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…


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.

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.

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.


Continue reading

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

Text-based RPG campaign ideas

I have difficulty finding time to play RPGs lately due to other obligations (family, work, etc.) While I like solo play, that provides a different sort of experience altogether. Roll20 presents an interesting alternative, but most folks want to play with voice chat, and that creates more real-life conflicts because my house is generally noisy except when we’re all asleep.

Because of that, I have started trying to get into play-by-post games. Currently, that only includes a Lamentations of the Flame Princess campaign using Sine Nomine’s Red Tide setting. This might point the way to a better method for me, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to every type of campaign. “Urban” campaigns, focused on intrigue, diplomacy, and espionage seem to lend themselves more naturally to this format, because they focus more on character interactions and less on crunchy mechanics (at least in my experience).

Dungeon exploration, however, seems less interesting to me in a forum-based campaign, although in a “live text” game via instant-messaging or IRC or similar that would probably go very well. My recently-acquired copy of Castle Gargantua (review pending!) in particular should support that type of campaign. I’d like to run a traditional megadungeon at some point, such as Rappan Athuk or Stonehell, but my life right now doesn’t support that so easily. When it does, I will probably do so via some sort of open table campaign since that also tends to work better for adults.

So right now I am leaning towards one or both of the following types of campaigns:

  1. Urban intrigue via play-by-post, using either Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition or A Song of Ice and Fire. The latter lends itself much more closely to this type of campaign, but I feel like it will be harder to find participants due to the smaller player base. The new season of Game of Thrones might grab some players’ attention, but that seems like a long shot. 5e has enough social mechanics that I could use it for this (and the DMG has some explicit advice in this regard).
  2. Dungeon exploration via text chat, probably with Castle Gargantua the first time around. This might actually be a good candidate for continuing to use Roll20, where I have a Pro membership. The updated LotFP character sheet and support for maps (CG only uses them in a few places) would help here.

That said, I probably won’t start either of these until later in the spring as I have some other (non-RPG) projects that require my attention first.

Play options in 2016

isue5full.jpgI didn’t actually play much D&D during most of 2015 for various reasons. This year, I want to do a lot more of that. So I started thinking about how I can do that in ways that work for my life: father of older children, a relatively demanding job with intermittent travel, social anxiety that sometimes keeps me from wanting to go play at a FLGS, etc etc.

Family home game

Most of my 2015 gaming fell into this category: D&D with kids. This sort of play works best when kept light, like for an occasional “family game night” or when the kids ask to spend a Saturday afternoon rolling dice. However, I would like to make it slightly more regular so that it doesn’t get lost so easily in the shuffle of everything else. We currently use Swords & Wizardry for simplicity and I think we’ll stay with that for a while.

Some family members have asked about joining the game, including those who don’t live nearby. I have started to consider a mixture of in-person players and one or two people participating via video chat, like Google Hangouts from a Chromebook sitting at the table.


This coming Saturday (January 23, 2016, for time travelers reading this from the future), I will be running a one-shot at in Plano, Texas, for some friends. We had intended to play a couple of weeks before but illness kept me home. While this will start as a one-shot dungeon run, I have hopes it could turn into more. A lot depends on the players, of course. They include experienced players and total newcomers. If all goes well, we could turn it into a semi-open game running more regularly. Since it’s at a makerspace, that presents fun possibilities for props and stuff that I don’t get to do at home or online.


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with Roll20. Over the last year and a half, I have learned some lessons about playing on a VTT. Voice chat is hard for me because of the interruptions at home, otherwise I have to wait until the kids go to bed. I have not yet tried a text-only game on Roll20, but years of experience roleplaying in Star Wars Galaxies and other MMORPGs has prepared me well for it (I hope).

If I can make this work again, then three possibilities come to mind. First, a megadungeon lends itself to the mapping capabilities. I would probably do this via an open table approach since the site has tens of thousands of players. (The clamoring for spots in a 5E game gets out of control sometimes.) Alternately, I could focus on the text chat capabilities and run an urban campaign focused on intrigue, social interaction, diplomacy, espionage… And finally, I have a number of friends who don’t live near me but would like to play. This is the closest to using Roll20 in the stead of a traditional game, but that carries the traditional headaches of scheduling and whatnot. I have to think hard about that one.

Play by post

Text chat also means thinking about play by post. Of course, Roll20 could support this style (private forums for each campaign, character sheets), but other platforms do so in a more integrated fashion. Campaigns that de-emphasize combat and “adventuring” in favor of heavy RP, such as the above-mentioned urban campaign, fit this style much better, I think.

Musing on the implications of the D&D 5e SRD

Little Dorrit, Musing and dreaming, by PhizThe main reason I stopped playing D&D Fifth Edition was that it read too much like a set of software requirements (use cases). 5e writes everything out in expansive detail, rather than in a concise “Strunk & White-esque” manner.

This drove me back to simpler rule sets like Swords & Wizardry and even Microlite20 or Searchers of the Unknown. For some purposes (e.g. playing with my kids), those still make the most sense. I need the ability to riff on what my players do as quickly as they  do it. Otherwise, their interest starts to wane and they want to go watch anime or play Minecraft or something.

But the release of the Systems Reference Document and Open Gaming License for 5e might change things a little. +Stan Shinn already has a project titled Dungeonesque: Red Box RPG that will provide a streamlined version of the 5e rules based on the SRD. I expect a number of similar projects to come out soon as well. While the so-called “O5R” movement may not have gathered much steam, this sort of approach might do enough to make it worthwhile for me. In fact, incorporating the best parts of other games (e.g. the encumbrance rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the domain level play from Adventurer Conqueror King System) just became a lot more viable.

Related to this, I have trouble playing via Roll20 in part because data entry for the monsters takes so much time. (Voice chat has become less workable for me due to my home environment as well.) I expect we’ll see the monsters from the SRD available on Roll20 soon based on comments from the developers there, however.  They can’t afford to miss the opportunity to streamline play for the most popular game on their platform.

I’d like to come back to 5e for something other than dungeon crawling. Perhaps a game of urban intrigue and espionage using text chat on Roll20 would work better, as it involves a lot less crunch and a lot more roleplaying. (The reason for sticking with 5e comes down to the interest level from players.) I also like designing monsters and such using the 5e crunch, ironically enough, so I might stat up a few things from my Roll For Initiative collection and put them out on the Dungeon Master’s Guild for people to use.

Certainly this started me thinking about 5e again in a way I haven’t in quite a while. Good job, WotC.

Do the simplest thing that could possibly work

XKCD "Board Game" comic

my backup plan

So this weekend I’m going to run some D&D at a local makerspace ( has an open house Saturday evening for anybody in the Dallas-Plano area). I’m probably going to use “Searchers of the Unknown” by +Nicolas Dessaux or some variant thereof, because you can’t get much simpler and call it D&D. Microlite20 would work just about as well and for the same reasons.  Several of the folks who have expressed interest in playing also noted they’ve never done this before, and the open house will  almost certainly provide a fairly raucous environment.

I remain unsure about what dungeon to use, though. Here again, I’m partial to the simplest possible approach: here is a dungeon, go get the treasure and try not to die. Normally I’d go with “Goblin Gully” by +Dyson Logos for this, but my kids are likely to play and they’ve been through that one before (albeit not all the way to the end). So I think I will quickly stock an existing map or try to pick something simple from the One-Page Dungeon contest entrants in the past. Of course, any suggestions on this would be welcome, because I have a lot of level 1 modules in my archives and such but need to do this in a way that satisfies two conditions: (a) family friendly-ish (i.e. no Death Frost Doom even if I love it), and (b) approaching the platonic ideal of “old school D&D”. If it goes well enough, it could end up being an open-table setup where every few weeks I show up with another dungeon level or two, but one step at a time.