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.

Initial Impressions: Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Kyle holding his DMG

Happier than I should be

I went down to my friendly local gaming store this morning and picked up the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. (They had a 15% discount on all D&D stuff, which gave a little extra bit of unexpected happiness.)

A full review of this book would take significant time due to the density and amount of material in it. But I wanted to see right away how to build & modify monsters. I also have been looking forward to learning how to distribute treasure (especially magic items). This post mostly discusses those two areas. Other brief impressions include:

  • I see Robin Stacey in the credits. More Microlite20 love.
  • The art matches my expectations and deserves its own post. In fact, it probably even exceeds them. During my upcoming business trip, I could spend hours on a plane just examining the illustrations. I recognize a few of them from earlier products. The goblin illustration on page 107 comes directly from the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
  • Yay for “low-level followers” and “hirelings” – torch bearers! This doesn’t contain nearly enough information for me, though. I will need to refer to older DM guides for this sort of thing.
  • Successfully noticing and bypassing a trap should provide XP. I don’t think that the book gives any guidelines for that, or even credence to that idea. I may have missed it, of course, in the brief time since I acquired the book.
  • Reaction rolls on page 244. As a rule, I don’t like to roll for social interaction. But since players “spend” some power to have those skill and ability scores, I can’t just ignore it, either. These guidelines will help a little.
  • HEX RULES!!! I spent many years playing war games, both tabletop and computer-based. So I have a special love for maps using hexagons and the tactical play they create even if I don’t like using D&D as a tactical game itself. Come to think of it, this may help me get into that mode when it fits.
  • The Madness section on page 258 will assist me greatly with the upcoming “Madness of Iliasha” campaign (spoilers?).
  • Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration looks like an “Appendix N” with more specificity. The list largely consists of non-fiction books with a few true classics in the greatest possible sense. For example, in addition to lots of books by Gary Gygax and TSR, it includes Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Monsters and CR

Page 312 sample mapSince the Monster Manual came out, I have wanted to roll up my own monsters. Other DMs have already started, of course, but they have far more experience at it than I do. The section “Creating a Monster” in Chapter 9 starts on page 273. It discusses reskinning, including minor changes such as adding special traits or switching weapons. The section also includes a table on Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating. For each rating, the table lists the proficiency bonus, armor class, hit point range, attack bonus, damage per round range, and save DC. This table fits those situations where you just need something quick, such as an on-the-fly conversion.

Then it has a procedure for “Creating a Monster Stat Block”, allowing us to brew up a full-fledged monster. That procedure has 20 steps, some of which themselves have several parts. Obviously this requires much more effort than the process for games like Microlite20. But as the introduction to the whole section notes:

Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.

This zooms in on the abbreviated process described before. It discusses things like damage and special traits in far more detail. We also have a Monster Features table that covers two full pages. Finally the section discusses the mechanics of creating NPCs from scratch (not the preview section on mannerisms and backgrounds and such).

Magic Items

Illustration of an adventuring group reviewing a mapPlayers get excited to see the actual magic items themselves. People like me get excited to see how we can distribute them. Chapter 7 (“Treasure”) should satisfy us both.

The distribution frequency for magic items in this edition in particular has confounded me a little. Page 135 shows a “Magic Item Rarity” table showing the expected character levels per rarity type. For example, common and uncommon items correspond to all characters starting at first level. But rare items typically go to characters at fifth level and higher. Of course the text makes clear that DMs should do as they wish according to what fits their campaigns. The book only makes suggestions, not rules.

For more specificity, of course, the book has several treasure tables. It has four different Individual Treasure tables for different CR ranges. The same applies to the Treasure Hoard tables. Gemstones and Art Objects have several different tables by value. Some of these tables refer to Random Magic Items of various types. You can enhance those with tables on magic item flavor (e.g. What Is a Detail From Its History?). Between this and Appendix A on “random dungeons”, I should have no trouble populating environments generated by Donjon or using maps created by other people.

Time to go tweak tomorrow’s adventure!

Play Report: Dyson’s Delves level 1

My Lost Mine of Phandelver group has been sporadic lately due to real life causing scheduling difficulty. So I ran a dungeon crawl in Roll20 on Sunday using the first level of Dyson’s Delve. After I picked it up in a recent Bundle of Holding, I knew I wanted to find a way to use more of the work from that site.

Real life scheduling caused problems again, and I almost had to cancel since only two players showed up. But one of them used his Phone-a-Friend special ability and saved the day. In old-school fashion, I didn’t spend much time on backstory. Instead, the characters belong to the Relic Hunters Guild and ventured out in search of treasure. This party consisted of a human noble fencer named “Alexander”, a paladin half-elf named “Halder”, and the warlock half-elf “Kraz”. The conflicting alignments & belief systems led to some fun interaction between the characters.

That approache worked well. RHG will evolve into a type of open table campaign. It won’t run every week, especially before LMoP completes. But when it does, we will look to fill open slots with new players. And the campaign has no penalty for not signing up for a given session other than the obvious opportunity cost. Repeatedly signing up and cancelling at the last minute might cause some issues, of course.

19th-century goblin illustrationIn this session, the party only ran into goblins, hobgoblins, and a giant badger (which I used in place of the giant ferret as originally written). Halder and hobgoblin had engaged in an epic sword-and-board duel. After four or five rounds, neither had landed a blow with any success. But goblins swarmed the fencer and finally stilled his rapier. The surviving goblin turned to attack the paladin. This distracted Halder enough for the hobgoblin to drop him, too. But Kraz strode forth into the room, charmed the remaining monsters, stabbed the goblin in the back, and felled the hobgoblin with poison spray. They searched the room with care and found the key to unlock the treasure.

During their rest, though, a hobgoblin patrol found them. They threw a flask of oil at the ground in front of them, then set a salvaged bow on fire and threw it into the puddle. This frightened off the hobgoblins and gave them time to complete their regrouping. Later, when a goblin patrol found them, they again improvised a molotov cocktail from scraps of clothing on dead goblins and an oil flask. They used that tactic one more time in their final fight, so I think the hobgoblins will have to consider how best to counteract it for next time.

Hobgoblin squads prepare to repel adventurers throwing flasks of oil

Hobgoblin squads prepare to repel adventurers throwing flasks of oil

By the end, they’d recovered a total of 36 electrum pieces, 5000 silver pieces, and a badger pelt for the noble to fashion into a cloak.

I loved how much roleplaying we did in a simple dungeon crawl. Most of the time, they played characters rather than character sheets. This earned them several Inspiration awards during the three hours of play (including an hour of character creation). When they came up with particularly creative solutions and got the dice to fall their way, everything really clicked. Certainly it provided more entertainment than the railroad adventure of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. In truth, I think I liked it even more than Lost Mine of Phandelver – which says a lot considering how much I love the Starter Set adventure. That stems at least as much from roleplaying cinematic moments as it does the adventure writing itself. The rules as written tend to encourage cautious tactical play that doesn’t get the blood flowing. Instead, how about mocking goblin mothers and stabbing burning creatures that bear an odd resemblance to Rodents Of Unusual Size?


Session planning during an off night

Charioteer PapyrusMy intended one-shot dungeon crawl ended up cancelled tonight as half the group had various real-life crises and could not attend. While disappointed, I decided to make the most of it and spent time preparing for the next Lost Mine of Phandelver session.

We still have at least one character a little too far behind on XP and another whose player cannot attend. It occurred to me that injecting a completely new element such as another small dungeon could help even things out slightly. However, a list of the current hooks and quests instead indicates that the group could instead engage in some exploration and role-playing.

Combat shouldn’t comprise the whole of an RPG, otherwise we could just play Battletech. Occasionally it seems like the game mechanics reward combat over everything else. Experience points and treasure generally come from fighting monsters. But adventures can counterbalance that effect by including quests that require the characters to solve problems using something other than an axe and liberal application of magic missile. The adventure as written does this to an extent already, such as granting XP for dealing with an undead oracle who does not fight.

Factions and secret societies can also help here. If a character belongs to such an organization, they might have received some sort of individual mission that grants some reward. That reward could range from experience to a magic item to a favor that the character can use later. The current Tyranny of Dragons storyline explicitly encourages this.

Hopefully the one-shot group can reassemble in the future. With the impending holidays, regular campaign sessions will probably become even more challenging to schedule.

Play Report: Lost Mine of Phandelver Episode 2

RPGs may be at their most fun when everything goes pear-shaped due to adventurer decisions.

The story

The group, consisting of a fighter, rogue, cleric, and wizard, explored Phandalin with great caution. They expect intrigue, conspiracies, and betrayal at every turn (meaning I need to find a way to give that to them). The adventurers meandered about town to investigate the eponymous “lost mine”. Several encounters with the Redbrands occurred in the village streets during this investigation. Sildar Hallwinter executed a sort of coup d’etat and named himself the Sheriff of Phandalin. The village didn’t care much for the prior ineffectual townmaster anyway.

NothicAt this point, my group finally decided to head into the Redbrand Hideout. Acting on a tip from a local village boy about a side entrance into the hill, the adventurers sneaked in at night without incident. The rogue ranged over the large hall encompassing the crevasse. He has a dangerous tendency to run a bit too far afield, even with creepy telepathic voices whispering in their heads. While he crept down a side passage, a nothic crawled out from the crevasse. Just about then, the rogue came back around the corner and saw the monster. He immediately drew down and landed an arrow right into it. This led to a running fight along both edges of the chasm, a dead nothic, and an unconscious fighter. After the group stabilized their meat shield, they poked around in the chasm. But only the rogue (who prefers his shortbow) wanted the ancient, mysterious sword they found.

The discovery of secret doors gave them some choices, and so they decided to raid the armory and explore a little past that. Undead skeletons chased that rogue back to the group, until a dragonborn cleric turned them. One of the undead ran so far, in fact, that it fell into a pit trap and collapsed into a heap of bones. The party also found an enslaved family. (The captors didn’t survive more than a few seconds.) This stoked the party’s bloodthirst tremendously. So when another guard elsewhere in the hideout surrendered at the end of a fight, the party had no mercy and slew him.

Despite the group’s successes, they made several important tactical errors during the raid. They would bunch up in corridors and thus not bring their full range of options to bear. That led to some problems but they’d managed to eke out victory each time. Later, they decided to take a short rest on the edge of the chasm. The adventurers agreed that the cleric should not use his spell slots, and the fighter didn’t want to use his Second Wind. (I didn’t understand why, but I did ask several times whether that seemed like a good idea. That’s the best hint I can give to reconsider the plan.) So as their rest completed, two patrolling bugbears came around a corner and surprised them.

Bugbears love surprise attacks, in case you didn’t know.

The monsters immediately applied massive blunt trauma to the fighter’s and cleric’s heads. The wizard had already disappeared due to a player who didn’t show. The rogue decided that he didn’t stand a chance against two angry furry monsters and fled back to town alone.

I will make a quick analytic note here. The bugbear encounter decreased from three to two monsters because of the missing PC. This meant that they faced a base of 400 XP . The encounter difficulty for three characters and two monsters tell us to multiply this by 1.5. So this puts the encounter right at the Deadly threshold (200 XP for second-level characters). As originally written, this encounter contained 300XP of monsters per characters. That put it way above the Deadly threshold, so if anything I nerfed it.

What’s next

The players could have chosen capture rather than death. They could try to escape in conjunction while the rogue attempted a rescue with some NPC companions. Instead, they decided that they preferred to reroll. The players in question decided that their characters just didn’t fit them well. They did communicate quite emphatically that they’d had fun, which relieved my mind a little.

I have some logistical issues now, owing to a player who’s missed two sessions in a row. His distant time zone might present too much of an obstacle for him. If so, then I will recruit a replacement. With the others, we’re going to keep having fun with new characters. I have already started to work with the two rerolling players to hook them into the adventure, of course. We might use the factions in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline for that purpose. Or they might just have their own reasons to drift into town. This might give me a better reason to get them to Thundertree. Iarno Albrek aka Glasstaff also remains at large with a significant force at his dispoal. If they don’t go after him immediately, that’s going to lead to Bad Things in Phandalin. The Black Spider will react with concern to this disruption regardless.

Maybe it’s time for some intrigue after all…

Cancelling my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign

Cover of Hoard of the Dragon Queen
I decided a few days ago to cancel my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. The module felt far too linear for me, as it consists largely of a plot rather than situations. For the purpose of organized play across many groups where players can come and go as they please, it probably works fine (at least for some GMs). But it doesn’t fit the way I like to play. Other issues specific to that group and my organization of it had led me to dread both prep and game night. These include a huge variation in player understanding (both of D&D and of computers in general) and my need to stick closely to the rules as written for both Fifth Edition and Adventurers League.

While Lost Mine of Phandelver certainly has a plot to follow, it also has enough non-linearity that the group has significant leeway. The players in my group have bonded fairly well (at least it seems like that to me). I haven’t done a lot of customization of the adventure, but a group that intends to stick together after completing the module could twiddle quite a lot of knobs without breaking things. It just feels more robust in this way, which makes sense given its intent as part of the Starter Set rather than as the centerpiece for the game’s main storyline.

I would probably enjoy HotDQ more as a novel, though, as such things go. Wizards of the Coast will almost certainly start to publish more Tyranny of Dragons fiction next year in addition to the comics already available on their site. In fact, that’s precisely what damns this adventure for me: I feel as though we are experiencing a predefined arc rather than adventuring through the world. We experience the episodes as theme park rides, albeit gorgeously crafted ones. The maps provide some really gorgeous eye candy and the NPCs and magic items could end up in an independent campaign. Actually, a GM could forklift one or two of the episodes for some extra spice. So I’m glad I have the book, although I probably won’t pick up Rise of Tiamat immediately upon release.

Instead, I’ve started preparing for a new sandbox campaign in a unique setting. I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks, especially after the impending release of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Lost Mine of Phandelver as a 5×5 sandbox

Sand miningEven more than tabletop RPGs, I spent many years playing (and sometimes roleplaying) in MMORPGs. So term “sandbox”, as opposed to a “theme park”, means something very specific to me. Effectively, players get to create their own adventures rather than choose them. Think of children playing in a sandbox, building castles or having battles with dolls and army men or whatever. Or, in the other direction, they’re going to their favorite amusement park and choosing from existing rides and shows for entertainment.

In tabletop RPGs, a completely pure sandbox approach can create quite a bit of chaos for the GM. From the perspective of the facilitators for a collaborative storytelling process, we need some way of making sense of it all. And yet the players still deserve real freedom, not just the illusion of it. The 5×5 Method can help with this. Effectively, the GM will set up five tracks, each with five steps, and try to interweave them as much as possible. (Read some of the articles in that compendium, because this concept has far more nuance and ideas than fit in that tweet-sized sentence.)

WARNING: Lost Mine of Phandelver spoilers ahead.

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Encounter Difficulty in Lost Mine of Phandelver

EEG recordingI recently read some useful discussion on /r/dndnext about the difficulty of encounters in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen published adventure. So I thought I’d analyze the Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set and perhaps try to understand the problems from that angle. While I’ve been running both campaigns to various levels of progress, and playing in HotDQ at my local gaming store Comic Asylum, I know LMoP a little better at this point.

To do this, we have to look at the Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules, a free PDF from Wizards of the Coast. On pages 56-58, it contains the guidelines for building encounters. In reality, though, they intend for us to use guidelines to evaluate encounters, not build them, as the text itself notes:

Once you’ve designed your adventure and placed monsters and other opponents as you like, you can determine how challenging the adventure is likely to be by examining the difficulty of the encounters. There are four categories of potential difficulty: easy, medium, hard, and deadly. – p. 56

For this analysis, I assumed that adventurers should be more or less at a given character level for each part. Part 1 presumes that the party has just begun its career. It thus gently introduces them to various game elements a bit at a time for level 1 characters. Part 2 introduces more choices and tougher monsters, catering to level 2 characters. And so on for parts 3 and 4.  I also added another difficulty level, “OMG!!!!” for encounters that exceed Deadly.

WARNING: Lost Mine of Phandelver spoilers ahead.

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Running a solo campaign

Human female rogue with two daggers

My daughter’s rogue

In addition to running campaigns on Roll20, I also run a game at home with my daughter (10 years old as I write this). We’ve been making our way through the 5th Edition Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. Of course, running with only one player-character requires a few changes to the normal approach to running a game.

  • Nerf the NPCs. This should be fairly obvious, but in addition to reducing the size of encounters, I also generally don’t allow critical hits from the NPCs. I tried reducing their hit points, but that didn’t seem to increase the fun that much.
  • Guide the player to an appropriate class and build. A Cleric built for buffing and enhancing party members will not shine in a solo campaign. She’s been running a Rogue and that has worked out well, with the ability to choose her fights and then hit hard and quickly.
  • Focus on things other than combat. We’ve had a good time enjoying the roleplay rather than just the stabby-stabby. For a pre-teen, I can already see this working on several levels for her, because she’s learning more about interacting with different sorts of people and with different sorts of goals than she typically would have in real life.
  • Find out what’s fun for the player. This applies to any campaign, naturally, but especially so in solo campaigns. In traditional party-driven play, part of the fun comes from the interaction among the players themselves. But here, that doesn’t exist and the world really does revolve around her (at least in some ways).
  • Rule of Cool trumps everything. Since you don’t really need to worry about balancing power levels, let the character be extra awesome. Maybe that means fudging a roll here and there, or (for some people) that might mean allowing additional features and proficiencies and whatnot.

See what works for you, but this is what works for us. A solo game provides a far different experience than what you might normally get: much more emphasis on storytelling and individual action, plus a tightly focused adventure. I hope you have as much fun as we do.