end or even before you take damage and may be feel concentration check, even if the spell originally succeeds. For arguments sake, let's make the spell second level quite a few second level spells match the sort of design.

Now the spell isn't useless by any stretch of the imagination, it's still pretty powerful. Do we add the concentration tag to it? I'd say no! The restrictions placed on the spell are significant, and the spell's benefit isn't something that takes the enemy off the board. It doesn't deal damage, and it has a good chance of failure even if the spell succeeds at first. If you add concentration to this spell, it's not going to be terribly impressive. So unimpressive, that it gets moved from a "nice in-pocket spell" to "right in the never-cast list with wall of sand".

So, we do not add the concentration tag to such a spell. If said spell has that tag, we remove it.
This spell exists, by the way. It's Blindness/Deafness, and it's great for minibosses and clutch moments when I'm playing a character focused on battlefield control.

3. Compare the spell to other spells of its kind.
There's a cluster of 2nd level spells that really overlap in their utility and purpose, mechanically and thematically. Suggestion, Crown of Madness, and Hold Person (that last one might seem odd but I promise it's supposed to be there) all serve to diminish or cut out action economy in some fashion when it comes to the enemy.

Are your players going to ignore spells similar to the one you've selected to change? Is that an indication those other spells are in need of a fix as well? Or are you just boosting a spell to be too powerful?

4. Consider any exploits that result from changing it.
This step in the process of editing the spell is particularly relevant given the tag have chosen to use as an example. After all, concentration is fifth editions design Band-Aid on too many spell effects. So naturally, making your mechanical change in this area exploit – proof is especially necessary.

It's almost like I plan these things.

Changes to debuff spells are especially in need of attention. Stacking multiple conditions on top of one another can create a much faster downward spiral for your monsters. Creature fails wisdom save, creature has a condition that makes it automatically fail dex and strength saves, casters start throwing those spells at the creature, tensions rise, the DM flips the table. Avoid this. 

Don't engage in theory crafting; honestly think about how your usual combats play out. Mine tend to go about 3-4 rounds, and the players tend to get surprised more often than they do the monsters. I wouldn't think about what would happen if the cleric had 6 rounds of not taking damage, total preparation, no restrictions on line of sight, no risk of the monsters overwhelming him, etc. That situation will never play itself out in the game, not even by accident. Does the caster become a higher value target for intelligent monsters? Does the caster somehow make themselves more difficult to hit or take damage with the spell? Do the effective damage reductions also restrict their ability to affect the battlefield? Play out the situations in your head, or just take some 1" grid paper and literally play out the situation on paper. Not enough DMs do this, in can seriously benefit your design decisions. 

5. Evaluate whether toning down the spell may be worth the tradeoff.
There are two easy ways to tone down spells that are normally concentration. First, add a repeating save. There are few concentration spells that last for something like a minute and do not offer a repeating save. Spells of these sorts are usually justified in having the concentration tag. You might want to remove it anyways for whatever reason, so a good way to tone it down is to inflate the chance of the spell's failure. Pretty simple, right? Now some spells have a one minute duration and already offer a repeating save. If you want to remove the concentration tag from that spell, your easiest option for diminishing the effect is hard capping the duration. Make the spell last until the end of the casters next turn. It's a hefty penalty, but it's a nice trade-off. Now, what if you've encountered a spell that already caps the effect at the end of the casters next turn and has the concentration tag? More likely than not, you found a poorly designed spell. But if some miracle such as spell exists and deleting the concentration tag would make it unbalanced, simply increase the minimum level at which it must be cast. In fact, that change is relatively easy to institute to begin with and perhaps easier to remember.

This stage of the process is what I'd most recommend consulting with your players. As the adage goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it. After going through the previous steps, you may find a proposed mechanical change is best in your eyes balanced by diminishing some aspect of the spell. There are a variety of ways to do this of course, but I'd like to note that this step of the process is most likely to step on your players toes. Now, don't try to avoid that while going through this process up until this point. You would to plunge yourself into the mechanics, the math, the way your change plays out of the table. This plenty of opportunities for somebody to be mildly inconvenienced by a change you made; you need to ignore those thoughts while testing things out, or a else slow (worse yet, stall) your progress.

Once you get to this point, feedback is helpful! Making the design process collaborative for this sort of thing in the early stages can be difficult. It's far too easy to shoot each other down before getting things on paper. And since prototyping mechanic for a tabletop game is noticeably easier than prototyping for something like a videogame, the potential payoff for ignoring everyone else to get the idea established is far too high to resist. So, ask your players! Ask whether this will step on any of their toes! They will be best equipped to see if this will have any immediate or obvious detriments to their enjoyment of the game. 

Note: Sorry for a lower quality here, I had a really excellent 2-5 point list buy didn't save changes, so a lot of this is re-hashing things I'd already written down. 
 

Weekly Statblock: Frost Dune Worm

This week's statblock is a little different in that I actually already attacked the players with it. Besides that, This is more of a "homebrewed on the spot" monster (I had a bit of help from the 3.5 Sandstorm supplement). 

Frost Dune Worm.jpg

Nasty, huh? This is how solo bosses should be made!

Let's go through it. The players met God-King Orion (which I stole shamelessly from warhammer), who pledged to give them access to a Rune if they pledged themselves to a Hunting Lodge of his tree-city. How does on pledge to a lodge? They agree to go on a hunt, the target of which is chosen by Orion. The players accept, Orion thinks awhile, and he decides on what he wants. "On another world lies worms of titanic size; hunts worthy of my Glade Riders! One's caught my eye; Albino, with the breath of a dragon, and scaled! My Riders will guide you through the Glade, and drive the creature towards you." This plays out, the players make it to this new world (which they didn't at first understand, was not a plane, but another Material World), and look about. Pale red skies and sand lie above whatever ravine or canyon they've landed in, and the Riders set out to drive the worm towards them. Important note; the players knew the Riders were not to assist them in the event things went sideways.

This sort of encounter (the players are specifically contracted to fight it) is a great opportunity to be nastier than usual. 

So, let's evaluate what this guy can do.

The big threat to players is the Cold Breath. It's based on a Con save and deals a slightly less common resistance. The Gusting Breath is functionally more deadly to the players. It's based on a slightly better save for players (though not for mine in particular), but deals a far less common resistance (physical damage) and has the potential to blind the players besides. That being said, it can only be used after using the Inhaling Breath. This of course means using its action a whole round beforehand, which minimizes its damage somewhat. Not by too much, though. The Inhaling Breath is actually quite useful on its own; bringing creatures closer to its lovely whirlwind of death is frightening on its own, particularly if you start using the Bull Rush legendary action. 

Let's go to the Molting Shriek ability. I detected pretty early on the players were going to attempt a stunlock (and why not, there's only 1 creature). Once we got to a point in the fight that the players discovered holding back might get one or more of them killed, the creature's hp started dropping far more rapidly than before. I decided to give it a reaction (homebrew monster, I can do what I waaaaaaaant). I didn't know the specifics of the reaction beyond 2 things; it dropped his AC by 2, and the players had to make a con save or become stunned. I remember describing it as rearing back in pain, inhaling to emit the shriek so strongly that some of the scales and chitin they'd been striking began to slough off. If I recall correctly, this was roughly around where the creature was at half hp. Half HP is generally a goof flux point to intensify a battle, whether the creature gets stronger, weaker, or whatever else have you. I used this ability a second time however, when he was at something like 20 hp. I didn't have to include a justification for using the ability multiple times, of course. What I invent in the moment isn't always necessarily useful to anyone reading. Nevertheless, I thought I might be able to come up with a clever escalation mechanic, and lo! I did!

You might be wondering "Why doesn't the worm just spam that ability, use legendary actions and breath weapons to kill the pcs, and bounce?" 2 reasons, one of which is tactical, and one of which is not. The tactical reason is spamming Molting Shriek grants diminishing returns. The chances that all of your players will fail the save (even as hefty as 16 Con) is low. The chance they'll all fail it multiple times? Virtually none. So your monster is very rapidly decreasing his armor class (which normally remains static). 5e math is adjusted for players hitting something like 60% of the time. That might be lower when it comes to high AC creatures like this. If the monster spams this ability, he'll be hit with far more attacks and be far less able to defend himself. His HP will begin to spiral downwards; the difference between HP retention in the fight between my players and this creature before and after he used Molting Shriek was very, VERY distinct. That's just going from 20 to 18. Imagine going down to something like 12! You might very well kill a player, don't get me wrong. You're probably not going to get much more than that, though. 

I saved the narrative reason for last because I wanted a well thought out, mechanical explanation for the inevitable complaint over things people haven't playtested being "OP". Narrative reasons are nice, but people will glance over them if they dislike the conclusion. There's a very simple reason this creature doesn't do take "tactically completely optimal" option: it has an intelligence of 6. 6! There are no tactics for that creature. It's not going for the spellcaster first. Stop it. Stop typ-no, stop. If you wanna play the half dragon sandworm like it houses the trapped consciousness of Alexander the Great, you do you man. 

Don't drag me down. 

One last thing; the death burst! This was I think lifted directly from the 3.5 supplement. Very simple ability; the players kill the creature, and the creature detonates and hurts them. This can actually be important in 2 contexts. For one thing, if other creatures are on the way, how many resources (HP, spells) the players have left is actually quite important. Next, if any players are unconscious (particularly more than one), stay in initiative (which I did). The players probably won't lose anyone to failed death saves outside of combat. The possibility remains, however, and who has what spells to revive someone actually matters (at the very least, a non healer might need to spend some health potions to ensure the survival of a close downed player).

Lemme know what you think guys!

Re-leashing the players

The players have crafted a cool magic item and discovered new runes in the last session, as well as discovered a bit more about the world they live in. These are things I'd tell you in a campaign diary, but the campaign diaries are supposed to provide 2 things: useful DM material/inspiration, and an enetertaining story. I can't justify cutting down the videos to tell you the "only useful" parts when those are generally best saved for a specific concept. Seeing as though I'm not that great of a storyteller in the context of D&D yet, that means the videos' primary functions aren't being fulfilled. That's fine though, I have this as a creative outlet and I can always go back to videos (which will then be linked here) should I decide that content will be sufficiently useful and worth my time to make it such.

Seeing as that's out of the way, let's get to the meat of the matter. I've given my players a lot of sandbox style freedom in their general directions, goals, what they want to seek out, etc. I did start wondering about why they were sent down here in the first place, though. For those of you catching up, my players are exploring the southern reaches of this continent, seeking lost magic items, civilizations, magical power and spells, etc. The reason? The Second Host War has just kicked off, and the nation acting as their patron would very much like to gain any advantage they can at minimal expenditure of resources. A small expedition of adventurers fits that bill, particularly if they start to succeed (and indeed they have). 

So the players are feeling that success, right? 

Well, not quite. They definitely love finding new stuff, making magic items, the works. I focus a lot on what I think 5e is missing (somewhat intentionally); loot! In coming to this new region though, they're actually the underdogs in some sense. The party has fought quite a few enemies at this point that have access to Runes they didn't (or still don't). Finding said runes has boosted their power to be more on par with the things they're assaulting, not to gain an advantage over creatures that have no such thing. That's fine! They love the "we get beaten down to come back better" style of play. I still can't help but wonder if it's a bit of dissonance in the narrative. They have managed to transfer Runes to their civilization by way of the high-level druid that contracted them in the first place, despite now being the lateral distance of the United States away through use of certain spells. 

So here's where I come to my plan for next session; I specifically kicked off the Second Host War so the players would have their punching bag and I'd have a ready supply of "it's ok to wipe the floor with them" villains. Runes are being transmitted and learned back home, but not terribly quickly, and there's no reason to think the Brestrels (antagonist nation) have them yet. What if Ulfin requests their help back home? He can cast a spell, have them there to assist, then bamf them back to their original quest. If the players agree, I know exactly what to prep, what I can expect from the players, who the bad guys are, etc. That session will effectively be on rails, but only because the players chose to put themselves on in the first place. After what I consider to be the failure of my first campaign, I no longer worry all that much about "railroading" but I still have the occasional nagging voice, telling me how terrible I must be as a storyteller for having a real, prepared narrative. 

The effect I'm hoping to have on the players is demonstrating how dominant their advantage back home would be (and here, is). This is their opportunity to power trip. I'm not saying I'll make the combat easy per se, just adjust hitpoints and such so the volume of enemies they can take on with this advantage is reasonably inflated. 

As for the premise of the mission? A vanguard force pushed too deep into an Argonne-style forest, found themselves surrounded, and now it's rescue time. 

 

Weekend Statblock: Syrnor

Time for this week's weekend statblock, the first I'm placing on the blog.

 

To give my readers here a bit of extra juice I'm going to go a bit in-depth on why I made the creature, how I made the creature, and how I think it'll perform.

Syrnor (extra).jpg

I added two stat blocks here just to save paper and have on hand. So! For the why: my players as you'll find out in the next campaign diary fled from the coastal village amidst an assault by watery creatures. The large pit billowing smoke that can be seen for miles was not there first stop after the village, but it was what they stuck with.

First thing they encountered and this was the fight that ended the night were two beholder-kin: Death Kisses. Pretty nasty fight for a six level party. Nevertheless, I thought about how cool it would be if this place was the layer of a fire themed beholder. Crazy right! Anyways, want to give him some minions that would be both useful as trash mobs in a boss fight and function as nasty encounters in their own right.

I'm not going to mention what fire Giants will be doing so far down south in my setting, just know for now that they are very much not supposed to be here. So, what would fire Giants twisted by the experiments of a mad beholder look like? These guys!

Meaty and mindless was the goal of this particular creation and I'm pretty sure I was spot on. These guys have a lot of hard-hitting abilities but low enough mental stats that I can justify playing them in sub optimal ways should the need arise to further the narrative. They have a low armor class to make up for their high hit points and immunity to fire damage. There are at least three people in my party who have the "lower your hit chance, boost your damage" feats of 5E, so this is tuned to them (much like most of what I put out). Sael shouldn't have too many issues seeing as though he's a storm sorcerer (as much as he likes using fire damage). I also like implementing various conditionals; fire drying can arbitrarily boost his damage or to hit chance but only once per turn, and if the players output enough damage of a certain type or engage in some creative spellcasting, they can take these guys down a peg out of the gate.

Something I thought of while I was writing this is Sael just hit sixth level, which means he has access to and ability that allows him to create rain within a 20 foot radius. I did write on this sheet that the head needs to be dunked specifically, and I don't I'm splitting hairs when I differentiate that and simple rainfall. At least, I hope I'm not.Also, I noticed I didn't include a save DC for the spellcasting portion or what ability score it relied on. 13, relies on charisma should be fine for a regular if not for the fact a lot of giants use constitution(?) though I may be thinking of other creatures. 18 seems hefty for what these guys can do, but they're also only 1st and 2nd level spells. The slam attacks and the eye beam are the real stars of the show.

Other than all that I don't think these guys have any particular sway against my party, they're just generic meaty fire dudes with some cool abilities. Should be fun!