The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘d&d’

Hack & Slash posted On the Visual History of the Illithid the other day and pointed out that, in the original Monster Manual, the portrait of the mind flayer was surrounded by an irregular octagon that was completely unique within that tome:

Mind Flayer - Monster Manual (1977)

“Although several creatures in the monster manual have borders, most are square. Only two other creatures, the Bugbear and Type V demons have octagonal borders and both of their borders are more regular. Each pane of the mind flayer border is of a different length, no two matching.” Which feels oddly appropriate, given the dimension-rending origins of the mind flayer in many versions of their mythos.

I was struck by the idea that you might be able to take that octagonal border and turn it into an iconic symbol or badge. An Icon of the Flayer. A couple dozen minutes of fiddling around in Photoshop gave me this:

Icon of the Flayers

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wolfgang Baur, Steve WinterAfter the review I wrote, several people have asked me whether I’ll be doing a remix of Hoard of the Dragon Queen to “fix” it the same way that I did for Keep on the Shadowfell.

Short answer: Nope.

Why? Because nothing about Hoard of the Dragon Queen made me want to run it. Which means I’m not going to run it. Which means that I’m not going to put the necessary effort into revamping it.

With that being said, while discussing the campaign over the past few days I have had a few thoughts about the approach I would take to remixing the campaign if I were going to do it.

NODE-BASED DESIGN

As I mentioned in my original review, the basic back story of Hoard of the Dragon Queen kinda screams out for a node-based design: Multiple factions of a cult simultaneously pursuing multiple artifacts should lend itself pretty much instantly to the PCs being able to choose which threats they want to prioritize.

One thing to consider, however,  is that D&D characters increase in power level over time, so you can’t just have a wide open playing field without risking either crippling difficulty at the beginning of the campaign and/or push-overs at the end of the campaign. With that being said, my understanding of 5E is that the “bounded accuracy” design is specifically meant to increase the range of tolerance for this sort of thing and pre-4E had at least a 3-4 level range of tolerance.

So what you need to do is design around funnels that refocus the investigation. (Or, alternatively, layer cakes while accepting that occasionally the PCs will backtrack and roll over some easier material.)

Having a bulkier initiating node that the PCs can gain a couple of levels during also makes sense (to take the edge of fragility off their characters). So it makes sense to keep the general idea of “siege on Greenest, followed by investigations at the cult camp.” In the camp you’d want to seed clues to three different nodes:

  • Leads to wherever they’re transporting the stuff.
  • An envoy from another faction of the cult.
  • Reports from agents who are currently spying on a third faction of the cult (that somehow threatens this faction’s interests).

This 1st Funnel is primarily focused on figuring out what the cult’s true agenda is. The second prong of clues within the scenarios of this funnel, therefore, would show their fascination with Tiamat, hint that they’re looking for Tiamat-themed artifacts, and also reveal the “five-headed” structure of the cult. The first prong is the structural branch in which clues point them to the conclusion of the 1st Funnel: An “all-faction” meeting of the cult. At this meeting, the PCs would discover (or verify) that the cult is specifically interested in the five dragon masks. Furthermore, they would get clues pointing them towards 2-4 more dragon masks. These might include:

  • Ongoing expeditions being run by the cult.
  • Expeditions that are about to begin. (Do the PCs sabotage the mission? Race to meet them to the site?)
  • Fortresses where the cult is keeping masks they have already obtained.

And so forth. This 2nd Funnel would lead them to Tiamat’s Prison where the final ritual is being performed (or whatever). If I was invested in the idea of the cult getting all five masks and raising Tiamat, I’d probably arrange things so that the masks have already been shipping to the final site before the PCs ever arrive at the various expedition locations. Given my predilections, however, what I’d probably do is design the ritual in a way that the PCs holding a single mask won’t completely disrupt it. Maybe something like:

  • Each mask allows the cult to summon one Aspect of Tiamat (i.e., a deity-infused dragon of matching color). Or maybe the ritual just involves an appropriate dragon wearing the mask and, thus, channeling a shard of Tiamat’s soul. Either way, the point is that if the PCs manage to hold onto one or more of the masks… great! They have substantially reduced (but not eliminated) the effectiveness of the plans and Tiamat’s manifestation on this plane.
  • Also designing 2-3 proactive nodes of assassins or thieves or the like that the cult would send after the PCs in order to retrieve the masks they’ve “stolen”.

USING THE RAW MATERIAL

If I’m looking to preserve as much of Hoard of the Dragon Queen as possible, I’d probably look at something like this:

Node 1: This consists of Episodes 1-3 from the book.

1st Funnel:

  • For tracking the looted goods, I’d use a possibly abbreviated version of Episodes 4-5 but have it conclude at the Roadhouse. (With records there pointing to the conclusion.)
  • The envoy would be from the Hunting Lodge (Episode 7, with the same relationship to the Castle in the Clouds for the conclusion).
  • The agents would be spying upon Castle Naerytar. (Preparations are being made to send their delegation to the conclusion.)

The conclusion of the 1st Funnel would be a meeting at the Castle in the Clouds (Episode 8).

Remember to include cross-node clues: So, for example, the Hunting Lodge is also shipping goods to the Roadhouse (providing a place where you might be able to use additional material from Episodes 4-5) and has a spy from Castle Naerytar. And so forth.

The 2nd Funnel would be a hypothetical remix of the material from Rise of Tiamat (if it proves to have anything usable upon release).

THE FIRST EPISODE

 The other thing you have to do if you’re going to run Hoard of the Dragon Queen is fix the opening scenario.

First, the hook of “you have some vague reason to be in Greenest, but when you get there you find that the town is being attacked by a dragon” is far too fragile. One option would be to drastically ramp up the importance of whatever they need to accomplish in Greenest, while also making it massively time-sensitive and also being of a nature that a dragon besieging the town doesn’t render it moot.

Nothing comes to mind that fits the bill, though, so I’m going to recommend an easier fix: The PCs are already in Greenest when the cult attacks.

The far more problematic aspect of the first episode, however, is the lengthy section with the World of Warcraft quest-giver standing atop his castle walls and ordering the PCs to venture forth over and over and over again. I suspect you could probably salvage this section of the adventure by having the players receive a complete tactical overview of the situation in town and then venturing forth once to accomplish their missions all at once. That would look something like this:

  • Dragon Attack (the dragon assaults the wall shortly after the PCs arrive in the castle)
  • Old Tunnel (after the PCs prove themselves against the dragon, Escobert immediately tells them about it)
  • Sallying Forth (Save the Mill, Sanctuary, and Prisoners)
  • Sally Port (as they return to the keep, the sally port buckles and they have to help drive the raiding parties back out)

They can then question the prisoner with Escobert and you can cut that interrogation short whenever it becomes boring by having the half-dragon champion issue his challenge.

BRINGING THE AWESOME

Pearce Shea summarizes the big problem with Hoard of the Dragon Queen eloquently at games with others:

What we learn about kobolds [in Hoard]: They are small and they like dragons. They comport themselves menacingly.

When Paizo released Rise of the Runelords they reimagined goblins with Wayne Reynolds, and Goblins lit themselves on fire by mistake, drowned in half-full barrels, feared and hated horses (horses are kind of like their dragons) and one eats a man’s face off (is eating it, through a hole in the wall, when you find it). They roast limbs for fun, carry molten tongs and try to shove adventurers into a furnace. There are optional feral goblin babies to kill (or to try to raise). They have a song (it is lame), and a druid that moves through their bramble walls as if the brambles were no obstacle at all, and a chief that rides a giant gecko. There will be a man encased in glass, an aasimar becoming a demon, a barghest, seduction, romance, betrayal, two patricides, a boat hunt, family squabbles, rangers giving reports about goblin activity, flirting, grave robbing, lost mega weapon-type defense systems, ancient temples and fonts of evil power, demons, a mutant goblin and an imp that imagines itself queen. That’s in 60 pages or so (the first of six chapters). Half the length of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. fuck.

So the biggest thing you’d have to do during a revamp of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is liberally inject the scenario with awesome stuff: The cult needs weird rituals. Strange Tiamat lore needs to be scrawled in living inks. Feel free to take advantage of the bassabal culture I created for kobolds in my Shadowfell remix. Yank open your fantasy spice rack and start using it liberally.

On that note: Check out the remix Hack & Slash is embarking upon.

 

Hoard of the Dragon Queen - Wizards of the CoastMeh.

The primary arc of Hoard of the Dragon Queen is disappointingly linear. Disappointing because the concept is so delightfully ripe for a non-linear approach: The Cult of the Dragon has abandoned its previous plans of turning dragons into dracoliches and has allied itself with a variety of living dragons and their half-breed offspring to free Tiamat from her infernal prison. In order to do this, feuding factions within the cult are seeking out five powerful artifacts which take the form of dragon masks (one for each of Tiamat’s chromatic heads).

Five masks lost in disparate locations? Multiple cult factions simultaneously pursuing semi-compatible goals?! When I first read the background I was absolutely convinced I was about to read the D&D equivalent of Masks of Nyarlathotep and have my brain blown at the prospect of node-based scenario design being used as the introductory campaign for an entire generation of gamers.

Sadly, not to be.

Instead, the campaign is a pretty rigid “go to X, then go to Y, then go to Z” affair. Hoard of the Dragon Queen makes up for this, however, by designing most of the individual scenarios along its path in a delightfully non-linear fashion: Enemy strongholds are set up to reward frontal assaults, physical stealth, and clever infiltration. Fractious factions can be turned against each other using a variety of methods. Alliances can be forged and broken in myriad ways. Enemies surrendering and being questioned (instead of fighting bloodily to the death) is gloriously well-supported. Token guidance is even given for PCs who go wandering off the intended path on wild goose chases. And all of this goes hand-in-hand with a very utilitarian presentation which is starkly at odds with the overwritten-to-useless style which has afflicted a lot of published adventures in the last decade.

Which makes the scenarios where this liberal and refreshing approach is supplanted by a rigid railroad all the more puzzling.

This really only afflicts a couple of the scenarios, but unfortunately one of them is the first scenario and it’s laughably atrocious: There’s a lengthy sequence where the PCs are besieged in a castle (after getting railroaded into it, of course). The PCs are then supposed to go to the local duke (who basically has a yellow exclamation mark over his head) and get a quest to fight their way out of the besieged castle and accomplish some goal in the town. Then they fight their way back through the respawning kobolds on the drawbridge, return to the duke (who the adventure literally says waits for them in the same spot on the castle battlements), get their next quest, and then fight their way out again.

And if they do that two or three times, they’ll unlock a dialogue option where the duke tells them about a secret passage leading out of the castle so that they can bypass the respawning drawbridge encounter going forward.

It’s kind of astonishing that I kept reading the adventure after that.

Can I also take a moment here to point out that the campaign hook for Hoard of the Dragon Queen is absolutely ridiculous? The PCs are approaching a random town, crest a hill, and discover that it is being attacked by a dragon. Okay. That’s fine. But then the campaign assumes that the 1st level PCs are likely, when confronted with that sight, to decide that their best course of action is to walk into the town.

(Did I mention that the dragon is also accompanied by an entire army?)

Maybe I’m just spoiled by having players who aren’t seriously brain damaged, but I literally cannot imagine a scenario in which that hook would work.

But what kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is not its inconsistent design. Nor its occasional absurdities. Nor the plentiful continuity errors. Nor the horrific editorial shortcomings. Nor the completely inadequate maps (some of which appear to be missing entirely, some of which don’t match the text, and many of which lack keyed entries they’re supposed to have).

No. What kills Hoard of the Dragon Queen is that it’s so incredibly boring.

And I’m not talking about one of those adventures that’s just boring to read on the page. I mean that the contents of this adventure, basically from top to bottom, are generic and dull and trite and uninteresting: There is no kobold that isn’t a generic kobold. There is no bedroom that isn’t a generic bedroom. There is no swamp which isn’t a generic swamp. And there is absolutely nothing fantastical or wonderful or unique or memorable.

(The obvious rejoinder here is that a good GM could still take this material, work miracles upon it, and make it totally awesome during actual play. Of course they could. But a good GM would also know better than to use such a flat and uninspiring foundation in the first place.)

To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions to this general dullness. (Flying stolen wyverns to intercept the flying castle of a giant is the most notable one.) But for a campaign which I’m assuming will take at least 40-60 hours of table time to complete, those slim exceptions are wholly inadequate.

Which, ultimately, brings me back to the reaction I had most consistently and finally to Hoard of the Dragon Queen:

Meh.

Outside of a few truly awful sequences in the first scenario, there’s nothing here that’s really terrible. But there’s also nothing to be found between these covers to justify spending $30 on it (let alone another $30 on the essentially mandatory second volume). Most damning, however, is that Hoard of the Dragon Queen also lacks anything which will reward the countless hours of ponderous and forgettable playing time that you would languish upon it.

Grade: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Exit, Pursued by a Monster - Alex Drummond (Legends & Labyrinths)

An idea that I’ve toyed around with for years is creating a hex map for the Underdark. I still haven’t done it. But recently I’ve been running a huge technological complex for Numenera with a hex map that shares a lot of similarities with the Underdark. If the idea of running a hexcrawl through the Underdark is something you’d like to try,  I think there are a few key points to consider:

(1) What makes a hex map work is that it abstracts the actual terrain of the game world. If you’re doing a wilderness hexcrawl, you shouldn’t try to map every tree… or even every single country lane. If you do that, you’re defeating the entire point of the hex map. Similarly, if you’re designing your Underdark with a hex map you should not try to map every individual tunnel. (You might map major thoroughfares, the same way that major highways or rivers would be indicated on your wilderness hex map.)

(2) One key distinction between a wilderness hex map and an Underdark hex map is that, generally speaking, travel is always assumed to be possible through the side of a wilderness hex. This is not necessarily the case in the Underdark and one thing you’ll want to develop is a key indicating a minimum of three states for each side of the hex:

  • Open (there are lots of tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Closed (there are no tunnels leading from this hex to that hex)
  • Chokepoint (you can get from this hex to that hex, but only by passing through a specific keyed location)

Note that the existence of a given chokepoint could also be a secret that needs to be discovered (by either obtaining the information elsewhere or perhaps by performing a detailed survey of the area).

(3) The RPG industry has developed a fairly standard “vocabulary” of wilderness terrain types. (These actually predate D&D and were inherited from Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival when Arneson used it as a template.) These terrain types also have the benefit of being familiar to us in our every day lives: We know what forests are. We know what mountains are. And so forth. IMO, you’re going to want to develop a similarly interesting vocabulary of at least 4-5 different Underdark terrain types. And you’re going to have to figure out how to clearly communicate those differences to a group that probably doesn’t contain spelunkers (and certainly no fantasy spelunkers). The point of this, obviously, is to make the map more interesting: This both rewards exploration (a key component of any hexcrawl), but also to make the actual description of the PCs’ journey more engaging.

(4) The Underdark is fundamentally three dimensional in a way that the surface of the world is not. Keep that in mind, but don’t worry about it too much: The surface of our planet varies from 1,400 feet below sea level to 29,000 feet above sea level but we still successfully visualize it as a flat plane. Consider the minor elevation shifts I discussed in Jaquaying the Dungeon and apply the same logic at a macro-scale here: You can probably make your Underdark more interesting by saying “you have to go down and then over and then up to get to there”, but vast slopes and slants and descents and climbs can be abstracted onto a two-dimensional map. So go back to Point #1 above and remember to embrace the abstraction of the hex!

 

JDJarvis at Aeons & Augauries has the really interesting idea of randomly determining the source of your PC’s starting wealth. Click through for a full table that gives you everything from petty theft to rich uncles to grave robbing.

I’ve seen a lot of “random background tables”, but what caught my eye about this one is that it leverages a common mechanic and seeds the mechanic with interesting narrative hooks. Any of y’all have interesting answers to the, “Where did you get that money from?” question?

In other news, I’m back from Gencon! I ran 5 games and played in 4:

  • Numenera: Into the Violet Vale (ran 3 sessions)
  • The Strange: Eschatology Code (ran 2 sessions)
  • Cthulhu Masters Tournament (played in 2 rounds)
  • Eclipse Phase: Detente
  • Eclipse Phase: Overrun

This was more intense but considerably less varied than last year, when I played in 6 games (including Call of Cthulhu, Lady Blackbird, Eclipse Phase, Shab-al-Hiri Roach, and Numenera). The lack of variety was not so much by design as accident: Reaching the second round of the Cthulhu Masters Tournament knocked out two other games that were originally on my schedule. (Although the decision to run 4 games for Monte Cook Games prevented me from participating in Games on Demand this year, which is a variety killer.)

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