Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alternate Rules: Dire-er Wolves

In our Curse of Strahd campaign one thing I have tried to show is Navere entering a more feral state. He has been driven to this by the dreary fucked weather patterns and day/night cycle, the malicious subversion of the natural impulses of wolves and other creatures, the widespread subversion of the natural cycle of life and death, as well as the redneck fuckhead Druids that worship the vampire Strahd because the weather changes when he's butthurt. To represent Navere's feral upbringing among wolves being closer to the surface, I've decided to begin taking levels of Barbarian and Kyle has allowed me to change from a Circle of the Land Druid to a Circle of the Moon Druid, which is more focused on wild shape and less on spells. Navere's savage feral nature is closer to the surface, but he is still intelligent and has experienced civilization and has an above average Intelligence and Wisdom. The way I represent this struggle between feral wolfiness and civilized intelligence is any time something that trips Navere's predator/prey instincts happens, I roll a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. Navere has a pretty significant bonus on his Wisdom saving throws, but if he fails, he uses wild shape and becomes a dire wolf. Once he's in dire wolf shape, the same thing happens. If Navere's predator/prey instincts are tripped, he makes a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw. If he fails, he rages. The rage capabilities coupled with his ability to sacrifice spell slots as a bonus action to heal while in wild shape is a pretty good combo. I've also decided that when this happens, once he is in his dire wolf shape, he doesn't leave until the timer runs out on the use or he is forced out of it. In extreme situations I may decide to let him make a Wisdom saving throw to transform out of it. He can still willingly choose to transform into an animal with his wild shape ability, but I'm planning to describe the transformation differently. 

In our last session (which at the time this posts happened slightly over three weeks ago) we saw a saber toothed cat and Kyle mentioned to me that I was one Druid level short of being able to wild shape into a saber toothed cat. Navere is a 5th level Druid and Circle of the Moon Druids can transform into animals with a CR equal to their level divided by three, rounded down. This got me thinking though. Wild shape is somewhat limited because your attack bonus will always be limited by the stats of the form you take. So when I have a +5 proficiency bonus, I'll still be using the dire wolf's +2 proficiency bonus on attack rolls. I got to thinking, what if Kyle just let me upgrade the dire wolf (which has a CR of 1) to a dire-er wolf with a CR of 2? Kyle OKed it, so that's what I'm about to discuss doing here.

So the rules for modifying monsters in this edition are a little goofy. Like in Pathfinder or 3.5 I could just apply a template with a CR adjustment of +1 and boom, we have a CR 2 dire wolf. In 5th Edition, you basically take five categories of abilities from a chart of suggested CRs, add the CRs of the defensive traits together and divide by two and then do the same with the offensive traits and divide by three. Then you compare the results and figure out what CR you want your critter to be.

The categories are as follows: armor class, hit points, attack bonus, damage per round, and save DC. The first three are the defensive traits and the last three are offensive traits. The CR 1 dire wolf currently sits at AC 14 (CR 4), 37 hit points (CR 1/4), +5 attack bonus (CR 4),  one attack per round with an average of 10 damage per round (CR 1), and the DC for its trip special ability is 13 (CR 1/8 - 3). If we add our defensive CR totals of 4, and 0.25 together we get a net CR of 2.125 for defensive traits. If we add our offensive CR totals of 4, 1, and 0.125 together we get a net CR of 1.71 for offensive traits.

Ok. This is seriously confusing. The guidelines in the DMG that I'm looking at say to round up and down to compare the creature's offensive and defensive abilities. So we have CR 2 defensive traits and CR 2 offensive traits. Looking at all this somewhat confusing information, the dire wolf is a CR 2 creature in the first place. But they made it CR 1 in the Monster Manual. Why?

Looking at the rules for encounter building, a CR 1 creature is supposed to be a medium challenge for a group of 4 to 5 first level PCs. Looking at the dire wolf's low AC (14), and hit points (37), it's probably not going to survive more than a few rounds against a group of 1st level PCs. The average damage of the dire wolf (10) and its +5 attack bonus are definitely going to make it a threat, and it could conceivably drop a low hit point character like a Wizard. We also have to consider the fact that dire wolves are pack animals, so you're not really going to encounter them alone, so they're not really ideal for low level encounters. So yeah, a single dire wolf could do some damage to a 1st level party, but one probably won't TPK them and lone dire wolves are not an ideal monster to pit against 1st level characters. During testing they probably justified making them CR 1 by saying that dire wolves are pack animals and if we keep them at CR 1 DMs can use more of them against higher level characters that have more survivability.

Or they just winged it and came up with these monster creation guidelines way after the fact.

Looking at other large size CR 2 animals, they seem to have a slightly higher Strength and more hit points than our large size CR 1 dire wolf. So let's experiment with that for our CR 2 dire-er wolf.  The easiest way I can think of to tweak the dire wolf's stats to achieve slight increases to damage and hit points is fairly obvious. We tweak its Strength and its Constitution. It currently has a Strength of 17 and a Constitution of 15. With just a +1 to both of those ability scores we create minor tweaks to its current stats that make it more comparable to creatures like the saber toothed cat.

With the +1 to the dire wolf's Strength (making it 18) we end up with an attack bonus of +6, an average damage of 11, and we increase the DC for its trip attack to 14. With the +1 to Constitution we make its hit points 42 (it has 5 hit dice). This is comparable to the giant (dire) boar, the giant (dire) hyena, and rhinoceros.  These are all large size, CR 2 animals. I think I could make a case for giving it a sixth hit die as well, but I'm not sure. The giant boar has 5, the giant hyena and rhino have 6, and the saber toothed cat has 7. So I dunno.

Kyle suggested making the dire wolf huge or creating a variant of the winter wolf (a CR 3 monstrosity with 70ish hit points) that has a howl that dealt thunder damage. Huge size is kind of ridiculous. It makes Navere's wild shape ability completely impractical for adventuring. It also jumps the dire wolf's hit points from 37 (5d10+10) to 42 (5d12+10). Which does make its hit points more in line with the previously mentioned CR 2 large size creatures. I'll admit it, I really like the idea of a giant wolf with a thunder damage howl, but it is totally not in keeping with everything Navere is about. Monstrosities are just that. They are unnatural. Wild shape can't transform into them as far as I know. Plus, it doesn't fit with Navere. Navere was raised by wolves, a thunder howl wolf isn't natural and doesn't make sense for his background. It's definitely a cool thing I would totally be for in another situation, but it doesn't fit Navere. Navere's whole reason for going semi-feral is because of the unnatural shit going on in Barovia. He wouldn't go feral because of this bullshit and then embrace an unnatural wolf form. 

One special note about wild shape, you can't cast spells in a wild shape form (at least not until a higher Druid level that I am probably not going to achieve in this campaign), but you can concentrate on spells while in a wild shape form. So one of the cool things Navere can do is cast call lightning and transform into a dire wolf and then emit a deep as fuck howl to "call" down lightning from a storm of his creation onto the heads of his foes. That just sounds like a cool thing to describe. I'm also very excited by the idea of Navere casting haste on himself and then wild shaping. That's going to be a fun time. 

The only problem with these ideas is that if he does fail his Wisdom saving throw and rages, he can no longer concentrate on or cast spells. So that's not ideal, but oh well. I still have plenty of options to do cool things. 

After all this talking and going over monster creation  and wild shape rules and whatnot, my real wish is that you could replace the creature you transform into's proficiency bonus with your own. Period. End of sentence. That would make low CR forms more useful for magical wild shaping, but the rules as written say that you use the creature's attacks as listed and only replace its proficiency bonus on skills (and I think saving throws) if yours is higher. So it kind of clearly states that you use the critter's proficiency bonus for attacks made in that form. I can definitely see the logic for not allowing attacks to use the character's proficiency bonus. You're transforming into a dire wolf and attacking like a dire wolf and Druids, not having giant ass jaws, would not really be terribly proficient in attacking things with giant ass jaws and dragging creatures to the ground with them. I get it, but the special entitled snowflake inside of me wishes things could be different. 

Alas, I have become the thing I hate. So begin the End Times. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Alternate Rules: Random and Non-Essential Encounter Resolution

Random encounters.


I hate random encounters. I see their main purpose, to add an element of random danger to cross country travel or dungeon delving, and it has merit. But they're nothing more than a time sink. Completely pointless. Yes, you can have random encounters have meaning by adding special encounters to them, like when you roll a 12 on the random encounter chart and end up stumbling across the Wanderer or the Hound and that having an unexpected effect on future sessions. Those can be interesting. Most random encounters are just randomly running into 12 goblins in the dungeon or stumbling across a shambling mound on its cross country shamble.

Ok, first of all, as the GM, you should fucking know how many goblins/soldiers/whatever are in your dungeon, and you should know their patrol routes, assuming they have patrol routes and patrolling regularly fits with the monster type. Ok? If you don't, you're being lazy. These are things that should not be randomly generated on the spot. Unless of course you're playing a sort of randomized sandbox campaign. There are either thirty goblins in the dungeon or there are not. They either patrol or they do not. They either respond to the loud sounds of battle that echo through the dungeon, or they do not. One of the things I despise is reinforcements appearing from nowhere, like they're miraculously summoned by magic, rather than coming from another part of the dungeon where they could reasonably hear the yells of their allies that are currently engaging the PCs.

Anyway. Random and non-essential encounter resolution. That's what we're here to discuss, right?

Non-essential fights are those fights designed purely to drain resources. These are the fights from scenarios where you're just trying to pad the run time or following the guidelines in a DMG for X amount of encounters. They serve no real narrative purposes and aren't terribly memorable because of mechanics, environment, or foes. Or they're fights that you hadn't planned on that the players pick with faceless NPCs like when the players walk down an alley or something and a gang of thugs greets them and the players botch their Charisma (Intimidation) check and are unwilling to pay the 5 gp toll. They're boring and don't feature compelling mechanics or environments or their only purpose is to drain resources so the PCs are unable to leverage their full power and abilities against the end boss or whatever.

Additionally, random and non-essential encounters both chew up an excessive amount of time, because combat eats up the most time in a gaming session and it's not because of rolling initiative or indecision on the part of players. It's because combat is time consuming because it involves everybody doing something. Fine, you can shave off seconds by being prepared and pre-rolling your initiative and attacks and not getting distracted, but four or more players and a GM that likely controls a similar amount of NPCs (if not more) each have to take actions and that eats up time. 

I don't include random encounters in my scenarios and I only include non-essential encounters if I have to. If a particular bandit keep has sixty bandits as members of the bandit group and the players wander in when all sixty are relaxing at the keep, I'm going to make the PCs slog through sixty fucking bandits. It will take time and be boring and they will hate it, but if there are sixty bandits in a bandit keep, they are going to have to deal with all of them whether it be via murder, intimidation, or just avoiding them. I do this because to me, even though they're non-essential encounters, they need to be there for the sake of continuity and perhaps a bit of realism. If a bandit group has sixty bandits, yes, the players are going to have to resolve dealing with all of those bandits because that's how many bandits there are. If they only deal with sixteen bandits out of sixty, what was the point? Ok, the lead bandit is deposed, dead, or brought to justice or whatever. There are still forty-four bandits out there and one of them is bound to be interested in leading the rest to raid local merchants and villages. What was the point? Nothing has changed. Why should the players consider it a success or the villagers consider the reward earned?

Ok, so random encounters are dumb and non-essential encounters waste time. So how do we expedite them if the GM feels the need to use them? This idea is going to be written for 5th Edition, but the general gist of it can apply to more than that. Since the goal here is to imply difficulty or complication or randomness, and not to kill the players, my thought is to resolve random and non-essential encounters as a skill check of sorts.

There are a few ways you can do this. You can treat it as a skill challenge and have every player participate. You could treat it as a pure skill check where a player rolls based on his skills for the group to resolve an encounter vs. a DC or relevant opposed roll from the adversaries, but that's an inelegant one and kind of steps on talky characters making talking skill checks to avoid encounters and steps on stealthy characters making stealthy skill checks to avoid encounter. Or you could just treat it as a group check with modifiers based on the advantages each side possesses. Blah blah blah blah.

The purpose is to negate the pointless slog of random and non-essential combat encounters, to resolve them quickly in a satisfying way for the players and the GM. I say this method is for combat encounters because if you're taking the route of non-combat to resolve another type of encounter, you're going to typically be using pre-existing mechanics to resolve that (dialogue and stealth skills and such).

My thought is to have the players make a d20 roll as a group with their proficiency bonus (for the sake of this discussion, assume that all players are the same level and that sort of thing and no one ever has to worry about varying proficiency levels between members) and give them advantage or disadvantage based on how they compare to the foe and how they want to resolve the encounter. The purpose is to resolve it quickly without getting into nitty gritty details, so it is abstract. If the players outnumber the foes, advantage. If the players are outnumbered by the foes, disadvantage. Maybe the Wizard says he'll use a third level spell slot to cast fireball against the enemies (make sure you deduct that from their character sheet) and that gets them advantage. Maybe the Fighter agrees to use action surge and that gets them advantage. Use the normal rules for advantage and disadvantage nullifying each other and only applying once to a roll. Once you figure out whether the PCs have advantage, disadvantage, or neither on the roll, make the d20 + proficiency bonus roll.

Since the goal is to resolve the encounter quickly and abstractly, rather than kill the players, the result is never that they lose the combat and die. The d20 roll is meant to represent the randomness of combat, obviously. Sometimes players get unlucky and have to use more of their resources to combat a not terribly tough foe. Sometimes foes get lucky and critical hit the Wizard in round one and drop them. So the way you resolve it is based on the success of the group's roll. Maybe on a natural 20 they wade through the combat like golden fucking gods untouchable by man or fell beast. Maybe on a natural one they all take 1d8 damage and one of the players is dropped to 0 hit points and must make a death save once. Then you vary the results, with high results being less costly and lower results using up more of their resources like hit dice and class abilities and that sort of thing.

My thought is to break it up into a range of results as follow:
  • 20+          : Amazing success, player's succeed at no cost to themselves. 
  • 11 - 19    : One player loses 1 hit die. Determine who loses the hit die randomly. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of a losing a hit die.
  • 2 - 10       : Players lose a total of 1d4 hit dice. Determine who loses a hit die randomly. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of a losing a hit die.
  • 1           : Each player loses one hit die and one player, randomly determined, must make a death save. Players may opt to expend one ability that is restored on a short rest instead of losing a hit die. If the character that makes the death saving throw fails, he is not at 0 hit points, it is merely noted that he has failed a death saving throw that day. 

So that is kind of what I'm thinking. I think it does what I want, but I'm not sure it's perfect. I like it more than randomly assigning damage or something. It burns player resources, just like actually going through a fight would, and that's the main purpose here. So that's a success. By opting to use hit dice instead of dealing hit point damage or something, and giving the players the option of expending short rest abilities, it kind of cuts down on the 15 minute adventuring day as well. I think. Maybe. Who the fuck knows? I do think resolving non-essential combat encounters this way will result in keeping the players fresher for longer in the adventure, which will allow a DM to keep the actual plot-related combats more interesting and dangerous. 

Regardless, I think it does what I want. A quick discussion about advantage vs. disadvantage when fighting a group of mooks and making a die roll is way fucking quicker than actually going through three or four rounds of relatively pointless combat. This is actually similar to something I'd occasionally do in 4th Edition where after a certain point everyone expended their encounter powers, but foes were still standing and I'd just call the fight and charge everyone a healing surge instead of going through an hour of everyone spamming their at will attacks for round after round. I think that was a popular way of resolving 4th Edition's long fights back then. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Why of Yofga and Hasta

So I know I mentioned rebooting Hekinoe to some degree, but that's on the back burner for a bit. For now, the main task is to get my 5th Edition campaign for Kyle's group put together. I've got a world and some house rules and so on and so forth. I even have what I think is a plot that will work.

Part of me keeps asking myself, why bother with a 5th Edition campaign on a world that exists in the same universe as Hekinoe, but isn't Hekinoe? Especially when I'm initiating some major changes to Hekinoe. Well, there are a couple reasons for this of varying degrees of merit. So let's talk about those today. I guess?

The first reason I want to run a 5th Edition campaign is to give Kyle and Kevin a break. They've been alternating campaigns basically since I joined their group like two years and some change ago. I just figure that it would be a nice break for both of them if another DM steps in for a bit to let them both play. I figure that I was always appreciative of those times Eric stepped in to try and DM something with our group, so Kevin and Kyle might feel the same way if I took up the mantle for a bit as well. I dunno. I very much get what it feels like to run an endless series of campaigns with little to no respite from it, so I guess I just want to show my appreciation for being accepted into the group and for having a chance to play a dozen or so characters.

The second reason is that I miss DMing. I am definitely something of a control freak when it comes to gaming and I struggle constantly (and not always successfully) with telling everyone what to do and reminding Kyle and Kevin of this or that. I'm sure it wears on Kevin and Kyle and the other players and resisting that urge to tell everyone what to do and why they should do it wears on me. In addition to wanting to be in control again, I miss crafting environments and NPCs and plots. I miss worldbuilding. I miss surprising and confusing and terrifying my players. I miss having secrets and knowing things. I miss playing the "I don't know. Does it?" game. I miss DMing.

The third reason, and this is a snarky and selfish one, is that I am fucking sick of "immersion." I have expressed a certain dislike for the immersive aspects of our current campaign. We've always experimented with dim lighting, and it has always given me a headache and I have been up front about that. With the fog machine and soundtrack and lack of maps and visual media, it's borderline unbearable. I'm just sick of being constantly distracted from the game and what everyone is saying by the hissing fog machine and the soundtrack, and never knowing what is happening or what our environment looks like or where anyone is due to lack of representation of those aspects that I can see, and going home after every session with a raging headache from squinting at a backlit tablet in a lightless basement and a scratchy throat and congested nose from the fog I'm constantly sucking in. So yeah, full disclosure, part of why I want to DM for this group is so that I can game in a well lit and comfortable environment.

Side note: Fred and I have recently discussed how when I run my desert world campaign I should make it immersive theater of the mind. By immersive theater of the mind, I mean we should have a space heater running constantly in Kevin's basement while we game, ban all beverages while gaming, and bring a powerful spotlight to blast people with periodically to represent the unrelenting gaze of Hasta's furious sun, and also periodically throw handfuls of sand into their faces. That would definitely be hilarious and immersive and maybe just a smidgen petty. Maybe more than a smidgen. Maybe a lot more than a smidgen. Hehe.

The fourth reason is that I want to challenge myself a little bit. My comfort zone is Hekinoe, Pathfinder, and a certain group of players. I feel like it is important to step outside that comfort zone and challenge myself a little. So instead of the somewhat environmentally stable technologically advanced fantasy world of Hekinoe, I'm trying a campaign on a dying fantasy desert world. Instead of using something I can quote rules and stats from memory from, like Pathfinder, I'm running 5th Edition (which yeah, I'm pretty familiar with at this point, but still). Instead of gaming with Eric and Jason and Lance and Jeremy, etc, etc, I'm running a campaign with this newer group. Instead of doing my politics and warfare plots, I'm doing a semi-tropeish save the world campaign. So yeah, I'm kind of challenging myself a little bit to step outside of my comfort zone a wee bit. Which is cool. It's important to try new things and grow as a GM. I guess.

So those are the reasons why I want to do a 5th Edition, non-Hekinoe campaign. So what am I trying to do with the campaign?

This ties in somewhat to challenging myself. My goal for this is to do a save the world campaign, which I don't do too often. If I have, it's been a while. Pre-Hekinoe at least. My goal is to try and make a save the world campaign, but put my spin on it. Keep my plot creation ideal of grey morality and NPCs with personalities and a world that responds to the actions of the PCs but doesn't pause while they're not directly interacting with a given portion of it. 

My goal is also to use this campaign as a means of focusing and disciplining my scenario creation. Back in the Orcunraytrel Arc we'd game maybe once every two months, sometimes with longer stretches between sessions. We'd augment this with constant RPs via email. Emailing to do RPs between sessions isn't really an option with this group. It's been tried before and kind of falls flat. This group does a game every two weeks, almost without fail, thing that I am very unused to. I'm not sure how my somewhat lackadaisical scenario creation is going to cope with that. I'm normally way more slackass about scenario creation than that. So I'm going to have to get into the practice of disciplining myself and focusing harder on getting scenarios done and that sort of thing. I'm not sure how I'll ultimately cope with this or if I'll be able to keep it up, but I'm going to challenge myself to try. 

Or I'm just going to say fuck it, play video games, and pull everything out of my ass. We'll see.

Another goal is to put 5th Edition and my house rules for it through their paces. I want to hack it up and twist and see how far I can push it before it breaks. Pathfinder tolerated Hekinoe and my house rules fairly well. I want to see what happens when I put 5th Edition under some stress and change how its rules work for magic and recovery and so on. I've tweaked things here and there in ways that tickle my fancy and fit with Hasta and the way it is, now I want to see how that impacts 5th Edition and how it works in a practical way and not a theoretical way. Like yeah, theoretically, I understand that combat is going to be made easier by the group having access to healing spells that are limited only by the fact that they can be used once per round, rather than by spell slots per day. But how is that going to interact with limited recovery of hit dice and being subjected to exhaustion levels more frequently? Six levels of exhaustion kills you, even if you're at full health, and you gain exhaustion levels in my house rules when you hit half hit points and 0 hit points. How are those going to work together? I'm excited to see how all my house rules interact with one another and I'm excited to see how they need to be tweaked. It'll be neat.

So there's some of my goals for my 5th Edition campaign and that sort of thing. Wee!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Hekinoe 2.0

Hekinoe 2.0, eh? We're doing this? Really?


So here's the thing. I keep stalling out on converting Hekinoe to GURPS. I'm not sure why. I go and go and go and I blog about it, I get hung up on races or sorcery or psionics or Nel or what the fuck ever. Then I stop blogging for a year and don't touch GURPS Hekinoe for a year. I've get an idea that I think might help me get back into working on Hekinoe and moving towards a point where I can run things in Hekinoe. 

So let's talk about Hekinoe for a bit.

Hekinoe is a little bit busy. We've got lots of continents. Myrecenar, Fendojon, The North, The South, The Known World, Ieangetniv, Grenaldeen, Orcunraytrel, Fresgulen, The Known World, Yarrom, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. The thing is, most of these continents (aside from Orcunraytrel, The Known World, Grenaldeen, Fresgulen, The North, and The South) are of very little importance and are very poorly fleshed out. Ieangetniv definitely has nostalgic value though.

So Hekinoe is a little busy, lots of places and names with only a very few fleshed out thoroughly. Let's talk about those fairly fleshed out areas. The Known World is super crammed with shit. Orcunraytrel is a little less so. So what we're dealing with here are a few highly concentrated regions of stuff and then a bunch of poorly fleshed out continents. It's kind of a poor way to have a campaign world set up. It would make sense if we were primarily focused on The Known World, which we kind of are, and they were exploring the rest of the world and learning about things, which they are currently not. The problem is that with the technology level of The Known World, they would be exploring the world around them and countries there would have colonies and that sort of thing. Trade and travel and exploration would be occurring. But they're not. We have eight or more fairly powerful nations crammed into a landmass only a little bit larger than The United States. It's not completely unbelievable (I think), but it does make for a very very busy continent with lots of bits and pieces moving and interacting.

I've had a thought, and it has gotten some positive reactions from some of my go to people. My thought is that I remove all the useless, vaguely defined bits of Hekinoe that don't interest anyone and then spread out all the nonsense of The Known World. So remove Myrecenar and Yarrom, and that one continent that I forgot the name of, and then turn most of the nations of The Known World into their own continents. So Kusseth, The Fallen Empire, The Fell Peaks, The Old Empire, etc all get their own continents and The Known World becomes a continent of colonies.

This has the benefit of spreading out the world more, so it at least seems more filled in. Additionally, turning The Known World into a place of colonies makes it more sensible for countries like Serethnem, Vyanthnem, and Steeltown to exist. So when the Rankethlek fled the Fallen, instead of moving like 25 miles west of their undead masters, they moved to another continent. Serethnem and Vyanthnem already work pretty well in The Known World because their rulers fled a different continent. By spreading out the main empires of Hekinoe we also make it much more reasonable for Haven to exist. If more sea travel and trade and exploration occur, the pirate nation has much more believable viability as a country. 

Additionally, I'd remove The Plains of Dust from The Known World because no one has ever been interested in the horsemen of that land and I literally have no background information on them. Like seriously. There's a flag Jeremy made for me and that's it. Clearly that region is not vital to the lore of Hekinoe. In the same sort of thought process, I'd remove the lizardfolk of Mawknell in Orcunraytrel and probably one or two of the Asosan But Not Asosan kingdoms as well.

So this isn't exactly a reboot or a new campaign world, it's more of a heavy modification of a pre-existing one. This change will unfortunately negate all of the super cool maps Jeremy has made. Sorry dude. The lore and everything will for the most part be unchanged. Keroen Skathos is a thing that exists, Kaleshmar fell, The Fallen are made of Elduman, etc, etc, etc. Just the physical shape of the world will be altered. Hopefully it will make Hekinoe feel more fleshed out and less like the only place anything remotely interesting is happening is in The Known World.

I dunno, I have really positive feelings about this idea. I might almost be described as being excited about this.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dragons...Yeah...Let's Talk About Some Dogdamn Dragons

So there is this dude on YouTube named Matt Colville, he's got a lot of interesting and good ideas. I've recently completed watching his Running The Game series on his YouTube channel. He's got a lot of smart ideas overall, but one thing about his Running the Game #32 video is that he says, "I mean ultimately I think dragons in D&D are first and foremost large bags of hit points with  breath weapons." as well as "But I'm not the only person that thinks that dragons in 5th Edition are somewhat boring."

This section of the video (the first 5 minutes or so) explains how an ancient red dragon would be much more interesting and dangerous if it had an aura of fire damage with no save or attack roll associated with it, or if it had a focused breath weapon that did fire damage against one target that did more damage than normal (because 91 fire on a failed save isn't enough?) and lit it on fire, as well as removing fire resistance from targets that fail saving throws against its breath weapon attacks for the rest of the battle. He also says that it would be more interesting if the dragon's frightful presence had a lingering effect. He briefly discusses the idea of using the 5th Edition dragons as spellcasters variant, but kind of says that adds another mechanic to the encounter that forces more book keeping upon the DM.

The overall point of this video is the idea that 5th Edition DMs can draw a lot of inspiration and steal a lot of cool mechanics from 4th Edition. Which is true, to a certain extent. As I've said before, 4th Edition is hands down the worst edition of D&D, but it is a very solid and enjoyable tabletop tactics RPG. Its rules would be great for implementing something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre or something of that nature. But they're flat out awful for representing D&D. That said, there are definitely mechanics and concepts to be found in 4th Edition that can augment 5th Edition combat if you're finding it to be a bit stale and boring at higher levels. 

Before we go on, I want to mention that this guy has a really great understanding of aspects of 5th Edition. Part of the video talks about the math behind the mechanics of magic items, proficiency bonuses, and AC. This guy seems to have a pretty solid understanding of the underpinnings of the math of the game. Not enough DMs spend enough time understanding the why behind the action economy and math of the game. A lot of DMs make judgement calls and change rules on the fly with a very minimal understanding of the how and why of the game's underpinnings. I typically run things with a fair amount of house rules, and while I understand the underpinnings of the game, I typically don't give a fuck. I change things because I want them to fit with how my campaign world works or because I want to make the game fit my tastes. Is that any better than making random judgment calls and house rules at random times? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I won't call this guy stupid, because he's definitely not. He's an experienced DM with a lot of great ideas and as the previous paragraph states, he has a strong understanding of the way 5th Edition works. But calling dragons nothing more than large sacks of hit points and implying they are at all boring is incredibly, adorably, preposterous. I am of the mindset that if you are running a dragon of any significant age and your players are bored by the fight and you're bored running the fight, you're doing it wrong.

Let's discuss a few things about ancient red dragons in 5th Edition.

First and foremost, they're a CR 24 creature with an AC of 22 and 546 hit points with an Intelligence of 18. So yeah, they could be referred to as a sack of hit points with a breath weapon. But using that as their main descriptor does them a disservice. If we go by challenge rating alone, an ancient red dragon is a hard or deadly encounter for any party of 4 - 6 players of like 16th level or lower. Obviously the lethality of the dragon increases the lower level the party is. The breath weapon deals 91 fire damage on a failed save. That's enough to chew through almost half the average hit points of a 16th level Barbarian with a 20 in Constitution (12 at 1st level, 15 levels x 7 HP a level, Con bonus of 5 HP x 16 levels = 197 hit points), assuming he fails the DC 24 Dexterity save. Barbarians of this level do have advantage on Dexterity saving throws, assuming they can see it coming, so there's that.

I'm going to get one thing out of the way at the start here. If you are running a dragon battle as a DM and your dragon has an Intelligence score greater than 2 (the Intelligence score of most animals) and it is not flying around, you've fucked up. If the dragon is sitting in its cave fighting the players in an enclosed space where it cannot dive bomb them and unleash its breath weapon and such from range, you've fucked up. Put away your DM screen and your dice, apologize to your players and Gygax's legacy and try again later. You're better than this. You know it, I know it, and the Gygax within us all knows it.

Moving on.

Now if you're doing this right, you've got this dragon making its lair in something like a an active or dormant volcano. For me, I'd make it somewhat active. Maybe not actively gushing lava, but it's a hot place and the dragon has made his home somewhere where the players have to navigate through hazardous terrain to get to it, but the dragon also has a way to exit the volcano rapidly. If it's a really active volcano, maybe he just swims through a lava tube to the exterior or claws his way up the interior walls (ancient reds have a climb speed) of the volcano and exits out of the spout (do volcanoes have spouts? is it called a spout? an orifice?). Or he just flies the fuck out. I'm not a volcano expert. Maybe he just bashes his way out. He's gargantuan size and has a Strength of 30. That's big enough to knock a hole in a rock formation, right?

Two great things 5th Edition added to powerful and iconic monsters are legendary actions and lair actions. On initiative 20, the dragon can make his lair do one of the following things: tremor (knocking creatures prone), cause a geyser of lava (doing some decent fire damage), or create a cloud of volcanic vapor (obscuring line of sight for most people that are not the dragon, it has blindsight). So when our YouTuber talks about focused breath weapon attacks and auras of fire, I feel like the lair actions of this creature already kind of cover those. Maybe not precisely, but enough that I feel like adding an additional damage effect to the dragon is a little bit much.

So what sorts of interesting things can this dragon do that don't involve adding unique abilities into its stats? Yeah, breathing fire, greatsword damage claws, and a couple legendary actions are cool, but let's do something interesting that is not specifically described in the creature's statblock.

Ok, so the dragon has a Strength of 30 and can fly at a rate of 80 feet per turn. Medium creatures with a Strength of 30 can carry 450 pounds and this doubles for every size category bigger than medium, so our gargantuan red dragon has a pretty significant carrying capacity, which means he has a pretty significant lift, carry, drag capacity. What's your average medium size player weigh? Two or three hundred pounds? Cool.

So the dragon starts out going toe to toe with the party's plate wearing Fighter. As its action, the dragon uses frightful presence. Because of multiattack, it then gets to make two claw attacks and a bite. The dragon makes a grapple checks with all three attacks. Grapple checks pit its +10 Strength roll vs the Fighter's Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check. Given the fact that the dragon is three size categories larger than the medium size Fighter, I would be inclined to give it advantage on such a roll. But that's just me. So the dragon grabs our Fighter. Since the Fighter is three sizes smaller, the dragon's movement is not impeded by grappling and the dragon flies up at 80 feet per round. Let's say the dragon flies straight up for two rounds. We're now sitting at 160 feet up in the air and the dragon releases the Fighter. This fall, assuming it is not stopped in some way by something like feather falling, deals 16d6 bludgeoning damage (average of 56 damage, twice as much as 3rd level fireball or lightning bolt). Now, obviously your dragon is dropping the Fighter into a lava lake, so maybe 16d6 falling damage is excessive. I know hitting water from great heights can do some serious damage to the human body, but I'm not sure how lava compares in terms of density and whatnot to water. Anyway. Lava. 5th Edition doesn't appear to have rules for lava that I can find, but in Pathfinder (which has rules for falling into liquids as well as onto the ground), complete submersion deals 20d6 fire damage (average of 70 damage) each round. Assuming your Fighter is wearing a decent amount of metal armor, yeah, he's submerged. Alternatively, if you are kind to your players and they're foolishly not all packing resistance to fire, you can say that the countryside around the dragon's lair is just covered in spiky rock formations and treat the impact on the ground like activating a spiked pit trap.

So that's pretty cool and very in keeping with what an intelligent foe, like a dragon with an Intelligence of 18, might do to neutralize a foe. It keeps him at a distance from foes and is guaranteed to inconvenience someone. Even if the Fighter is immune or resistant to the fire damage from lava, he still has to escape from the lava, which is going to take some time, or require the intervention of other players. He also has to worry about drowning if he can't get out quickly. This is a cool deadly thing that causes tension that requires no additional mechanics to be added to the game. It also gives the players a chance to think quickly and potentially do something really cool and surprising to extricate the Fighter from his fall or get him out of the lava. So it gives your dragon a chance to fuck the players up and it gives them the chance to be awesome and creative as well.

This next idea isn't super cool, but I kind of like it. So let's say this dragon lives in a remote region within a fairly dormant volcano. There's still lava and the like, but this thing isn't going to vomit up rivers of burny death any time in the near future. Let's say two or three hundred years ago, the dragon (who is richer than Dog) hired a bunch of Druids (or we use the dragons as spellcasters variant) to create massive forests around its lair (maybe with the plant growth spell). Once it was all growing nicely, the dragon obviously killed all the Druids, because he's chaotic evil and there's no way he's parting with any part of his hoard willingly. So the players wander into this massive centuries old growth of forest and finally reach the dragon's dormant volcano lair. The dragon immediately flies out of the lair and ignites the forest with its breath weapon. Now the players have to deal with a dragon and a fairly hostile environment. This isn't merely a little plot of woods burning from an out of control campfire. This is a forest that has been magically augmented to be fairly large and extremely overgrown. It is now all on fire (or at least spreading rapidly), getting super hot, and is full of smoke. Pathfinder has rules for forest fires and players having to deal with them, but 5th Edition does not. I'd probably combine the effects of some low level spells that obscure visibility (like fog cloud) and heat (like bonfire) as well as making everything difficult terrain. Additionally, if the players are near the dragon but not actively in the fire in the forest, you can have the dragon use its wing buffet ability to knock the players down and blow sheets of fire at them.

Even if this all doesn't offer a shit ton of tactical advantage to the dragon, it certainly sets the scene for a fucking amazing set piece battle. Everyone is coughing, everything is obscured by thick smoke, trees are cracking and exploding from the intense heat. Somewhere there is a massive fucking dragon roaring like an angry fucking god. Alternatively, perhaps the dragon set up a dam of some kind and instead of using its breath weapon to ignite the surrounding forest, maybe it just knocks down the dam and now there is smoke and heat and difficult terrain and rivers of lava constricting where the players can go. 

Let's go another, less cinematic and burny route. So maybe this arrogant rich as fuck ancient red dragon has been in this region for a long ass time. Maybe this dragon seeks adulation and recognition for how awesome he is. Maybe this dragon is also a lazy shit and wants servants, but can't really stand the stench and incompetence of kobolds. So this dragon sets himself up as the lord of a region. He allows towns and such to flourish, as long as everyone pays him taxes for his horde. Maybe the townspeople see this dragon as their lord, or he masquerades as a mortal line of kings, and this dragon has armies or an order of knighthood serving him. These don't have to be evil soldiers either. They could be Lawful Neutral samurai types that serve their lord and only their lord and good and evil don't really matter to their terms of service.

So now instead of kobold mooks as hoard guards and servants, we have actual soldiers and knights that serve this dragon. Dudes with actual weapons and armor of quality and a competent understanding of tactics that goes beyond the "we outnumber them, attack!" or "they outnumber us, flee!" that you typically see from kobolds. We see kobolds serving dragons a lot, and kobolds are kind of joke to players (unless the kobolds have a belt of dragon might). If you change all those squealing kobolds to a group of mounted and experienced knights dedicated to the service of their liege, you now have a bit of a change to how the PCs may approach their foes and how their foes will respond to the PCs. Additionally, you can add issues like do the knights know they serve an evil dragon to the scenario. Do the knights care? Is the dragon in the castle, or is his lair far away in a nearby mountain? If the players significantly piss off the dragon, will it raze the countryside? Does it have hostages somewhere? Do the players care about these types of things?

Another way you can augment dealings with older dragons to make them more exciting is to apply the "I'm old, entertain me" descriptor to the dragon. Maybe this dragon is older than ancient and is bored out of his mind, kind of just going through his days napping atop a truly massive hoard. Maybe this dragon is easy to find and his lair is easy to enter. Maybe the dragon even encourages challengers to spice up his days of lounging. However, once the PCs enter the lair, instead of kobolds or lava rivers, they discover that this lair is actually a funhouse deathtrap dungeon.

So imagine for a moment, you've wandered through the Tomb of Horrors and all that entails. Instead of finding Acererak at the end, you find a tunnel that opens up into the interior of a volcano. You look up and you can see the mouth of the volcano above you and the sky through it, obscured by smoke and shimmering waves of heat. Before you sits a truly massive dragon flanked by suitably epic rivers of molten lava. It greets you. It tells you that it has been amused by your endeavors in its dungeon. You have earned the right to leave with your lives or face it directly (now that you have been run ragged by the deathtrap you just wandered through). Make your choice quickly, or it will be decided for you. Then the volcano dramatically rumbles and the earth tremors because ancient reds can do that too. It's a regional ability within 6 miles of their lairs. Another regional ability around their lairs are portals to The Elemental Plane of Fire popping open (which dragons should totally drop players into). But yeah bro, dragons in 5th Edition are totally boring. 


So you've got this bored dragon amused by the suffering of the players and the players need to quickly make a choice. Do they dare face off against the dragon now or do they return when they're stronger? Has the dragon been observing their efforts in the dungeon and familiarizing itself with their capabilities? How many gewgaws does it have in its horde that can negate what they can do? Will the dungeon remain the same for their next visit if they leave now? This concept doesn't necessarily make the dragon itself more difficult or interesting, but it does make dealings with the dragon more interesting than attacking it directly in its lair. The players have to think and make choices about how they proceed and weigh pros and cons. 

So there are a few ideas about dragons and playing them as the centerpiece to an adventure. It's not hard to see that you can do interesting things with dragons (if you decide to devote more effort to it than reading their statblock). You just have to think of them the right way and understand what you can do with the rules presented already. There's no need for new mechanics to be added to spice them up (unless you are doing this with the intent to create a legendary and unique dragon). They're dragons. They're fucking spicy enough. 

These are three ideas I came up with on a whim and we haven't even discussed innate spellcasting. Spellcasting with dragons in 5th Edition allows them to cast a number of spells 1/day. They get one spell per point of Charisma modifier and the level of the spells can be no more than 1/3 of the dragon's challenge rating. Which means the ancient red dragon gets six spells total.  You'd have to give them spells based on their age category because each age category has different ability scores.. Young reds have access to 3rd level or lower spells, adults have access to 5th level or lower spells, and ancient red dragons have access to 8th level or lower spells.

Dragons are boring? Folks, go and fuck yourselves. You give me an ancient red dragon in its own lair that gets to pick six spells to use once a day and I'll hand you a TPK. 

So as a final thought, let's go back to the fiery aura, laser beam breath weapon, removing fire resistance, lingering fear effect, and lighting on fire spoken of in the video. Yeah, let's talk about those. If we use the variant of dragons as spellcasters, guess what we can do? As one of the the 8th level or lower spells, we can take investiture of flame that the dragon can cast. Would you like to know what it does? Any creature that moves within 5 feet of you for the first time or starts its turn there takes 1d10 fire damage. No save, no attack roll. It also allows you to use your action to create a beam of fire. Which is not as impressive as a focused breath weapon because it only deals 4d8 fire damage. But you could also take spells like lightning bolt to simulate that. Yeah, it deals lightning damage. So the fuck what? That covers the ignore fire resistance thing and lightning is fucking hot. Just describe it as a white hot beam of fire. Or you could take spells that deal radiant damage. So it's already fiery as written, but the fire resistance of the players is useless. Which is what we're trying to achieve here. As far as a lingering fear effect, I'm not sure how to achieve that. The frightful presence ability already lasts for one minute on a failed save. But I think what he was getting at was a weaker version lingering for a bit on a successful save. My thought is that if your player saved against the frightful presence (which has a pretty high DC of 21) or outlasted its duration (which is 10 rounds of combat), it seems a bit dickish to subject them to it anyway. 

Oh. Starting things on fire. You know what? Fire ignites things. If you feel your players have taken enough fire damage to be lit on fire, light them the fuck on fire. If 91 fucking points of dragon related fire damage isn't enough to start a fucking player on fire, I don't know what is. As far as I'm concerned, every fire effect that actually deals damage should have a chance to ignite players, and even if they're not on fire, their gear should be because it takes way less heat for things like clothing and hair to begin burning than it does human flesh. Plus, metal gets hot, so after being subjected to 91 fire damage from a red dragon or being dumped in lava, your Fighter's plate mail is going to be glowing cherry red and melting their skin off or at least scorching and igniting all the padding beneath the plates of metal. So, in closing, fire is hot. So is lightning, but that's another issue. If you feel that a particular heat source is hot enough to start something on fire, start that thing on fire. Don't add a special unique ability tied to a CR 24 monster. You're an adult, make a judgment call.

Dragons are fucking awesome. They don't need special mechanics to make them awesome. The rules of the game and competent DMs already make them awesome. If you're bored running a dragon and your players are bored with a fight with a dragon, you should get better at DMing, because you're kind of fucking it up.

That got a bit ranty. It was fun. Hehe.