Category Archives: Tabletop Gaming

Post Mortem – Running The Tomb of Annihilation

This is a post mortem about my experience running the 5th edition D&D module Tomb of Annihilation.

If you’re a player who may experience this as a campaign, don’t read this post, since it will contain spoilers for the module.

If you are a DM who is considering running the module, you might find this post useful. If you have no interest in running or playing the module, you might still find it interesting, though not entirely comprehensible. If you’re one of my players, this is safe to read as this doesn’t contain any spoilers for anything you haven’t seen yet. It may also shed some light on things that might have been confusing during play. If you’ve already played or ran the module, this is (probably) also safe to read, and I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about how you did things differently or whether you think my critiques are off base or not.

First, some background: I ran the ToA with an advance copy provided by Wizards of the Coast. I had a slight head start on some players in running and prepping this, though it was officially released a few months after our campaign started live streaming it. My players are mixed: some very experienced, some only somewhat experienced. A couple have been playing D&D for a very long time. I have one player who playing in his first campaign, and another who is playing 5e for the first time but has previously played 3.5.

Fifth Edition has proven to be a great D&D edition for me and my group. Let me preface that by saying I was quite fond of 4th ed and did not like 3.5 very much. That puts me in a minority. A minority of very smart people with excellent taste, mind you, but a minority nonetheless, so when you read this, you might want to keep my tastes in mind.

Spoilers below the jump.

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Cooking with Dungeons & Dragons (2)

Following up on my previous adventures, I’m cooking recipes from Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home when my D&D group comes over to play.

This month I just cooked one recipe – the first one in the recipe book – Gully Dwarf Stew!

Gully Dwarf Stew calls for a lizard, because Gully Dwarves, but adds that you can substitute beef. I did, and a lot of it, because I had a whole party of adventurers to feed! The recipe itself is really simple… just toss a lot of stuff in a pot and cook it. The instructions are written in a kind of cutesy way though (again, because Gully Dwarves). As you can see from the header image, before cooking, it looks really lovely and colorful!


After cooking, it breaks down a lot. It was a very delicious stew and the group responded really well to it!

I made two changes to the recipe as written – I used a carton of beef stock instead of water + bullion, since that’s how I roll. I also dropped one potato, because the stew seemed really full with just two in there. They do disintegrate a lot, though, so adding three as instructed might not really be a terrible idea.

Yum! We have no D&D game in October, so I’ll post more later. We’re also planning a nerdy Thanksgiving feast this year (to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day, naturally). Looks like it’s time to add a food category to my blog…

Cooking with Dungeons & Dragons

We’ve started a new D&D campaign at home. I’m not the GM this time, which frees me up to do lots of other projects and just play along.

Last week I looked on my bookshelf and realized I still had a nicely worn copy of Leaves from the Inn of the Last Home, a this-and-that miscellaneous guide to the D&D world of Dragonlance. The book contains music, short stories, poetry, and — critically — recipes, in a chapter called “Tika’s Cookbook.” I recall that when I was younger, all but the simplest recipes were dismissed as too tricky for a preteen to cook. There were a lot in there that I hadn’t tried. Now that I’m fully grown, have my own kitchen, and I’m having people over once a month for D&D… why not give this stuff a shot?

Hence, my new miniature project: cooking my way slowly through the recipes from The Last Home. (And the other books like it, if I can find them.) So here is a journey through “wow, is this book really more than 20 years old?”

This week for the D&D group I cooked:

Fizban’s Fireball Chili

If you think about it at all, Fizban is the worst sort of D&D character. He’s “the GM’s NPC,” a character who is both simultaneously all-powerful and can do anything, but also hilariously bumbling, so he gets himself into scrapes just so the PCs have to do something about it, but it’s actually clear he could have handled it himself all along if he’d felt like it because he’s basically god. Sorry, spoilers.

The chili named after him is supposed to taste like a fireball.

The dish actually isn’t complex; it merely takes time. Get a bunch of stew meat, dump a list of spicy ingredients on the meat, and marinade for about two days. Then stew. It kind of looks like a big red pot of Hell at first.


I didn’t follow the recipe exactly, because it calls for an entire jar of Tabasco for every pound of meat. I was tripling the recipe, and only scared up two jars of Tabasco. I substituted the rest with Frank’s Red Hot and also added about a tablespoon of chili powder instead of just paprika. Later, I realized I also had some fresh jalapeño and half a yellow onion sitting around. The original recipe had no vegetables in it, but onions and peppers are great in chili so in they went.


After marinating it looked appetizing. After stewing it basically disintegrated, so it didn’t look as attractive, but it was very good. It was, however, a bit too hot for some guests (hubby and I thought it was just right, but we’re used to Indian food). The suggested serving is to put it on flatbread with a bit of sour cream and this turned out quite well.

Still, since I made some changes, I didn’t quite exactly make Fizban’s Fireball Chili. Oh well, I made a tasty thing. Fizban is a dumb character anyway.

I also made

(Kender) Kiffles

This is a type of fruit-filled cookie that is actually more like a miniature hand-pie. I’m not reproducing any recipes for copyright reasons, but, if you can get your hands on the book these are a high recommend. The basic step is to make a pie dough, then fill it with fruit jelly. I chose apricot and blackberry and both were terrific. I think the recipe would even work with other pie fillings like lemon curd or chocolate pudding.


A couple warnings about the recipe – it says to refrigerate the dough “2 hours or overnight.” I went with overnight and found it really hard to work the next day. I understand the point of chilling a butter-based dough, but maybe the two hours is just fine. Or leave it out on the counter for an hour or so before trying to work it. It’s super stiff and hard to roll out when very cold.

The recipe says it makes five dozen cookies, but either that’s a typo, or the original authors rolled these out much thinner than I did. I was lucky to get about two and a half dozen. Fortunately, this was enough for my group.  I did make mine slightly larger than recommended (I have a 3.5 inch rather than 3 inch round cookie cutter) but it still seemed like a big discrepancy.


Thanks for joining me on this small interlude about some of my other hobbies. Gaming and Cooking for the win!

If you got this far, don’t forget to check my Events calendar for updates today. Tomorrow I’m speaking at Philly Game Works! I’ll also be at PennApps again this year!

Leaving for Origins!

Tomorrow we’re taking off for the Origins Game Fair in Columbus!

How exciting is this: this year I’m going to be DMing a couple of sessions with Rogue Cthulhu! I love playing in their games every year, and this year I’ve finally got the courage to run my own!

But you don’t need me to make posts about my travel anymore. As you can see, I’ve added a handy Events Page to show you where I’ll be. Just check it out here: SecondTruth Events

Tabletop Games I Have Played: D&D Next

Lately for lack of a home-game proper, I’ve been playing the newest D&D Next playtest with some friends.

To get the early stuff out of the way: I like it, generally. I’m running it with the Temple of Elemental Evil that it was released with which is not, strictly, a “proper” new module and relies a lot of conversion on-the-fly. Combat is a bit less interesting due to a variety of oldschool monsters who, at low levels, really only have one or two tricks, but it’s appropriately deadly. An interesting thing about the way things seem to be balanced is you do not have a lot of hit points, but, the monsters miss, mostly. So if you are hit, it might be a big problem, but the actual situation where that happens a lot is rare.
I started a thread on the D&D Next Facebook group to this general effect, but I also mentioned the following points, which are all true:
  • I like first and second editions.
  • I liked fourth edition.
  • I’m not a big fan of third and especially 3.5, which is probably my least-favorite D&D edition.
This is a kind of weird opinion. It doesn’t have much to do with the books or their layout or the modules written. Some cool people worked on D&D 3.5 and I respect their work. It’s just that, after playing 3.5 a lot – and I’m sure I’ve actually played it more than I’ve played any other edition – I discovered that I wasn’t having much fun. 
It’s entirely possible that I reached the point where the game was dull for me because I’d finally mastered it, or, that I just didn’t like the sorts of adventures DMs were running (though I played in both home and living campaigns, published modules and not). 
But something did occur to me today. In addition to the complaints on the Facebook page, I’m also frequently linked to the twitter feed Grognards.TXT, which is largely characterized by people complaining about 4E. Really, the nature of the complaints people have about 4E are a mixture of truth and not-truth about the game. There’s a certain color of complaint that goes like this: “they just made it into a CCG and dumbed it down for newbies.” I see it a lot, but it really doesn’t feel true to someone who has actually played the game and realized it’s pretty tactical. But it certainly feels true if you aren’t playing the game, and just reading the source material. D&D4 has things about it that I don’t really like (skill challenge system just slows things down and feels clunky compared to combat, always gets homeruled or tweaked somehow), but “dumbed down” isn’t really one of them.
Then it occurred to me that maybe the people complaining about the game aren’t really playing the game. And here is a big flaw in D&D4 that I never considered really: Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is not much fun to not play. And that’s absolutely a valid complaint, in a way.
A lot of people enjoy the metagame of tabletop games. Rather than playing the game they like to discuss game strategy, develop items and creatures, and, especially, create broken characters using the game systems. D&D 3.5 was a particularly fun game for this non-player player because by the end of its life cycle, the sheer volume of different prestige classes and other content that you could toss onto a character made the game feel hugely imaginative and open. Not everyone has time to actually play, or a group that they can reliably count on to play with them. But many people enjoy the metagame as a solo activity, and 3.5 is very accommodating for that.
However, when you got down to the table and were actually playing, I always felt very limited in what my character could actually do at any given moment. As a full ranger, my best bet was to always, always, use Multishot. In theory I had a lot of options – an animal companion, a short spell list, a few other arrow tricks – but they were always non-optimal compared to the one thing the character was built to do. That meant that while it was fun to build a character that got to roll all those dice on that one trick, in play, it was very dull. The challenge was absolutely gone from trying to come up with a tactical situation. My husband had a wizard that was very powerful but the results were similar: the end result of hours of focused optimizing meant he had a character who was best off always casting Magic Missile, every single turn. It was fun to design this, but not much fun to play it.
3.5 can be hacked a little to prevent this problem. Notably if you give everyone more skill points, you might allow them to choose a larger variety of skills, and maybe then they will have a “second trick” of some sort. I’ve heard of people building jack-of-all-trades type characters in 3.5, but those characters will always under-perform compared to a character who threw all of their eggs into one basket. I’ve also heard that Pathfinder is better and fixed all the problems (but I’m not sure, because I was done with 3.5 when 4 came out).
But all of this brings me around to Next, which is I guess an interesting hybrid.
To be honest, Next feels like first edition, mixed with a little of fourth. The symmetry between Next and First is obvious if you consider that it runs fine with a mostly-unaltered Gygax module from AD&D. The fourth edition stuff is more subtle: more hit points for starting characters, a lot of potential healing during rest and downtime, general hacks to make characters a little more heroic and survivable. There’s some 3.5 innovations in there too – mostly on the cleric, which feels a lot like a third edition cleric (meaning if you have more than say two of them in your party things are going to get broken fast, and I could probably write another entire article about the 3.5 cleric). I’m sure a second edition module would also mostly run fine in Next (provided you remembered to flip the armor classes to eliminate THAC0 calculations).
First Edition D&D can sometimes be frustrating to play, which is something that Next (can we call it 5E?) is trying to eliminate by making characters hardier. But one thing about First Edition is that it has an interesting metagame, which I would describe thusly:
AD&D is fun to talk about… after you have played it. 
That makes it different from 3.5, which is a lot of fun to talk about before you’ve actually played it, and 4E, which is… sort of fun to talk about after playing, but a lot less random. The stories that you’re going to have from a 4E campaign mainly relate to if the DM comes up with some really interesting content for you to crawl through, rather than something that happened in the game itself. It is in fact more videogamey in that one way.
Actual play generates the most interesting stories when the players do something unexpected. Oldschool runs really easy on the fly, leaving room open for this. Fourth Edition runs pretty tightly, so while there is certainly room for players doing an unexpected thing (and I do have stories), it’s less flexible in that regard. Next runs a lot more like oldschool.
I think players will like the 5E metagame, but it has one critical flaw in that it’s only a good metagame if you’ve played the real game first. That means it’s tough to judge the game from just reading it. So I’ve actually played Next, and I think you should too! Anyone can download the mostly-complete game materials. The organization isn’t great, so I like running from a PDF where I can easily search the document for what I’m looking for. If you’ve tried it, feel free to leave comments with what you like and don’t like about Next, but let’s not have the 3.5/4E edition wars happen here again if possible. Already dealing with that on Facebook.

A Day of Horror Games at Origins

So I’m at Origins this week! Great convention, lots of neat people to meet, learn from, new games to try, etc. I feel bad for writing something that’s about to sound like a complaint. It isn’t really. I don’t know what it counts as, exactly. But here goes.

Sexual violence trigger warning. Sorry if this is uncomfortable to read.

Call of Cthulhu is one of my standard go-to con games because it does well in the format, and I played a couple rounds yesterday, along with a game based on the Birds of Prey TV series.

My friends and I were comparing notes after the day about the various events we’d checked out, talking about our personal stories and so-on, and a friend asked, “Hey, did you realize that every game you played in today had a rape or a rape threat?”

Whoa, actually, I hadn’t. Come to think of it, it was usually to my character, too.

And I’m not sure what was weirder about that: the fact that doing a couple rounds of horror gaming means: a couple rounds of attempted rape, or the fact that I didn’t even pick up on that pattern.

Because maybe I’m shouldering part of the psychological blame. I like to play horror games. I like to play female characters. I was wearing a skirt (at the con, in person). I was like, I dunno, askin’ for it, right?

Upon further review, I guess I’m a little disappointed, in a numbed sort of way, that I had a character who was hypnotized halfway through a game, failed a luck roll to snap out of it, and then was, essentially, out of the game for several hours, since she had no agency to act at that point. I guess it made an interesting story for others to rescue her. I guess it’s a relief that she wasn’t actually raped while in that state, as that seemed to be the purpose of it, so far as I know.  But it still sorta sucked I guess.

The last round of the day, I was playing a male character, and a big bruiser type at that. Only NPCs got raped! I didn’t pick the guy on person as protection or anything; I just sort of got last-pick at that table.

Then I caught up with my blog feed and maybe it was no coincidence that this article on Kotaku and this one on Critical Damage jumped right out at me. Like: man, what’s up with the rape today? What’s up with the games and rapes, guys?

It’s kinda just something I’m gonna have to deal with, right? Well, I am dealing with it; it had to be pointed out, and that’s spooky too.

Sad to Say, Your Adventures Have Ended Here

My primary gaming computer suffered an unexpected melt-down last week. While I scavenge parts to replace it, I must turn back to the consoles. However, I also have my bi-weekly Dungeons and Dragons game to look forward to.

Yesterday was the first time that an entire party has died at my table. Some GMs would consider this a badge of honor, but for me, since I try to balance encounters fairly, I am not entirely happy with it. The problem was that this particular encounter was simply part of the world, and was set up for the players to encounter much later. They also were down a player, and it might have made the situation a little more tenable had he been around. This combination of problems meant they just weren’t fully prepared to handle the situation they had gotten in to.

Fourth Edition is a little odd in this respect: it’s fairly hard for one player to die, but once one does, others die in rapid succession and this can often cause a full wipe. That means it’s also more difficult for things like resurrections to happen, especially in the heroic tier. I’ve heard a lot of stories about party wipes in 4th Ed, but less stories about just one dramatic death.

Here is the true story of yesterday’s party wipe. I will leave this as a memento, a funny story, and as a word of caution.

The campaign is a water-focused campaign that takes place in a coastal area. The players have access to a ship, where on the water they may encounter pirates, maelstroms, and the occasional Crab Battle. This particular segment of the adventure had taken the players to a coastal swamp created by a river delta. The place was basically inspired by a drive down past the Everglades my husband and I took last year.

The group was actually there seeking out a cult run by Bullywugs. The bullywugs (frog-men) had a key item – an important book – that the group was looking for. The seeds to find their location were sewn by taking down a group of Orcus cultits that had hidden themselves in the coastal down where the PCs were keeping port.  (Aside: honestly, I find the Fourth Edition depictions of the Demongod Orcus to be uninspiring. I liked the guy better when he was a fat slob, possibly with demon babes chained to him. Now that he’s gotten on the steroids, he seems less interesting. Nevertheless, I had a party member – an Avenger of Bahamut – who was gung-ho to take him down. So I had worked his cult in to the campaign, to some degree.)

The party was adventuring through the swamp when they passed by a suspicious, dark-looking pool. As I made a point of drawing this on the map along with other terrain features, a player responded that he was guessing there might be a Black Dragon ambush in this adventure. So much for that being a surprise, but he was right on. The Black Dragon was a Young Black, a level 4 solo, which was an even-level encounter for the party. The party didn’t have much of a problem taking him down, though they were a little worn out afterward.

They were surprised to be almost immediately ambushed by Lizardfolk. But the lizardfolk turned out to be from a friendly tribe, and offered them potions and trade. They were happy that the dragon had been killed, as he was an ambush predator that bothered the tribe quite a bit when hunting. However, they also mentioned there was at least one dragon left in the swamp, which was the sire of the dragon they killed. He was older, and the group would be wise to avoid him.

However, my party was used to ignoring warnings like this (though they were usually delivered by villains trying to intimidate them, rather than friendlies). They tried to get some intel about the older dragon by asking lizardfolk, but most of them had not seen him up close. Those that did, didn’t tend to live for long, and the older dragon only hunted at night. Reports varied, the most common one being that he would be about twenty feet stretched out – another lizard said as much as thirty. But none of them could really corroborate this story. (I warned the group out of character that, even an adult Black was still only ‘Size Large’. Size wasn’t necessarily a great indicator since the ‘adult’ years cover a large amount of space. So the party knew the dragon was at least an adult.)

They opted at this point to get a few cloaks made out of the remains of the smaller dragon, so that they could wear it as a trophy. I suppose this is fairly standard D&D party behavior. They were eager to spread the word that they had slain this dragon, and on returning to town, made sure that this was well-known.

Taking down the frog cult involved a large underground dungeon. The party fought the NPC cult leader, a custom-designed Elite that I was rather proud of. He was a horrible bullywug/human mutant, and his primary sins were sloth and gluttony, rather than the wrath that Orcus cultists are known for. Grown lazier as the years went on, he was already mutated by black magic. The result was a creature so fat that he couldn’t walk well under his own power, and instead had conscripted slaves to carry around a massive amphibious raft on which he would sit. This made for a slow escape, and the players successfully navigated the dungeon and wilderness well enough to track down the leader and destroy him.

With his raft seized, and large enough to hold several party members, they felt they were ready to take on the dragon leader. They had pretty good intel about the location of his lair. But I had a player quit right around this time and I had retired his character, so they were down to just four members. The swamp dungeon had taken them to level six. An Adult Black Dragon is a level 11 solo. They were tough, but… not really ready for this.

They sort of knew this was a stupid idea. Throughout the trek, deeper in to the swamp, they were talking about how this was a pretty stupid idea.

This was designed as a fairly bog-standard — pun intentional — black dragon encounter. The dragon had its own lair with two entrances: an underwater one considered the front, and a back door hidden in a muddy hill. The group approached by way of the front entrance, the entrance that they knew about. It was a large, murky, still pond in the swamp.

The party had confiscated the Frogman’s raft. The party Avenger got on to the raft and moved out to the center of the swamp, wearing the black dragon cloak. He yelled in to the pool that he had slain the son and was here for the father… while the rest of the party tried to hide in ambush.

One does not get to be 500 years old and fall for obvious tricks like this. Uthazog the Black did not care much for going out in to broad daylight to do any such thing. (He was annoyed, but ultimately if one’s offspring underestimates a well-armed group, it was the offspring’s fault for thinking they would be easy prey. Black dragons are not really loving parents.) He decided to wait.

One of two things at this point had to happen: either the party would have to advance in to his lair themselves, or, they would back off for a while. The second plan would have involved a rest in the swamp, and if they waited the night, the dragon could ambush them under cover of darkness. This might have been slightly more advantageous than going in to his lair, because they would still have the option of retreat.

However, the noise they were making here caught the attention of a small party of hostile lizardfolk. They said the dragon was their tribe leader, and the adventurers should leave now if they knew what was good for them. They tried to attack, but were fairly outmatched. One of the lizardmen laid down his arms and surrendered. He made an offer out of cowardice: he would show them the secret back entrance to the lair. There were traps, but he knew how to get around them (this was a regular trip for lizardfolk, who would bring gifts to the dragon). He also mentioned some guards: these were actually kobolds, who were the ones who constructed the traps. (I rarely use kobolds, for reasons that would require a rant. I suspect the group might have expected something worse here. But the danger of any kobold group is the traps they set, not the kobolds themselves.)

The party avenger used Bond of Pursuit on the lizardman. It was a power he had been waiting to try out. Essentially, as long as he maintained it, he would always know where that lizardman was, which should make it easy to follow him to the secret entrance. Then he told the lizard to go, and they would meet up with him there after a short rest.

The lizardman ran off in to the swamp.

The avenger then said that they were going to go for a frontal assault.

This was a bit of a surprise to me, but his logic was this: if the back entrance had guards, they would all be preparing now for the group to come in that way, so, by going in the front, they should only encounter the dragon now.

Sound enough, but going in through the front involved swimming down in to the entrance, which was a deep, murky pond. It was difficult to see and they weren’t sure how much swimming it would involve.

So, by not securing another exit, they had no means of escape. They were also going to be outmaneuvered easily by the dragon, who had a fast swim speed, and they would have to hold their breath often.

It was a bad plan.

Nevertheless, the situation looked possible, at first. There were a few patches of dry cave in the lair, including the one where the dragon kept his treasure, which is where the fight eventually migrated to. The dragon dropped a cloud of darkness here, which made the “hard to hit” AC 28 beast now next to impossible for the blinded group.

The party got the dragon down to its last 100 HP before members started dropping. At this point, they were out of powers, the dragon was out of powers, and everyone was using basic at-wills. Near the end, I started to feel bad, but I was rolling attack rolls out in the open because they were so critical. I admit that out of pity I nerfed a few damage rolls at the wire, but there was no way for them to pull it out… and no real line of retreat, either, unless they wanted to swim away from a faster, more maneuverable beast.

Lesson learned for the party: when enemies give warnings, they may just be boasting, but when allies give warnings, take heed. Lesson learned for me: be careful which adventure hooks I drop when, as the players I have are going to be going for whichever one sounds more challenging…

Incidentally, no one was mad about the fight going sour. They felt they had plenty of warning that this was probably out of their reach, and they acted a bit too cocky about their odds of success. Since we’re going to take probably a month and a half off for con season, at this point, it’s a good time for them to put together a new party. And maybe some day get their revenge.

The World of D&D is Changing Again

Everyone’s talking about it! Dungeons and Dragons made the New York Times today. They’ll be making another edition.

I haven’t written about tabletop gaming in a while, but I have mentioned in the past that… despite the contentious divide, I like Fourth Edition. I think it did a lot of things right.
I’d love to talk about this in the actual WotC group, but it’s (unsurprisingly) having some technical issues. So, from the perspective of someone who has been running D&D4 home campaigns since, basically, it was introduced, here’s what I like about D&D4 and here’s where I find it lacking.
Stuff I Like!
  • Tactical Combat. Mages and Fighter-types who generally level up together and are on the same keel together and can stand toe-to-toe together at all levels. Everyone being able to participate in most every situation.
  • Streamlined monster creation. It’s easy to modify the monsters. Useful because I want to run different kinds of encounters and creatures.
  • Streamlined skills list. There’s not much chance you’ll pick a “bad” skill you’ll never use, which was a big problem in 3.5. Plus many types of characters didn’t have the skill points to get around.
  • Nerfed multi-classing. This was stupid-broken in 3.5, and you had to take multiple classes just to get a basic character worth using. If one person was doing it, everyone at the table had to do it. Some people say “they like the options,” but I’d rather have the options in-play as opposed to staring at six different books trying to optimize for a prestige class before play even begins.
Now, here’s the stuff I don’t really like. Oops! It turned out to be a long list.
  • Streamlined skills list may be a little too streamlined. My current campaign is a nautical one with a boat, and pirates! I’ve always wanted to run a campaign like this, and based on yesterday’s players vs pirates ship battle, it was a pretty good idea. But I’ve run in to a problem: no skill for sailing! I’ve had to settle for Nature, Perception, Athletics checks because I didn’t think to house-rule in a sailing skill. I may still end up doing this later. At any rate, skills for Handle Animal, Sailing, and other professional skills need to return to the game in some capacity, because the ones I’m using don’t feel right to me. And sometimes you need to know if, for example, your ship crashes in to the pirate ship, or if you manage to turn it about.
  • While we’re at it, more support for non-combat stuff in general. In my previous campaign, my players wanted to train a baby hippogriff. This is not actually the kind of thing that would be an uncommon occurance in a D&D game, but unsurprisingly, there’s no rules for this kind of thing. I ended up having to poach from 3.5 to find any information on how someone would do this. I still have all my 3.5 books, but there’s no reason this kind of flavor couldn’t be in 4e.
  • Skill Challenges. The 4e book would suggest using a Skill Challenge to do basically… anything that isn’t combat, such as the aforementioned hippogriff training. “Run it as a skill challenge” is, I am sure, what the advice for training the ‘griff would be. But skill challenges are… sort of wiggly. I ran two of them yesterday: one for keeping the boat steady during a magically-created storm, and one for researching the activities of a cult the group found a symbol for. They were fine. I think everyone had a good time. But since the group is currently level 3, I have two options for how to write a skill challenge: either write it at the top of the old sub-tier, where challenges are based on a group between levels 1-3, and thus really easy for a level 3 group, or, run the DCs at level 4-6, where the challenges are hard, and give XP appropriately. I chose the latter. Perhaps predictably, the group did not fail. After the (very early) skill challenge errata that happened for the original DMG, it’s near-impossible for a group to fail a skill challenge. The DCs are too easy. Prior to the errata, it was nearly impossible to succeed, instead. These were never playtested, or at least, were playtested too little and not rigorously. Incidentally, even if skill challenges are a designed part of the game-as-written, it’s sort of annoying that I always have to write them myself. The only other option is to search through years of D&D on-line magazines and other things to find the “correct” one, at which point I might discover it’s at the wrong level for my group (sorry, you can’t encounter a storm at sea until you are level 8 or 9).
  • Level tiers. Sorry, I do like to start at the beginning, so I typically run in the Heroic Tier. The idea that everything magically jumps in to a new difficulty at level 11 is a little strange to me. There’s no reason the progression needs these big leaps all at the same place like that.
  • Points-of-Light is a pretty milquetoast and non-committal setting. I see that they’re trying to just make the setting as accessible as possible, so people can get right in to the game, but the flavor of PoL is kind of weak. In my old campaign, I resolved this by… redoing a lot of it. I changed the gods to my own pantheon with more individual personal flavor, eliminated a few class/race opportunities, added some very basic politics, and never used “The Shadowfell.” In my current campaign I’m running PoL basically as written. I still think the default gods and demons are bland, and I’m always looking for ways I can spice them up and make them more than just “good vs evil.” I get that some people want that. But most D&D players are adults, and are not really interested in Saturday Morning Cartoon type villainy where evil is evil just because. It’s more fun to write bad guys with some motivation, not just “they are evil because Shadowfell.” Yes, it’s more fun to write interesting villains even if my players are just going to chop them up. Yes, there’s also a place – a big place – for stuff with no personality to just be chopped up. But you need both, I feel.
  • Lots of weird and unfamiliar races and classes. I dunno; it feels like some of these were just added to sell splats. I get Tiefling and Dragonborn and think they’re both pretty cool starting races. We have a Deva in our current group, which works out okay, except we’re just roleplaying that he’s a very mystical human instead (with a cool body tattoo. I picture him like one of the magic users in Fable II). The main problem with introducing a lot of brand-new races is a problem of lore. When I started my other 4th ed campaign, I had accounted for the possibility of gnomes and half-orcs coming in because I knew they would show up in a later book (PHB2 as it turns out). I hadn’t accounted for the possibility of Goliaths, because…what? This was not a thing.
  • Bizarre design philosophy in the published adventures. This is a long bullet point. I will discuss it later.
I think there’s stuff I wouldn’t change, that other, older gamers would say to “change back,” like the discrepancy between power levels of different classes depending on level. 
I also don’t like the idea of a stronger push for everything to be digital. I never really grabbed on to the idea of playing D&D on-line, and any campaign I played in that was that way didn’t last for very long. I think it’s more fun with people around a table, having a good time exploring a fantasy world together while socializing and having snacks. There’s already a ton of games I can play on-line if I want the “sitting at home at my computer” experience and that is not why I play D&D.
I’m going to be watching these changes eagerly. I honestly hope to be involved in the playtests, because I have an eager group who I’m sure would enjoy breaking in to a new game. I guess we’ll see how the updates come out over time and see how D&D will change from there. Whatever happens, 4th edition will still work fine for my campaign, but I think everyone house-rules it a little here and there.

Tabletop Games I Have Played – Dungeons and Dragons (4th ed)

I really said I shouldn’t be writing, but it is hard to keep me away completely.  Today I’m wearing my Half-Elf scented oil, I’m being asked about drumming up a new campaign, and late summer is about to give way to early fall.  So let’s talk about Dee and Dee; let’s talk about you and me.  Dungeons and Dragons, even as I talk about tabletop games, is a topic I may have to touch on more than once, because Dungeons and Dragons is really multiple different games, depending on various editions and sub-editions.

So, now my confession: I love Dungeons and Dragons, Fourth Edition.

We roll half-elves, haters

But so many people didn’t like it, especially when it first came out, that I feel the need to explain why. I have fond experiences with 3.5 and other editions as well, which I’ll discuss in future installments, but I thought it might be best discuss the version of the game I was currently playing. In this case, I’m not editorializing for the uninitiated, and I’m going to assume you at least have some passing experience with how D&D works. If not, you really should give it a try, and the new edition is a pretty solid entry point in to the hobby.

I almost wanted to preface this with an Epic Meal Time Video, just to announce “This one goes out to all the haters.”  And Fourth Edition D&D really is kind of the “Fast Food Pizza” of D&D editions, isn’t it?  Like you’ve got your Crunchwrap layer there, and your Underdark layer here, and maybe you baked the pizza at home but it’s still got all fast food parts and toppings.

Actually, now that I think about it, the D-and-D-as-pizza metaphor works pretty well in general. You can have it with as many or as few toppings as you like; you can use old standbys or go for more exotic flavors.  You can make all the components yourself, hand-toss the dough and mix the sauces, or you can order the whole thing for delivery and still get a great pie. And having done that, you can eat the pie while playing Dungeons and Dragons, as is tradition.

Fourth Edition is also the most “video game like” of Dungeons and Dragons editions. This is an odd ancestry for such an elder game: a game-design snake eating its own tank-and-spank tail. Dungeons and Dragons begat dnd5. dnd5 begat MUD and MUD begat Diku.  Diku begat EQ; EQ begat WoW, and WoW begat… Dungeons and Dragons.

The “videogameyness” is a common complaint for people who don’t like the feel of Fourth Edition. But in many ways, D&D4 is also D&D returning more to its old wargaming roots: a tactical miniatures game about dungeon exploration, as in contrast to a storytelling engine. You can have both tactical combat and a solid story, though you’ll always have a bias. D&D4 leans tactical, but is also more organized toward pre-ordained stories than “0th edition” was. It has quite linear modules, rather than exploration-based ones, and hero characters are extremely resilient compared to virtually all older editions, meaning you’re far more likely to compose a lengthy personal arc. This makes it ideal for simple heroic stories about derring-do, adventures that might be violent or lighthearted, but are some way related to killing creatures, and taking their stuff.

One thing I like about Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons is the simplified skill system.  The skill system of 3.5 became a little cumbersome, and it was almost necessary to play it as a sub-game: to take that first level of Rogue just to be sure you had enough skill points to go around, to have that point of Craft: Silversmithing just in case your GM needed you to make a Craft: Silversmithing check.  By contrast, D&D4 does away with flavor skills, focusing on a stripped-down list of skills that are almost assured to come up in a game sooner or later. Some people believe this limits their freedom in character creation, by boiling down only a simple list of things that characters can do, but, there’s a simple solution for this. If you believe your character should craft silver or weave baskets or cook porridge, there’s really no need for a skill roll to do those things.  Just include that as flavor text about the character, and then, should it come up, offer to cook breakfast for the party in a casual sort of way.

One thing that’s a shame about Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons, however, is the simplified skill system. Drat. It does depend a lot on the Dungeon Master, after all, to decide which “fluff” skills are correct to allow, and designing a Skill Challenge that works with the system but still feels as interesting as a combat encounter has always proved challenging for me.  To help out, a few hacks are floating around for this, such as this one from D&D designers Mike Mearls and Monte Cook that suggests a different system of handling basic checks. However, when the game first came out, some people insisted skill challenges were just broken, and early-release Fourth Edition errata related to this system didn’t help matters much.

New player races can be cool, though, too

Errata (or “updates,” as they are now-called) in fact has been problematic for my groups in general, since many books have undergone major and in some cases quite recent changes.  Sure, RPG books often get edited over time, but since D&D4 is trying more than ever to provide a persistent RPG world in which to play (with frequent D&D Worldwide Gamedays, and continuation of Living campaigns), the edits are almost like the patch notes for your favorite MMO, including the occasional sweeping change to how a power like Magic Missile should work.

D&D4 also doesn’t provide much in the way of a default setting.  Since I use DMing as a creative outlet, and enjoy the process of setting design, this doesn’t bother me too much.  If you’re the sort of person that would rather use a boxed setting I agree that “Points of Light” doesn’t give you a lot to go on, and the Forgotten Realms for Fourth Ed doesn’t feel great.  In addition, Fourth Edition simply doesn’t offer many rules for for things in the described setting, if they are not combat. In one case, my players wanted to know how hard it would be to train a baby hippogriff to be a mount, and I simply didn’t have that information without resorting to the 3.5 handbooks or making it up myself. I suppose I could’ve designed a skill challenge around it, but sometimes that feels less satisfying than just playing it out (and knowing how much time that’s likely to take).  If you’re running a module, though, you don’t have to worry about this, since basically everything is figured out for you. The modules do favor combat encounters over peaceful solutions in some cases, but that’s another game design topic altogether.

So it has some downsides.  But just for a home campaign, Fourth Edition pushes some good buttons for me. It’s very flexible, allowing easy custom monster generation without much fuss, and many classes and skills can be reskinned easily just by moving around color and flavor text.  On the other hand, each class has a job, and is playable right out of the box, which minimizes the need to fuss with a lot of character optimization. During a combat encounter, the different types of combat skills provide good options, meaning that everyone can be doing something different every round, and everyone gets a chance to shine in a particular kind of situation. Designing tactical encounters is fun for the Dungeon Master, too.

So that’s why I’m running another Fourth Edition campaign this fall.  How about you?

And since someone always asks: no, I haven’t tried Pathfinder yet.  I hear great things, and I love the people who are working on it. I just haven’t managed to fit it in.

In Further Cthulhu News

Posting here simply because of its relevance to my previous article, indie RPG Cthulhu Saves the World is now available on PC.  I have to say I was waiting for this, since when I heard it was coming to PC I decided to give it a pass on X-Box and play it at my desk instead.  I wonder if anyone else was in the same boat there.

Anyway, enjoy, despite my substance-free article!