Saturday, June 20, 2015

Five Against Strahd: A Roleplaying Birthday Extravaganza

Five girls vs Strahd Von Zarovich, D&D's most legendary vampire!

What could possibly make for a better eleventh birthday?

This year, rather than our traditional blow-out, heavily-themed birthday party, my daughter decided that she wanted to have some friends over to play D&D and have a sleep over.  My job was to decorate the cake and serve as DM ... the primary source of entertainment.

Two of the players were novices and one had never even seen a twenty-sided die before, so I really want to pull out all the stops and make this game / birthday party super-memorable.  Here are some of the ways I stepped up my game:
  • voices (hamming it up big time on my faux-Eastern European accent courtesy of Boris and Natasha)
  • eerie music on the laptop
  • every player got a miniature of their character to keep
  • random creepy set dressing scattered around the room
  • dry erase board for quick tactical displays
  • props: a pair of letters -- one crumpled and smeared with blood!

Kid 1: "Is that real blood?"
Kid 2: "What do you think?  He's a Dad."
  • Overhead lights off with just a lamp lighting the table
  • I sported my sweet Tim Bradstreet Nosferatu T-shirt
  • Game started at 7:00 and ran until almost midnight with a break in the middle for cake, freeze tag, and a half mile flashlight hike into the woods to a mysterious old rock pile.

  • Sneaky misdirection: My newly-turned-eleven-year-old had heard her dad talk about Ravenloft before, so I carefully placed other modules in our game room in the week leading up to the party.  The day before she actually said:
"I noticed The Chained Coffin, Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and Night Below ... are one of those going to be the adventure we play?"
  • once they talked to traveling-folk fortune teller Madame Riva, I lit five small, electric candles ... a reminder that sunset and the vampire were on their way ... I turned one light off for each in-game hour that passed, counting down to sunset and the arrival of the deadly vampire.

I realized that I had only about five hours in which to make the whole game work, so I went with a much more heavy-handed approach than I am accustomed to.  Transitions between encounters were quick and I didn't have my players do any mapping (instead a clue led to a cache of old papers that included a partial map of Castle Ravenloft).

Rather than a wide open sandbox, the clues (mostly delivered by the fortune teller) were pretty direct ... I was proud when one of the girls figured out that "a place of supplication and ruin" meant that the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind was probably either in the village church or a chapel in Castle Ravenloft before even knowing if the castle had a chapel or not.

Likewise, the gang worked out that "prince of light" meant that they should look for a magical scabbard in the hypothetical tomb of Strahd's hypothetical brother (again, correct deductions).

Though we had one character who was level four ... most of the characters were only second level (and one only first!), so knew I'd have to scale the challenges somewhat while maintaining the correct level of challenge and sheer, delighted, terror.

Still, they tangled with some buffed zombies (and set them on fire) and ran afoul of no less than nine grave wights!

Essentially the game was a timed scavenger hunt in which the characters dashed around collecting whatever resources they could find before night set in and the vampire came for the showdown.

The Slayer-ettes?
Having recovered the Holy Symbol and magical scabbard (which empowered the birthday girl's trusty magic sword with some anti-undead butt-kickery), the girls showed some serious prudence by withdrawing from the castle and holing up in the village church by nightfall, even though it meant passing up on the chance to hunt for some other goodies.

The bad guys turned up on cue and en masse, but twin sunlight blasts from holy symbol and sword, along with a volley of elven arrows, decimated the rank and file undead and left Count Strahd damaged.  Rather than risk his immortal life, after a vow of revenge, he turned into a bat and made a hasty retreat back to the haunted castle, leaving the girls victorious and with enough time to play a bit of capture the flag out in the yard!  

Monday, June 15, 2015

Phandalin Players Group Pic

Here's a picture from the final episode of our 30-session Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign.
Pictured (from the left): Lol the wizard, Wolfie (complete with ears), Staffling, DM, Ted the Goblin, player of Glasstaff, and the former player of the sneaky elf.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Farewell to Phandalin: Part III - Reflecting on the Journey

So, now that I've played exactly 30 sessions of "5th Edition" D&D and the final curtain has closed on our (still) Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign, I want to indulge in a little reflection and perhaps ponder what I've learned about 5th edition along the way.

1.) 5th Edition character generation is a bit too fiddly 
... at least for our romping, short-attention-span, middle school play style.

All the little legacy abilities that come from each race, class and subrace get to be a bit much (unless you have them memorized).  They slow things down on the front end, and the players often forget about them during actual play.

I wish the Starter Set had come with about 15 pre-generated characters rather than six or so, but I'm sure there are plenty of free sources online now via fan sites.

2.) Free-form, fast-paced combat is back!
Fights are fast, furious and light.

The entire Battle of Phandalin lasted only six rounds ... about an hour of actual play time ... which isn't too bad considering that we had one DM, six players, and about 30 dice-rolling creatures involved -- averaging just over a minute per-player per-round.

Never once did anyone use the words, "attack of opportunity" or "five-foot step" -- Good riddance!

3.) 5th edition has CRAZY HIT POINT INFLATION,
... but I guess that's okay since all the damage is inflated too.

Still, it would be nice if practically every die roll didn't have ability score or proficiency modifiers slapped on.  Despite 40 hours of repetition, my players frequently forgot to add one bonus or another, it slowed play as we waited for them to count on fingers and toes ... sometimes we just reverted to a straight 1D6 roll.

Then again, when I was a kid I learned to multiply and calculate percentages not via my math classes (which were fine), but by playing D&D ... so maybe I keep the modifiers.  Heck, maybe I should add more.

4.) Cantrips are RIDICULOUS.
Yeah, clerics and wizards working as fire-at-will blasters from level one is an idea I'm still getting used to.

I think if all cantrips except PrestidigitationMage Hand, and Thaumaturgy were reclassified as level one spells I'd be happier.  If I run 5th edition again I'll probably make that a house rule.

And while I'm talking spells, a 1st level cleric dropping a Guiding Bolt for 4D6 damage is a BIG paradigm shift over my beloved Moldvay Basic D&D where the cleric has to "prove his faith" for an entire level before gaining access to ANY spells at all.

5.) TPK is for REAL, Y'all.
We had, let me count ... two true total-party-kills and about 15 PC deaths over the course of our 30 sessions with the (still) Lost Mines of Phandelver.  About two thirds of all characters were slain.

Now granted, a LOT of that was due to things like poor / no planning, friendly (spell) fire, and not knowing when to retreat, but these first couple levels are just as deadly as they were in 1981!

6.) Fast, Fast, FAST Advancement.
Basically, survive 2-3 encounters in 5th edition and you'll level up.
Survive four more and boom -- you're level three.

I get that, as a product, D&D has had to change to meet the expectations of an X-Box Generation, but I still can't help but to feel that there is something really special about the old school 2,000 xp slog that it takes to reach that elusive second level.  And man, the vaunted heights of level four (level title for fighter = "hero") ... that milestone just means so much because the journey is both long and uncertain.

Each of my players will be moving on to high school next year, though I hope some of them will come back to see us in the library from time to time and take their turn at being the cool older kids (via The Chet Factor).

I guess I'm glad that I went to D&D 5th edition over Pathfinder or another game this year for our main RPG.  I want students to be able to look back one day and say, "Yeah, I played D&D in middle school -- it was crazy."

There's value to continuity and shared language that means something beyond the peculiarities of any particular set of rules.  I feel like I've helped my after-school crew participate in the Great Chain of Nerdery that stretches back to Wisconsin and 1974.

In fact, my players will be alive when Dungeons & Dragons reaches its 100th birthday and, assuming that they will be just as unabashedly nerdy and cool as they are these days, when listening to NPR (doubtless piped directly into their brains as they travel around in their flying cars) and hearing a short segment mentioning the anniversary of the game, they'll be able to regale their grand kids with stories about owlbears, halflings, wizards, magic staves, and ... if their memories are really sharp ... a little town called Phandalin.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Farewell to Phandalin: Part II

With only about thirty-five minutes of time left in this year's after school games club remaining, things were looking pretty desperate for the sad village of Phandalin.

Facing an assault by a fierce green dragon, who had followed the explorers back to their own "nest" from its lair in the ruins of Thundertree, the Redbrand brigands (led by Glasstaff the wizard), Cragmaw goblins (along with their berserk owlbear), and few surviving adventurers formed a hasty alliance to try and repel the beast.

Now only a handful of the defenders were still alive after a score of them had succumbed to the dragon's terrible, toxic breath weapon.

Finally, a desperate Glasstaff played his ace-in-the-hole even as the Cragmaw warchief bravely broke cover to hurl a javelin (scoring a critical hit and puncturing one of the dragon's wings).

The adventure writers had equipped the wily wizard with a single-use fireball scroll, though as the module is written the evil spellcaster isn't encountered in open enough an area to actually use it.

Well that wasn't going to be a problem today!

Peering around the corner of a damaged cottage, his eyes streaming from the poisonous fumes unleashed against the village, Glasstaff cut loose with the scroll and pounded the dragon with a 30+ point blast!

I make all my rolls in the open, so when the dragon's saving throw came up a mere 6, the players knew it was curtains -- the great green beast tumbled back down into the alley -- vanquished at last!

Cheers around the table.

Pause for victory photos.

Following the fall of the dragon, in which about a third of Phandalin was destroyed, a couple of things became clear:

1.) There was now an UNGUARDED dragon hoard in Thundertree.

2.) In all the excitement, nobody had thought to tell the owlbear what to do next.

We rolled on our special owlbear chart: "Attack nearest creature, friend or foe" ... none other than the victorious Glasstaff!

The evil wizard had survived melee and pursuit by an angry dragon only to fall under the claws of an owlbear right in the muddy lane of the small town he had risen to dominate.

Meanwhile, the goblin warchief, pausing only to toss Staffling (a former-halfling-turned-animated-staff) into the burning ruin of Barthen's Provisions, led his surviving bodyguards out of town and onward toward gold and glory!

While the rainfall began to slacken, Ted the Goblin and Lol-the-slightly-less-evil-wizard rescued a scorched Staffling (via a timely use of Mage Hand), the last two Redbrands attacked the owlbear to avenge their fallen leader.  The raging beast flung the broken body of one aside and began to pursue Lol, only to be brought down at last.

The Battle of Phandalin was now well and truly over.

Leaderless, the the last surviving brigand limped off to seek new employment, and Lol checked on the party's fallen wolf.

A natural 20 on his Death Check confirmed that, against all odds, the poor, battered animal still somehow lived.

So, the storm now passed and the sun daring a final, brief appearance before it set, Lol the wizard, joined by Ted the goblin (all past treacheries forgiven), and leaning heavily on a slightly charred Staffling, slung the bedraggled wolf over his shoulders and set out in search of new horizons.

Next Time ...

Farewell to Phandalin: Part III - Reflecting on the Journey

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Farewell to Phandalin: Part I

Tuesday I ran our 30th and final session of our 5th edition Lost Mines of Phandelver Campaign.

Back in September I didn't imagine that this adventure's one village location and four modest, linked dungeons (most just eight or nine rooms) would last us for over forty hours of play ... and we never even started the second half of the adventure!

Following the Siege at the Cragmaw Hideout, in which the four surviving adventurers (a wizard, an elf, a wolf, and a talking stick) were driven out of their new digs and were pursued by goblins back to Phandalin, we arranged a final showdown: a two-part, three hour extravaganza.

As a storm gathered on the western horizon, rushing the afternoon into a premature twilight, the goblins flooded across the boundaries of the rustic hamlet of Phandalin.  Though they had a bargain with Glasstaff, the leader of the Redbrand brigand gang, too many of their folk had fallen recently under the swords of mysterious human mercenaries (our players) to be mere coincidence.  The goblins decided that they had been set up and they were ready to take revenge!

While most of the adventurers either cowered or looted food, the goblins set the Barthen's Provisions alight and squared off with the Redbrands in what became a swirling series of skirmishes through the streets of the village.

As losses began to mount on both sides, the wily elven rogue gave in to his hunger and frustration and, after a bit of looting, was cut down in the taproom of the Stonehill Inn by a brigand.

Then, just as Lol the wizard sought a refuge from the fighting in the Miner's Exchange, the dragon plunged down upon Phandalin, crushing the building beneath its bulk and throwing up vast clouds of dust with its wings.

Having had its lair in the ruins of Thundertree disturbed twice by the adventurers, the dragon had trailed them back to Phandalin -- in fact it was even noticed three sessions earlier as a winged shape circling high above.

With the sudden descent of the dragon, the Cragmaw goblins and Redbrands called an abrupt truce and agreed to join forces against the formidable creature.

We divided up the forces this way:

  • The player of Ted the Goblin (freed from his cell under Tressander Manor) also took charge of the Cragmaw goblin raiders, led by their warchief (a bugbear), five crack hobgoblins, and eight goblin raiders.
  • The former player of Frodo Wolflord, the mad halfling cleric, who favors a decidedly chaotic streak in his play style took control of the savage owlbear that the goblins brought along with the raiding party.
  • One player controlled the wolf who had befriended the party several sessions prior.  This was his first character to last more than about two sessions.
  • One player controlled Lol the wizard, who had recently leveled up.  He had lasted more than a dozen sessions (by constantly fleeing at first sign of danger and leaving his friends to die), making him one of the longest-lived characters in our campaign.  This player would be a natural at Call of Cthulhu.
  • One player controlled the Staffling (a larcenous halfling transformed into a Druidic staff by a curse), now able to spit dart-like thorns, control plants, and make vegetation grow on command, but basically immobile without aid.
  • The last player (another longtime vet of my summer classes & after school clubs whom I interviewed earlier this year about writing her own RPG) took charge of the nine surviving Redbrand gangsters (cutthroats and brigands to the man) and Glasstaff the evil 4th level wizard / gang leader.

I offered control of the dragon to the former player of the sneaky elf, but he declined so I took charge of it.  With 136 hit points, an Armor Class of 18, and a 12D6 breath weapon attack (that's 12-72 points of damage y'all) I wondered if the dragon would go through the forces arrayed against it (all but two of whom had 16 hit points or less) like a scythe through wheat.

As it happened, however, the goblin archers quickly demonstrated what so many other Lost Mines of Phandelver players have learned: a squad of goblin sharpshooters can be devastating!

Backed by longbow armed hobgoblins, the greenskins dealt the dragon over 30 hit points of damage in the first round alone!

While Lol, Glasstaff, gangsters, and wolf maneuvered, the dragon took to the air and delivered a blast of its toxic gas breath weapon, wiping out half of the Cragmaw raiders and Redbrands in a single blow!

Lesson Learned: bunching up when facing a dragon is a BAD idea.

On round two Glasstaff ripped into the dragon with a second volley of Magic Missiles and, as goblins rained more arrows, the dragon dove at him.  With Glasstaff's AC fortified with Mage Armor and his protective staff, the dragon only managed to inflict about 10 points of damage on the wily wizard.

By round three Lol came out of hiding to hit the dragon with a Flaming Sphere, always careful to keep his distance and attack from behind.

At about this point the owlbear finally got into the action.  Each turn I required the owlbear's player to roll a D20 on his own little custom chart:

1-5 = stop everything and dig a hole
6-12 = attack the nearest creature (friend or foe)
13-20 = follow the commands given

The beast had stalled out the first couple of rounds, but now it rushed toward the dragon from behind with a howl (repeated often by the player).

As the Staffling, now carried by the Cragmaw warchief, spat thorns and the surviving goblins and brigands maneuvered, a brave Redbrand appeared at the end of an alley and, shouting insults and waving frantically, drew the dragon's attention away from Glasstaff (who it had pinned) before the monster could crush the life out of the recumbent wizard (the player rolled a 19 on her Charisma check).

Soon, with the storm finally breaking over the town, gangsters and goblins of various sizes converged on the alley, chopping, hacking, and loosing arrows against the dragon's nearly-impenetrable hide.  Even the wolf plucked up enough courage to dash in and snap at the huge reptile's foreleg.

An aside here ...

A great improvement in recent editions of D&D is the variable "recharge" time on dragon breath attacks.  In the olden days, dragons were limited to three breath attacks per day, which seemed a bit lame for a legendary creature, but which was a necessary limitation to make dragon encounters interesting -- doubly so since, unlike virtually every other creature in the entire game, dragon breath inflicted a fixed amount of damage equal to the critter's current hit points.  This rule was probably deemed necessary to nerf dragons somewhat.  Otherwise a mature red dragon would simply inflict 66 points on everything in range every round ... both boring and deadly.  A final way in which this original system was just awful lay in that it broke a cardinal rule for maintaining excitement and suspense: Never, NEVER tell the players how many hit points the monster has left.

Instead, the new mechanic for dragon breath has the critter roll each round after its initial burst to see if its fumes, fire, frost, etc have regenerated enough to use again.  Add variable damage instead of a fixed number and BOOM!  A highly suspenseful "will he or won't he?" situation arises that keeps everyone at the table (DM included) on his or her toes and holding their breath (heh) with every roll.

Well, as you can guess, lured into an alley with a mad owlbear tearing at its tail and a mob of enemies before it, BINGO!

The dragon's recharge result finally came up positive.

With a mighty roar the injured beast kicked skyward and blasted the alley for another 12D6 damage.

Remember that lesson from before?

Yeah, bunching up is STILL a bad idea.

Now, with rain pattering down, only a handful of defenders were still alive:  Lol, Glasstaff, two brigands and the owlbear (who had nearly succumbed) remained nearby, while across town the warchief, Staffling, Ted and four Cragmaw raiders remained on their feet.

The dragon was enraged, but badly injured.  Could it stay aloft, flapping above arrow range until its deadly breath weapon recharged again?

Next Time ...

Farewell to Phandalin: Part II - The Finale