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

Tea Riots in Xian, Part 1

Getek returns for another urban adventure! This time, civil disturbances provide a backdrop for the fact that he has had an evidently complicated love life. Even if he saves everyone, complications will almost certainly result…

Also, I’m still experimenting with the format of these posts and future ones will probably continue to vary considerably.


Urban Adventure

A Location is struck by a fire, riot, building collapse, monster outbreak, or the like. Draw three Actors; they’re somehow caught in the event and must be saved from it. Scenes revolve around saving Actors from the calamity. The last Actor cannot be saved until the concluding Action scene.

Location: Exclusive Tea House
Actor 1: Drug den proprietor (Elf, lover)
Actor 2: Riotous young heir (Halfing, ex-lover)
Actor 3: Pitiless tax collector (Human Imperial/Ashkanti, ex-spouse)

Adventure tag: Sudden Privation
Adjective: Hunger

Tea riots – and apparently Getek gets around! Prepare Amber Cloud of Somnolescence.

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Review: Harried in Hillsfar

As a way of easing myself back into playing D&D “publicly” (i.e. not just for my kids or solo), I set up a couple of mini-campaigns on Roll20 to run according to Adventurers League rules. This way, I would have an easy time finding players and also an excuse for doing so in an episodic, open-table fashion.

DD_Out_of_the_Abyss_Rage_of_Demons_symbolThe first of these two campaigns follows the Rage of Demons storyline. Rather than run Out of the Abyss as I’d initially planned, I decided to run some of the Expeditions adventures from the Dungeon Masters Guild. Specifically, I first chose “Harried in Hillsfar” (DDEX3-01) because Wizards of the Coast had made it available for free via Dragon+.  Also, I’d wanted to check out that particular storyline as it had both the Underdark and demons, with a heavy dollop of madness mixed in.

That particular module consists of five scenarios or “mini adventures”. WotC seems to think each of those should run in about an hour each. In my experience, they take about an hour and a half to two hours each. The setup for the adventure overall focuses on the rantings of a madman. Somehow, the players realize he is actually prophesying, and they turn that into clues that lead to five separate scenarios. That felt really weak, but I ran with it anyway because, with a public group, we didn’t really have time for an in-depth “session zero” to get the group together. I would have liked a better introductory hook.

The scenarios themselves vary. Without getting too far into spoiler territory, the first two felt too much alike: go to a farm and discover a mystery, then halfway resolve it by trying to be heroes. (That first scenario nearly led to a TPK – some of the demonically-affected creatures can present a significant combat challenge!) The third scenario felt even more disconnected from the overall storyline. However, I really liked running the fourth and fifth, and the reactions of the players (especially to scenario four) indicated that they really felt immersed: creepy stuff was happening and they had to work to figure out how to resolve things.

Grabbing it and making it your own will allow you to deal with that rough setup, which is mostly just a problem in the way the AL set up this particular content. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend running this as an adventure. Think of these instead as five encounters (or maybe just the last two) that you can drop into your campaign to foreshadow some great evil stalking the world or just to set the tone with demons and undead and cultists.