Monday, September 22, 2014

Addendum to my Review of 5e's MM

There are a few bits of coolness in 5e’s MM I forgot to mention yesterday. First are lairs. Many monsters has a special “lair actions.” These special actions don’t count towards the usual limit of actions a monster has and happen on initiative count 20 (though after any tying initiatives). Most are just extra attacks:

A cloud of swarming insects fills a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point the [black] dragon chooses… Any creature in the cloud when it appears must make… a DC15 Constitution saving throw, taking 10 (3d6) piercing damage on a failed save...

A lot also knock people prone. Many are clearly designed to give a single monster a fighting chance against the focused alpha strikes PCs will (wisely) unleash against “legendary” monsters. Some are suitably creepy and atmospheric, such as eyes opening on solid surfaces in a beholder’s lair to fire off an extra eye-ray attack, or walls suddenly sprouting “grasping appendages.”

These legendary monsters also create “regional effects.” These are very similar to the sorts of things that precede the attacks of the dragons or the arrival of the monsters in Raphael Chandler’s Teratic Tome. These range from the atmospheric to the mechanical. Some look fairly lame on the surface of things: the first time you enter a demi-lich’s lair you take 16 points of necrotic damage, a sum that will certainly keep out the riff-raff, but barely serves to slow down a party of adventurers over 4th level. On the other end of things, they can make otherwise mundane encounters far more interesting. For instance, the terrain around a blue dragon’s lair can develope dangerous hidden sinkholes. Rodents and birds within a mile of a green dragon’s lair serve as its eyes and ears. Kraken can control the weather within 6 miles of their lairs.

These are both cool ideas and, frankly, I wouldn’t object to extending them to more monsters than got them. Those of you who enjoy playing with mythic-underworld dungeons might even want to come up with lists for orcs, goblins, and similar humanoid manifestations of the evil that lurks where the sun never reaches.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

5e's Monster of a Manual

It’s thick; at 352 pages it’s just noticeably thicker than the the PHB. And it’s full of monsters! (I know: shock and surprise.)

All the standards are represented: dragons both metallic and chromatic (but not gem), giants from hill to storm (plus ettins and formorian), goblinoids from kobold to bugbear, orcs, gnolls, skeletons and zombies and wraiths and vampires, elementals, genies, angels, devils, demons, slaad (and yugoloths!), non-insecty lamia and snakes-made-of-water weirds.

It appears the authors have defaulted to older versions of monsters, as exemplified by the lamia (a move in the right direction) and the water weird (which wasn’t so much). With incubi/succubi, they split the difference and separated them from both devils and demons, making them the independent contractors of the nether-realms.

There are also numerous quotes in the margins referencing classic D&D stuff. Count Strahd, Emirikol the Chaotic, the Temple of Elemental Evil, Acererak, Iggwilv, House Orien (from Eberron), and Undermountain all get shout-outs in the margin notes.

Modrons up to the pentadrone are in the book. The classic demon lords are named and briefly described, but not statted. Beyond Asmodeus, the devils don’t get nearly so much attention (and the hierarchy appears to be the one described in Cook’s Book of Vile Darkness, with Geryon, Malagard, and Moloch all deposed).

It’s not quite the 2e Monstrous Manual. Most creatures get a full-page write-up, but a lot more of that page is taken up with art and the stat block. Still, we do get a few interesting tidbits about each critter, though there’s some blatant padding as well, such as being told multiple times in the aboleth entry about how they remember being defeated by the gods in ancient times. If you’ve got a copy of the 2e book, keep it handy; it remains the best source of monster-based inspiration-fuel yet for D&D.

There are some rather interesting back-and-forth call outs from one monster to another. There’s an intriguing triangle developed between the efreet, salamanders, and the azer, for instance. Graz’zt gets mentioned a lot. Don’t be surprised if he’s central to the plot in organized play in 2015.

There’s a surprising number of monsters that don’t actually die when killed. In addition to vampires, demons, devils, and similar that we expect that sort of behavior from, rakshasa and naga also come back after being slain. Expect to see these as lieutenants and Big Bads that show up later in a chain of adventures, bearing a grudge and with more friends to put the hurt on the PCs.

Like the PHB, the art is very much a mixed bag. Also like the PHB, some of the best stuff is the environmental pieces. Among the best creature illustrations are the hunting pseudodragon, the trippy myconids, the colorful adult salamander, the disturbing piercer, and the amazing harpy.

Unlike the PHB, there’s a distinct lack of multiculturalism in the book. Most of the monsters, especially the humanoids, are wearing tamer versions of 3e’s dungeon-punk stylings, with more restrained bandage-wrappings and shorter spikes on their pauldrons. Even the monsters that you’d expect to be flaunting exotic cultural trappings, like the oni and kenku (who’ve lost all traces of their hawkish beginnings and are now fully crow-ish) look decidedly plain in their simple tunics and hoods and robes.

There’s an annoying amount of soft focus, sometimes taken to extremes. The picture that opens the drow entry is so soft-focused you can barely make out the figures, and facial-features are non-existent. It’s a technique whose time has come, gone, and seriously needs to be retired.

Some critters have small black-and-white studies accompanying their full-color art, and there’s never been a better example of how ubiquitous color has not improved RPG books. The black-and-white sketches are nearly universally superior to their color brethren in life, creativity, detail and playfulness. See especially the delightful running otyugh at the bottom of page 8 for an excellent example of what I mean.

The organization is more than a little puzzling, and I suspect it was done more with an eye towards making things easy for the layout team than it was with making things easier for the DM. Each entry is divided into two parts: a write-up that’s well organized into useful paragraphs summed up with a quick phrase in bold letters and a stat-block. So far, this is great, and works really well for most monsters. Things get a bit wonky, however, when you get a monster type that includes lots of individual critters. In that case, the written descriptions are grouped together and then the stat-blocks and illustrations are grouped together. This puts the werewolf’s written description on page 207 and its stat-block on page 211. The worst offender might be the erinyes, with five pages between the description and the stat-block.

Things really fall apart with Appendix A: Miscellaneous Creatures. What’s in Appendix A? We are told:

This appendix contains statistics for various animals, vermin, and other critters. The stat blocks are organized alphabetically by creature name.

So what’s actually there? Lots of normal animals, giant animals and a weirdly random smattering of classic monsters like blink dogs, winter wolves, blood hawks, flying snakes, phase spiders, and worgs. Plus, the sea horse.

Yes, the sea horse. Since it’s listed as being a “tiny beast” I assume they mean the little curl-tailed critter, and not some fabulous combination of fish and equine. Why is it there? Damned if I know. (Is summoning a single sea horse part of some druid spell?)

But wait, it gets worse, because these creatures are listed in alphabetical order and not by creature type. This means the giant constrictor snake is next to the giant crab and nowhere near the giant poisonous snake. The giant spider is on page 328, the giant wolf spider is on page 330, the phase spider is on page 334, and the just-plain spider is on page 337. If you’re building a spider-themed dungeon and just want a full list of all the spiders, sorry buddy, you’re SOL. Even the index in the back lists them alphabetically, which means if you don’t know to look for the giant wolf spider, you’re likely to miss it entirely. Nor are there any wandering encounter tables from which you could crib a list.

In short, Appendix A appears to be a collection of critters they wanted to include stats for but didn’t want to do full-page writeups on. A few get art. For the most part, all you get is the stat-block, with four to five critters on each page. It’s a mess, and unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, good luck finding anything.

It nearly ruins the whole thing for me. If I didn’t have a group of 5e players very much enjoying the game described in the PHB, the MM might have soured me to 5e. As a DM who often builds adventures by flipping through the MM for inspiration, this mess is going to prove deeply suboptimal. Still, much can be salvaged by publishing a horde of good, themed random encounter tables, lists of monsters by challenge rating (there’s none in the MM), and a better organized index.

ADDENDUM: First, I forgot to talk about two bits of coolness in MM, which are lair powers and environmental effects from the monsters themselves. I rectify that in another post.

Second, WotC has published a PDF version of the index of monsters by challenge rating. This is good to see, and would be great if they included the page number these critters appear on in the MM. This list is from the upcoming DMG.

Friday, September 05, 2014

From the 5orcer's 5croll: Actions

I’ll admit, I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to any sort of in-combat action economy. Typically, no matter what the system is, I give players a move, an action (drink the potion, hack the computer, shoot the stormtrooper), and that’s it unless something odd comes up. And I’m always willing to toss even that out the window if it seems to make sense to do so.

This works with most games and in most groups I’ve played, but I could absolutely see it breaking down as sub-optimal, as it did when running The Lost City this past Labor Day. The PCs were fighting a gang of ghouls. The PCs got the ghouls in a narrow doorway, where only two could fight at a time. When the PCs got a bit worn down, they’d rotate out and let in fresh fighters.

Now, by strict 5e rules, the ghouls should have gotten opportunity attacks on them. What’s interesting, if you look at opportunity attacks, is that opportunity attacks are a subset of actions called reactions. And you only get one reaction until you take your next turn. So each ghoul would only get to make a single opportunity attack until their own turn returned.

More than that, if they used that opportunity attack, they’d not be able to take advantage of any other opportunities for either opportunity attacks or any other kind of reaction until their turn came around again. This means sometimes it makes more sense to ignore an opportunity attack if you know something better is coming along.

As an added wrinkle, some spells can be cast as reactions, meaning it really behooves certain spell-slingers to hold back and wait for the right opportunity if they think it’ll come up.

A lot of the same things can be said about bonus actions. Lots of things, but most especially class abilities, can give you bonus actions. You take a bonus action on your turn, mixing it up with your move action and your other action. However, as Mearls made a point of saying at GenCon, you only get a bonus action if something gives it to you and you can only take one. Mutliclassing and spells that grant you multiple bonus actions really only give you lots of options to pick from, but you still only get to pick one.

Which again keeps things simple and more interesting. You have to pick when to fire these special actions off, because you only get one each, and once you use ‘em you can’t again until your turn comes back around. This means a single player shouldn’t be hogging up lots of time by taking action after action on their turn. It may mean preparing to help someone through analysis paralysis, however. In the main, I think keeping things simple like this is good, but then, I like my combats short and sweet. As in all things, YMMV.

Monday, September 01, 2014

5ecrets of the Lost City

For Labor Day weekend, I ran an all-day session of B4: Secrets of the Lost City for a fairly large group. We had dimensional clones of the feral half-elf ranger and snooty elf bard from my Tuesday game, a dragonborn druid (who could have potentially derailed the adventure before it began if we’d had a proper understanding of how her spells worked) and a dragonborn fighter, a halfling rogue who’d been raised as a boy and was now rebelling by wallowing in all things pink, a gnome wizard, and a fey-uplifted anthropomorphic corgi bard (with a 20 charisma!!!). Near the end of the adventure, they were joined by a cleric tour-guide from one of the local cults. This was a HUGE group for me (I usually run between 3 and 5) but things ran smoothly and most of the combats moved along at a good clip.

Spoilers for the adventure follow, so you should probably stop here before reading further if that's a thing for you.

B4 was written by Tom Moldvay who also authored X2: Castle Amber. Where X2 is unabashedly inspired by the writing of Clark Ashton Smith, B4 is a bit more subtle in being influenced by Robert E. Howard’s Red Nails.

The default hook for B4 is that the PCs were part of a caravan crossing a desert, got separated from the rest in a sandstorm, and stumble across the pyramid while searching for food and water. This hook works poorly if there are any clerics in the group (who can create up to 20 gallons of water each per day) and utterly falls apart if there’s a druid who can cast goodberry. 5e is most definitely not a game about logistics.

You can, of course, use a different hook, but the starving one works so well to give the PCs a sense of urgency that it’s a shame when you can’t use it. Of course, if the PCs’ gods want them to go into the pyramid…

Most of the pyramid is built around the kinda-sorta four-way battle between four cults. Gorm, god of justice (who only accepts male fighters as full members), Madarua, goddess of birth, death, and changing seasons (who only accepts female fighters as full members) and Usamigaras, god of healing, messengers, and thieves (who favors spell-slingers but is pretty much accepting of everyone) are kinda-sorta aligned against relative newcomer Zargon, a tentacle horror worshipped as a god who lives at the lowest level of the pyramid. However, the three cults of the old gods spend most of their time fighting each other, leaving Zargon to rule the local roost.

This conflict is the best part of the adventure. It’s relatively easy for the PCs to join one of the original three cults (and encouraged, since the cults are really the only way for the PCs to resupply during this adventure). Usamigaras’ representative in the pyramid, “stout Auriga Sirkinos,” makes an excellent villain for the upper levels, especially since the first group the PCs will almost certainly meet will be the followers of Gorm.

(Technically, the PCs could join the cult of Zargon, but this is discouraged by the adventure. Still, this could take the game in some interesting directions and would work well for an evil party or one that’s built around infiltrating their foes and destroying them from the inside. Also, it’s not assumed the PCs will all join the same cult, though some of them joining the cult of Zargon will almost certainly result in the party being split, and create all sorts of headaches for the DM.)

Unfortunately, the way the upper-most levels are designed, the players can be excused for thinking they’re in some sort of random, fun-house dungeon. They could spend the entire first session fighting fire beetles, stirges, sprites (who flee out a cartoon-esque tiny door near the ceiling if pressed hard), and giant centipedes before they even discover that the place is inhabited by humans. By the time they encounter the giant bees guarding the treasury of the Brotherhood of Gorm, they’re likely to think that giant bees guarding a treasure is just par for the random-dungeon course.

So if you do run this, I’d play up the inhabited feel of the place: the way the statues on the roof still function and have been recently oiled, the resetting of the traps, things like that. Encourage the mystery of this seemingly lost ruin being inhabited.

Unfortunately, the PCs can get involved in the conflict by the time they’ve reached the 10th room in the key. Yeah, I know, I’m being inconsistent here: first I complain that it takes too long to find the interesting inter-cult conflict, and now I complain it comes too soon. Here’s my issue: by the time the PCs get involved in the cults, they have much more entertaining things to do than explore the other 90-or-so keyed locations in the pyramid. Sure, you could send the PCs on various quests inside the pyramid on behalf of their patron cult(s), but there’s more fun to be had in the underground city beneath the pyramid.

This weekend’s game did just that: presented with priests of Zargon who claimed that the PCs were the answer to ancient prophecy, they willingly followed them to the promised hidden city because hidden underground cities sound cool. Only the top two tiers of the pyramid were explored. The rest of the time they spent liberating treasures from the mausoleums on the Island of the Dead. That part is only suggested by a few lines near the back of the book and a broad map of the underground city that’s very much lacking in detail.

Like D3: Vault of the Drow, there’s a lot of cool stuff in B4 that’s implied but left to the DM to really flesh out. Beyond professional rivalry, what’s up with the conflict between the old cults? Do they each have a competing plan for ridding themselves of Zargon? Or do they just assume Zargon’s part of their lives forever now? What, exactly, is the source of the craziness of the citizens of the underground city? How are the different factions likely to respond to the actions of the PCs?

If you’re going to run this one, don’t spend too much time pouring over the lower levels of the pyramid, but do spend some time working out the details for the four factions. Do figure out what they might want from the PCs and how they’ll react to the chaos the PCs wreak. Do spend some time working out the details of the underground city. If your players are at all the sort to chat with the people they come across and not attack everything that moves, they’re likely to become a lot more interested in the Lost City and its secrets than they are in delving the pyramid’s decidedly deadly dungeon.