DDAL06-01: A Thousand Tiny Deaths (Review)

Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Season 6 (Tales from the Yawning Portal) mostly consists of the hardcover by that name plus three DDAL adventures. All of these serve as lead-ins to one of the dungeons in the book (Forge of Fury, White Plume Mountain, and Against the Giants). In effect, they provide expanded hooks. DDAL06-01 A Thousand Tiny Deaths is thus the only Tier 1 adventure for Season 6 outside of the book.  Warning: this review includes spoilers. If you’re going to play through the adventure, don’t read further.

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Adventurers League Season 7: Death Curse and Scheduling

The seventh season of Adventurers League will start soon – and wow, has it caused some uproar! Time to get those dice warmed up…

Papazotl's Tomb

Death Curse

Season 7, also known as Tomb of Annihilation, centers on the Death Curse:

The talk of the streets and taverns has all been about the so-called death curse: a wasting disease afflicting everyone who’s ever been raised from the dead. Victims grow thinner and weaker each day, slowly but steadily sliding toward the death they once denied.

When they finally succumb, they can’t be raised—and neither can anyone else, regardless of whether they’ve ever received that miracle in the past. Temples and scholars of divine magic are at a loss to explain a curse that has affected the entire region, and possibly the entire world.

This has implications for the entire storyline, but not just those running the hardcover. AL released a document previewing the changes, or at least those affecting AL events before the rest of us get our hands on the actual content. The first versihttps://calendar.google.com/calendar/ical/srii4pikmj0t0n3tknn6kemd2g%40group.calendar.google.com/public/basic.icson of document specified that the Curse would also apply to characters running content from Seasons 5 and 6 (Storm King’s Thunder and Tales from the Yawning Portal). That part was quickly changed, and at the time of this writing, the rule in version 6.5 is:

The Death Curse is applied to all D&D Adventurers League characters playing a storyline season 7 or CCC adventure on or after August 16th, 2017. The curse is a—if not the—fundamental aspect of Tomb of Annihilation. If you’re playing through the lower-tier storyline season 7 or CCC adventures, the curse is an ever-present threat.

(Emphasis original.)

This doesn’t bother me, in part because D&D is not like a computer RPG where savescumming is an accepted tactic and sometimes even an intentional part of the design. Character death should mean something. I find myself firmly in the minority, though, because people have gotten very upset about the idea of losing a beloved character.

One way to avoid losing said beloved character, of course, involves not submitting that character to Season 7, especially Tier 1 and Tier 2 content.

New players will not know that this is a change: they will view character death as something serious and possibly permanent. Casual players should definitely take Lindsay’s advice and start with a fresh level 1 character. Players who lose a character at level 5 or above will have access to level 5 pregenerated replacements.

Regardless of whatever one may think of the original document, the current one is pretty reasonable. Playing through Season 7 requires grappling with the core mechanic, which motivates and drives the entire storyline. I appreciate them removing the effect from prior storyline content, however, as characters there literally have no way to deal with the Death Curse.

Everything Else

Player riots aside, we already know a few interesting bits about Season 7. For one, the DDAL adventures, instead of focusing on some area separate from the hardcover adventure, will take place in the same region (Chult, rather than Hillsfar or Mulmaster or Phlan). In fact, they fit together, so that (for example) DDAL07-01 “A City on the Edge” will serve as an expanded hook into the actual Tomb of Annihilation hardcover. All the DDAL adventures will release on the Dungeon Masters Guild for public play, though regional conventions can get them earlier.

The scheduling works like this:

  • 2017-09-05: DDAL07-01 released. As in past seasons, this consists of five 1-hour scenarios for Tier 1 characters (levels 1-4).
  • 2017-09-08: Tomb of Annihilation released at local gaming stores and select partners
  • 2017-09-19: Tomb of Annihilation in wide release (e.g. Amazon)
  • 2017-10-03: DDAL07-02 released. Unlike past seasons, the first Tier 2 (levels 5-10) module also consists of five 1-hour scenarios!
  • 2017-11-07: DDAL07-03, -04, and -05 released. These adventures make up The Jungle Has Fangs trilogy. Maze Arcana fans take note: the first two of these were authored by Rudy Rutenberg and Satine Phoenix!
  • 2017-12-05: DDAL07-06, -07, and -08 released. This is another trilogy, The Rot from Within, but for Tier 2. The first of these lists James Introcaso as the author, known to many of us as an excellent D&D podcaster.
  • 2018: Tier 3 and 4 content will show up.

I have created a Google Calendar [ical] to track all this plus the Quest of the Week (which gives double DM rewards):

Obviously it’s unofficial but I took everything directly from the listing at the official AL web site.

In the mean time, I hope the good folks at the Adventurers League keep pushing boundaries. Not everything will always work perfectly the first time around, but maintaining a status quo will definitely get stale and lead to boredom.

Downtime and renown in Adventurers League

I really hate how downtime and renown work differently in hardcovers than modules. For renown, I can kind of understand:

Unless otherwise specified, renown is awarded at the rate of 1 renown point per adventure (or 1 renown point for every 4 cumulative hours of play for Hardcover adventures).

But downtime is particularly annoying.

Downtime is awarded at the rate of 5 downtime days per 2 hours of prescribed adventure length (or 5 downtime days for every 2 cumulative hours of play for Hardcover adventures).

(Both quotes are taken from the D&D Adventurers League Dungeon Master’s Guide v3.0.)

The marble table at the center was normally covered with Jace's neatly squared stacks of notes. He'd moved that into a private office; the library had become a common room because the table was the only one in the house large enough to accommodate them all... Today the table held only a pitcher of water and six glasses.

I really wish that downtime, at least, just used the actual time played. It’s already a metagame mechanic, mostly used (in AL) for specific types of tasks like trading magic items and copying scrolls. Players can use it for training and crafting, of course, but I don’t know how often that actually happens.

Primarily, the frustration just comes from having two different systems. This means explaining to players why they get less rewards for tonight’s session than for last week’s, just because we’re playing through a DDAL adventure meant to bridge between chapters in the hardcover. (This applies to all three DDAL modules in the Tales from the Yawning Portal storyline season.)

But also, as I’ve noted before, those module estimates can vary wildly between groups, whether due to playstyle or just venue. Groups that spend a lot of time roleplaying, for example, already receive less XP per hour, and that’s okay, but personally I don’t like the fact that it also affects downtime and renown – but only when playing DDAL modules. And online games just take longer, due to lack of normal social cues and dealing with the VTT interface. Moving tokens and figuring things out in Roll20 seems slower than doing it at a table.

That doesn’t even consider the fact that the time estimates for the DDAL modules often seem incredibly naive. Maybe some groups can get through A Thousand Tiny Deaths in two hours, but it seems unlikely.

I recognize this isn’t a major issue at all – it’s a minor “quality of life” thing that probably affects Adventurers League DMs more than anyone else. But we are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the AL. Maybe small QoL things can help keep that lifeblood flowing…

 

Running the Sunless Citadel

The_Sunless_CitadelMy group has now wrapped up the Sunless Citadel. I may run it again for a future group; actually, that would be fantastic as this is really a lovely adventure. Here are some notes for my use. Maybe you can find some use for some of them as inspiration for your own campaign! I also played in another group’s version for a session, mostly just for the tomb section.

This adventure took some time to play through. I think we spent a total of about 20 hours from start to finish (six sessions of 3-4 hours each). Groups that spend less time in roleplay or in larger chunks might be able to cut this back a bit, but in reality the dungeon has so much material that it takes a while to explore. That’s a plus in my view!

As you might expect, this post contains spoilers after the jump. If you’re playing through this, don’t read past this paragraph!

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Five points for great D&D players

After reading Tips to be a great D&D player by James Introcaso, I thought I’d expand on it with a few thoughts of my own. His post is really helpful though, and you should definitely read it as it’s quite comprehensive. I view all of this from the perspective of someone who mostly considers himself a DM. But lately, I’ve found myself playing almost as much as I run games.

Ravenloft - The Living Wall, 1991 by Frank Kelly Freas

These should be how you see the monsters, not the other adventurers. (Ravenloft – The Living Wall, 1991 by Frank Kelly Freas)

More than anything else I will say below, be polite. D&D is a social game and you need to be able to interact appropriately with other people. Respect their boundaries, treat them with dignity, and remember that everyone has their own baggage. For some reason, RPGs can bring out some really creepy behaviors from DMs or players. Speak up when something is really inappropriate: if somebody else has clearly made another player uncomfortable, support the person who has been put on the defensive. When I run games, I set very clear expectations, but sometimes a DM won’t notice or can even be part of the problem. Do your part to make everybody at the table comfortable and the rest will fall into place.

Occasionally I find myself jonesing to sit in the DM chair again. So if you normally play as the DM, then resist the temptation to impose your style on another DM. On the contrary, I make notes to myself about what I can learn from the other DM’s style – even the newest DMs do interesting things I might enjoy trying out later. I can’t emphasize this enough: even when watching D&D games on YouTube, I literally take notes on cool techniques or approaches. Nadja Otikor on Misscliks Risen in particular has a wonderful way of encouraging the players to help build the scenes, for example.

As a player, definitely come prepared. Have your character sheet ready, your dice out, and (if appropriate to your game) your mini on the table. This also includes showing up on time. Some of this is basic etiquette, but unlike a class or a meeting at work, your gaming group likely cannot or will not proceed until everyone is accounted for and ready. Don’t waste everyone else’s time, especially in a group of adults who’ve carved out time from the rest of their lives for a bit of fantasy escapism.

Know your class: it’s not the DM’s job to know what your spells do or how your features work. That’s on you. Your DM might know them very well, but if she’s never played that class or subclass before, then some of the details might elude her – and very few people have all the spells memorized. This might mean preparing spell cards or having notes, and it definitely goes along with knowing what you will do before your turn comes around.

Don’t be a rules lawyer. If the DM asks you how a particular rule works, then by all means help them understand what the official rules are, but always remember that the DM at the table can overrule anything if it doesn’t make sense in the circumstance or the group just wants a different feel.

Obviously this list isn’t comprehensive and I’m probably missing some things, but hopefully this helps folks find ways to help everyone else have more fun at the gaming table.

The Raven and the Spider

I didn’t listen to myself and so I decided to join some old friends in a D&D campaign. I’ve known some of these folks for over a dozen years. How could I decline when they decided to run City of the Spider Queen?

So after getting some original ideas for my next character, I originally planned to play a

CONDESCENDING HALF-ELF WARLOCK FROM A SECRET ORDER OF MONKS WHO DOESN’T BELIEVE IN HYGIENE

Raven Queen (Ever After High)
Not this one.

Or, at least the first parts, minus the hygiene bit. And since this campaign didn’t have to abide by AL rules, I started looking at some of the Unearthed Arcana playtest material, including the Raven Queen warlock patron. Unfortunately, it turns out that at this point in the timeline, the Raven Queen is not yet a thing (we all get hit by the bus that is Forgotten Realms lore). This made me sad because I did a bunch of reading on the plane and now I think I’m in love with the Raven Queen. (Not my warlock – me.)

Anyway, this isn’t something I’d ask the GM to handwave, since apparently her ascension is related to Lolth’s own arc. So it’s back to finding a new patron, or even new character concept.

We have a cleric, paladin, rogue/warlock, and a bard (I think – might be missing someone). While I realize we don’t have to put composition together the way you would for some types of campaigns or (say) a WoW raid, I also like finding ways to support everyone else and be the guy that helps and supports the party by providing the last piece of the puzzle. I’m not married to any particular character concept other than “help the group be awesome”.

I went back to the character concept generator:

BLUNT ELF FIGHTER FROM THE RAT CATCHERS GUILD WHO SEARCHES ENDLESSLY FOR THEIR KIDNAPPED CHILD

FUSSY ELF RANGER FROM A SECLUDED FOREST VILLAGE WHO HAS A SERIOUS WEAPONS FETISH

GLOOMY ELF RANGER FROM A ENCHANTED FOREST LOGGING COMPANY WHO WANTS TO PROVE THEY’RE NO LONGER THAT GOOFY KID

Merging these together, I think something like a gloomy wood elf ranger from a secluded forest village who searches endlessly for their kidnapped child. (Again, that last bit may vary significantly if it turns out that’s actually what the worst Mary Sue character in D&D is about…) That also creates the perfect situation to try out the new revised Ranger including the Deep Stalker archetype. I presume that the new book Xanathar’s Guide to Everything will include the final version of this, so that may require adjustments in a few months.

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

tomb2.jpg

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.

herbalism

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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