July 21, 2015

D&D 5e Encounter Building Observations

It's no secret for many GMs that combat encounter creation can be difficult to build and balance for your party. With D&D 5e, it becomes a bit of a chore with their adjusted experience calculations. I have recently started my first 5e campaign outside of the Starter Box, which was very good, and I wanted to compare and stress test the encounter building method laid out in the books.

A snap shot of the encounter building rules from the Basic DMG.

I first started off by comparing the encounter building rules with the encounters laid out in the Starter Box. I was not terribly surprised to find out that most of the fights in the published adventure were well above the deadly threshold for my three party group (A wizard, rogue, and bow fighter). To research the lethality of the system, I didn't adjust any of the combats, forcing the players to think creatively on how to approach each encounter. 

About a year after I ran the Starter Box, I have just started up a nonpublished campaign. To test the encounter building rules in the source material, I decided to run the players through a range of combats from a difficulty of medium to deadly. Below will be a list of the encounters I have run the party through. For most of the encounters, the party consisted of four players. A fey pact warlock, rogue thief, martial ranger, and a totem barbarian. For each encounter I will include the enemies, setup, xp, adjusted xp (axp), and my brief thoughts on how the fight went. So far, I have ran my players through six homebrewed encounters. 

1st Level

Encounter 1*
Enemies: x3 Swarm of Ravens
Setup: No surprise
xp/axp: 150/300 (deadly)
Thoughts: Party was overwhelmed by damage resistance. Used clever distraction to escape birds. Only one swarm eliminated. * Party consisted of only rogue, ranger, and barbarian. 

Encounter 2*
Enemies: x1 Scarecrow
Setup: No surprise
xp/axp: 200/200 (hard)
Thoughts: Party was not challenged much. Used clever way to deal extra. * Party consisted of only rogue, ranger, and barbarian.

Encounter 3
Enemies: x10 Giant Fire Beetles
Setup: No surprise
xp/axp: 100/250 (medium)
Thoughts: Party not challenged.

Encounter 4
Enemies: x3 Hyenas, x2 Gnolls
Setup: Ambushed foiled
xp/axp: 230/460 (deadly)
Thoughts: Party had easy time. Could be down to poor dice rolling. Play tested this encounter using Starter Box wizard, cleric, sword fighter, and rogue; had difficult time.

2nd Level

Encounter 1
Enemies: x4 Cultists, x1 Ogre
Setup: Party Ambushing
xp/axp: 550/1100 (deadly)
Thoughts: Party used other resources to distract and disorient before dealing with the ogre solo. Ogre (solo a medium fight) was easily dispatched. Warlock used illusions and sleep spells to take out the cultists.

Encounter 2
Enemies: x4 Gnolls
Setup: Ambushed during rest, random encounter
xp/axp: 400/800 (deadly)
Thoughts: Was a good fight for the party. Not too hard or easy.

While this is only six encounters, my observations on the encounters seems to lead me to a couple of conclusions. First off, the encounter building rules above call out to ignore monsters with CRs significantly lower than the rest of the monsters. This seems to be true at a small gap than anticipated. So far, I think one should ignore taking into account monsters who CRs are three steps below the parties current level (ie 1st level would be CR 0, 2nd level would be CR 1/8). I will calculate my next few fights ignoring these lower CR monsters and observe how the fights play out.

I also believe that deadly fights may be the target you want to shoot for challenging fights. Fights easier than this tend to be too easy for the party who knows how to use smart and clever tactics. There is a chance that random luck can ratchet up the lethality of a deadly fight, but I've yet to have that luck come up. Also, while I say shoot for deadly fights, don't put in monsters who CRs are too high, unless you want them to drop your players in a single hit.

That's all for now. I'll make another update after I run more encounters at 2nd level, which allows for a bit more variety in the encounter building.

July 12, 2015

Thoughts on Indie RPGs

Over the past two months, I've had the unique experience of being able to run some independent RPG systems for both of my RPG groups. It's not often that in either group is willing to play in an indie system, or that there is a slot available for one. After just recently running Princesses and Palaces, the third indie system I've had the chance to run, and I'm starting to notice a trend that comes from playing these indie games.

So far, all of the systems I've run have had very simple mechanics behind them, with two of them being "micro systems". The micro systems, Lasers & Feelings and All Outta Bubblegum, both had a roll under/over mechanic in which you have a single character stat and you're trying to roll under or over it depending on what you wanted to do (see the links for more exact rules). While the 13 pages of Princesses and Palaces isn't exactly a micro system, it does have more complex rules than the two systems mentioned before. While it does have more stats, rolling, and math than L&F and AOB, P&P's system designed to teach a father's very young daughter number relationships and basic math is still very simple.

Now in the board gaming world, it is possible to simplify and streamline a game to the point where you actually start losing the game. I was worried that some of the "game" aspect of "Roleplaying Game" would start to get lost. For some players, this is completely fine. But for others where roleplaying takes a backseat to the game, I was worried that they would get bored. But to my surprise, something happened. 

The stories that we told for these RPG systems became so rich. Now, I partly attribute this to the simplicity of the rules, and that a super rich story was necessary to make the simple mechanics fun. I also attribute this to that these simple systems have a pretty focused theme. Super thematic storytelling was needed to keep these game enjoyable, and it was some of the hardest work I've had to put in as a GM. In other systems, you have more of a game you can fall back upon if the story got bumpy.

These simple systems have put my storytelling to the test. After running my first session of P&P, I was mentally exhausted. It took so much creative work to keep this fairy-talesque feeling whimsical and light. Super tropey storytelling and over dramatic characters were always needed. After the past two years of regular gaming, scene improv has become a developed skill. But when trying to tell such a rich story, improvisation was much more difficult. My L&F and AOB sessions (which can be found here) were still difficult, but for a different reason. These micro games also tended to run pretty short. Coming up with a cohesive story and wrap it up in an hour was the challenge.

Overall, I would like to think that these simple indie systems have drastically improved my storytelling. The level of rich story necessary to keep players engaged in such a simple system takes lots of work. I firmly believe that if you want to develop your storytelling skills, try out one or all of the indie systems above. These systems will take you out of your comfort zone, and by doing more of that, your future heavy system games will enjoy a richer bit of story. 

July 9, 2015

Savaria: World Description

On the sun scorched plains of Savaria, burning temperatures are an everyday occurrence. Nestled between the Vast, a massive dessert to the north, and Everwave, a salt water sea to the south, life in Savaria isn't easy. Rivers and lakes now sit mostly, if not completely, dry, only taking in what they can in the ever shortening monsoon season. With rain rarely falling out side of the one and a half month monsoon season, farming has become difficult, and towns and villages will rally all they can to save their food. On top of this, the sun baked savanna is occasionally plagued by wild fires.

But all of these hardships hasn't kept people out. Savaria is home to every kind of being, forming together to make large towns and cities. A vast mountain called Chimney, and it's surrounding base of hills called The Hearth, sits in the center of Savaria and is home to many of the dwarves. Smoke rises from the extinct volcano's snow covered peaks from the dwarven forges deep in the mountain. Run off from Chimney's peak feeds down into the Hearth where many more dwarves live amongst others. 

Gladyon south east of Chimney and his home to many elves. Nestled in a canyon, this city of towers, bridges, and cliff dwellings gets it's water from wells deep in the canyon. The dwarves claim that this underground water is from the run off Chimney, causing the two to never get along completely. 

West of Chimney sits the city of Six Pillars, a mecca for most of the religious in Savaria. Here, a city of cathedrals and temples sit amongst five huge sandstone natural pillars rise off the ground, and one pillar that's been toppled over. A small lake that sits in the middle of the six pillars never seems to lower and is considered a holy site. To stop water poachers from stealing the holy water, entrance into the walled city of Six Pillars is only permitted to those who have a letter stamped by an approved priest. 

The prosperous Gullcrest is Savaria's assumed capital, south of Chimney on the coast of the Everwave sea. Home to most of Savaria's prestigious arcane universities and libraries, Gullcrest get's its water from swathes of hard working alchemists desalanizing the sea's salt water.  Gullcrest's sandstone docks are a haven for merchants, who come to purchase the exotic goods brought to them on the massive ships of the mysterious Southmen. Because wood is a rare resource for most of Savaria, Gullcrest's docks are rarely equipped with ships flying the blue and white flag of the city. It's said when a man with enough wealth builds himself a ship capable of sailing away from Savaria, he is never seen again. 

If you're on the run from the law, trying to make a quick coin, or just given up on your life, you might find yourself in Dredge. On the edge of the Vast, north east of Chimney, this make shift town of scum and dead beats. Here you can find dirty deeds, illegal goods, and a fight around every corner. With no readily available sources, holding on to what ever drink you have is a chore. Whether it's from the low lifes that make this place their home, or from the Vast tribesmen who step out of their boundaries to sack and raid.