Summer reading thoughts

After finishing reading The Hobbit with my son, we’ve moved on to The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s such a joy to explore this with him and see how, in some ways, he already knows much of the story because it draws on elements of stories and myths embedded deeply into our culture. The physical pleasure of reading aloud also makes this into a wonderful experience and has become a bonding ritual.

My own reading habits have lately focused on Gaiman. I never read too many graphic novels as a younger man but The Sandman is not what I expected. It has this feeling of literature with modern illustration. I have to force myself to spend time lingering over the art, though, since that clearly plays such an important role in the storytelling. Otherwise I could burn through the entire series in an evening.

IMG_1131.JPGOne of the campaigns in which I’m playing has lately started to incorporate some elements of the fey. And after poring over Volo’s Guide to Monsters, I can see why. It includes many fey elements, which the original Monster Manual largely seemed to leave out. This started me down a wiki walk (reading about the seelie and unseelie courts) and I ended up looking at an Amazon page for The Once and Future King. Arthurian legend hasn’t really occupied any headspace for me since I took British Lit in high school 25 years ago (not counting one viewing of the Disney classic The Sword in the Stone with my kids).

White’s masterwork likely will not turn into our family’s next oral reading project, since the Lord of the Rings will undoubtedly take months. But as I finish the Sandman saga, T.H. White will guide me back into my own fairy tale reading as a counterbalance to my usual consumption of mathematics and programming books.

That reminds me that I also want to read The Mathematics of Magic by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, which apparently have a connection to the epic poem The Faerie Queene. In fact, I should just add all the Appendix N stuff to my Amazon wishlist.

Actually, though, this weekend will be a good time to hit up a used book store…

Tomb of Annihilation: AL campaign planning


The Quest of the Week schedule for Adventurers League got an update today, and it has something special in it… Tomb of Annihilation modules! They’ll start running in September, and some of them have some particularly evocative names:

  • DDAL07-01 City on the Edge – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-02 Over the Edge – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-03 A Day at the Races – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-04 A Walk in the Park – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-05 Whispers in the Dark – Tier 1 (lvls 1-4)
  • DDAL07-06 Fester and Burn – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-07 Rotting Roots – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)
  • DDAL07-08 Putting the Dead to Rest – Tier 2 (lvls 5-10)

Looks like the dinosaur race event from the hardcover will make its way into the smaller modules in some fashion! I’m sure the storyline will have some Tier 3 content as well, but not in the Quests of the Week (or not in 2017 anyway). The filler weeks will focus on the Elemental Evil storyline, but that one doesn’t inspire me for whatever reason.

Campaign planning

Episodic play fits me best because of travel requirements for my job (around 1/3 of the time). Right now, I usually run Rage of Demons on Monday nights and Tales from the Yawning Portal on Thursday nights. Every other Sunday, a friend runs a homebrew campaign in which I play, and my kids and I go to a nearby FLGS on Wednesday nights. So for my own AL games, I will probably wind down the RoD campaign in favor of ToA. However, I would like to keep my YP campaign going because the dungeons provide so much delicious fun. I don’t expect to run The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan until we start the ToA season, since it fits Chult so thematically.

This means that, starting in September, a “normal” week (uninterrupted by travel or other events) will include:

  • Monday: Tomb of Annihilation storyline (DM)
  • Wednesday: Lost Mine of Phandelver or other AL modules (player)
  • Thursday: Tales from the Yawning Portal (DM)
  • Sunday (alternating): Home campaign with friends (player)

That seems like not enough, but in reality that is plenty. Between family, game prep, and other hobbies, running two AL “campaigns” and playing in two others already might have me at the limit.


Playing with my kids in somebody else’s game

I started playing in a new Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign tonight. It feels good to get to enjoy it from the other side of the screen for once! I have run the campaign before and thus know most of the goodies, modulo whatever the DM changes. However, I see my role as primarily supportive, since my kids and I make up half the party while I help them continue to learn the game.

Almost as importantly, the DM is a first-timer – although to be honest nobody would have known had he not said so. He did a great job and, as always when playing with a new DM, I learned a few new tricks. For example, he tracks 10-minute turns by dropping dice into a shot glass. Once he’s dropped six in there, he rolls a d6 to determine whether we find a random encounter (and then empties out the shot glass). Generally, I hung back, threw out some druidic heals, and played my California hippie stoner elf.


Tip: “herbalism kit proficiency” is a great feature for RPing a stoner.

An important balance exists between being sitting back silently while a new DM struggles and turning into “that guy” who tries to overshadow the DM, either via rules lawyering or throwing out assumptions about the game world and environment. My job is just to be the experienced player who can answer rules questions when the DM asks. Players should look to him first because he may have a preferred interpretation, and anyway Rule 0 overrides anything in the book. (One of the joys of not playing an actual Adventurers League game!) I also try to help other players navigate their character sheets, especially the two young players I brought with me.

You know how everybody gets nervous when a kid shows up to a game, whether a tabletop RPG or some online gaming? Me, too. So I work really hard as a parent to be a good Dungeon Dad. My kids know basic table etiquette, the core game rules, and still manage to play according to their own style. As an example of the latter, my 10-year-old is playing a dragonborn ranger who was a clockmaker before becoming an adventurer. I have never run across that race/class combo before, myself. We come prepared with character sheets, our own dice, pencils and pens, and even minis.

The real problem player is… me. Sort of – really, my travel schedule for work is the culprit. I have a couple of trips to the American Southwest later this month. For those doing the math, yes, that means I get to enjoy heat indices north of 110 degrees. I’d rather be slaying dragons, but the group will either run some one-shots or otherwise proceed (depending on whether my kids can talk their mom into taking them). That’s the main reason I like AL: my lack of consistency doesn’t create much of a problem for other people.

Image from Girls Guts Glory, my new favorite actual-play web show.

Review: Shackles of Blood

Thomas-Morus-Nicolas-Gueudeville-Idée-d'une-republique-heureuse_MGG_0351.jpgMy Rage of Demons campaign moved on to DDEX3-02 Shackles of Blood. This adventure continues the theme of “The Deep Threat” in the Rage of Demons storyline. This is a more traditional adventure in which the characters investigate some missing halflings near Hillsfar and run into some complications from the local tyrant’s enforcers. If you run this for a group of friends, this adventure can provide a lot of opportunity to explore important social issues. (Of course, don’t take this approach if you run it for a public group, such as via Adventurers League!)

Spoilers follow, but the bottom line up front is that this adventure is worth the trouble.

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Sunless Citadel: Dragon Rodeo

This post will have spoilers for the first level of Sunless Citadel. If you don’t want that for any reason, then don’t read. I strongly urge anyone planning to play in this adventure to avoid spoilers. Preserve the fun for yourself! But if you have already played it or otherwise don’t mind, this session included some of the most fun I’ve had at the table. To use a phrase from Jim Davis of WebDM, this felt like mainlining Dungeons and Dragons directly into my eyeball.

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Back room at Comic Asylum

Playing Adventurers League with my kids (we’re the trio in the lower left) has proved lots of fun. Yes, the group up there was far too large. We just didn’t have enough DMs to go around despite having some extra on hand to compensate for the primary organizer being unable to attend this week. I’ve offered to start running one-shots for those situations sometimes, but my kids really like being able to play with other DMs sometimes. And Travis does a great job engaging kids and being relentlessly positive. I’m learning a lot about how to run a group from him.

The best part of the scene above is the tremendous variety in the group. (There’s even a five-month-old at the table and he was the most adorable little butterball!) We have folks of all races, ages, genders, orientations, and experience levels, all brought together by the desire to roll dice and share our imaginations for a few hours every week. If you’re in driving distance of Richardson, Texas (on the northeast side of Dallas), come out to Comic Asylum some Wednesday. It’s a lot more fun now than in years past.

Also, we picked up some dice for my daughter at the store last week. But she just realized that one of the d6s has a problem that makes it unusable in actual play. See if you notice…


Thieves’ Tools and Lockpicking

Normally, I don’t really have to deal with rules at a detailed level. As the DM, everything in the rulebooks and subsequent clarifications from the authors are still just guidelines, and I can make a call and run with it. Similarly, when I play in other people’s games, I try really hard to rein in my inner rules lawyer. Unless the DM asks what the rule is or a given ruling legitimately seems to be a mistake (it happens to all of us!), it just doesn’t come up for me.


In organized play like Adventurers League, however, the situation changes a little. For the sake of parity, adhering to RAW matters. When a situation arose recently in which a character not proficient with Thieves’ Tools wanted to attempt to pick a lock, I ruled that the character would be unable to succeed. The player accepted the ruling and contacted me privately later to discuss – which I greatly appreciated! He didn’t bog the game down, and the discussion was friendly and open. When rules questions do arise, that’s how we should do it. But because the game in question occurs under the auspices of the AL, I needed to make certain I hadn’t misunderstood the rule.

This question has come up before and I found an extensively-researched answer on the Role-Playing Games Stack Exchange. The answer linked to a lot of research in the books, plus this tweet by Mike Mearls shortly after 5e’s release:

Let’s look at the actual rules in the text, which admittedly have a bit of ambiguity. The Lock description reads:

Without the key, a creature proficient with thieves’ tools can pick this lock with a successful DC 15 Dexterity check. (PHB 152)

For context, Jeremy Crawford – the actual arbiter of rules questions at Wizards of the Coast – discussed this specific text:

Two pages later, in the Thieves’ Tools section, we have the following text which in my opinion creates the real ambiguity:

Proficiency with these tools lets you add your proficiency bonus to any ability checks you make to… open locks. (PHB 154)

I read it as saying that you need this tool proficiency to add your bonus whenever you do attempt it – but it doesn’t explicitly state either way.

The rule on “Working Together” implies that lockpicking requires proficiency:

A character can only provide help if the task is one that he or she could attempt alone. For example, trying to open a lock requires proficiency with thieves’ tools, so a character who lacks that proficiency can’t help another character in that task. (PHB 175, emphasis mine)

The DMG, which came out after Mearls’ tweet but before Crawford’s, matches that last rule. Under “Locked Doors”:

Characters who don’t have the key to a locked door can pick the lock with a successful Dexterity check (doing so requires thieves’ tools and proficiency in their use). (DMG 103, emphasis mine)

The current version of the Sage Advice compendium (v1.14, from 2016) does not address thieves’ tools or locks at all.

Based on the balance of the rules, I have therefore chosen (for now) to go with the texts as the authoritative source: “you can certainly try” but it won’t succeed. This protects the role of rogues and other folks who plan ahead to make sure they have this proficiency. Adventurers can, of course, employ other methods to deal with locks, just as my group dealt with the one in question using a (successful) Strength check.

At some point, Wizards might issue a formal errata correction, which would obviously take precedence. I’d appreciate it either way for the purposes of organized play. If they do, I’ll update this post.



Encounter Difficulty in the Sunless Citadel

The_Sunless_Citadel.jpgAs I recently launched a Tales from the Yawning Portal campaign, I thought I’d evaluate the Sunless Citadel encounters according to the difficulty guidelines in the Dungeon Masters Guide page 82. My encounter difficulty analysis for Lost Mine of Phandelver did basically the same thing.

In this case, I work from the assumption that the group starts out with 4 level 1 characters, progressing to level 2 when they go to the second level If you have more or higher-level characters, then obviously the encounters get a little easier. You may wish to add additional combatants or other complications to compensate in that case, obviously.


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Into the Temple of Zuveng

Ta Prohm

I’m traveling this week and will likely have lots of solo RPG time. With this particular adventure, Getek’s saga takes another twist as he delves into a dungeon.

Tags: Holy Site (Shou cult from Tea Riots in Xian Part 1)
Heretic hideout, 8 locations
Inhabitants: Shou + Tide Cult (mix to taste)
Thing: Black relic of a martyred anti-saint (oracular adjective: jewels)
Threat: 2 (equal to character’s level)

Getek decides to rob the Temple of Zuveng, belonging to the Shou cult he encountered during the Tea Riots. He has heard that they have a set of cursed jewels that once belonged to their foul prophet Yashub. He prepares the spells Amber Cloud of Somnolescence and Seven Small Thunders before setting out for the temple.

Mood Music: 

Cult of Zuveng

I used the Red Tide sourcebook page 142 for generating this.

Object of Worship: A half-feral God Beast, shard of a forgotten divinity
Source of Influence: Traditional fear and obedience from others
Agent Among the Public: Sinister and reclusive magic-user
Traits and Rules: The cult has animate servitors of bone or stone.

Turn 1: Entrance from the south

Location: Storeroom
Contents: Encounter, Treasure
Goal present: No
Encounter: 7 HD worth of shou (6 goblins, 1 orc)
Twist: Lying in wait for suitable prey
Attitude: The usual, but they might parlay if that seems plausible; Anger/Scorn
Oracle: Was he seen entering (likely)? Yes

He slips in through a side door of the building, which lies outside a village not too far from Xian. As he enters, he finds a half-dozen goblins and an orc lying in wait. Apparently guards had observed him approach and warned those inside of the approaching elven mage. Sneering at him with slavering jaws, they leap at him to grab their next sacrifice.

Round 1: Fray die = 4 -> 1 damage, 1 goblin killed. Cast Amber Cloud of Somnolescence – 4 HD of enemies put to sleep. 1 goblin and 1 orc remain. Morale check: 7 (stand and fight). Goblin: Spear (+1) + AC (9) + d20 = 18, miss. Orc: Axe (+1) + AC (9) + d20 = 22, hit for 1d8 = 1 -> no damage. Getek remains at 6 hit points.
Round 2: Fray die = 4 -> 1 damage, remaining goblin killed. Quarterstaff (+0) + AC (6) + d20 = 24, hit for 1d4 = 4 -> 1 damage done. Getek at 5 HP.
Round 3: Fray die = 4 -> 1 damage, remaining orc killed. Getek takes a moment to catch his breath, then does away with the sleeping goblins using their own daggers.
Treasure: 10gp of coins
Rest: recover 1 HP (back at 6)

Wandering Monsters: No

Turn 2: North

Location: Cemetery
Contents: None
Goal present: No

Getek slips out a door to the north and finds a small hall with the remains of their sacrifice victims resting in wall niches. Nothing more can be done for them in this life.

Wandering Monsters: No

Turn 3: Southeast

Location: Sickroom
Contents: None
Goal present: No
Oracular Adjective: Servitude

A door to the right leads back to a sickroom where the shou attend to their servants and captives, at least minimally. They apparently know little of medicine. Or perhaps they take sick pleasure in keeping them just healthy enough not to die before the bloody ritual sacrifices. Regardless, Getek knows he must keep moving.

Wandering Monsters: No

Turn 4: North

Location: Vestry
Contents: Encounter (6 HD worth of Minions and Elites)
Goal present: no
Allegiance: Neutrals cooperating with the rulers
Combat Style: Blood-crazed; never checks morale against a wounded foe
First Round of Action: Half maneuver to encircle, the others attack directly

Foes: 1 Elite (HD 2), AC 5, Atk +2, Dmg 1d10; 4 Minion (HD 1, AC 7, Atk +1, Dmg 1d6

Round 1: Fray die = 3 -> 1 damage, 1 minion defeated (3 remain, plus elite). Quarterstaff (+0) + AC (7) + d20 = 12, miss. Minions: 2 move to encircle, one attacks directly. Attack (+1) + AC (9) + d20 = 27, 1 hit. Damage d6 = 2 -> 1 HP of damage. Elite: Attack (+2) + AC (9) + d20 = 14, miss. Getek at 5 HP.
Round 2: Fray die = 3 -> 1 damage, 1 minion defeated (2 remain, plus elite). Quarterstaff (+0) + AC(7) + d20 = 11, miss. Minions: Attack (+1) + AC (9) + d20 = 22, nat 1, 1 hit. Damage d6 = 2, 1 HP of damage. Elite: Attack (+2) + AC (9) + d20 = 16, miss. Getek at 4 HP.
Round 3: Fray die = 2 -> 1 damage, 1 minion defeated (1 remains, plus elite). Quarterstaff (+0) + AC (7) + d20 =9, miss. Minion: Attack (+1) + AC (9) + d20 = 20, hit. Damage d6 = 6, 2 HP of damage. Elite: Attack (+2) + AC (9) + d20 = nat 20, hit. Damage d10 = 4 -> 1 HP of damage. Getek at 1 HP.
Round 4: Fray die = 2 -> 1 damage, minion defeated (elite remains). Quarterstaff (+0) + AC (5) + d20 = 21, hit. Damage d4 = 1, no damage. Elite: Attack (+2) + AC (9) + d20 = 25, hit. Damage d10 = 10, 4 points of damage. Getek at -3 HP.

The mage stumbles into a vestry with human cultists getting dressed for their rituals. With blood in their eyes, they turn on him immediately. Despite defeating the weaker members of the group, Getek cannot match the twisted cultist in battle and finds himself captured by his foes.

Per page 20, I have decided to let Getek live – but he will have to find his way out of captivity in the next adventure. He still gets 1 XP but forgoes any treasure he might have found here, plus most of his equipment. (Better get to that spell book though!)

I only know one way to love things.

I only know one way to love things: throw myself into completely, maybe even obsessively.


When I’m looking for a new pastime

That has an obvious dark side to it: at some point, I often tire of the thing and cast it aside, at least temporarily, once I’ve finished devouring it intellectually. I crave that sense of newness, of exploration. (Earlier in life, I feared that would apply to relationships too, but we recently celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary.) Continue reading