On Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures, Part 1: a System of Hats

One of the complaints I have about 5E is that it has so few options, and that’s a complaint I expected to have. I have the same issue whenever I pick up any Core D&D book because it can only pack so much information into its page count. Core books focus on a narrow western-European medieval setting with a specific magic level, a few races, popular monsters, and so on. As we play in the system, more books simultaneously come out, and over time we get a feel both for what the system can handle and what we want to do with it. It’s a necessary limitation of a game that doesn’t try or purport to cover its full depth in a single book.

Overall I’m excited by articles like Unearthed Arcana: Waterborne Adventures. I like having more options, and I prefer having those options in themed updates and splatbooks (Masters of the Wild, Complete Warrior, Ultimate Magic, Arcana Power) even if it means I may have to wait a while until the options I want come out. Water-faring gaming wouldn’t have been my first choice, and I might have chosen a name that didn’t inspire confusion with the fantastic 3.5E Unearthed Arcana, wasn’t four words long, and didn’t have the acronym UAWA which I will unfailingly say phonetically, but I’m sure the eventual book or books containing these options won’t have that issue.

Then I read it. Now my feelings are somewhat more mixed. There’s some really good stuff in there, but there’s also material that makes me dread where 5E is going.

Let’s start with the bad news. Long-time readers know nothing gets my goat as much as D&D’s treatment of race. And speaking of goats (I’m not very good at animals), UAWA has this to way about its playtest minotaur:

Casting minotaurs as conquest‐minded, honorable pirates gives them a distinct flavor while providing many roleplaying hooks for players. When adding a new race to your own campaign, it’s always a good idea to think about its culture, its relationship to other folk, and how the two can combine to give it a unique place in your world.

I have two problems with this, one general and one I admit is more specific to my own playstyle.

The focus here is on a race with a “distinct flavor” and a “unique place”. That is, the focus is not on a race that is “fun to play”. The current minotaur is an arrogant, war-minded brute who explicitly throws himself or herself into battle as a personal mission and only allies with people who feel the same way. “Attacks everything it can for personal glory and lords power and success over others” isn’t a race. It’s not a culture. It’s barely a character. It’s a hat.

You may be interested in the TV Tropes page for Planet of Hats for a detailed definition. For readers in a hurry or readers who just love how I slap words together, it’s the trope for a case when the story presents a culture with a single defining characteristic, like “everybody here is stubborn and pragmatic” or “everybody is an arrogant environmentalist”. All members of his culture have this characteristic, and rarely do they have another. It’s somewhat acceptable in a story where the protagonists visit a new culture every week. In a persistent universe like D&D, it’s just lazy.

I’ve beaten this drum before, but for a monster. As little as I like folding an entire race like origami so the developers can fit it into the simplest, least interesting niche possible, it’s even worse when it happens for an option players are ostensibly intended to use. Do you want to play a character who sometimes negotiates? Sorry, minotaurs don’t do that. Somebody friendly to new people? Nope. Somebody capable of lying? Somebody who views their allies as equals? Somebody who was born or raised on a mountain, or in a desert, or anything besides the sea and coast? Then minotaurs aren’t the race for you. They occupy a narrative space so small it’s practically worthless. I can’t imagine why the author would think it gives players “many roleplaying hooks”. It doesn’t. It provides one.

The minotaur is good for designers, bad for players. Players wanted to be minotaurs, and the designers couldn’t think of a character for them besides “big and strong”. This isn’t my typical hyperbolic condemnation of an imaginary strawman designer, either:

We chose the minotaurs of Krynn as the model for our depiction of this race for a very specific reason. Tying them to the sea and a distinct culture helps give minotaurs more flavor than serving as just another big, brutish monster race. After all, we already have half‐orcs in the Player’s Handbook and the goliath in our Elemental Evil Player’s Companion.

“Big” is not a character type except in fighting games and professional wrestling (and often not even then). But the solution is not to load the minotaur with so much mandatory culture that it’s unusable outside the three-foot-square they’re allowed to occupy.

Which leads into my other problem: the minotaur can’t be reskinned. This is a large race with a piercing natural weapon, the ability (in fact, the tendency) to use that weapon while charging, a perfect sense of direction, and an inborn understanding of boats. A DM or player needs to jump through a lot of hoops to turn that into something besides Krynn minotaurs (…Krynnotaurs). Heck, they don’t even work for minotaurs in other D&D settings unless you swap out their racial proficiencies. I can’t do anything interesting with this minotaur, and if something isn’t interesting it has no value to me.

But the minotaur isn’t about being interesting. It’s about filling a role the game didn’t need. It’s about making players want the race the designers want them to want. It’s about defining everything in D&D with a few buzzwords and calling it a day. It’s about a System of Hats.

Not all hope is lost, however. The class options in UAWA are exciting in a good way, and I’ll go over that next time.

Posted in Commentary, D&D 5th Edition, Game Design | Leave a comment

Pathfinder Unchained

Reviewing Pathfinder Unchained is hard because it’s pretty all over the place. If it has a single unifying theme, it’s “Pathfinder does stuff in certain ways, and he’s how to make it do that stuff in different ways”. That’s largely the same theme as the astoundingly good Unearthed Arcana, which is almost start-to-finish good and so important from a game design and DMing perspective I like to call it “the fourth Core rulebook”. So can Unchained clear a bar that high? In short, no, but it’s not bad. There’s a lot to like, but there’s a lot to pointedly ignore.

The best way to go over a book like this is option-by-option, so let’s start at the beginning, with the rebalanced barbarian, monk, rogue, and summoner. The word “rebalanced” bothers me a little because I’m not sure how to take it. Are these optional classes, meaning there are unbalanced versions of these classes out there and that’s perfectly fine, or are these glorified errata to be used in place of the originals? If the former, why not present them as archetypes? If the latter, what about the characters who can no longer exist because they’re been retconned out of existence?

I want to talk about the summoner especially. Of the four eidolons I’ve seen, only one came close to being an member of an established Pathfinder monster group, and from a balance and flavor perspective that eidolon was easily the worst of the lot. Anecdotally, the more an eidolon cleaves to a popular outsider subtype, the less fun its summoner is. In addition, the summoner has a revised spell list, but I still recognize every spell I can recall a summoner casting so I’m not clear on what was removed or how it caused a balance problem. It’s terrifying that my summoners could have been even more broken by leveraging additional spells, but I don’t know that restricting player choice and hard-coding eidolons to traditional Pathfinder lore is the solution.

The rest of the class chapter is fairly disappointing. We’ve already been using fractional bonuses for years on some campaigns, and staggered advancement seems like a great way to increase at-the-tale work and confusion for limited benefit. As I understand it, characters should level during downtime, and when DMs don’t do that it seems strange for a character to gain a whole much of level-up benefits at once. So instead of DMs granting levels in an understandable, easy-to-adjudicate way, they can use this system, which quadruples the number of points at which character stats discretely increase, forces players to remember what their recent changes were (anything that requires memory of past actions is asking for trouble at best and outright bad design at worst), and doesn’t pretend to address the biggest factor in discrete power jump, class abilities. But if that’s your thing, here it is.

I really like the skills chapter. There’s probably no way I’ll use all of these options during my career, but I can see a situation in which I would use each, which is more than I can say for most variants in most books. Background skills are for campaigns where I want to force players to do something in their lives besides adventuring, and they include the much-needed Artistry and Lore skills and alternate uses for Craft and Profession (all of which I’ll probably use independent of the variant). Consolidated skills are for campaigns with new players who don’t want to deal with thirty skill choices and just want to make Indiana Jones without worrying about the difference between nature and dungeoneering. Grouped skills are for campaigns where people want to play 4th Edition or GURPS or another system but don’t want to admit it. Variant Craft and Profession rules are for campaigns where people actually want to use Craft and Profession. Skill unlocks are for all campaigns. They’re in all my Pathfinder games, starting now.

I like the variant multiclassing though I may give each player the option to decide between it and traditional multiclassing. It’s like what I wanted but never got out of 4E multiclassing, where you can advance in two classes instead of getting a single power, training in a single skill, and the opportunity to spend more feats for little benefit. This version lets your second class grow with you, and I’m interested to see what combinations I can pull off. It also helps that this variant reduces a player’s feat pool. I have at least one long-term player for whom D&D without feats is a dream come true (5E’s half-hearted attempt at a featless system notwithstanding).

Variant alignment is dangerous. In the hands of a skilled, conscientious DM and sufficiently narrative players it’s an interesting way to turn traditional alignment on its head and use the change to tell good stories. In the hands of most groups, it’s an unnecessary layer of complexity that encourages DMs to put players in situations where the only result is suffering and encourages players to mise their characters’ personalities for in-game benefit. I much prefer the option for removing alignment because it reminds me of beliefs in Burning Wheel. Your alignment isn’t “Lawful Good”, it’s “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers”. That strikes me as a lot more fun and flavorful, and it gives me that chance to have NPCs with alignments like “Hungry, Hungry, and Hippos”

The revised action economy is certainly a thing. If I was running it, I’d call acts “AP” to draw on familiarity with turn-based combat video games. But I feel like there are plenty of ways to use it to make the DM angry. For example, attacking costs one AP. Casting a spell costs two. Players have three AP per turn. So if a player chooses not to move, he or she gets an attack and a spell every round. Initiating or mantaining a grapple, casting from a wand or magic item, and taking a total defense also cost 2 AP. There are some combinations for which the game at large was not balanced. I feel mostly the same way about removing iterative attacks. I see the point, but it’s a long way to go and a lot of complexity to change something that wasn’t keeping me up at night.

Boy howdy, does the stamina variant take up a lot of the book. But I think I like it, and I can certainly see players jumping on it. I also like the variant disease and poison because they give the DM more options for providing interesting consequences and effects and they’re a lot less likely to ruin a player after a single unlucky rolls. “1d8 Strength damage” puts players on the edge of their seats for the wrong reasons.

Uuuuuuuugh wound thresholds. Right-click, delete, empty Recycle Bin.

The magic variants are a mixed bag, which isn’t helped by the rapid-fire way the book lists them and how each variant discusses other vaiants like they’re designed to work together but only sometimes. The general layout implies this thought process: “Alright, preparing spells takes too long. Solve it by cutting everybody’s spells per day in half. And you can make it even better by eliminating caster level for…reasons? But it’s okay, because now you can fail in spectacular ways. Wait, that’s too much. Okay, now spells can crit. But also fumble. No, wait, now you can buff spells, but it costs money. Unless you can’t cast unless you have money? Frick, start over.”

In general, simplified spellcasting and limited magic are a great way to upset players. Wild magic is neat, but I think it needs a drastically expanded surge list. Boiling all possible magical failures into thirty-four effects, most of which duplicate existing spells, doesn’t give the “anything can happen” vibe I think it wants. Active spellcasting is neat, though it would take me some time to adjust to doing it on the fly, and spell criticals and fumbles are almost required if you’re doing spells that way. Esoteric material components…I don’t know. I think I see what they were trying to do, but it’s not really a variant system. It’s a way to either give spellcasters more power or reduce their power to something mostly within the DM’s control, which is a rebalance, not a variant.

I do like the automatic bonus progression, because it tries to solve the “if you’re a real character, you have the following required items and ignore anything that prevents you from having those items” problem. A ring of jumping and a ring of invisibility may be nice, but having both means you don’t have a ring of protection and anything that hits you by one (or two or three, depending on your level) is your fault. The game makes certain assumptions about loot and balances monsters around it. This variant lets players keep up with those assumptions while still getting flavorful toys. Innate item bonuses do the same thing in a different way, though one that puts some interesting limits on players, like “there’s no such thing as a +5 flaming sword until you’re level 19.”

I like scaling items so much I own Weapon of Legacy, a full 3.5E book about exactly this. And speaking of fun, flavorful items, I haven’t read anything I don’t like about the dynamic magic item creation section. I haven’t gone over it word-by-word like I intend to, especially with a group of players who love making magic items, but everything I’ve seen, I’ve liked.

The monster-building section looks really, really neat, but let’s not pretend it’s the “simple monster building” its title suggests. There’s a lot going on and it’s very easy to build a monster for which players cannot possibly be prepared. Pathfinder does have its general “sanity-check your monster” phase at the end, but that’s always been there. I can definitely see the utility for a lot of DMs who don’t want to delve into monster and class and magic and so on to build the minotaur dragon shaman they want as an NPC. Still, the more you know about the rules and the more experience you have with building monsters the less this section will help you.

The introduction to Pathfinder Unchained promises both refinements to the rules and “mad experiments that transform it completely.” On the latter the book fails to deliver. Combining skills, reducing magic power, and giving fighters new combat options do not amount to a complete transformation. When Unearthed Arcana made similar promises, it gave us a chapter on subverting (or enhancing) the expectations of race, a variant that did away with classes entirely, rules for character backgrounds most editions relegate to skill choices, an alternative to Vancian magic, and even a way to play d20 games without using a d20. It’s just not comparable.

Pathfinder Unchained is a mostly good book, with some good options. But it’s no fourth Core rulebook.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Gaming Systems, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

Even More on D&D Stats in Simple Language (or, the Plight of the Huggable Skeleton)

Apparently I’ve made it to Reddit through no fault of my own, and I’m startled at the response. “The Definition of Charisma” was one of those posts I was really worried about because it’s the only one I can think of where I read comments on this blog, thought about them, and made an entire post about how the commenters were wrong. I even had somebody proof it to make sure it wasn’t too inflammatory. So I’m pleased as punch that it’s getting a reception this good.

And to the fellow who asked why skeletons and other mindless undead in Pathfinder have Charisma 10 and whether that means they’re just as empathetic as the average human…yeah, I don’t have an answer. I’m used to them having Charisma 1, or “more empathetic than a flower but just barely.” I plum forgot Pathfinder tweaked the undead rules so Charisma went to hit points (which is why skeletons et al. have Cha 10) and didn’t factor it into my definition.

My knee-jerk response is that skeletons are a singular exception because Paizo decided design flexibility was more important than narrative consistency in the rules. Let’s be honest; in D&D undead have a d12 Hit Dice and wizard BAB not because they’re as hardy as dragons but fight like drunken tee-ball players, but because that was the only way to keep them balanced. Without Constitution undead only gain hit points via Hit Dice. They have the maximum HD and the minimum BAB so the designers and DM can create undead with decent hit points without necessarily giving them accuracy that quickly outstrips the players’ defenses. Using Charisma for hit points means undead can be a more reasonable d8, their BAB can make sense, and designers can have especially tough or especially weak undead by tweaking Charisma. It’s almost elegant, so I have to appreciate it even as it kills my interpretation.

Since I don’t have a solution of my own, I’m interested in the author’s vitalism compromise, though I’m worried about extrapolating it beyond mindless undead. I don’t like that race determines life force, like orcs are less “alive” than humans who are less “alive” than halflings. That’s not to say it’s wrong. In fact, races with high Charisma do tend to have a certain joie de vivre that low-Cha races don’t. And I’ll admit I may be the worst person to ask about what race should determine. But I also won’t pretend it doesn’t bug me.

So for now I’m going to stick with my interpretation of Charisma. Thus skeletons are empathetic but hopelessly stupid about it. Their thought process roughly goes “Man, being undead is great! Those poor adventurers don’t know how awesome it is to be killed and reanimated as a shambling monstrosity. I should help them out with murder!”

As an aside, “The Eight Arms and Plight of the Huggable Skeleton” is going on the campaign shortlist.

Posted in D&D 3.5, D&D 3rd Edition, DMing, Gaming Systems, Pathfinder | Leave a comment

The Art of the Sidequest, Part 2

A sidequest isn’t all that different from any other small-scale plot in terms of lifecycle. Where it mostly differs is in its purpose. In D&D a plot’s job is to form the skeleton of a story, letting the DM and players add musculature, organs, and whatever bits of a body contribute toward this analogy. A good sidequest serves the same role with a few tweaks that make it a sidequest beyond simply being optional. These tweaks put some restrictions on the plots we can use, but they also made a sidequest distinct enough from the main campaign to serve as an effective temporary break.

For this post I’m going to use the 4E DMG adventure breakdown because I think it’s the most direct, concise way of describing an adventure in the same way that 4E is a direct, reasonably concise game to play. Your sidequest may omit some of these parts for various reasons (and going over why and how could be another post).

The first part of any adventure is likely the hook, and a sidequest is no different. You have to give the party a reason to stop what they’re doing and do something else, or to risk themselves on an adventure during what would otherwise be their downtime. Normally a sidequest has a lesser hook because of its scope. While it’s hard to build an entire campaign around “the party gets more money”, creating a small adventure in search of loot is both normal and acceptable. You can also have an NPC ask the players to save a small town, or a single business or a single person, and you don’t need to explain how that translates into a threat against the nation, the plane, or the nature of existence.

A sidequest hook also lets you put the focus on a specific character. Normally a hook has to involve the entirely party so everybody is invested in the story. A sidequest, as an aside to the main plot, doesn’t. You can make the hook about one character’s goals, backstory, friends, or arc and have the rest of the party (willingly or begrudgingly) along for the ride. You could also flip it and make the sidequest about one of your characters, like an NPC the party has already met, as long as the character doesn’t overshadow the party. The point is that sidequest hooks tend to be easier than campaign hooks because you know you don’t have to use them to kickstart a long-running plot, just a side story that the party can explore at their option.

Players must make choices in a sidequest the same way they do in any adventure or session, and those choices must matter, but there’s a wrinkle. In a campaign proper you’re not supposed to present the players with a choice that has a right answer and a wrong answer. You set up a decision, give the players information, let them pick an option (or two, etc.), and let them live with the consequences, but those consequences rarely include “a PC dies” or “the world ends” or anything that would cause the main plot to be a failure.

Sidequests can present plots with wrong answers. If the players answer the riddle incorrectly and blow up the dungeon, they won’t get the artifact sword that prompted the quest in the first place, but the failure doesn’t stall the game. That said, it’s not good practice to do it frequently, and you should prepare for players being frustrated if they put in a lot of effort or spent a lot of resources. It’s better to give them some lesser reward than nothing at all.

The challenges in a sidequest remain the same. You still want to build interesting fights, avoid frustrating mechanics and storylines, use varying encounter types (combat, puzzle, diplomacy, etc.), and keep an eye on how the players react to them all. If you’re using the sidequest to explore a specific character you can build encounters at which they excel (or at which they fail, so they need the party’s help). Here you may want to err on the side of safety with your challenges. Killing a character is rough, but killing a character on a B-plot that doesn’t even affect the large-scale campaign is mortifying.

All plots need excitement, and I would argue a sidequest needs it more than an average session. A sidequest, as a short adventure, goes on a truncated arc. You can’t give the players two boring setup sessions leading to a knock-down drag-out fight because that encompasses almost all of the quest’s runtime. You need to hit the players with something fun enough that they’re happy they went on the sidequest, and if anything it’s easier to do that because you only have to manage the pacing for a session or two.

You could give the players a set piece that doesn’t fit in the normal campaign, like a combat with unusual rules or enemies or a minigame that stretches what a D&D campaign entails. For example, one thing I’ve always wanted to run is a Dynasty Warriors-esque zone-capturing encounter, where the players have to assault enemy keeps to stem the tide of reinforcements while shoring up their own resources. They have to decide whether they want to blaze ahead in a difficult battle, hang back and defend while the allied NPCs do most of the heavy lifting, run around and grab important locations to enhance their battlefield position but leave attack and defense to the NPCs, etc. It’s not easy to organically build a campaign toward a small-scale, but broad within that scale, battle between opposing factions, and the one time I tried to put this into a campaign the players deftly avoided it entirely. It’s something I’ll have a much easier time putting into a one-off session.

Usually the best way to peak this excitement is to do it in the climax, which should be meaningful in terms of the sidequest but not better than similar climaxes in the main plot. The players shouldn’t say the best part of your campaign was the time they fought the orge raiders by jumping back and forth across a stampeding elephant horde if it happened in the session you threw together because you needed to stall another week to design the big bad’s fortress (and if they do, there’s a learning moment about what sort of encounters your players really want). You want a more local finale, one that wraps up the sidequest but doesn’t overshadow the rest of the game.

It may seem like I’m contradicting myself here. I say to give the players an off-the-wall set piece or combat, but not one so off-the-wall they like it more than the main plot. Here’s where having a mutable medium like tabletop gaming comes in handy. If you do give the players an encounter they adore in the sidequest, don’t consider it a lost cause. Instead add a similar encounter to the campaign at a later point, perhaps ramping it up a little. Now that sidequest that threatened to usurp your pacing wasn’t the accidental high point of the campaign, it was foreshadowing. Reward the players for their surprising skill under unusual circumstances, then hit them with the escalation.

If you’re intentionally giving the players filler, you may be tempted to avoid having a meaningful victory. But even in filler, you want the players to know they didn’t just waste their time. Give them an emotional reward rather than a physical or monetary one. Even if they didn’t get any tangible reward they still saved the village, or kept the warlock from opening the devil portal, or prevented Team Rocket from taking over a corner of the Safari Zone. The players know they did good, they’re happy, and they can move on.

With a proper sidequest you could consider the experience and loot to be its own reward. I like also giving the players something interesting enough that they’ll keep it around. Getting a +2 greatsword from the dead orc warlord is neat but forgettable. If the mayor of the town threatened by the warlord grants the party her ancestral sword which has the same game statistics but also leaves a trail of smoke whenever a character swings it, that’s better, and the party will be more likely to work with the sword and less likely to sell it for pocket change later. The rewards for a sidequest can be perfectly in line with main plot encounters of the same difficulty, or even worse, but if they’re fun the players will enjoy them more.

For further reading, TV Tropes has a pretty extensive list of sidequest examples and a few other pages for specific sidequest types. This can give you a good foundation and a lot of ideas what how broad sidequests can be, but there’s no substitute for doing it yourself. As with anything in D&D (or training Amiibos), the best way to learn it to try it and get it wrong.

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The Art of the Sidequest, Part 1

I’m a busy grown-up with a job and a tie and everything, and so are a lot of the people with whom I game. And one of the problems with being a busy grown-up is that sometimes non-gaming obligations bungle into the way of game time. In the last month, we’ve had to cancel or nearly cancel sessions because we had a player working, being with family, going out of town, saving lives, or storming castles.

That part’s not a joke. All of those things happened.

Gamers are understandably loathe to not game. It’s in our name. But in situations where the game can’t progress because a player or three can’t make it our options are limited. We can either cancel the gaming session or have a session anyway, and then the question becomes how to deal with the missing player. I’ve offered a few suggestions before, but there’s a subset of options I hadn’t considered, namely to run a sidequest.

I’m going to assume you don’t know what that is because my spellcheck sure doesn’t. A sidequest is any quest that isn’t related to the main plot. For example, if you’re on a quest to save a prince kidnapped by a dragon and you have to fight some goblins because they’re guarding the path to the dragon’s cave, that’s not a sidequest because it’s a necessary part of working toward your goal. But if the goblins aren’t a problem you need to handle, it’s a sidequest. Even if killing them helps you because it means you can collect their bounty and afford that dragon-slaying sword to make the final fight easier, it’s still optional.

Which is the beauty of adding sidequests to a campaign. Because they’re optional, you can run them even when you’re short a player so that player doesn’t miss any of the main plot. Sure, the player might be miffed that they didn’t get to fireball some short folk, but they’re still fully caught up on everything that’s going on with the dragon. It’s better to miss a sidequest but still know where you are in the main plot than to miss a session and wonder why you’re hundreds of miles away from where you last remembered, alone, mostly naked, with swords pointed at you.

In general you’ll probably find you need sidequests more in long campaigns. So consider the timing of this post intentional.

There are a few types of sidequests you can use depending on what you need. In increasing order of campaign relevance:


  • Filler: A sidequest that has nothing to do with the plot at all. There are no long-term consequences, no rewards, no real threat to the party, and a very low chance that NPCs from the main plot will appear. An example is a video game achievement; you may get points on your profile or what have you, but the game itself doesn’t care whether you have an achievement or not. A filler session exists just to fill time and give everybody something to do, and it’s common to never speak of it against once it ends. In anime circles filler is almost universally reviled. But it can give you a chance to do something totally off-the-wall or non-canon, like try a weird game mechanic or throw a one-shot enemy at the party, and if you really want to game it’s better than nothing.
  • Graduated Filler: This is a session that masquerades as filler but gains relevance later in the campaign. For example, if you have a filler enemy who later shows up in the main plot, or if the place you visited in the filler session is the site of the final dungeon, the filler retroactively graduates to the main plot. Again with a video game example, this is an achievement that later unlocks something for you, like unlimited ammunition. From the DM’s perspective this roughly falls into two categories: innocuously important sessions, which look like filler to the players but in which you actually do something meaningful, or ascended filler, where you initially intended the session as filler and changed your mind later.
  • Proper Sidequest: A sidequest that affects the campaign but not necessarily the main plot. In video games most sidequests in RPGs are like this; finding all the treasure chests or killing the hidden boss doesn’t meaningfully change the plot but it does give you experience and loot you wouldn’t otherwise have. Arguably most sidequests in D&D are like this for the same reason. It’s a way of rewarding the players who can attend a filler session without significantly punishing the players who don’t. Sure, the present players might be a few hundred gold richer than those who missed a session, but at least everybody’s caught up on the storyline.
  • Main Quest in Disguise: A sidequest that’s actually part of the main plot even if it doesn’t look like it at first. Particularly irksome (I clearly have an opinion here) video games use these by offering sidequests but refusing to let you advance unless you complete them because they they provide some necessary reward. It’s a little iffy using these in D&D because you’re defeating the point of having a side session in the first place. There are two ways to go about it. The good way is to have something that looks distinct from the main plot but later ties into it; the goblins seem off the beaten path, but they’re actually the dragon’s minions and they’re guarding one of the artifacts the dragon uses to protect his layer, so now the party knows this and they can look for the rest. The bad way is to keep the sidequest unrelated except for the result; the party gets a magic scroll from the goblins, but it’s not clear why the goblins have it or what the scroll even does until twenty sessions later when it dispel’s the dragon’s wards.

The sidequest types are part of a balancing act, in that the earlier types are better for a player missing a session and worse for a player attending and vice versa. If a player is going to miss a session, they’d generally prefer if that session doesn’t include huge important plot information because they they feel like they’re missing out. But a player who did attend generally doesn’t want to feel the whole session was a waste of time, all risk and effort for no reward. Unless I’m running a breather session I try to stick with the middle two types for whenever somebody is missing and save the last for when everybody is there. This isn’t always feasible, like when a player can’t attend a session mid-dungeon, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

So that’s what a sidequest is and why. Next post I’m going to go over how and a few do’s and don’ts.

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Long-Term Campaigns and DM Interest

In a long campaign players will spend a ridiculous amount of time in your world. If you meet for four hours a week you’ll rack up a solid real-world day of game time every six sessions, and extrapolated over sixty or more sessions it’s pretty startling. Now factor in the amount of time you spend working on each session, and the time you spend on pre-campaign prep, to get a feel for how long you spend on your own world. A long campaign needs to be as fun for you as it is for the players, and in terms of raw exhaustion your bar is much higher.

By the time I get a year or so into a campaign I’m usually spending my time following these principles:


  • Mix it up a bit. I sort of feel like I shouldn’t need to say this. Don’t run the same session, or adventure, over and over again. Don’t give the players similar orc patrols to fight even if they are in orc country. Don’t start every plot with “somebody from the party’s backstory needs their help.” Don’t end every plot with “but he was not the villain, and now you have made a powerful enemy!” Your formula will wear on you even more than it wears on the players.

    You don’t need everything to be completely different from everything that came before it, just different enough that the feel changes. Yes, the players are fighting orc patrols, but those patrols can be doing different things, in different situations, with different types of soldiers. NPCs always trigger plots, but some need the party’s help, some are actively working against the players, and some are brand-new and have no particular reason to trust the party. And when you do try something different, like a high-stakes stealth mission in the middle of your otherwise kick-in-the-door campaign, it’s a refreshing change of pace that gives the characters some room to try new tricks.

    This is where you can a lot of utility out of things like Masks and Eureka. You can largely open to a random page and get something that probably isn’t what you were expecting but is close enough to a good idea.

  • Invest in your own continuity. Nobody knows the world like the DM (unless the world is based on a world somebody else wrote, like a published campaign setting, in which case “your own continuity” is a somewhat loose definition). The DM loves the world enough that subjecting it to players is a small price to pay for sharing it with them. As such, he or she is the setting’s greatest activist, and there’s no better way to express that than leveraging it in ways your players don’t expect.

    I love continuity porn. (If you print out this post and show it to my mother, please do not omit “continuity”). I love seeing old characters come back a little stronger and wiser, using forgotten items in new ways, answering lingering questions as part of the main narrative, and generally treating the world like a thing that exists rather than a thing that presents short-term stimuli to the players and discards them thereafter. I get excited thinking about how I’m going to pull something from the beginning of the campaign into now and use it to make things more detailed or impressive, and I especially love it when players recognize what I’m doing and get into it. (Wow, after re-reading that paragraph, definitely do not omit “continuity”.)

    That said, you can go too far. Not every person, place, thing, or action needs to be significant. If the passing wheel merchant was actually the criminal overlord all along and the only clue was that they both said “Hey, how are ya?” in greeting, you’re probably not adding to the players’ experience or yours as much as you think you are. Save it for the things that really deserve it, foreshadow them when you can, and watch as your loose association of nouns becomes a story worth telling.

    When you do bring up something old or subtle enough there’s a good chance your players won’t recognize it. That’s fine. Remember, you may have turned the grand duke’s nephew’s subplot over and over in your head for weeks, but the players only heard one offhand reference to him during dinner, and even then half the party wasn’t present. You generally can’t expect they’ll have the same knowledge of your world as you do and occasionally they’ll even surprise you by remembering something you forgot. It’s your call whether to remind them, let them roll to remember (a straight Int check works, but account for the fact that there are few skills for simple memory), or bask in their ignorance and only later recount your foreshadowing during the big reveal. Just don’t rely too much on that last one.

  • Use characters and monsters you like running. When you’re going to have a monster-of-the week villain or a one-and-done NPC, you can make them anything that fits your needs. But when you’re talking about a campaign villain or a long-term ally, it’s important they they’re as fun for you as they are for the players, preferably top to bottom. Give the character a class you like playing, so when they get involved you enjoy using their powers and abilities. Give them an accent or a verbal idiosyncrasy (extraneous pluralization, overuse of the phrase “I know, right?”, refers to everybody by occupation rather than name, etc.) so you and the players know when the character is speaking. Find ways to get them involved (though not too much, of course) so they become a regular part of the campaign.

    This extends to any iconic fights. When you’re having fun with a monster it will show, so design monsters you like playing. Give them abilities that stop or cancel the player abilities you can’t stand and play up things you want to see more. Use the environment, the storyline, and the players’ personalities in interesting ways. Not every fight needs to be a custom-built, off-the-wall, everything-means-something encounter, but when you’re at the end of an arc or in an important location or just need a pick-me-up there’s not much better at that than a fight that gets everybody involved in a fun and interesting way.

    If you’re using something out of the box, make sure it’s not something you hate. One of the problems and benefits of long-running campaigns is that you tend to see the same monsters, allies, and bad guys over and over again, because that’s what the campaign is about. So if you don’t like running spellcasters, maybe the devil lord shouldn’t have a cadre of liches. But if you do like minotaurs, put them in a prominent place so they come up often. Use different types, like a barbarian here or an aristocrat there. Explore their society. Break out those minis you’ve always wanted to use but could never justify. Take advantage of the fact that your campaign has themes and make them something you want to use.

  • Have good players. This one’s a bit of a cheat, because it’s not an ongoing design choice you make regularly over the course of a long campaign, but it’s still the most important point on this list. If you’re going to be running a game for the same group for a year or two, don’t invite people to merely tolerate. Invite people you like. You’re all ideally going to be stuck together for the life of the campaign, and you don’t want to get three months in and realize you have to scrap a bunch of your long-term plans and character arcs because you can’t be in the same room as one of your players (or two players can’t be in the same room as each other, etc.)

    The thing about having good players is that if you ask their opinion they’ll give it to you. Tabletop gaming is a back-and-forth hobby, and good DMing involves getting feedback from players on what’s working, what’s not, and what they want to see going forward. The nice thing about this in a long campaign is that different people find different things interesting in different amounts. Even if you’re loving your minotaur city, the players may not be, and that forces you to try something new. You’re gaining and losing interest with the speed of four or five or six people rather than one, and that can help you break out of a rut you didn’t even know you were in.

Again, this is all good advice for a short campaign too. But it’s doubly important when you’re going to be in the same world running the same general plot for a while, especially if you’re like me and you need occasional breaks from a given activity to keep your mind going strong.

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Achievement Unlocked

I may be a good DM, but I’m not the greatest player.

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Long-Term Campaigns and Player Interest

As I work through the second Zelda campaign (as opposed to the Second Zelda campaign, where the party has to figure out which princess is a robot), I’m finding some of my storytelling challenges are different from my normal campaigns. Yes, there’s the issue of running inside somebody else’s universe, but at least I get to play with things much more than I would in, say, Faerun. And I do have to keep in mind that I’m running things like a hybrid of a tabletop game and a video game, but I’m actually enjoying that. No, the biggest change I’m finding is that I’m planning for a much longer-term story than normal.

I have the most experience with thirteen-session campaigns, and I have something of a formula for how to plan, run, panic, and revamp in equal measures. But for campaigns that run much longer the pacing doesn’t work that way. I can’t just stretch the intro out to four sessions, then stretch realizing the campaign problem to five, and so on. I have to look at the whole plot, each arc, and each session in the context of something with a definable end that’s still a long way off. So how do I do that in a way that doesn’t bore my players?

This isn’t the first long campaign I’ve run. The Unnamed Monster Campaign was thirty-six sessions over a year and a half, and the Great Tower of Oldechi was 108 sessions in just under three years (both show the perils of running campaigns in a college town). Thirty-odd sessions and ten months deep into the Zelda campaign I’ve found myself following these general principles:


  • Provide incremental progress. One of the things I learned from Wrath of the Cosmic Accountant was to give the players situations where the conditions for success are apparent and measurable. It’s no fun to hurl yourself at an problem for three weeks and question whether the fourth week will provide more frustration than solution. The party needs to progress, and more than that needs to feel like they’re progressing.

    There are a lot of ways to go about this. In this campaign the party knew within the first few weeks that they had to beat eleven dungeons (because an NPC told them, but also because they know how many Heart Pieces are in the campaign and they are capable of simple math). Every time they find a dungeon, find an item or solve a puzzle in a dungeon, or beat a dungeon, they are certain they are making progress. Most campaigns aren’t as clear-cut as this, which means you have to get a little more clever in how the party knows they’re getting ever closer to the end of the campaign, even if a given step takes them some time. The point is to not let them sit in the doldrums for longer than necessary. Show them how getting the kingdom’s treasurer arrested leads to their goal instead of having it as just a thing that happened.

  • Provide incremental solutions. Kudzu plots are a pet peeve of mine*. In case you don’t want to dive into TV Tropes and come up for air tomorrow, a kudzu plot is when a story branches into mystery upon mystery. Every answer creates three or four more questions and it’s not clear whether or all or any of them will be satisfactorily resolved by the end.

    It’s easy to say “I’ll create a ton of mysterious people and creatures and items and backstory and so on, and the players will love figuring it out piece by piece! That’s years’ worth of content!” Well, yes, usually, but that means the players have to actually figure it out. A solution isn’t a solution if it doesn’t solve a problem. This is the “learning” counterpart to the above point’s “doing”; when a dozen mysteries fester for months the players are more likely to ignore them, forget them, or get angry at them (and you) than wait on the edge of their seats until you decide they deserve an answer. And speaking of which…

  • Let players take action. One of the things DMs (should) learn early is that a campaign is not their story. It’s a cooperative story where the players and the DM both provide input. You may think “the players will fight the orcs here, which will take them to the evil cult leading them, which will take them to the temple, and there they’ll find the artifact they have to destroy, and all this will take the first ten sessions”. As a general structure that’s fine. Trust me, campaigns don’t last long when you have no direction whatsoever.

    But you can’t decide everything about how the players are going to fight the orcs, or where, or when, or whether they try to skip straight to the orc leadership and find the cult right away. They need to be able to make their own decisions, and those decisions need to matter. Maybe they want to fight the orcs in the western mountains, before the scouts set up camps in good defensive positions, or perhaps in the east, where the farms are supplying the players’ army. And maybe they do want to head straight for the leadership, risking that the orcs will gain both the west and the east even if they lose their bosses. Give players the chance to make a decision and allow them to both benefit and suffer from its repercussions.

    If you’re strapped for time and you can only plan for one of the party’s possible actions, there’s no shame in kindly asking yours players to get on the rails for a while. I’ve done this more than once in my career, and I have an adult enough group to allow it. If I say “Guys, my hours at work were long this week so I only had time to design the dungeon and none of the side quests,” my players say “alright, we’ll do the dungeon this week and come back to the side quests later.” No DM can plan for everything; the DMs who look like they do are just good enough at improvising to make it seem like planning. When something can’t be improvised into something else, it’s alright to be up front with the players and say you’re only prepared for a subset of their available choices. If they hate it you can work together in the future (for example, ending each session with “what are you doing next week?” has done wonders for me).

  • Give characters growth arcs. If giving players a boring story is a crime, making them be a boring story is a capital offense. Good characters, like real people, grow and change over the course of their lives, more so when their lives are full of harrowing adventures and kingdom-shaking triumphs. A character who only changes in terms of equipment and numbers gets old fast and becomes more of a burden to a player the longer the campaign goes.

    Sometimes the answer is to let a player abandon a character who isn’t working; in the post-Ragnarok campaign I had a lot more fun with Steingeirr, a spear-wielding mountain of a man who only knows thirty words, than Eyvindr, long-suffering straight man to the party’s excessively esoteric sneak/murderer. But they can change characters without a character change. Ask your players what they want their characters to do, what their goals are, and how they want to accomplish them. This is good advice for any campaign but you may find in a long campaign you need to do it more than once. You can’t give everybody an arc that progresses only sparingly until it comes to a head at the final boss because that means it can languish for months without progression. Give the characters challenges and ask them how they want to grow, then let them.

    That said, don’t force a growth arc. Some players like having the same character for a few years, and some characters don’t led themselves to dramatic changes. Don’t try to fix something if it’s not broken, but if a player expresses an interest in a change work with them.

All of this is good advice for campaigns of (almost) any length. I’ve just found they’re more important in longer campaigns because the pacing, the story structure, and the payoffs are different. Unless your three-year campaign is actually a series of thirty unrelated one-month plots you need to pay more attention that usual to your players’ long-term interest level and adjust what you’re doing accordingly.

Of course there are two edges to this coin. As a DM you have to enjoy the campaign too, and I’ll discuss that next post.

* — In what I promise was not intentional cross-promotion, I Podcast Magic Missile just did an episode about exactly how ridiculous a plot like this sounds to your players after a long enough time.

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Cooperative Content Design

The players in my 4E campaign are currently at L10 and a short side-quest away from L11, which means they’re eying paragon paths. We’ve been flipping through a few books to put together some decent candidates, some obvious (the archer is becoming a sharpshooter) and some less obvious (the farmer is becoming a tundra barbarian or something). One of these players came up to me at the beginning of a recent session and largely said “There’s no paragon path I really like, but there are three paths where I like parts of them. Can I take two things from each path to build a custom path with all the things I want?”

My first thought was “Of course you can’t. Why would you even think that? You can’t cherry-pick the most powerful or effective parts of every paragon path to build something better than any other player can have. The system is built this way for a reason, and you’ll have to deal with what’s available.”

Almost instantly thereafter, my second thought was “Of course you can. Why would you even think you couldn’t? Taking pieces of things and putting them together in a new and interesting way is exactly the kind of character-defining build we like. If the pre-built paths aren’t doing anything for you, you’re not stuck with things you don’t want or can’t use just because Wizards didn’t publish your character concept.”

I’m not surprised that my first thought was first and my second was second. After the years I spent running Delve Night, my knee-jerk reaction to somebody asking “can I do something weird?” is to rephrase it in my head as “can I do something broken but presented in a way you won’t recognize until it’s too late?” It’s something I’ve seen since before I started DMing (in the first session I played in my first campaign, no less), and it’s common enough that I had a sort of sorting system for it, where the later a question falls on the list* the more likely I am to say no before the speaker even finishes:


  • Can I perform the following off-the-wall action not described in the rules?
  • Can I create my own action (spell, power, etc.)?
  • Can I create my own subclass (archetype, paragon path, prestige class, etc.)?
  • Can I create my own race?
  • Can I create my own class?

The problem is that the answer to all of these questions is yes, a player can certainly create his or her own content. I’ve just been burned more by players who do it for a numerical advantage than soothed by players who do it because it works for their character or, in a pie-in-the-sky dream, the other players and the campaign at large.

D&D has long encouraged DMs to create new content for players to use. The first DMing book I read, the 3.0E DMG, devoted a decent part of Chapter 6 to tweaking or creating races and classes, mostly by using the existing classes as a baseline and changing abilities from there. But it didn’t go into detail on working with players to make sure the new race or class is something they’d like, and I think that’s both a shame and a big reason DMs tend to be reluctant to accept player-created content. As with adventures the general implication is that DMs produce a game and players consume it. There’s a short essay in why that’s a bad way of looking at it.

The example I like far more is in the 4E DMG2. Chapter 1 contains a half-page sidebar from the author of the DMG1 discussing how his son decided on playing a fire archon because he loved the miniature. After some power tweaking and a dose of Law #3 he ended up with a character that “resembled the fire archon in all the ways that matter.” It remained balanced, it gained flavor, and both the player and the DM were happy. This is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be a sidebar in a supplemental book. It should be required reading for all DMs. Perhaps there should be a test, too.

A lot of this comes down to the designers. In early 3E, Wizards had the opinion that players were consumers who should leave producing to DMs. By mid-to-late 4E they changed their mind to the point where players and DMs can work together. We’re not at a game entirely run by players (and I don’t want us to get there in D&D, because it puts me out of a job) but we’re at a point with high player agency and investment. I don’t have a 5E DMG, and I probably won’t until I intend to run 5E, but I suspect we’ve regressed.

But that’s okay, because DMs are more powerful than game designers by every metric but profit. If the rules want us to design classes for players, we can do that. But we can also let players build what they want, whether it’s a custom race or a combination of paragon paths or even a flat-out new class (I have one player who’s done all three, all in different systems). In that case the DM’s role is to maintain game balance and story continuity, and not much else.

Right around the transition to paragon tier (coincidence?!) my players also stumbled upon some elemental enhancements that would give them new powers. My design space for these powers, which I’ve told to the players is roughly “Think of something mechanical you want more of, like range or damage, and something flavorful you want to do with the element you have. Let me worry about the balance, but I’m leaning toward very powerful effects with significant drawbacks.” The first such power uses an incredibly rare mechanic to produce a totally new ailment, and the player in question volunteered potential penalties the power could inflict on her. When the players are coming up with fresh ways to hurt themselves, they’re excited.

Almost universally, a group of players is smarter and more creative than one DM. There’s little reason to not leverage it.

* — Also on the list, but not relevant to this post, is “can I apply real-world rules to the following action in a way that gives me an advantage the game rules normally explicitly disallow?” such as dealing extra damage on a charge based on momentum or letting spells have deleterious effects on enemy equipment. I struggled with this for a while because I like both simulationist play and clever thinking but was afraid of what would happen if one player recognized this and started exploiting it (again, I’ve had more bad players than good). Now I’m at a happy medium; if I like it I say “yes”, and if I don’t like it I say “yes, but if you do then that sets a precedent, and as a DM I’m significantly better equipped to take advantage of changes like this than a player is.” That usually ends the discussion quickly.

Posted in D&D 3rd Edition, D&D 4th Edition, DMing, Game Design | 2 Comments

Playing D&D 5E

I’ve been holding off on writing too much about D&D ZEXAL until I got a chance to play it. Rummaging through the books looking for theory is all well and good, but a gaming system is a system for gaming and you can’t make a valid assessment of it until you game with it. So after a far longer baking period than is strictly necessary I finally got into a short (four-session) local campaign. We played at 8th-level in a custom setting without any house rules, as far as I’m aware, and I got a chance to see how the system met my expectations based on what I’d heard and read.

Expectation: Monsters are dangerous. Since hit points scale with level but defenses don’t, enemies of all levels gain arbitrarily high damage capable of pancaking players. If they can get past a PC’s defenses, which isn’t necessarily easy, they can do bricks of damage that make it nearly impossible for a healer to keep pace.

Actual: Mostly no. We only had three or four fights in the campaign so it wasn’t always easy to tell, but it felt like monsters rarely swung for obscene amounts of damage. It did feel monsters teaming up on a PC could easy take him or her out and there was little if anything the rest of the party could do about it, which makes any tactical enemy group terrifying. We also saw the return of save-or-die effects, capable of knocking out a character in one hit. I’m not convinced they have any place in gaming whatsoever and I’m not happy to see them back.

Expectation: Magic items are powerful, but rare. They serve an in-game story element more than they improve characters.

Actual: Exactly correct. Everybody in the party received a magic item at the beginning of the campaign, but only one of them provided any sort of persistent numerical bonus, and even then only against specific enemies. Two of the items provided a bonus only when used by a person other than the person who had them, two had powers the players weren’t allowed to use until the DM allowed it, and one was only useful in the final battle (there’s some overlap there). They were neat and cinematic, but for ninety percent of the campaign they just sat in our inventory while we stared at them hopefully. When the system is based around treating magic items like deadbeat roommates, it’s not ideal.

Note that I don’t blame the DM for any of this, even though he gave us the items, intentionally withheld information about them, and placed unknowable limits on their function. From what I understand about the system this is exactly how 5E is supposed to work.

Expectation: Advancement has a much lower impact than in earlier editions. Players get class abilities and spells, but rarely do any numbers increase, and money barely exists as a gameplay concept.

Actual: Ug, this. We didn’t actually level, so I can’t say how I feel about leveling per se. But I can say I was a L8 cleric who could not afford holy water, because at no point in his or her pre-campaign career does a character scrounge up more than starting money. I rejected spell after spell every day because they had material components I couldn’t afford, making spellcasting another resource with scarcity determined by the DM. By the time I’d built my character I basically had a L1 cleric with a excess of hit points, spells, and languages. If I want my character to put years of effort into something and barely have anything to show for it, I’ll give him an office job.

Expectation: Character customization is greatly reduced. There are only three types of fighters, seven types of clerics, two types of druids, etc., and these types cannot be combined or adjusted in any meaningful way. Feats are optional and thus ignorable, allowing characters to define themselves solely by class. The system even strongly recommends you pick starting equipment from a class-based list with little variance for builds the designers did not expect.

Actual: Sort of. In terms of mechanics and backstories I felt incredibly constrained by the system. But my mechanical constraints were within the tolerance I afford to any Core rules, which are understandably limited by page count. The character constraints were also within tolerance; D&D 5E wants you to be a special hero who long ago gave up normal professions because being an all-around great guy is your vocation, but since that’s mostly what I want to play I’m not offended. Within the system limits I was able to design the character I wanted and one that fit the campaign. Reskinning didn’t hurt.

Expectation: Challenge Rating isn’t nearly the hard number it was before. Players can reasonably fight monsters with a wide level range.

Actual: This is probably the design decision about which I was most excited, and I’m happy to say it panned out. At a party of four L8 characters, we fought L5 monsters and felt like we were legitimately threatened. We also fought a L13 monster and, thanks to some lucky rolls and timely buffs, ruined it. Since accuracy and defenses aren’t level-based we could fight enemies from a broader range and worry more about their abilities and tactics than their hard numbers.

I’m both happy and disappointed to say playing 5E felt a lot like I thought it would, happy because I was right but disappointed because I wanted to be pleasantly surprised. Like 4E I doubt 5E will become my game of choice but it excels at a particular type of game feel, and now I have a better idea of what that feel is going in so I can prepare myself mentally. I could see going for 5E when I want to run something quieter, without the spectacle of 3E or Pathfinder, and it might even be the right system for the In Over Your Head campaign I’ve been tossing around for a few years. But I don’t see myself moving the Eight Arms setting to it any time soon.

Posted in D&D 5th Edition | 1 Comment