Author Archives: Rob Donoghue

Magic of the Elves

handsquareThinking a little bit more about the elves. I haven’t got a good hook for the gnomes yet, so their status is in limbo. They may just be mixed in among the halflings, but that’s a little bit too easy.

Dragonborn (along with kobolds and others) are created races, made by the dragon princes as servants and ambassadors. I figure each dragon prince rules a small realm, which the elves respect, partly because the Dragon’s have a mutual alliance against invasion, partly because they’re at a fair remove from the elvish proper holdings, so most of the conflicts with the dragons are with the human or dwarf nations. Exactly who and what people live in a given principality is a reflection of the particular dragon prince. Some them are definitely island nations, because the prospect of dragon born pirate captains with a ship full of kobold crew absolutely appeals to me. The upshot of this is that dragon born are rare but not unheard of, usually traveling as merchants, messengers or ambassadors from their respective principalities. Occasionally you find one who goes looking for “freedom”, but that can be a messy business, since the people most interested in a rogue dragonborn are elvish flesh crafters.

Speaking of which, it is well known that most monsters of the world are results of elvish efforts, whether through experimentation, breeding, summoning, transformation or other means. Among the elves, this is a fringe hobby, unless your creation is particularly compelling, in which case its terribly popular. The kennel that produced the first blink dogs is still renown, while the creator of displacer beasts is still bitter about being labeled a “creepy weirdo”.

Of course, not every elf has stopped with animals, and there have been attempts to breed servants and soldiers in the past, and the consequences of this have been problematic enough that the practice is now strongly discouraged. But its legacy remains, and in the darker corners of many elvish cities, you can find brutes, misshapen humanoids bred for war, and discarded.[1] They are not actively persecuted, of course – it is not their fault that they were born monstrous abominations – but no amount of sympathy makes them suitable for polite company.

With the races out of the way we come to the issues of magic and religion. There’s a temptation to give the elves a clear gap in their magical acumen, such as saying they don’t practice clerical magic, because reasons. That could be fun, but it’s a bit too on the nose, and more, given the value the elves place on their lives, clerical magic would be too big a deal to leave in anyone else’s hands. [2]

Perhaps even more critically, religion as a whole is an important topic and one which is part of elvish culture. The elves certainly have many gods. They have, in fact, the full suite of gods, enough so that they barely merit mentioning.

Other peoples within the empire largely worship the elvish gods, though there are a handful of racial gods as well. The dwarves still worship their golden king, and the humans have shrines to Rounus Knight and Farl the Traveller, and they reinforce the greatest human virtues (Strong, loyal service for Rounsu, trade and flexibility for Farl).

Of note is also Cuth, the human god of cleansing. The story goes that Cuth was the bloody god of the humans before the elves ascended, and now he seeks nothing less than the death of all non humans. Cuth cultists are something of a boogey man in elvish realms, and the elvish response to signs of Cuth worship is so severe that human nations treat it as harshly as possibly in order to head off any elvish action. It is possible the priests of Cuth might tell a different story if you could find one, but even looking could cost you your head.

Among the elves themselves, matters of faith follow a pattern, but not a strict one. Broadly speaking, the drow tend towards clerical magic, the wood elves to druidism, and the high elves towards ancestor worship. But while those are certainly generally true, exceptions abound.

A wag once described the drow as “farthest from heaven, closest to god”, and the description has long since outlived the speaker. The drow would tell you that spending lives surrounded by the world gives them greater appreciation for the divine touch in all places. “Only in the darkness, can you see the light” is a common drow aphorism. Cynics point out that there are a lot of drow aphorisms, and that it is not that the drow are particularly devout, just that they seem to relish the trappings of religion. From ceremony to cathedrals to scripture to pointy hats, the drow really go all in on their faith. Faith fills the role of government as easily as it does local sports team. Almost every element of drow society ties back into religion, and it remains an open question whether this is the most profound faith or the most profound cyncism.

The druidic traditions of the wood elves offer less interesting fodder for the gossips, if only because they are largely practiced in isolation. As with the drow, their faith is nearly ever-present, but it is simply part and parcel of living in the wild places. To outside observes, the druidic tradition is largely monolithic, but within its confines it is incredibly fractious. There are dozens of druidic sects, each with a different focus and set of priorities, all claiming to speak most purely for nature. More, the wood elves are more than happy to test their hypotheses out in real world conditions, and more than few adventurers have found employment cleaning up after (or causing) some deliberate ecosystem disruption.

By contrast, the high elves seem far less religious than their brethren, but one need only scratch the surface to put the lie to that. The high elves are organized into great houses, each of which was founded by a great hero[3] from which the house takes its name. Not every high elf claims membership in a great house, but those who do not are usually only one or two steps removed by blood. The houses have little formal power in any direct sense, but the law gives them greater leeway and the nature of collaboration translates into very real power.

What is not discussed openly with outsiders (not because it’s shameful, but because it’s deeply private) is that house members are ancestor worshippers, offering prayers to their founder o their house. They still give honor to the other gods, and even enter the priesthood, but to be a member of a house is to have a straight line to something akin to a guy on the inside, someone to intercede with the gods on your behalf. This is pretty valuable, since gods are pretty busy.

If this sounds matter of fact, that’s because it is – the house founders actually do answer the prayers of their followers (at least sometimes) and can offer advice, and even power to those willing to enter into pacts with them. Note that while others might consider this a bit warlock-y, to the elves, it is a matter of faith, and warlocking is something else entirely.

Speaking of which, warlocks? Tacky. Tacky tacky tacky. Elves value patience and the appearance of effortlessness (they have about a dozen words that expressed differently nuanced versions of that last idea) and becoming a Warlock is largely an admission that you couldn’t hack it with real magic, and had to get help. Which is fine if you’re one of the lesser people – one can hardly expect much more of you, can hardly hold it against you – but an elf who goes this route is not getting many party invites. He or she won’t be punished or shunned or anything, but will be treated like they have a problem. Overt mockery and bias can happen, but condescending help and pity are more common. There have been exceptions of course – famous warlocks who have overcome this stigma, but they are largely held up as the exceptions that other Warlocks can’t live up to.

Now, wizardry? That is the true art in all its infinite diversity. It rewards patience and deep thought and allows those virtues to be expressed in concrete ways. It’s a popular metaphor for almost everything that elves value, and it is an absolute bedrock part of their culture. Magical societies, academies and salons are the places to be found, even among non mages (though most elves have at least some magical schooling, unless they’re a complete hick). Naturally, there is no shortage of fierce academic and personal conflict within this community, but that is half the fun.

Sorcerers rest uneasily in this space. On one hand, a natural talent for magic feeds into the elven respect for effortless grace, but on the other hand, it seems like cheating. As a result, sorcerers are often viewed as curiosities – a welcome addition of spice and art to more serious circles. Now, outsiders view this tension as something akin to artists (sorcerers) and craftsmen/scientists (wizards) but that ignores the fact that to elves, wizardry is art. A closer comparison can be found in the history of art between any established school and the new upstart school. Sorcerers who buy into the established model can do well for themselves, but those who try to express new ideas or present sorcery as somehow equally valid of respect will find themselves laughed out of every party that matters.

  1. While this is a placeholder for half-orcs, obviously it has a potential for explaining almost any monstrous race. This is the tip of its own rather gigantic iceberg, given how messed up the idea of monstrous races is, but how consistent it probably is with the elvish perspective of the world.  ↩
  2. Unless clerical magic is something new to the world. if one wanted to go that route, then elves are all ancestor worshipers (that is, warlocks) or Druids. In that case, clerical magic might be underground magic.  ↩
  3. The process of being recognized as a hero is similar to canonization – it has a high bar and is also profoundly political  ↩

The Elvish Throne

A little bit of setting noodling that has been rattling in my head. It may go too far, but it’s proving a curious experiment on a particular hypothesis.  Nominally it’s for a D&D style setting, but most of it is pretty much generic fantasy.  Very incomplete for now – just races.  Classes and gods will need their own noodling. 

At some point, the elves grew tired of all this and took over. Stop and consider that their average lifespan is something in the order of 2000 years if they don’t do much of anything about it. If they want to spend some of that time looking into ways to extend it, then that’s no great problem. Then adopt the D&D logic behind XP and levels and it’s not hard to end up with Tolkein-esque elves where is it largely a race of badasses, with only the very young coming in anywhere below 20th level.

So, start with that – the elves are not in decline. They are not in retreat. They are not teetering on the edge of collapse. They are strong and vibrant and their hand extends to cover much of the world. Those parts that they do not rule are largely those they have deemed unworthy of the effort, either because the cost would be great (as with the Dragon Princes’ domains, or the Maddest Depths) or the because the prize seems unworthy (as with the Bleaks). Some of the old kingdoms still stand in a recognizable form, but their kings bend knee to the Elvish throne, and have for generations.

Even the divisions among the elves are no great source of tension. The drow, rather than maligned outcasts bound to a monstrous goddess, are the lords of the underworld in all its splendor. The wood elves are lords of the wild, while the high elves rule over the civilized races. There is rivalry and tension, certainly, but open warfare between elves is something only the mad would propose. All things come in time, and only a fool would risk so much rather than be patient.

That is, of course, what the little people are for. For all their power, elves are also very conservative about any risk to their lives. The lifespan of an elf is a treasure, and the idea of wasting it is repellent to most any elf. This does not mean they are necessarily fearful – even a single elf is a mighty combatant, and willing to fight to show it – but when dealing with matters of risk, they are more than happy to let others do the dirty work.

An extension of this is that elvish conflicts are almost always through third parties. The greatest rule of elven society is that elvish life is sacrosanct, but that does not somehow make them better people. They just find other ways to play out the petty rivalries and conflicts that we all recognize.

As a result, there are plenty of adventurers in the domains of the elves, and it is a highly regarded career. Some elves have stables of their own adventures, but there is always great demand for freelancers, and it’s a good (if dangerous) living. The work is familiar, but the reasons for it may less so. To the elves, and ancient, forgotten dungeon that has sat untouched for centuries is roughly the equivalent of the attic that they stored stuff in years ago, forgot about, and just don’t want to touch. It’s just that where you might be worried about wasps or raccoons, they’re concerned about goblins and hags.

After all, consider how much crap you accrue in just a few years. Elves do this for centuries and there is nothing so crass as “U Store It” facilities to put these things in, and you can’t have them cluttering up the place, so a well secured little cave somewhere (spruced up, of course) with some basic security precautions is really the best option for those things you just can’t bring yourself to throw away.

And, of course, if you have a rival you want to stick it to, a little looting is a wonderfully indirect route to pursue it. Nothing says “screw you” like showing up at a party in your rival’s former favorite hat, after all. There can be a bit of an arms race to this, so some “dungeons” are real deathtraps, but they really run the gamut.

The lifespans of elves also means that there’s some element of sport and entertainment in playing adventurers against challenges (and each others) as it’s own sort of game. But it is not just for play. Adventurers are dangerous individuals granted a lot of leeway, and even freelancers must be accountable to some elf. While some elves maintain private household adventurers, others effectively support guilds of freelancers for their own purposes.

All of this may suggest a very callous attitude on the part of elves towards the short lived races, but that is a gross simplification. The elves assume a position of superiority, certainly, based on their lifespans, but that does not equate to indifference. Elves may become very emotionally attached to other peoples, and the idea of being needlessly cruel to them is largely frowned upon, but the relationship is largely at arms reach. No matter how attached an elf becomes to a human, that human is unlikely to live more than 70 years or so, and for much of that time they will be old (something elves have no real context for, and can be put off by). It will end in tragedy.

Obviously, in a game like this, elves are not a playable race. Any elf that might be an adventurer is going to be so young that it would be outright irresponsible to send them into the field. Certainly some elves enjoy “going on adventures” but in that case the rest of the adventuring party is something more like a retinue.

Humans are by far the most numerous and varied people. They still have many cultural and political distinctions, but over time those have altered to reflect elvish patronage. Certainly some elves maintain entirely human households, but more often things are more indirect – it is rare that a large or powerful human leader or institution not have some manner of elvish patron, sometimes more than one. And, of course, “elvish” equates to power and prestige, so many of the trappings of elvish culture have been adopted by the upper tiers of human society. Sometimes this is blatant sycophancy, but more often it is unthinking – that certain elvish rules of conduct are simply how things are.

As a people, humans are well regarded by elves, and the very best of them are “almost elvish”. This sometimes goes to far, as evinced by the half elvish. Half elves are rare and precariously placed. To a human family, the birth of a half elf is cause for celebration, as it will almost always improve the fortunes of the family, and to humans, the half elf is seen as something exciting and exotic. To an elf, it’s a profound embarrassment, a point of shame for the parent. There is effort not to blame the child too much for the union, but the taint is hard to shake. Half Elves frequently end up in trusted service roles – messengers, majordomos and such – in elvish households if they are willing to behave appropriately elvishly. Those less willing to do so often end up as adventurers or in positions of prominence in human communities. Often, humans will treat half elves as proxies for their elvish parent, offering gifts to the child that would be too little for the parent. While half elves benefit from this, it is rare that the parent look to favorably upon this.

There are two great dwarven kingdoms, each occupying both surface and underworld. They are far enough apart that they interact very little. Both kingdoms are very stable, almost to a fault. The elves have propped them up, helping deal with underworld menaces, but have also established the limits of both kingdoms. Dwarves are greatly respected by the elves, but not necessarily well liked. Elven political language gives great respect to Dwarven title and rank, speaking glowingly about millennia of alliance, and in almost any situation involving the lesser people, the dwarves voice is the first heard. But for all that, there is a hollowness to it. For all the show of respect, the words of the dwarves carry no great weight, a fact that the dwarves either accept (as a sign of how in alignment the two peoples are) or resent.

The little folk of the south are barbarians, plain and simple. Some few of them trade with the elven nations, but the further it is from the bleaks, the more of a novelty they are (something that cunning little folk have used to their advantage – mysterious halfling magics can command a great price from the cullible). There was a time when the elves went to war upon the Bleaks, and they did not once lose a battle, but neither did they hold the land they took very effectively. The little folk were tenacious and decentralized, unwilling to commit their forces to battle. The elves determined that the harsh land of the Bleaks was hardly worth the trouble, and in a grand treaty, ceded it to the khan of the little folks. This was curious because there had not previously been a khan – rather, the Elves simply found a local ruler who was willing to take elvish aid and use it to fight his neighbors. Since then, there have been many khans, and the elves have a habit of backing winners in order to maintain the peace and keep the halflings fighting among themselves.

The elves still have a few holdings in the Bleaks – mines and other useful resources – and there are occasional conflicts, but nothing major. Cynics suggest that the main purpose for the elvish presence is to make sure there is always a worse job to threaten people with.

The Touched were a nation of humans who sought to rise up against the elves, turning to dark powers to do so, powers which twisted their bodies unnaturally. They failed, of course, and it is only by the infinite mercy of the elvish court that they still live today. Their nation has been erased from the histories, its lands given to loyal kings, and its people scattered to the wind. Tradition (and law, in many places) demand that they be covered at all times, that the marks of their abomination be hidden from the eyes of the world, and now that covering is one of the signatures of their people, usually very ornate and colorful, but also conveying rich information to those who know how to read it[0]. Many people do not even know what they look like beneath their hoods and veils. They are not well regarded, and many unwelcome jobs of society fall to them, including waste handling and certain entertainments. By extension, they have a reputation for criminality (one which has become somewhat self-fulfilling) . But their reputation far exceeds the reality, as every Touched community knows that they are only a well placed accusation away from the drowning pits. Many Touched communities are nomadic, traveling as migrant labor or entertainers, in hopes that the ability to keep moving will keep them safe.

[0] Visually, I’m thinking of Mass Effect’s Quarians here.

The Thaw: Session 5

This was an odd session that we had only 3 players (plus myself). I’m used to juggling a much more crowded table, so I was super curious how this was going to go. This was complicated further by the specific characters – our Ice Warlock, Battle Master fighter (archer) and elemental Monk. You will note that there is not a lot of healing in that bunch.

Hook was pretty simple – Little old lady had her son’s claim, but he had died, and she needed money. Our heroes were going to help her. Of course, she was a green hag in disguise, running a scam to get them ambushed and dead. Amusingly, the only person who got hints of this was Tuesday, the war forged monk, whose understanding of human anatomy kept her from grasping the implications of a human feeling scaly.

The claim was one where a forest had pushed up through the ice. This is pretty obviously bad news because forests shouldn’t do that, and the whole thing was dark and twisty – pretty much a disney dark forest. Because two of the three party members lacked dark vision, they camped outside it as night fell. So, of course, they were ambushed by an awakened tree in the night. That fight went ok, but they saw the lantern of someone watching the fight retreat into the woods as they won. They pursued and I had a little bit of GM thrill because I ACTUALLY MANAGED TO PULL OFF A WILL O WISP ENCOUNTER.

The fight with the actual wisps (2 of them) went interesting directions. Wisps are fragile (low HP) but fast and tough (AC 19, resistant to normal damage) and the players had not had a short rest since the previous fight, so they had fewer resources than they would like. However, the players hit a few natural 20s which is enough to turn anything around.

Unfortunately, they were then lost in the woods, so they had to rest there, and it was bad enough (not enough gear, creepy) that they did not benefit from a long rest. This was compounded further when daylight came and they found their way out, and discovered their camp had been thoroughly pillaged. They followed the tracks back into the woods, but spotted the ambush and prepared their counter-ambush. They almost pulled it off, but that Hag spotted them and mimicked Kit’s voice calling for an attack, which pulled the trigger prematurely. The fight (against the Hag and 7 or 8 goblins) was nasty, but the simple fact that Kit was covering it from range kept it from going pear shaped.

The party ended up cutting a deal with the last of the Goblins for a share of the Hag’s treasure in return for leaving the rest of the clan out of it and being warned about the Hag’s safeguards. The deal worked out ok, and this goblin (“G”) is totally going to show up again sometime.

With G’s help, they dealt with the frogs that were guarding the Hag’s aquatic lair. He wasn’t much help with the skeletal abominations that animated when they disturbed her altar, but he also just got out of their way, so everyone was good with the deal when he took the cash and they took the magic items, recovered their gear, and headed back to Placeholder.


  • I think this may have been the most fun treasure outlay to date. The dice gave us a Circlet of Blasting (which we decided was a piece of warforged weaponry that Tuesday has now installed in her arm), eyes of the eagle (so kit now has some badass looking googles, one of the first times I’ve been happy with a steampunk aesthetic) and a pair of Boots of Winter, which we decided were elven boots of the Ice Elves, which went to Tuaq. Fun, thematic stuff.
  • Man oh man archer focused fighters remain delightfully badass.
  • Tuaq’s first Warlock ability is based on the Archfiend pact (he gets ice armor that gives him temporary hit points) and they mattered a lot in the absence of healing.
  • Tuesday felt a little currency deprived. With only 3 ki, she really could not do much elemental kung fu without frequent rests. Imagine this smooths out over time, but I admit it felt a bit less awesome than it should have.
  • 3 players was a lot of fun. Fights went fast and things seemed less inclined to go off the rails. This makes sense – bigger group means more opportunities for edge cases to pop up. It also let me play around with smaller opponents, used cleverly, and I liked that a lot.
  • They have now leveled to 4 (which will apply to the whole crew). I am now much more appreciative of how big a jump it’s going to be when they hit 5.
  • My delight with the magic items really had me thinking about what makes magic items good and fun vs. mere slot fillers. One of the nice things about throwing back to the older model is that there’s a lot more of the stuff I found cool and colorful in old editions (rather than the more strictly utilitarian 4e stuff).
  • I shed a single tear for how much 4e itemization crushed my soul.

The Thaw: Episode 4

An Investment Opportunity

Things took an interesting turn in terms of attendance. Yesterday morning the expectations as that I’d get 3 players, and one of them would be new (we’d be getting a Dragonborn Bard). When we started today, we had lost the new player to car trouble[1] but picked up several other players due to schedule changes. So where I had initially prepared for a skeleton crew, I actually had a very healthy 5 member party on hand. This was good, but forced some hasty refactoring.

Of course, it did not help that while I was preparing, Rat Queens Volume 2 arrived. Stopped all prep to read that, and while it was inspirational (Brad, Brad, Brad, Brad Brad….) it meant that actual prep was a bit rushed. I fell back on the time honored tradition of picking a keystone monster or two (hmmm, what’s a CR 5 look like…) and building out from there. I actually had a couple possibilities when we started, though they all skewed demons or undead.

So, for the day we had

  • Tuaq, the ice elf warlock,
  • Sul, the wood elf sorcerer
  • Nato, the halfling cleric
  • Weaver, the human thief
  • Israfil, the high elf paladin

So things began with Theodorus, a Bezant merchant and sawbones (and spy) who has connections to many of the PCs approaching Weaver because he had a job to be done quietly. Theodore had several vials of something he described as “Salamander blood” that could melt ice and speed excavation, and he wanted to use it on the DL. He needed the crew to find a claim that was promising but untapped because it was too dangerous to work for an extended period so they could swoop in. This was agreed to.

There was a bit of a sidebar here about how claims worked. There’s something of a market in them – once a claim is made, it needs to be maintained, but they’re hard to work, and their value increases as the ice line recedes, so there’s something of a speculative market. So if you register a claim, you can leave the clerk a note saying how much you want for it, and they put it in their book, and other people can buy it. As with any speculative market, a lot of money changes hands, but it’s the house that profits, with a fee on each such transaction.

With that in mind, the players first looked into the possibility of a “Ghost Ice” claim. Those are known, haunted claims where is it believed there are dead bodies beneath the ice whose spirits make trouble. They’re presumed to be valuable (since people are probably near things of importance) but can often be gotten on the cheap because no crew will work them. The other prospect was a patch that Tuaq knew about, which had been said to be very promising, but had had a run of bad luck in the form of two dead crews.

This lead to another sidebar on what made a claim valuable. treasure, sure, but that was almost secondary. Right now, the geography of Carta is largely unknown, so when a dig finds anything, it gets combed over for any hint of where in the city it may have come from. Based on that, people update their theoretical map of where the city might be today, which in turn can trigger runs of enthusiastic speculation.

Anyway, Sul listened to the voices beneath the ice, an they guided him to a particular patch of ghost ice, or to the claim Tuaq mentioned (and to some other places, too far to get to casually). The ghost ice claim could be had for a fair price (50gp, plus fees) but the other claim was currently held by Lucius Tanner, the richest man in town.

Since Lucius was actually in the tannery, not every character was willing to deal with the stink, so negotiation fell to Weaver, Tuaq and Sul, which had interesting consequences. Lucius wasn’t incline to sell, but he also pretty clearly felt that these guys wouldn’t know how to work a claim if their lives depended on it so he made a “generous” offer – for 200g, they could work the claim for 9 days. Anything they found was theirs. He (very reasonably) expected that in 9 days they might find their ass with both hands, and they were happy to play along with that.

Theodorus was a little less copacetic. This meant a larger outlay, and it meant the gig would be pure salvage rather than salvage plus a real estate flip. The salamander blood had not come cheap, so he would have to risk he (and his guards) meeting up at the claim to be within sight[2].

Not AT the claim though. That’s what adventurers are for.

So they all set out. The claim was an iced-over valley, with not clear indicator of how deep the ice went. The plan was simple – find a flat spot, pour out a bottle of the blood and let it do its work.

Now, you’d think that the problem was the vampire spawn that was watching the claim, hiding, planning to kill the intruders. But in fact, the problem was that rather than pouring the blood in the manner instructed, they tried to experiment with the first bottle, and discovered that if you let it pool, it becomes an actual salamander. An angry, stubby salamander.

The good news is that the Paladin had detected the Vampire earlier (though he hadn’t spotted it) when he also detected fiends beneath the ice. So he was on the lookout when the Vampire decided to take advantage of the Salamander’s attack to pitch in.

This fight almost took a really bad turn. The salamander is on the high end of CR5, and his damage output was really gross. Weaver went down immediately, and it was only the excess of ice damage on hand that gave the party any kind of chance (the dice were also very much not with with them – I was rolling very well for the bad guys). That fight alone could have been a wipe, but the addition of the Vampire (also CR5) could have really screwed things. Thankfully, it was the Paladin who engaged the Vampire, and while that was ugly, it meant a lot of radiant damage, enough to keep the fight at an even keel until others could join in (the Warlock’s moonbeam, acquired through his pact, was very handy in this). It was a nearer thing than I think the party realized, but they got through ok and took the lesson to follow the instructions.

Now, I had absolutely not planned on throwing two CR5s at the party at once, and if they had not already seen the vampire, I might have been tempted to hold it in reserve to hit when they were resting. As is, it was definitely nastier than I’m comfortable with, and revealed that I still don’t have my hands around the pacing of damage in 5e. I like bounded accuracy a lot, but it seems to have come with a lot of extra damage, enough so that it’s really an range of 1–3 hits before a character goes down, and that seems really low.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may be that I just need to adjust my thinking to something more akin to Rolemaster, where combat is less about the dramatic give and take and more nasty, brutish and short. I certainly enjoy that sort of play, I just don’t necessarily expect it from D&D.

I admit I expect something more akin to a CRPG, where monsters get tougher (more HP) but their damage doesn’t scale along with the characters. Your character might have 9999 hit points, and hit for 9999 damage – monsters had WAY more hit points, but also did not hit nearly as hard, so the economy of the fight was all about that ratio. 5e’s ratio seems to scale towards brutality in both directions, which seems fair until you realize I am not actually interested in a fair fight, only a fun one.

Anyway, one long rest later, they begin again. This time the blood melts down into the ice, and they are prepared for the fiends that Israfil detected. Nor were they disappointed when a Barlgura (giant ape demon) and a squad of Dretch emerged.

Now, I had hoped this fight was going to be a little more interesting. The Dretches are only CR 1/2. but with 18 HP and a poison cloud attack, I figured they’d tie up the Battlefield while the Barlgura jumped around hulking out. Unfortunately, this did not exactly work out. Israeli got the Dretches to cluster, and Naoto obliterated them with a maximized Shatter (which we’re beginning to call “clerical fireball”). So, ouch. The Barlgura seemed like a reasonable threat – when things went bad, he cast Invisibility, prepared to smash someone hard. Unfortunately, he did not roll above a 6 for the duration of the fight, so he got murderized pretty fast.

So, yeah. Swingy

The rest of the excavation went well enough, with a time pressure brought in by an approaching storm. They realized the Vampire had been wearing contemporary clothing, but decided that hunting for a lair was maybe to a great idea, especially when there was treasure to be found. There were also indications (beyond the demons) that someone had excavated this in the past, then filled it back in with water to re-freeze. They found a minor statue (a potential landmark, of great interest to Theodorus) and some actual treasure. Someone had scattered the contents of a treasure chamber, clearly looking for the contents of one of the chests (no indication of what it contained) but amidst the gold it turned out that one of the bags was actually a bag of holding with some sweet loot in it (Potion of Hill Giant strength, Boots of Striding & Springing and a Rapier of Warning).

I like the rapier of warning a lot, and it (as well as the fight) reminded me that I need to get some +0 weapons into circulation soon. I am getting frustrated with the fact that monsters who are immune to normal weapons are coming much faster than the magic weapons themselves. And yes, I know that’s something of an arms race, but if I do something interesting (like have weapons that do elemental damage rather than p/s/b) then it’s a little bit less of a done deal.

It was a fun, if compact session. No advancement, though they’ll almost certainly make it to 4th level next time. I still need to tune the fights better, but I think that’s largely on my head. Still having fun with 5e. Still wish there was a license to write for it.

  1. Which made me sad because I really wanted to see a bard in action.  ↩
  2. A big reason why Theodorus was hiring the team was so he was not seen acting directly. If someone caught wind that he was speculating, then it would impact profits, especially since it was hoped that the speedy turnaround of the salamander blood would allow him to act quickly.  ↩

The Thaw: Episode 3

I made the mistake of finishing last session mid-action (with the group going out to deal with some Halfling claim jumpers) which is a problem when the cast of player’s changes. Mostly it was resolvable with a little bit of a retcon (some folks had to escort the wounded group back to town, and Kit had been in the area investigating the claim jumping claims) but I am going to need to do a sidebar with Naoto, who implicitly was doing something related to her sister offscreen. I used a light hand, so there’s a lot of flexibility, but it’s the largest disconnect.

So, as we left the group, they were en route to drive out some claim jumpers who had set up camp on the Marjan embassy’s claim. They had encountered the previous group that had tried to do so, badly injured, and were warned of undead and ambush, so they were ready when the halflings and undead started firing from the trees, especially since Kit warned them by sniping one before they could close.

The fight wrapped up reasonably tidily, but with a few complications. Sul ran after one of the fleeing halflings, and Kit followed. Sul was paralyzed by someone else (figure in black who looks like it was probably Naoto’s sister), and when the figure was about to attack Kit, lightning struck and no one was quite clear what was up with that.

Meanwhile, the dice took an unpleasant turn on the battlefield. Hazla, the fighter, had managed to piss off most of the skeletons, and the dogpiled him. The very last one got a crit on Hazla, which dropped him. It was sufficiently dramatic that, in feng shui terms, that skeleton just got a name. It ran off and it is absolutely going to come back someday.

The party regrouped and scouted ahead. The remaining halflings were at a drained beaver pond, with two lookouts, and one down in the pond, overseeing an excavation by an undead work crew. The pond itself was overgrown with unnatural grass. They managed to surprise the sentries, then snipe and charge into the bowl. The enemy leader took some early hits, got behind cover, and threw up a Sanctuary while he healed, and it bought him some time, but in the end, he got ripped up before he could do much.

With the Cleric’s death, the working undead stopped (separate from the fighting ones). The party recovered a talisman to control them from the cleric’s body, but they opted to destroy them rather than put them to use. Which was possibly a shame when they reviewed the notes in the halflingss camp and discovered (on a high elf journal with wood elf writing) that the halflings had been trying to excavate an ancient research facility where "Sample #7 (robust, but unstable) was being stored).

The party studied the excavation for a time, until a telepathic voice contacted Israfil, addressing him as “Warden”. The voice identified itself as “unit 15A17” and it was apparently responsible for maintaining the facility. Beyond that, however, it was not terribly helpful, in a “unless you have a warrant, you’re getting nothing”. sort of way. Eventually, the party opted to camp for the night (away from the unnatural growth) but when they woke, the entire bowl of the pond was full of the unnatural grass.

At this point, Unit 15A17 reached out again regarding a “small containment breach” and he was ultimately willing to bend his rules to see this matter resolved. He opened the door, the players started to clear it, and that’s when he pond full of overgrowth wove itself into a dragon, and violence ensued.

The fight was somewhat lopsided. The dice really resulted in huge damage output, and the critter never stood a chance (it did not help that it’s legendary action – regrowth – rolled terribly for its healing). Once that was resolved, the overgrowth all rotted. The rot lead back into the otherwise empty facility, where the Spectator allowed them to confirm destruction, then politely asked them to leave (especially their “pets”, the humans).

That pretty much wrapped things up.

Mechanically, it was interesting to tune down to the fights to the smaller number of players. By chance, we had no clerics, so there was very little healing available, but it turned out that the damage output was more than enough to compensate for that. Party is level 3, and so I went for more CR 1/2 creatures, supplemented by CR 2s and 3s for named opposition. The cadence was interesting – I judge fights by how many swings they take, and that maps somewhat loosely to damage. On some level, I am never really very happy at opponents who consistently have 2 or 3 hit points left when they get hit. Feels weird. But it’s part of the price of the damage system I suppose.

We did get to see something I’d been really curious about, as our Battle Master fighter (Kit, the archer) had hit level 3, so we actually got to see the Maneuver dice in action, and holy crap, it pretty much illustrated that Archers are as awesome as they seemed. Specifically, pairing the Sharpshooter feat (take –5 to hit to do +10 damage) with Precision Attack (roll a d8 after your attack roll and add it to the attack) was brutal. If the sharpshooter attack went off, then great, but if it didn’t, the extra d8 had a pretty good chance of offsetting a near thing. Just one trick among many, but it really underscores how much I am loving 5e fighters.

Anyway, fun session. I’m still loving 5e. I need to sharpen things a bit – pacing could have been better – but it’s great to be playing.

DRYH Hack – Don’t Turn Your Back

(Yes, we have since used the name elsewhere,  but I don’t have it in me to search and replace the whole doc, so you get the classic name.  Suggestions for new names are welcome in comments. Also, I forgot – an explanation of why this is now getting posted.)

BondiconA game of action, espionage, and the prices to be paid for both.

Consider, for a moment, the similarities between a superspy movie and any other action blockbuster. Both have supremely competent protagonists doing an array of awesome things, facing down enemies ranging from the frightening to the ludicrous. There’s gunfire, explosions and no small amount of sexiness. On the surface, they seem vary similar indeed.

The difference is small on the surface, but reveals much – the superspy must not exist in a vacuum. He carries the burdens that brought him where he is and the ties tot he world which might be the only thing holding him up (or might be the garrote around his throat.) He understands that his actions don’t exist in a moral vacuum, and in a job which demands he trust no-one, he must trust that the bad things he’s doing are for the right reason. He has a moral core which he must ignore for the sake of the job, but which he must never abandon, lest he become the enemy he faces every day.

Compared to those pressures, gunfights with terrorists and ticking time bombs are just another day at the office.

Quick Conversion

DRYH concepts map to DTYB concepts as follows: The GM is referred to as Control, which is also a shorthand for the agency the agent works for.

Discipline is now Experience

Madness is now Support

Exhaustion is still Exhaustion

Despair is now Menace

Hope is now Assets and works a little differently

Pain is now Opposition

It’s worth noting that DTYB is designed with a single player in mind – there are rules for handling multiple agents, but the focus is on a single character, which is why there are no rules for talents – the need to distinguish between awesome agents is not as pronounced.

Creating Your Agent

The core rating of an agent is his level of Experience, measured in a number of white dice. An inexperienced, rookie agent might have only one die, while an experienced field agent might have two. Agents with three dice are the supreme badasses of the sort common on the big screen. It’s generally expected that players will have 3 experience dice.


Who is Control?

Control goes by any number of names, but it is ultimately the organization that the agent (or agents) report to. Control provides the agents with direction, in the form of missions. An important part of any Agent’s story is who he works for.

The Mission

At the outset of any mission, Control (Which is to say, the GM through Control) establishes two things. The THREAT and the OBJECTIVE. The THREAT is the larger problem that must be addressed over the course of the game. In movie terms, this is the danger established early on. Usually something important has been taken (from a formula to a gadget to a nuclear sub) and it must not be used (or lost, distributed or sold on the black market.) There are variations on this formula, and the GM is encouraged to explore them freely, but when in doubt? Something important and dangerous has been stolen, easy as that.

The Objective is simpler, as there will be many Objectives over the course of a game. The ultimate objective is, of course, to address the threat, but it’s never quite that simple. Basically, when a objective is accomplished, the situation changes (because new information is now available or an obstacle has been removed) inviting a new objective. After enough objectives have been accomplished, the threat should ultimately be addresses.

Opposition Pool

Control has a fixed opposition budget which they can use over the course of the game, and the level that budget is at controls how many opposition dice Control can roll in the given conflict. This pool will get higher as the game continues, and some events may be triggered based on this.

BY default, the Opposition pool begins as equal to the Agent’s experience pool. In games with more than one agent, it’s based off the largest experience pool, +1 per additional agent.

Designing objectives

The easiest way to design the objectives of a mission is to start at the end and work backwards. For example, if the super-widget is being auctioned on a private island, then it’s easy to work a backwards. Set up a objective, then ask, “How do they get there?” Foe example

  • Infiltrate the island and capture the widget
  • Get to the island
  • Find the island

Ok, at this point, we hit upon the first real snag – the objective leading to this is not obvious, and that’s where it becomes necessary to start adding detail. We haven’t thought much about the villain yet, and this now gives us a reason to do so. If he’s an evil super agent, how would we find out the location of his lair? Find someone invited to the auction and steal their invitation? Interrogate one of his minions? Maybe he has some exotic habit and shipments can be backtracked?

Any of these are valid answers, and the important thing is to pick one and run with it. Let’s say you go the auction rate.

  • Steal an Invitation
  • Find who to steal an invitation from
  • Find out that there’s going to be an auction
  • Investigate an expert on super-widgets

Now we have a throughline for the mission. Agent gets sent to investigate Doctor Smee, an expert on super widgets to find out if he’s involved. Maybe he isn’t, but he’s targeted for kidnapping by goons looking to buy the super widget. Dealing with those goons (or rescuing Smee) reveals that it’s for sale, and their employer has an invite. Clearly, that will require stealing the invitation, probably at a high-end casino, then using that information to procede to recover the widget.

Agent vs. Control Objectives

The very first objective will be provided to the agent by Control, but after that, it’s quite possible that the agent will take the initiative in pursuit of another objective. In this case, the player can lay out the next objective and (if necessary) how it helps lead to addressing the threat. This is part of the framing process, and players have a lot of leeway here, including introducing new elements into the game, but they’re not allowed to skip steps. If a player tries to simply jump to endgame (by killing the bad guy, perhaps), then that’s a fine opportunity for a twist or dead end.

If the agent lacks clear direction, or can’t find a good objective to pursue, that’s when it’s a good time to step in as control and put forward a new objective. This usually takes the form as orders. One handy trick for players – if you want to flag that you’re not sure where to go next, “get in touch with Control” is a great objective.

Twists and Dead Ends

The fact that there’s one throughline does not mean that’s how things will absolutely turn out. Instead, that merely serves as a polestar – providing something to navigate back towards through play.

And this is good, because it’s almost certain that things will go off in unexpected direction once play begins. Embrace this when it happens, and just keep an eye on the objectives – if they don’t feed back to the threat in some way then you might need to step in as Control.

That said, there is nothing that demands that the path from objective to threat be a straightforward one. Usually, the outcome of successfully achieving an objective is fairly predictable – if the agent gets X, he’ll be able to do Y – but sometimes the unexpected happens. It’s entirely possible for the result to be unexpected (a twist) or to offer no further course of action (a dead end).

Twists and dead ends are powerful tools to allow control to pace and direct play, and there are some subtleties in their application. Dead Ends should be used sparingly, in large part because they break the chain of action. Either the agents will need to get a new objective from Control or they’ll need to revisit a previous choice, and if that choice is too far back, it can feel like a lot of time has been wasted. On the other hand, the spy game is not always fair, and a dead end can result from the agent losing a scene without feeling unfair. So here’s the rule of thumb – limit your use of dead ends to the ones which really piss off players. If you’re going to frustrate them without also making them angry enough to take action, then it’s hardly worth it.

Twists will be more common – after all, they’re expected in the genre. A twist occurs when an objective is not what it originally seemed – the information you got points somewhere else, the shipment you intercepted is actually drugs or the like – it should still suggest a new objective, but not the one expected. A twist can steer things towards the throughline, or away from it, and they’re a useful tool for Control to nudge the game with while not demanding a specific course of action.

Running the Game

The objective should provide the basis for framing scenes. It’s possible that there may be only a single scene for a given objective, or it might take several scenes – this is mostly a difference in taste and detail. Since the agent is presumed to be pretty capable, there’s no need for every obstacle and problem to result in the dice being rolled – in fact, dice are less of a measure of how hard a task is so much as how interesting it is. Interesting, in this case, means control can clearly see the many directions this scene might go, depending on the dice.

That is to say, the agent may casually get past the locked door and laser grid, but the dice might come out when there’s a single guard to get past because Control has some cool ideas for how this might go.

When the dice come out, the baseline roll will be between the Agent’s Experience pool and Control’s Opposition pool. Player’s can supplement their roll with Support or Exhaustion.

Support dice take the form of resources provided to the Agent, and mechanically works like Madness dice. This might be a cool gadget, a team of forensic accountants or anything else the agent might be abel to request. There’s no need to justify this, though the player is free to narrate a brief flashback of them preparing this support. A player may add from 0 to 6 support dice to any roll, making support very powerful – however, it’s also a blunt instrument in a job that usually requires a scalpel. Every gadget, every supporting agent, is a risk of revealing exactly who the agent is an who he’s working for. Worse, it inclines the agent to depend on others rather than himself.

When Support dominates, one experience die is replaced with a support die.

Exhaustion is more moral than physical, and represents the hard choices and sacrifices an agent has forged into an armor of indifference. By default, an agent starts with an exhaustion equal to their experience -1. Exhaustion dice may be added to any roll, but when it dominates, the Exhaustion pool grows by one.


Hope and Despair are well and good in dreams, but int he grey world of agents, it’s all about Menace Assets. The coins used for Hope and Despair are replaced with a forth die color (blue or yellow are best) which are kept in separate Agent(asset) and Control(menace) bowls.


When control spends a menace die, it moves into the Asset bowl. Control never actually rolls menace dice directly. By spending a Menace Die, Control can do one of the following:

  • Increase the Opposition Pool by one die size
  • Add a 6 to any pool in play
  • Remove a 6 from any pool in play
  • Introduce a Henchman with a value of 2. The Henchman increases the Opposition Pool by it’s value in any scene he’s in. Control may only have one Henchman at a time.


Assets are people – hirelings, assistants, romantic interests and so on. Players may remove an asset die from the bowl by giving it a name and a description (and usually, a role relative to the threat, such as the villain’s girlfriend or a scientist working on the problem). When an asset is created, write the name down on a piece of paper, and record its value (1). Additional asset dice taken from the pool can either create new assets or increase the value of an asset already in play.

Asset dice equal to the asset’s value can be added to any roll, but doing so explicitly says that the asset is involved in the scene. This means that the asset dice can potentially dominate, but it also means the asset is at risk. Only one asset may be added to any given roll.


Assets may also be sacrificed for beneficial effect. This is declared between scenes, by the agent handing an asset to Control. The Agent may no longer use that asset, and Control has now been given free reign to narrate what terrible thing happens to the asset (which might be death) that inspires the Agent. In return, the Agent may do one of the following:

  • Reduce Exhaustion by 1
  • Reduce Exhaustion by 0
  • Turn a resource die back into an experience die

Control is encouraged to make sure the fate of any high-value assets are handled off-screen because Control has the option of introducing a sacrificed asset as a henchman. If so, the henchman’s pool is equal to the asset’s former value.


First and foremost, winning the roll determines whether or not the agent proceeds towards achieving the objective. If the agent fails, then Control may complicate the current situation or otherwise make things worse. Failure will never be enough to stop the agent, but it might shut off a particular line of inquiry.

The trick, is, of course domination:

Experience Dominates: Reduce Exhaustion by 1, or kill a henchman involved in the scene.

Opposition Dominates: Control adds a die to his asset pool OR kills an asset in the scene.

Support Dominates: One Experience dice is replaced with a support die.

Exhaustion Dominates: Exhaustion increments by one.

Asset Dominates: Asset increases in value by one step.


The game is going to end when one pool dominates, or when the Threat is averted. Averting the threat is a function of play, and is a successful outcome, but the unsuccessful outcomes are mechanically dictated.

In the case of a failed outcome, It is entirely possible to pick up play and continue with a new agent stepping into the gap, but if the table agrees, then it might be worth just talking through the impact of failure, and how that shapes the world for future play.

Come In

When an agent’s experience dice are all replaced with support dice the agent’s cover is blown burns out at the end of the current objective (meaning you can burn out and succeed). He needs to be called back into the home office. A long period of retraining is going to follow, and when the agent returns to play, his experience pool will be one smaller. If that would reduce his pool to zero, the agent is permanently retired, either literally or figuratively.

Burn Out

When exhaustion reaches 6 dice, the agent burns out at the end of the current objective (meaning you can burn out and succeed). If the agent manages to reduce exhaustion before the objective is reached, then he can carry on. A burned out agent simply can’t go on – the price is too high.

When an agent with one or two experience dice burns out, the agent will either retire, or come to terms with things. A retired agent is out of play (except perhaps as an asset in later games) but one who comes to terms with things returns to play in a later game with his experience pool one larger.

An agent with three experience who burns out goes rogue, and is removed from play. He may well be a villain or Henchman in future games.



The Thaw: Session 2

WeaverWe had one new player, so we opened up with another round of chargen. We now have Weaver, a CG urchin turned thief whose background got delightfully complicated by the spread. Initially, he had run with a gang which has become a church (or cult) to “The Storyteller” with his one remaining childhood friend as the high priestess. He left the imperial capital because while he believes in the Storyteller, things were getting weird.

But then the Past card came up The Bear (really, the dancing bear) and it evolved from that the Queen (the emperor’s daughter) had been taken by his stories and made something of a pet of him. This had many upsides, but also was full of problems as he blamed the imperials for the loss of many of his childhood friends. He also stole a book of unknown provenance during the wyvern attack.

And that’s when we flipped the present, and it came up The Twin, inverted. We described a few possible interpretations, and opted for something literal – while Weaver was uncomfortable with his growing prominence in the cult and the court, someone else saw it as an opportunity, and the final problems that drove him from the city were engineered by a changeling, who has since taken his place.

And when the future came up  The Empty Throne (curiously, also Arasthel’s future) it became pretty clear that Weaver’s role in this changeling plot is far from over.

We then pulled together some backgrounds. It turns out Weaver was the guy who recognized Hazlam, and who was persuaded to keep it to himself by Hazlam and Israfil. It also turned out that Weaver had a hand in the activation of Tuesday – the stolen book is actually full of warforged lore, and Sul Taeres’s ‘accidental’ activation of Tuesday was quite intentional on their part (albeit with a limited understanding). Taeres and Weaver have absolutely fallen together as partners in crime, and I’m pretty happy with that.

All of which lead to session start. We had 8 players, and while it’s more manageable than 10, it was still enough that it created some problems. Not enough to tank the game, but definitely enough to muddle some things.

Since everyone was up to speed on rules, we had a little bit more opportunity to build out the setting, so things began in the Smokey Yak with Lefty telling a story of how the ice came to be. The Yak is the tavern that grew up next to the smokehouse, since it was one of the central locations in town, and Lefty got his name when something (the story changes) took off his right hand in one bite. It is a running joke among trappers that when they gut a creature, they’re looking for Lefty’s ring.

The story went that when the armies of darkness rose up, the Gods could not stop them, and the Titans were deaf to the pleas of mortals. But when those armies grew bold enough to challenge the heavens, that was enough to interest Dogan the Devourer, who relished the battle and laid waste to the enemy, but also to the world. So great was the devastation of this that two of the kinder hearted Titans intervene. Fafnir the great ate up the enemies challenging Dogan, and Tetra froze the world, sending Dogan to sleep beneath the ice. And to this day, at the very center of the ice, he sleeps, and woe be on us all if the thaw ever reaches him.

But, of course, that’s just a story. Tuesday noticed the proprietor was looking concerned about something, and checking outside regularly. Uncertain how to address this, she grabbed some other characters to go talk with her. It turned out that her cousin should have been here already with the yak herd. A trivial concern in most places, but Placeholder is incredibly dependent on the herds for its food supply (since it is at a remove from any substantial agriculture). They players agrred to investigate.

Sadly, this was complicated somewhat by Glemmer, Taere’s and Weaver putting on a show inside, a purse getting stolen, and a very large, angry man pursuing Weaver out the window and onto Hazlam’s sled. Hazlam & Weaver took off as Naoto attempted to get the man to stand down and got kicked for her trouble. She took it poorly, drew steel and violence ensued.

Now, this was education on a few axes. First. I dropped the ball as GM in making it clear what was happening where. We had a lot of characters in different places, and I hadn’t made it clear enough what was going on where.

Second, the dice were unkind. The guy got initiative, got two attacks off, hit on the first, critted on the second and dropped Naoto in one round. That was, frankly, not a super satisfying outcome. Now in fairness, I had intentionally statted the guy as tough because I figured he might become a recurring NPC, and if he was tough now, then surpassing him later would be satisfying. I had not, however, expected things to be quite that lopsided. Put a pin in that, it comes up later.

The NPC ended up getting a name (Gaston) and stormed off to find Weaver, so he didn’t notice the group stealing his wagon to go catch up in the other direction.

The group met up, headed out along the trail and found a dead yak and clear sign of an attack (distance was about one long rest, so Naoto recovered in the wagon). Clearly the attack was made by some burrowing creature, and the herd had been lead off the road towards rocky terrain. Also, there were signs that someone had been watching the fight. The group followed and were within sight of the rocky outcropping where the herd and herder had sought refuge when they were attacked by the young Remorhaz.

Now, again, this was educational. The worm is a CR 5 encounter, and it’s mostly made nasty by its ambient damage (7 points when you hit it[1]) and the fact that it shrugs off cold and fire damage. It also had a lot of Hit Points, but an only OK armor class. Balanced against this, the party was operating short handed, since some took off in pursuit of the observer, who was watching from a hilltop abut a quarter mile off.

For all this, the deciding factor ended up being luck – the worm could not roll for crap, and landed only one hit in the entirety of the fight, though despite that, the party was pretty roughed up by the ongoing damage. The observer got away (he had plenty of time to do so), though he left a little bit of evidence (tobacco ash) and the party took a short rest with the herd before deciding to lead it back to town, expecting to rest along the way.

Naturally, they got attacked while camped. I tuned the encounter a bit more this time, with one CR4 Shadow Demon and 3 CR2 Ice Gargoyles (regular gargoyles, but vulnerable to fire). While not super dangerous toe to toe, the demon wound have the advantage of surprise, and the Gargoyles were not intended as a threat to the players, but rather, to the herd.

I’m actually pretty happy with how this fight went. The demon one shotted Tuesday (a surprise to me – turned out she’d been conservative with her recovery dice during the short rest) and there was a brief stealth duel with Weaver until the thing was revealed enough for Israfil to go full Paladin on its ass, backed up by the party clerics. A lot of radiant damage makes for a very dead Shadow Demon.

The rest of the party dealt with the gargoyles,and a Gust of Wind kept them from damaging the Yaks as much as they intended, buying time for fire and ass kicking to do their job. The fight definitely got pretty straightforward once the party could bring their strengths to bear. I could certainly have made it harder, but I think it felt about right.

They got back to town with the herd, and Gaston was bought off with the meat from the one yak the gargoyles had killed and by being given credit towards the Remorhaz kill (the head went up by the gates). We still had some time so there was some investigation that followed. The town, it seemed, had been having a lot of supply problems. Nothing too overt, but enough that everything was running low, and the yak herd going missing would have potentially been quite disruptive. No headway on who the mysterious smoker was, but it did put Lucius Tanner (owner of the town’s largest trading post) on their radar as the likely source of the tobacco. He’s also a potential suspect as someone who benefits from scarcity. The problem is that Lucius is making money hand over fist, and disruption might hurt that.

Out heroes’ acclaim for besting the Remorhaz also got them attention from the Aide to the Marjan ambassador, who needed someone to drive some claim jumpers off his recently acquired claim. At first, the group thought he was a potential mark, but then after spotting his bodyguard, wondered if he was a honeypot. After Sul Taeres agreed to help, Arasthel stpped in and insisted they needed some time. The diplomat seemed put off, and pointed out that they had been discussing this for several hours already, and if they were adamant (they were) he woudl seek elsewhere.

So the the diplomat hired Gaston and his crew, and set off. The party was still curious, and investigation seemed to suggest that if the diplomat was not on the level, then at least his con was much deeper than just ripping off a few adventurers (the Marjans had bought out numerous contiguous claims since the accord was signed, greatly overpaying in almost all cases). The set out (for a number of sometimes conflicting reasons) only to encounter a badly injured Gaston and crew on the road coming back. They’d been ambushed by undead halflings. A negotiation was made with the Marjan diplomat, and the job of clearing out these apparent claim jumpers is now theirs again.

Ok, numerous takeaways from this one

  • It is difficult to write about the DMG and prep for a game simultaneously. Sorry about that, but I will be back on it.
  • This game finally named and loosely identified the other dominant human empire, loosely based on the Persians with some Ottoman flavor. That they are Marjans is something of a personal joke.
  • We tried a new rule that we’ll be testing for a while which i call the “heroic death rule”. Any time you would go down because you’re at 0 HP, you can opt to stay on your feet, but you immediately mark off one failed death save. You can act on your turn, and if you’re still standing at the end, mark off another failed death save. The net result is that you always have the option to go full Boromir and fight to the death. More critically, it introduces choice to the most boring part of play.
  • The new rule has some knock on effects. We’ve tweaked the stabilization cantrips (they now heal 1d4, but only for a target at 0 hp) and there are certain abuses that could theoretically come up that we want to head off. There are also some situations (like when Tuesday got backstabbed) where it’s not 100% appropriate. For the time being, it’s a work in progress.
  • I also need to come up with a rule for failed death saves turning into injuries, but that’s phase 2.
  • What it does, however, is mitigate one of my big concerns with combat so far. I’m still working on balancing for a bigger group, but one thing I run into a lot is monsters whose basic hits pretty much promise to one shot most of my part. That’s dangerous and all, but not exactly fun – one and done really drives home the swinginess of things.
  • Beyond the heroic death rule, I am also going to try to address this more in encounter design. One big takeaway is that I’m going to be a lot more free in pulling from the ranks of CR1 and 2 stuff to build the foundation for an encounter. I’m also going to turn my eye towards things with more (and more interesting) attacks than things with big damaging whammies.
  • That “more interesting” is something I really want to ruminate on. A lot of what made 4e fights fun (and they were super fun for me) was that there was a lot of non-damage stuff going on. Similarly, a lot of the best practices of Dungeon World were all about doing things over and above raw damage. I don’t know where all of 5e’s hooks are for that, but my hunch is that the secret is getting a lot more robust with advantage and disadvantage.

  1. Reading the monster ability, one could conclude that the 7 points is done every time a hit lands, but I opted for a kinder interpretation that limited it to once per action because the lack of a save or any other potential mitigation is crazy nasty otherwise, especially considering how many hit points the thing had.  ↩

DMG – Product and Introduction


For folks playing at home, this kicks off my dive into the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, similar to previous dives into the Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual. I originally was going to pass on this one because I felt I would be starting to late, but some nice folks persuaded me that the book is fairly evergreen, so the window is much wider than I may have thought.

The Dungeon Master’s guide is, physically, about what you would expect from the series so far. The weirdness with the flame on the binding seems to have been a function of the third party book, so nothing stands out as a problem, and it’s got that nice mix of gloss and matte that makes all these books a joy to pick up.

I’m a little torn on the cover. On one hand, it’s another book without a dragon on the cover, but I don’t actually mind that. My first DMG was the 1e printing with the Elmore (I think) (edit: Nope, it was Jeff Easely. I’m a bad nerd, and thanks to @newbiedm for the correction) painting of the cowled figure opening the door. That one’s iconic for me, so I admit it’s on my mind as I look at this.

The choice of a Lich makes sense, especially if you’re not going to use a dragon. As with the Beholder on the cover of the Monster Manual, it’s another iconic, scary creature. And this one definitely looks lich-y. But for all that, the cover leaves me a little flat – the color is such a uniform wash of purple tha nothing stands out. I have to actively remind myself that there’s a second figure on the cover. None of that is great. I suppose the thinking was to give it a strong sense of color (to differentiate it from the red of the PHB and the – blue, I guess? – of the DMG. There might be some branding genius to it that I don’t get, but ultimately its much more blah than it could be.

Thankfully, the interior has no such problems. Like the other books, it’s well laid out and awash with art. It’s roughly similar to the Players Handbook in this regard, but there is (appropriately) less of an emphasis on characters and more on items and maps. The maps, in particular, warm my heart. They are many and varied, including an entire appendix of just random maps (I assume people have already posted adventures that use them) though my favorite is the town on page 115. It’s hard to see something like that an not want to use it in a game.

The art is full of great classic nods to things like Baba Yaga’s Hut and The Tomb of Horrors, and ranges from epic full page splashes to elemental vistas to an utterly adorable rendition of the great modern parch. My sense from the PHB that WOTC was really investing in a different artistic feel had been reinforced by the MM and it feels fully cemented here. The only complaint I could raise is that it lacks the diversity that was so much the signature of the PHB. It is not terrible in this regard – there is definitely some diversity, and the comparative lack of character images means that there’s no way it could possibly compare to the PHB. But at the same time, the PHB set the bar high enough that it’s noteworthy that the DMG passes under it (if only by a bit).

Credits page includes a nice genealogy of the DMG in its attribution, which is pleasant to see. It also includes a bit of a humorous disclaimer[1] which I’m confident will rub some readers the wrong way. I actually am not sure how to take it – it’s a joke, of course, but is it a flag that we’re going be getting a conversational, jocular kind of DMG, or is it just a one off?


When the first line is “It’s good to be the Dungeon Master!”, that seems to argue for “jocular”. There’s an interesting point in the first paragraph that explicitly note that this book assumes rules familiarity. That’s an interesting message, but one that’s consistent with how 5e seems to have been split up. As has been the trend, more anymore of the essential rules of the game exist in the PHB, but that makes the decision of what to keep in the DMG all the more interesting.

I have to admit that I am poring over every word in this introduction in an attempt to capture the underlying message. “What is the GM’s role?” is one of those questions that can spawn any number of arguments, and the position that D&D takes on this carries massive weight. It is the primary example, and even the smallest shift from the past is noteworthy.

The best summary for the expected role of the DM can be found in the three subheaders of this section. They are, in order. Master of the World, Master of the Adventure and Master of Rules. That’s a curious order, and it is hard not to wonder if it reflects relative importance. If so, there are two interesting things going on here.

The first is that mentioning rules last sends a number of interesting messages, not the least of which is that the rules are not the be-all-end-all of play. That is not exactly revolutionary, but it is controversial on more than one axis. That the book describes the GM as a “mediator between the rules and the players” is also kind of interesting as it supports the idea that the GM’s job is different than that of the players, but does not necessarily suggest a power dynamic. That kind of nicely walks a line that is classically rife with trouble.

The second, and more interesting to me, is that worlds are given pre-eminence (in both position and wordcount) over adventures. Now, in terms of difficulty, this seems backwards – running adventures is tricky business, and it takes work – but I think it reflects a different priority, one that I respect a lot. For me, the master of the world subsection speaks to is one of the most fun elements of GMing. Crafting a setting (alone or with feedback) populating it, thinking long and hard about it, then offering a window into it through play is an intensely satisfying experience (at least for me). I have to give big props to the book for focusing on why it’s fun to GM before getting into why it’s work.

The introduction ends with a single page on knowing your players which is surprisingly well crafted. Most critically, it does not talk about types or players, but rather, about thinks your players may enjoy doing[2]. On one level, this is a fine distinction – one could have talks about “actors” rather than “acting”, but by couching these things in actions, you get much closer to the reality that your players are more complicated than any type, and that they can probably have fun in a lot of different ways.

Even better, these action are also accompanied by straightforward, actionable advice. For example:

Engage Players who like exploration by…

  • dropping clues that hint at things yet to come
  • letting them find things when they take the time to explore
  • providing rich descriptions of exciting environments and using interesting maps and props
  • giving monsters secrets to uncover or cultural details to learn.

Those are not Principles from Apocalypse World, but you would be forgiven for seeing a family resemblance. Now, there’s a whole philosophical discussion to be had about what it means to include these things as guidelines rather than “rules”, and I’ll happily leave that to those more invested in the distinction. I’m a big fan of guidelines, especially when well articulated, and as a single page of advice goes, this is pretty good.

All in all, it’s a promising start, and for the people who need them, the red flags have already been raised, as is only fair.  I very much look forward to getting into the meat of it.

Because the universe has a sense of humor, at the same time I decided to pick this up, Bruce Baugh (of Adventure!, Wraith and about a bazillion awesome thing) also started doing his deep dive on the DMG. You should absolutely check it out over on google plus.

  1. To quote – Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast does not officially endorse the following tactics, which are guaranteed to maximize your enjoyment as a Dungeon Master. First, always keep a straight face and say OK no matter how ludicrous or doomed the players’ plan of action is. Second, no matter what happens, pretend that you intended all along for everything to unfold the way it did. Third, if you’re not sure what to do next, feign illness, end the session early, and plot your next move. When all else fails, roll a bunch of dice behind your screen, study them for a moment with a look of deep concern mixed with regret, let loose a heavy sign, and announce that Tiamat swoops from the sky and attacks.  ↩
  2. Acting, Exploring, Instigating, Fighting, Optimizing, Problem Solving & Storytelling. Of these, the presence of instigating (being able to impact the world) probably pleases me most as an idea that is prevalent in play but often underrepresented in advice. It also dovetails well with the idea of the DM’s role being tied to the world.    ↩

Diceless Apocalypse

ScoundrelI have occasionally remarked that Powered by the Apocalypse games work best for me when I view them as diceless games that sometimes go to dice. This is, from a certain perspective, absolutely terrible. It posits a strongly empowered GM as the primary driver of fun with system in a back seat, and that is totally not to everyone’s taste. But it’s my jam.

Ok, so bear that in mind while I add a second data point – one common complaint of PBTA games is that they do not offer a mechanical representation of difficulty. If I’m swordfighting a kobold, I make the exact same roll I do do when I’m swordfighting a dragon, with identical probabilities. Now, the reality is a little more complicated than that, and there’s a strong element of bug or feature, but I think it’s fair that it’s an issue to address.

So put a pin in that and let’s move to the third thing – diceless stats. I’m going to use the Amber DRPG as an example here. For the unfamiliar you had a stat like Warfare, which covered fighting and such. You spent points on it, and that’s how good you were – If you had a 45 warfare, then you were better than a 44 and worse than a 46, and all things being equal[1], that would determine the outcome of a fight. Simple as that.

This worked ok, but there were some further complications – in theory the levels that players bought at established the “tiers” of the game. So, if the highest Warfare in the party was a 50, then that was the Apex of warfare for that generation, and the levels other people bought at represented the tiers below him. In practice, this quickly broke down because new characters came in, NPCs had their own stats and so on.

But I liked the idea of tiers. It matched the source material very nicely. If you’ve read the books, Benedict is the apex warrior and in a tier by himself. The next tier down are the best swordsmen in the family (Corwin, Eric, Maybe Bleys). Next tier down are the competent soldiers (Julian, Caine, Gerard, Deirdre) and the next tier down are the scrappers (pretty much the rest of the family). If people from two different tiers came into conflict, then there’s really no question about how it plays out – higher tier wins without some SERIOUS cheating. But within a tier, things are close and uncertain.

So take all three of those points and I think you may see where I’m going. Start with a tiered diceless model, and use it for everything except conflicts within a given tier. For that, go to the dice, PBTA style.[2] And I note, I’m not really proposing the use of moves, just the three tiered resolution mechanism.

For me, it gets that little bit of randomness into diceless play and also removes the entire question of difficulty from the roll – difficulty is what determines if you even roll at all (which is not hugely removed from PBTA itself, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Anyway, I’m filing this away for when I write my big Lords of Gossamer & Shadow hack. :)

  1. Which is why a lot of Amber play revolved around pre-conflict positioning to ensure that all things were as unequal as possible.  ↩
  2. I figure a modifier on the roll based on the situation, probably from –3 to +3. You could build a whole subsystem for this, but for the moment, I apply handwavium.  ↩

The Thaw: Treasure Thoughts

locked-chestOne thing I rather glossed over in the session post mortem is the question of treasure. For the kickoff adventure I was profoundly generous and let everyone walk away with one magic item. There were a few reasons to do this, but most of them had to do with magic items being cool and part of what makes D&D feel like D&D.

It was really interesting, because it gave me reason to look at the magic item tables in a much more concrete way than I had previously, and it was informative. I’d had a sense that 5e was a little more conservative with the magic items than previous editions, but I hadn’t realized how conservative. As low level characters, I really should have been handing out only very minor scrolls and potions, and it would actually be a while before they were even in a position to roll on a table that might cough up a +1 weapon. I ended up letting them roll d100 and looking across the first several tables to find the coolest option among them, and despite that, the loot was still mostly potions and scrolls.

The one exception is that our archer happened to roll exactly so to potentially get an arrow of slaying, and that was too perfect a match to pass up. I could have just left it at that – a default arrow of slaying is fun but not crazy – it gets you one 6d10 hit, which would be awesome when it happens, but is not world shaking.

But what’s the fun in that?

So it’s an arrow of dragon slaying. Like, honest to god dragon slaying. She hits a dragon with it, it dies. That is crazy powerful and has the potential of having an outsized impact on play (and also has a nice thematic element, since her character has some Bard the Bowman touchpoints), but none of that worries me because of the flipside of it. For all it’s potency, the idea of an arrow of dragon slaying is going to drive a crapton more play than its actual use. Players will have a reason to use it. NPCs (widely varied, interesting NPCs) have reasons to want it or want to see it used in particular places. It’s an act of apparent generosity which is, in actuality, a gift to myself.

Anyway, I am now going to have to think about magic items over the course of the game a little bit more. I’m ok being more conservative with them, but it increases my inclination to introduce more +0 weapons (weapons which grant no bonus to attack or damage, but which do some other sort of damage) just to deal with damage immunities, which do not seem quite as conservative as magic items. [1]

I also may need to re-examine the Artificer (from the Eberron Rules). Upon initial examination, it’s kind of a rough sell as a wizard specialty, since it’s very hard to argue that the benefits of the magic items they can make offset the loss of the spell slots, especially since the tradition doesn’t give any abilities that don’t use existing resources (unlike other traditions, which are on top of those resources). Maybe it’s a better deal if magic items are much rarer, but I’m suspecting it is not.

There is a reason I don’t normally stress over treasure in most games, but in D&D, it’s half the fun, so I’m willing to go all in on it. It just takes a bit of work.

  1. In fact, I think that the drow will have the secret of making iceblades, swords of sharpened ice that do cold damage but which melt. Reflects the ice heritage and seems cooler than the “underdark radiation” nonsense.  ↩