Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Is 5e's Monster Design Still Crappy?

Dominic Matte
Before the 5e Monster Manual came out and all I had to go on was playtest material and previews, I wrote a post talking about how boring and lame 5e's monster design was compared to 4e's. Now that I've had my hands on my Monster Manual for a couple of months, has that opinion changed?

Not really.

In fact, it's taken a major step back in one important area. In at least one playtest, spellcaster stat blocks included quick summaries of their spells so you didn't have to switch to a whole different book just to see the monster's capabilities. Which was good - that's what 4e did, and it made stat blocks entirely self-contained.

Well, too bad, that's gone from the full MM. 

I mean, I guess I can see why they did it - the lich has 27 spells and I assume a 3-page stat block was not something the designers were thrilled about. But at the same time, holy crap twenty-seven spells! You're telling me I have to read twenty-seven spells from different pages of a different book if I want to be prepared to run a lich? What the hell. That's worse than I expected.

On the other hand, more monsters are more interesting than I expected from previews/playtests. Not as interesting as 4e where monsters usually had several unique or tactical abilities, but at least monsters tend to have at least one ability that elevates them above being just a set of numbers.

That said, dragons are a huge disappointment. The five chromatic dragons are literally the exact same stat blocks except for some numbers and breath weapon type. And since they're all so close in challenge ratings, even the number differences are tiny. The legendary actions would have been a great place to add some differences and unique abilities, but those are all the same too.

The book itself is great. The art is fantastic, and there's a lot of interesting flavour text that presents some intriguing ideas to work monsters into a game. But dragons are boring and spellcaster stats suck.

Monday, 3 November 2014

An easy way to create "original" adventures

Dominic Matte
I wrote this as a reply to a reddit post about how to come up with original story ideas for D&D games. I got a little carried away. Thought it would also apply well to this blog, so here we go!

It's been said that there are no original stories.

If you subscribe to this idea - or even if you don't - the easiest way to come up with something that feels original is to take ideas you like and reskin them to fit the D&D world.

Here are four examples off the top of my head:
  • You like Indiana Jones? The PCs are action archaeologists racing to plunder a dragon's tomb before their mercenary rivals sell the loot to the highest bidder.
  • You like heist stories? Have your PCs break into a bank with all kinds of traps and wards and guardians, and give them time to plan and investigate the bank's blueprints and defenses by scouring city records and stealing information from the dwarven architects and archmage that built the place.
  • You like Die Hard? The PCs are visiting an eccentric wizard's tower for a demonstration of a cool new spell when the thieves' guild seizes the building and activates the magical lockdown and safeguards. PCs need to use guerilla tactics to take down the thieves before they complete their objective, while safeguarding the hostages.
  • You like Jurassic Park? The PCs are part of a small private tour of a new monster zoo on an island when something goes wrong and the monsters are set loose. As they try to make it to the ship on the coast, they uncover a conspiracy to sabotage the island for profit.

If that's not good enough, smash two or more ideas together and reskin them to be consistent with each other. Let's mash all four of those previous ideas together:

The party works for a museum that wants to recover a long-lost solid gold holy symbol of the sun god from a long-deceased dragon's hoard. Recently discovered maps place the dragon's lair on an island off the coast. They'll have to move quickly, because their rivals - a dwarf/gnome duo of mercenaries - got to the information first and plans to sell the holy symbol to the highest bidder.

But that's not all. The island has recently been bought and reworked by an eccentric wizard as an arcane zoo, featuring dangerous monsters from across the realm. It's not open to the public yet and security is very high - but there's a private tour for wizards only, and that's an opportunity to sneak in. The name tags for the tour group allow access to the park's teleportation circle network. Turns out that the mercenary duo had the same idea, and are also using the tour group as cover.

The park's security centre should hold all the information the party needs to bypass the wards and find the dragon's lair, but the building is heavily guarded and protected. The PCs will need to slip away from the tour group and find the park's plans in the security centre without being spotted, then decode the arcane script piece by piece as they make their way through the defenses. Once the players access the dragon's lair, they'll have to carefully pick their way through the ancient traps to find the hoard. The dragon was so greedy that the final trap animates its skeleton to protect is loot even after death. This is probably a good area for a confrontation with the mercenary archaeologists - they can either steal the holy symbol and force the party to chase them down, or the party gets the artifact and the mercenaries will hound them the rest of the adventure.

Upon exiting the tomb, all hell has broken loose. The zoo has been sabotaged and the monsters are roaming free; the network of teleportation circles is shut down. A few of the park employees have defected and are in the process of stealing the unique ward spells the wizard wrote to build the park. A group of thieves has taken the tour group and the wizard hostage and is sending out men to try to find a treasure hidden somewhere in the zoo - the artifact of the sun god. And to make things worse, a major storm is brewing.

The party's objective is simple - escape the island with the artifact. But now they have a whole slew of complications in their way: hungry roaming monsters, rogue employees, a coordinated thieves' guild, a rival archaeologist team, and a big storm. They also have two additional opportunities for heroism or loot in the wizard's spellbook and the hostage scenario.

Damn, now I actually want to run this adventure.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Long Game: The Iron Tower Part 1

Hello role-players out there! It occurred to us recently here at D4sign that we neglected to post our last adventure which we played last December. With some opportunities coming up to play more of The Long Game (which you can read about by clicking the link on the right side of the page), we thought it a good idea to bring you, and us, up to date!
Dallas Kasaboski



Thursday, 4 September 2014

Recommended Media

I have been out of the D&D racket for some time, away on a quest to increase my skill points in Space Engineering, but I have come across two sources of media which I think are worth passing on. The first is Tabletop Audio and the second is the Critical Hit podcast. This will be a short post with my thoughts on how these two pieces of media can help you with your RPG adventures!
Dallas Kasaboski


Sunday, 31 August 2014

Tyranny of Dragons miniatures

Dominic Matte
I went to Fan Expo today. In addition to attending the D&D 5e panel, I also got suckered into buying a few of the Tyranny of Dragons miniatures.

Well, okay, eight boosters and the ancient brass dragon. But they gave me a $30 discount on the dragon because I bought an eight-pack, and the eight pack saved $20 off individual booster price, so I'm going to pretend I didn't actually just spend $145 on more miniatures when the second Reaper Kickstarter shipment is on its way soon.

Click through for photos and impressions!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

How To Build A Campaign

Dominic Matte
I think I've talked a bit before about how I approach worldbuilding and designing a campaign, but a thread on the D&D subreddit asking how DMs prepare their campaigns got me thinking about a concise summary of my approach. So here's a slightly-longer-than-I'd-intended list:
  • Start with an idea for a story or world. Something like "dragons secretly run every country and are playing a game for control of the world" (which will be the working example for the rest of this post), or "the king has declared that all magic-users are to be executed".
  • Outline some backstory on how and why the world came to the state it's in now, but no more than a few paragraphs to a page. Example: a slightly more thorough version of "there were three ancient empires with dragons as their allies. Eventually the dragons decided they deserved the world and burned the capitals to the ground. But the remainders of the empires banded together and hunted down all the dragons. The handful that survived agreed that they needed to be more subtle. Hiding their existence, they now play a political game for control of the world - last dragon standing wins".  
  • This is where things get more complex. To flesh out the world I start skipping back and forth between a few areas because they tend to feed into each other. If I write in a country I'll add a few bullet points of its history, which creates interactions and political considerations with other countries, which need their own rulers, some of whom hold old grudges, etc.
  1. timeline of pivotal events in history
  2. rough map with countries and important locations
  3. overview of the current major countries and organizations
  4. major NPCs and their goals/allegiances
  • Once I've got a decent working idea of the world I'll start writing out story arcs for the campaign. Again, not too detailed to start; primarily major events and themes. Since I've been running 4e I usually plan an arc for each tier of play: heroic (1-10), paragon (11-20), and epic (21-30). I might start with "heroic is about resolving personal quests, emphasizing that PCs are little fish in a big pond, and learning about the game the dragons are playing; paragon is about the party as a cohesive group starting to influence global politics, get involved in the war, and start throwing wrenches into dragon's plans; epic is about confronting the dragons head-on at a massive scale and choosing the destiny of the world".
  • Finally, when I have a solid base of the world and the campaign arcs, I start planning individual adventures. I almost never plan more than one session ahead since my players are quite unpredictable (unpredictable as in "scout out the elaborate stealth heist scenario I've set up and then knock on the front door and announce their intentions"). But sometimes if I'm really excited about a particular event I'll plan that scenario well in advance - like the big setpiece battle for the transition from heroic to paragon (level 10 to 11). The PCs had just learned about the dragons' game, and though they'd fought a few low-level dragons, the idea was to really drive home the stakes and how much work needed to be done. The PCs joined ten thousand mercenaries and renegades for a bounty of a hundred million gold pieces to slay the dragon in the north, which turned out to be an epic-level threat that massacred the entire force in mere minutes... except for the PCs.

Usually I'm so thorough that no matter how unpredictable my PCs get I always have something to work with. That heist scenario I mentioned earlier? I had detailed patrol routes so I knew when and where they'd be spotted. I had personality profiles and histories for the garrison commanders so I knew how they'd react to a challenge. I had a map and inventory and mini-sidequests for every room in the garrison, so when a duel broke out and rolled across the entire base I had plenty of fun environmental effects and attacks to throw in. It turned out to be a great session even though I anticipated exactly none of the party's actions, because I had an answer for every crazy thing they tried.

So I guess the outline of my process might be helpful but the overall message works out more like, if you want to be ready for anything, overprepare to the max.

But this all turned out longer than I initially anticipated, so here's a TLDR summary of the summary:
  • start with an idea for a story or setting
  • quick and dirty backstory on how the world got to where it is now
  • Hop back and forth between mapmaking, NPCs, countries, and timeline, adding detail as I need it and without focusing on a single thing for very long
  • lay out major campaign themes, arcs, and events, typically divided into heroic/paragon/epic for 4e
  • write adventures on an as-needed basis since PCs are unpredictable

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Brachiosaur Artillery Crew

Dominic Matte
In one of the D&D games I'm running, The Long Game, there's a country - Aurum - whose military makes heavy use of the large exotic animals and monsters that exist in a fantasy world. Since it's my game and I do what I want, Aurum's artillery units are armoured brachiosaurs with massive cannons strapped to their sides.

I've been meaning to sketch one of these artillery brachiosaurs for some time, and finally got around to it today. But as I was drawing I started thinking about exactly how these things would work in combat, so I ended up writing stat blocks for the brachiosaur and its crew.
click to embiggen