Poverty or subsistence?

I’ve been reading through Tomb of Annihilation since it became available last week. Last night I got to use some of the content for the fist time, when I ran City on the Edge, which is based in and around the city of Port Nyanzaru. Surrounding the city, but outside its protective walls, there are three districts where the poorer people live. The Old City is home to workers who can’t afford to live within the walls. Tiryki Anchorage is home to fishers (and possibly also smugglers). Malar’s Throat is described as the slum of the city, the place where the poorest people live. But I wonder what that means? Could it just mean that they don’t participate much in the cash economy? What if they’re hunter/gatherer people who subsist on resources from the jungle? Maybe they’re people who once lived in the jungle? Maybe they’ve relocated to the gorge outside the city for protection from the thunder lizards, zombies and other monsters that roam the jungle? Maybe they’ve moved to the outskirts of the city because their food sources in the jungle have been depleated by the death curse?

A few years ago my friend Jonothan Cornford spent time on the Mekong River, learning about the lives of people in the subsistance economy, and the impact new industries in the area were having on the subsistance economy. You can read his report, Hidden Costs, here.

Total party kill

This week two members of my regular Dungeons & Dragons group weren’t available, so tonight I ran a short one-shot adventure, City on the Edge. City on the Edge is the first short adventure in the Adventurers League’s Tomb of Annihilation series. You can buy it on DM’s Guild here.

Initially I thought we’d have three players, which I think is close to the optimum number. (Four players is just as good if not a little better, but beyond four I think it can get hard to manage as a dungeon master.) In the end we had one player have to cancel, so we ended up just having two players, a dwarf barbarian and a gnome wizard. I wondered if I should adjust the difficulty of the adventure. But I decided not to, because the current series of adventures, set in the jungles of Chult, are supposed to be brutal. During these adventures players are impacted by a death curse. This means that characters who die can’t be resurrected and characters who have previously been resurrected are gradually withering away. I really like this aspect of the adventures, because it means death is significant again. (Earlier in the year I wrote a bit about death in D&D as an opportunity to consider our own mortality.) So I didn’t really mind that the challenges might be a bit overpowered for the party of two first-level characters.

Like the Adventurers League’s previous introductory adventures, City on the Edge is actually made up of five related mini-adventures that should go for about an hour each. I prepared the first three mini-adventures, so that the players would have a few options when they arrived in the tropical city of Port Nyanzaru. Since I’d used a drawing of a dinosaur street race to promote the adventure, one of the players were pretty sure that was what he wanted to do, so we started off with the second mini-adventure, which involves participating in a race and then fighting in the arena. The party won the race (which was a lot of fun) and then they were defeated in the arena. I thought it worked well the way this happened. The adventure says that, because of the death curse, contestants in the arena aren’t allowed to do lethal damage. So the defeat in the arena didn’t mean the death of their characters. But I think it did forshadow their death…

After the tournament, the party decided to head into the jungle to see what was warping the plant life. They managed to avoid being bitten by disease-ridden insects, but then the wizard was poisoned by some thorny bushes that seemed to be semi-sentient. When they tried to rescue some fellow adventurers from as mass of vines, they were attacked by a group of blights. The adventurers put up a good fight, taking out the two twig blights and taking the two needle blights down to three hit points each, but were ultimately defeated by the needle blights.

Here’s the Chant: Tomb of Annihilation, feathered serpents and Hogwarts

I’m trying to get back into the habit of drawing toegther a weekly digest of content related to roleplaying games (particularly 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons). Tomb of Annihilation is already available some places, so I’ve included a couple of links to related articles.

For players:

For players and dungeon masters:

For dungeon masters:

  • ‘A Guide to Tomb of Annihilation’ Power Score – extensive notes (with page numbers) for running Tomb of Annihilation
  • Dragons Conquer America: The Coatli Stone Quickstart – Dragons Conquer America appears to be a tabletop roleplaying game about the European invasion of the Americas, featuring dragons and feathered serpents. This free introductory adventure is a promo for their upcoming Kickstarter campaign. I’m interested to see how they navigate colonial history and indigenous cultural knowledge. I’m be interested in having a go at running this, so I’ve done a drawing of a feathered serpent that I could use: 
  • ‘Couatl Tactics’ The Monsters Know What They’re Doing – this article suggests how a couatl (feathered serpent) might behave in combat
  • ‘What’s the Goblin Doing’ Raging Swan Press – here are some suggestions about what activities goblins might be doing when your party finds them
  • ‘Mystic College’ Tribality – this article looks at how to run a game with a feel similar to the Harry Potter series
  • ‘Mission to Sewertopia’ Elf Maids and Octopi – this post contains one hundred missions that players could pursue in the sewers beneath a fantasy city
  • ‘Village Backdrop: Farrav’n’ Raging Swan Press – this post features a village that could be included in a desert setting, including a couple of maps
  • ‘I’m Not Going to Let You Do That’ Medium – this article presents some reasons why a dungeon master might stop a player from doing particular things in the game

Content I’ve published recently:

  • ‘Repeating D&D Adventures’ – I’ve recently run a few different versions of the same scenarios from In Volo’s Wake, and I’ve found that’s been a good opportunity to improve my adventures.

Repeating D&D Adventures

Before you read any further, I just want to warn that this post contains spoilers about the Dungeons & Dragons adventure In Volo’s Wake.

* * *

Recently I’ve run the same Dungeons & Dragons adventure three times. At the Indigenous Hospitality House’s trivia night we auctioned a D&D game, so I prepared the first few adventures from In Volo’s Wake. Before I ran it with the group who won the auction, I ended up having a night free unexpectedly, so I ran it for one friend on his own. (I wrote about that here.) Then I ran it for the group who won the auction (and we’ll probably continue with more sessions). Now I’ve also started running In Volo’s Wake with a weekly group, and we’ll probably continue with more adventures when we’ve finished the series of six.

The first time I was really just running the first two adventures as written, and it was evident that they needed some work to make them more flexible. In these kind of adventures there is often really only one thing going on that the party is supposed to go and investigate which doesn’t make it feel like they’re exploring a real and living world.

However, I think that it’s pretty simple to add more possibilities using some of the techniques in Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master. When I started running In Volo’s Wake for the group who won the silent auction I prepared three directions I thought the players might go in, three major non-player characters they might encounter and three villains who they might come up against. We ended up sticking pretty closely to what was pre-written in the adventure that session, but it was good to know that I was prepared to go off on tangents. As I haven’t yet explored a lot of these tangents with the groups I’m running In Volo’s Wake for, I’ll probably come back to them in another post… I’ll just say that I think there’s plenty of seeds for further adventuring in In Volo’s Wake, and that if the group hasn’t played Lost Mine of Phandelver (which is set around the same frontier mining town) there are plenty of side plots in that adventure that could be transplanted into In Volo’s Wake. There’s also some stuff in Tales from the Yawning Portal that could be easily connected to what’s happening in In Volo’s Wake.

One thing I found interesting was that each time I ran the first adventure, ‘The Green Skin of Treachery’, the same non-player character came to the fore. Eric Merryweather is a spoiled and incompetent lordling who’s read Volo’s Guide to Monsters and set out to find all the monsters described in the book. (Each group made a connection between Eric Merryweather and Pokémon.) I think Eric has a lot of potential for comic relief, and he’ll probably become a recurring character. But I do think there is a risk of overusing him.

Some of the really basic advantages to running the same adventure with different groups is that it means I don’t need to prepare so much each time because the details are familiar. There are also opportunities to improve my running of the game. If I make a mistake it’s easy to remember the mistake and not repeat it the second time.

Coming up at the end of October I’ll be running some games each day at PAX Australia, which will probably mean running some repeat adventures in short succession. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes and how each session goes.

Construction accidents and sexual ethics

I just want to warn that this post talks (briefly) about clergy sexual abuse.

* * *

Maybe one way you can tell Jesus was really a construction worker is that he apparently made a joke about an industrial accident: You’re worried because you think your neighbour has a splinter in their eye, but you’ve got a construction beam coming out of your head! Who’s got the real problem?

We were talking about this confronting parable on Saturday at a meeting about how people of faith can promote the ‘yes’ vote in Australia’s upcoming survey on marriage equality. The parable is a darkly humorous way of talking about the hypocrisy of deeply immoral people attempting to ‘correct’ others.

I think what is really tragic is that many Christians don’t realise that in our wider society we have lost all credibility on morality – particularly with regards to sexual ethics. Christian clergy in Australia have sexually abused children and the church institution has tried to cover up the abuse. This leaves us with no credibility in the wider community if we try to say that two adults in an equal and loving relationship shouldn’t be able to get married.

Here’s the Chant: revisiting Phandalin, earthy elves and a boat mimic

I haven’t written any D&D roundup posts for a few weeks. Actually, I haven’t written much for a few weeks! I ended up a bit exhausted and needed to rest, and I was also away at Lake Mungo for a little while. I think I’m not ready to get back into regular posting. So here’s a roundup of content related to roleplaying games, particularly Dungeons & Dragons.

For dungeon masters and players:

For dunegon masters:

  • ‘Dealing with Difficult Topics in RPGs’ Tribality – this article looks at how to handle topics that players may not want to explore – particularly by using a session zero to establish a social contract between your gaming group
  • ‘Artifacts of Primordial Power’ Kobold Press – a few magical items infused with elemental power
  • ‘How much setting detail is appropriate?’ RPG Knights – this blog entry looks at how you can get bogged down by too much detail about your roleplaying game setting
  • ‘Memorable Villains’ The Yawning Portal – this post shows how you can build up anticipation in the lead-up to introducing your main villain
  • ‘Bosses that Don’t Suck’ Monster Manuel – this article looks at how you can make sure your boss monsters are deadly but not unbeatable
  • ‘New Elves’ Trollish Delver – this article presents a fresh, earthy take on elves
  • ‘Examining Phandelver: Side Quests’ Merric’s Musings – this blog post looks at the side quests in D&D 5th edition’s introductory adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’ve recently been running In Volo’s Wake, which also takes place in the frontier town of Phandalin, which creates an opportunity to reuse some of these subplots.
  • ‘Lonely Boat’ Nerdarchy – this article looks at how to use a mimic disguised as a boat – pretty much like the pirate’s mimic I drew earlier in the year: 
  • ‘Creatures of Commander 2017 in D&D’ Kor Artificer – this article presents stat blocks for some of the creatures from Magic: The Gathering‘s upcoming Commander set
  • ‘Sewers and Cesspits’ Elf Maids & Octopi – here are a couple of extensive tables you can use to generate random items or encounters that adventurers might find whule exploring sewers
  • ’10 Stormy Events to Enhance a Battle’ Raging Swan Press – this article suggests running combat during a storm, and includes a table of ways that a storm could effect the battle

Content I’ve recently published:

  • ‘Running Vault of the Dracolich’ – on Saturday I was involved in running Vault of the Dracolich with a team of dungeon masters at Games Laboratory, and this is my reflection on the experience
  • ‘Brushing up on Basic D&D Rules’ – being involved in running a D&D event was a good incentive to get clear on the basic rules. This is a summary of what I needed to brush up on.

Brushing up on basic D&D rules

In my post on Saturday I mentioned that there were a whole lot of basic Dungeons & Dragons rules (mostly to do with combat) that I hadn’t been very clear on up until now. I’d kind of muddled along but been aware that I wasn’t being consistent. Knowing that I would be dungeon-mastering at Saturday’s event gave me a helpful deadline to get clear on the rules I wasn’t sure about. I thought I’d list the rules that I was unclear on and needed to brush up:

Armour class
See, I said these were basic rules! For some reason I had trouble remembering whether an attacker needed to roll equal to a target’s armour class in order to hit the target, or whether they needed to roll above the target’s armour class. So if a player was trying to hit a monster with an armour class of 12, and they rolled a 12 to hit, I wouldn’t be certain if they were successful or not. Now that I’ve brushed up on this rule, I know that it would hit. When you’re attacking, the number of the target’s armor class is the minimum number you can roll and still hit.
One of the things I like about 5th edition D&D is that the principle behind this rule is consistent throughout the game.

I had a similar problem remembering how grappling works. If a player tries to grapple a target character and they both roll a 15, is the grapple successful or not? Do they use their strength or dexterity? Or do they use athletics or acrobatics? (Remembering the pervious rule about armour class also helps us understand grappling, because it draws on the same principle.)
To grapple a target, you need to make an athletics check against the target’s athletics or acrobatics check. (The target gets to choose whether they want to use their athletics or acrobatics.) The grappler needs to meet or exceed the target’s roll. If the target is successfully grappled, on their turn they can try to escape by making a athletics or acrobatics check against the grappler’s athletics check, and they will succeed if they meet or exceed the score for the grappler’s strength check.

This is another rule I wasn’t sure about, but it uses the same principles as grappling. (Grappling and pushing are both classed as contests.) The character wanting to push another character can make an athletics check against that target’s athletics or acrobatics check. (Again, the target chooses between athletics and acrobatics.) The attacker must meet or exceed the target’s score in order to successfully push the target. If the attacker succeeds, they can either knock the target prone or push them back by five feet.

Stealth checks
Looking through the Player’s Handbook, I didn’t seem to be able to find a clear explanation of this rule. I think this article explains it though. If you have a character who is trying to hide from or sneak past another character, the sneaking one should roll a stealth check. Ordinarily, their stealth check should be compared to the other creatures passive perception, but if the other creature is actively looking for them it should be compared to their perception roll. If the stealth check is higher than the passive perception or perception of the other character, the sneaking one is successful at avoiding attention.

Short and long rests
The last important rule that I’ve had trouble remembering is what you recover when you have a short rest and what you recover when you have a long rest. When you have a short (one hour) rest, you can roll one or more of your available hit dice in order to recover hit points. If you take a long (eight hour) rest you regain all your hit points, as well as expended hit dice (up to half of your total hit dice). If your character is a spellcasting character, they’ll also recover spells after a long rest.
During Saturday’s game I realised a couple more basic rules I need to brush up on: rules around falling and drowning. I’d also like to get more familiar with the abilities of all the classes, particularly ones like fighter and barbarian, which I haven’t played myself.

Which D&D rules do you need to brush up on as a dungeon master or player?

Running Vault of the Dracolich

Today I was involved in running Vault of the Dracolich at Games Lab in Melbourne.

Vault of the Dracolich was a multi-table adventure originally released for the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, which eventually became Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. You can purchase the adventure on the Dungeon Master’s Guild here. It was originally designed for four tables, each with a different party starting in a different part of the dungeon, but I think we were running it with about 18 tables of players. As you can imagine, there were a lot of opportunities for players to run into each other and team up against monsters and cultists. I thought I’d write up some of my highlights as a dungeon master today:

A deadline to brush up on the rules

A lot of the time when I’ve been running games I haven’t been certain about particular rules and so I’ve just fudged things. It’s okay to do that, but I wouldn’t feel great about doing that at an event. I’ve meant for a while to make a list of important, basic rules that I’m not clear on and make sure I learn them properly. This event was a good incentive to do that. I’ll probably post something more detailed about that in the next few days.

Spreading of (dis)information in game 

The premise of this adventure is that the adventurers have been sent into the dungeon to get some maguffins so they can get another maguffin. Their patron has given one member of each group a crown that allows them to communicate with the other groups. (We let the person with the crown go and visit other tables to share information.) It was interesting to see this information sharing in action. For example, our group started off in an area inhabited by lizardfolk. The lizardfolk had agreed to let our party pass if they could eat their bodies when if they died. So our party passed the information on, and it eventually as shared back to us. Members of our party also spread some false information about green crystals that were found in one area having magical properties, which led to another adventurer trying to eat crystals…

Three simultaneous hydra battles

We had three parties arrive in the hydra’s den at once, so we had a short conference between the three DMs and decided to run three different versions of the same battle. Our reasoning was that running one battle with all of our players would be too easy for the players. Two of the parties had used a magical portal to travel to the hydra’s den, so we said that something strange had happened while they’d travelled, and they ended up in the same space but on different time lines to each other and to the party that was already in the area. They could see the other parties fighting other instances of the same hydra, but we didn’t let them assist neighbouring parties until they’d dealt with their own version of the hydra. (I’d suggested that we could have just had one hydra with three times as many heads, but in hindsight I think that would have been really slow to manage and not very fun.)

Holding back an undead horde

At the end of the game we rearranged all of the tables, and gave each table a task that was part of a large, epic battle. The party I ended up with was trying to hold back a horde of 28 undead, so that they undead couldn’t get to the other end of the room to reinforce a group of dark priests another party was fighting. I used a whole lot of different zombie, skeleton and vampire minis (cardboard Pathfinder minis, my own cardboard minis, plastic Magic: The Gathering minis), but they actually all had the stats of either skeletons or mummies. Because I wasn’t being clear exactly what kind of undead they were (and because there were so many) most of my players were pretty cautious about fighting them. 
Laser-cut minis

Because I’m an illustrator, I often illustrate my own miniatures, which I print out myself. For this event Games Lab were laser-cutting a whole lot of miniatures out of wood, so that players and dungeon masters could all be supplied with the miniatures we’d need. Because there aren’t a lot of aquatic snake designs around and I had drawn an aquatic snake to use at my table, Games Lab ended up using my design. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, especially since I hadn’t designed it with laser-cutting in mind.

Getting to play with a lot of different dungeon masters and players

I think the best thing about this event was that it was a great opportunity to play with a lot of different DMs and players. Often we stick to our own groups, which have their strengths, but having an event where players were constantly changing tables, where tables were joining together when they met, and where DMs had to work together allows for the creation of a really rich story. It was also kind of helpful when tables joined up together being able to throw to the other DM rather than having to make every call or have the stats for every monster ready to go.

Paying attention to sunrise and sunset

A week ago Mehrin and I got back from an immersion trip to Lake Mungo, which was offered through the Christian Brothers, an order of the Catholic Church. Muthi Muthi woman Vicki Clark (who was part of the working group that set up our household in 2001) invites groups to come on this trip throughout the year, and you can find information about it here.

One of the things I really appreciated about the trip was the opportunity to pay more attention to sunrise and sunset as bookends to the day. On one of our days at Lake Mungo, Vicki took us out to look out over the lake as the sun gradually rose and also as it set one day. But we also saw a lot of the sunrise and sunset on other days too, because in the desert there’s not a lot to block out the view.

It’s often easy not to notice the sunrise and sunset back in the city, but I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the sunrise and sunset since we got home. I’ve been going up the street to watch it go down, and making more of a habit of stopping work after sunset. (This is important because a lot of the time I can end up working from early in the morning until 9pm or later.) I’ve gotten up just before sunrise a couple of times, but haven’t remembered to go and watch it coming up.

DMing for one player

A couple of weeks back @DungeonMasterSc tweeted a question about the minimum number of players dungeon masters need not to cancel a Dungeons & Dragons session. My response was ‘two’, and I added that I’d normally give them a non-player character to help them out.

I was challenged by @spaceseeker19’s response, so tonight when I just had one player, we played anyway. I’d been preparing the first few adventures from In Volo’s Wake, which features monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and there were a few opportunities to support our one player character (a dulcimer-playing human bard) with some NPCs. She was able to do okay on her own in the first adventure, but in the second adventure she really depended on some connections she’d made with non-player characters to save some dwarf children from gnolls. While the game lacked the inter-player dynamics, it was still worth doing, and the main non-player character (Eric the ‘hobby-adventurer’) proved fairly entertaining.