On Giving the Experience for Combat

In a hangout game last week I mentioned that I didn't give experience points for killing monsters in +Numenhalla.

I was taken aback as it was pointed out that every single person in the hangout gave no experience points for combat.

The Problem with Experience in a Nutshell


I've talked at length before about why I don't give experience for killing monsters.

I have had conversations about why we should kill someone we've encountered because we'd be letting the experience points go. If we get 600 experience each for killing the bear, then I want to kill the bear. I don't care if it's just minding its own business in the forest.

There are lots of subjective solutions to this problem. That's a problem for me too. I like to have a quantifiable, objective, clear, goal that grants experience. The first time the game has to stop so that someone can tell me what I would or wouldn't do based on my alignment is the last time I'm motivated to continuing to play that game. I'm not playing D&D so someone can tell me what to do.

It's also very important to me that it doesn't dictate in character action, but rather drives creative play. This is why I have a problem with "Get experience for opening this lock/casting healing spells/killing this monster." And not, say "You get double experience for any treasure you secretly hide from the party if you're a rogue and you get experience points for gold."*

This is even more distasteful to me when the action the character is forced to commit is a subjective one, e.g. "Uphold your religion." The only way I know if I've done that is if I ask the Dungeon Master. If it's just a tithe and spending time preaching what's the cost?  If it's actions in play, then I either have to act, uncertain of what the Dungeon Master considers "upholding my religion" or ask him what I should do.
      Requirements:
  • Objective
  • Drives interesting player behavior
  • Doesn't dictate player action
  • Doesn't cause the game to stop to justify in game actions

But the new Dungeons and Dragons gives experience points for fighting. Is there a way to handle this player expectation objectively? A simple metric where they get experience points for enemies, and not for slaying various wildlife creatures? Perhaps one that encourages creative play?

The Case In Point


Some of this requires a bit of worldbuilding. Certain threats in a heroic style game like fifth edition supports should be slain without question. Others, such as the Red Wizard at the Old Owl Well should not be slain without question. We don't want to punish combat in this instance, but we do want to provide an alternate method of earning experience without encouraging characters to engage in unnecessary combat.

It's an excellent example. If you were players, after finding the wizard and completing his quests, there is no mechanical reason not to kill him and a very good mechanical reason to kill him**. My Lawful or Chaotic Good fighter uses some rationalization to kill someone who has committed no crime because -- what? He decided?

Necromancy is not a crime in the realms. Really. Dungeons and Dragons Basic rules notes that Raising Undead isn't a good act and isn't done frequently by good people. That doesn't mean people should be executed for raising undead. In moments someone brings the objective or subjectiveness badness of raising undead and then. . .

My problem here is that this discussion solely to find a diegetic reason to kill an opponent so you can get the experience occurs. I don't want to have this discussion. I want to play D&D. I want it to be clear what you are rewarded for and I want that to integrate seamlessly with the mechanics to avoid diegetic discussions ("Well, I want to take this action, but why would my character?")

Hence Objectivity. Hence Objective Evil. Hence Factions.

Here is the outline for Old School Style Objective Experience in fifth edition. Note my use of the optional experience points for gold option granted in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Old School Style Experience For Fightan!!!


There are five categories of opponents.
  • 1) Monsters are creatures that are objectively evil, irredeemable beasts who only desire the dissolution of all things.
    • Which creatures are monsters is dependent on the campaign. Some campaigns might deem orcs as monsters, whereas in the Forgotten Realms they are clearly intelligent opponents with a culture, classifying them as a Faction.
    • Natural CreaturesFaction members or Innocents that are hostile, turn hostile, or attack the party first are considered Monsters and grant experience.
    • If Natural Creatures that are hostile are released, befriended or neutralized without destroying or killing them double experience is given for good or neutral characters.
  • 2) Natural creatures are creatures, plants, constructs, and non-intelligent animals that are part of the ecosystem. 
    • Killing natural creatures grants no experience.
  • 3) Factions are people who belong to certain organizations that you have relationships in certain ways.
    • You get no experience for attacking or harming friendly or neutral factions.
    • You get listed Monster Experience for killing hostile factions.
      • Note: if you attack a neutral faction, you get no experience for killing in that combat, but if the factions bond becomes hostile, then in future combats you will receive the listed monster experience. Note that unlawful killing with malice aforethought makes you a Monster.
  • 4) Innocents are non-combatants and non-involved people.
    • Killing innocents never grants experience.
  • 5) Wonderous Creatures are individual magical beasts or singular unique creatures that do not belong to a faction. No experience is given for slaying such a creature. These are effectiely equivalent to a faction of one.
    • This includes such creatures as thinking undead, dragons, sphinxes, and other individual intelligences. 
  • Alignment does not categorize the creature as a Monster.
    • Chaotic creatures are unconcerned with civilization and the rule of order
    • Evil creatures are unconcerned with the well-being of other creatures
    • Creatures with Blue/Orange morality are treated as unstable factions, where the status of the faction is inconsistent between meetings.
    • Outsiders are considered a faction based on their nature and origin to primes.
    • Although these are objective realities, they do not consign creatures to being monsters. The following acts do, regardless of the motivation for the act.
      • Unlawfully Killing or attacking with malice aforethought members of a Friendly or Neutral factions, Innocents, or animals. Unlawfully means not legally justified murder, killing an animal for food or in self-defense is fine. Malice aforethought exists if a killer intends to kill a person, inflicts serious bodily harm that leads to death, or behavior that exhibits an extreme reckless disregard for human life.
      • Trafficking or acting directly as servants for Monsters
      • Intentionally causing severe suffering, such as rape, torture, or other evil acts
      • Human laws such as treason, sabotage, fraud, etc. that don't meet the above qualifications may make a person evil and may make them a criminal, but they don't make the person a Monster.

  • Experience is given 1:1 for treasure discovered. 
    • Treasure are non-owned items, trade goods, or coins of significant value. 
    • Evil creatures receive 5:1 experience for treasure discovered and not shared with companions.
  • Experience is given 1:1 + Experience of the monster or hostile faction member for equipment and gear taken.
    • Equipment and gear are owned items, trade goods, and coins of significant value from monsters or hostile factions.
    • Taking the treasure of a Monster or hostile Faction member grants experience as if the creature were killed, only if the creature was not killed.
    • Evil and Neutral creatures and characters receive 2:1 experience for equipment and gear taken from living opponents
  • The Listed Experience is given for Hostile Factions or Wondrous creatures that are bypassed or neutralized on a 1:1 basis. If made friendly and neutralized or captured and returned to justice grant experience on a 2:1 basis to good aligned characters. 
  • Player may at any time be informed of the status of any item or creature by request. ("Is this treasure?" "What type of category does our opponent fall into?")
Complicated? A little, but it seems to both be clear and objective.

In this example, the Wizard at the Old Owl well is neutral, and attacking and killing him provides no experience for the fight, though they would receive experience for his treasure after the combat. Stealing the treasure without fighting him would give no experience (taking from a neutral faction) but you'd have the treasure, and if discovered would make him both hostile and likely to attack you. The resulting combat would give you experience for killing him. Of course, you have to commit theft to cause that chain of events to occur.

The Nothic in the Redbrand hideout would be a Hostile Wonderous creature, granting experience if killed, or able to have it's attitude changed to neutral or friendly.


* Obviously there's some ground where "interesting play" is up for debate. For me "Killing a monster" dictates behavior, and isn't particularly interesting play once combat starts. In 4th edition, this might not be the case. "Opening locks" is normally a simple roll, but may be considered interesting play if you have a subsystem with player choice involved.
** It is super-duper important to note here that there may be plenty of non-mechanical reasons I can invent not to kill him, but I'm a firm believer I shouldn't have to fight the mechanics of the game as the Dungeon Master in order to have a non-dissonant play experience. In an old-school game murdering everyone isn't dissonant. It is much so in a big(ish) damn heroes game like 5e set in the forgotten realms.



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On the Phandelvers part III: The Wilderness of Phandelver

Continuing my review, Parts I and II are there. Spoilers are frequent from here on out.

Maybe in this section they are going to ruin everything? Let's read on and find out!
"They can't learn much more in Phandalin, so they need to set out into the forests and hills surrounding the town to uncover the larger plots they are caught up in. The characters are not required to visit all the locations in this section."
A sandbox that's actually a sandbox!

Exploring the Sandbox


So while exploring the Cony Gap, there are some wilderness encounters. A 20% chance (17-20 on a 1d20) with one check during the day and one check during the night. 

How do these encounters hold up? 

Stirges, Ghouls, a Single Ogre, Goblins, Hobgoblins, Orcs, Wolves, and an Owlbear. What do they do? "drain the blood of their victims. . . hunger for living flesh. . . too stupid to flee. . .looking for travelers to ambush or homesteads to burn. . . picks up the characters scent and pursues them relentlessly". 

There's no differentiation between day and night encounters. All the encounters just fight the party excepting the goblins who will give information if "threatened" and the hobgoblins who are specifically seeking to assassinate party. And, well, that hobgoblin one just wants to fight the party, but at least for a good reason. 

This is not super great. It is good that there is a risk to travelling. But it's pretty trivial to use some extra space to turn these into really interesting encounters. A few options from my own treatise on non-player character interaction include could do the job very well. E.g. Perhaps the Orcs are fighting for leadership, escorting captives, or arguing over treasure distribution? Maybe the nighttime only ghouls are breaking free from nearby graves or milling about outside the characters camp? Perhaps the stirges are mating or hurt or acting crazy or unusual for some strange reason?

So why are these encounters so plain? I have a couple of theories. There's a breakpoint in publishing at 64 pages for cost, and this document is already very full. Also, simply coordinating the encounters for new Dungeon Masters might be enough complexity without turning it into a full encounter. It's still disappointing that there isn't at least one entertaining or strange opportunity for a random encounter.

Places of Interest


Conyberry and Agatha's Lair

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 70 miles via road. 

The spirit of a banshee resides here who, if approached correctly will answer any one question.

This is a good encounter. It requires A) the players to be considerate of their actions and B) has no combat oriented solution. I appreciate having multiple solutions to various problems, but it's nice for the occasional one to not have a combat solution.

In addition, the questgiver requests that you ask a specific question of the banshee, but she will answer truthfully any one question the player character's ask. This is a pretty great dynamic!

There are no maps included for this section and a note about it. This section doesn't need any maps, but perhaps Wyvern Tor might benefit from one? Is this a page count issue again? I certainly know in the old school community page counts balloon up when working on projects for exactly these reasons. What would we do when we work for a corporation who demands we keep our product to 64 pages?

Also, the boxed text is creeeping up in length. This is an encounter that depends very heavily on mood, however. So we will watch going forward if this is a trend or specific to this one encounter.

Old Owl Well

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 80 miles in some foothills.

Huh. An evil red wizard of Thay who is here for no evil plot and will parley with the characters? Good! Yep, checking the back for his stats -- Lawful Evil!

But he's not doing anything evil. He's just sort of hanging out. He also has quests. Nicccccccce. One of the quests requests that you ask a question of the banshee, meaning now the characters have to choose which quest they are going to follow. 

I really like the fact that there's an opportunity for the characters to side with evil non-player characters. I also like the fact that he gives quests which conflict with quests given by good characters in the game. He's not here to fight but you can fight him. Some of his goals (i.e. eliminate the orcs) coincide with yours!

It appears you get 200 XP for completing the quest of Daran Edermath who resides in the orchard of Phandalin. It also appears the combat encounter is worth 800 XP. 

What do you get for completing the quests the mage gives you? It doesn't say. This is not particularly helpful to new Dungeon Masters!

Ruins of Thundertree

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 70 miles north in the forest.

Oh, there's a bunch here.

It's an "old" ruined village, until 30 years ago when it was "devastated" by the eruption of Mount Hotenow. Now, I'm sure this is due to my lack of Forgotten Realms lore knowledge, but this ruin is 20 miles east of the giant cosmopolitan city of Neverwinter and both Neverwinter and Thundertree are 30 miles south of Mount Hotenow.

What gives? Thundertree is a ruin and Neverwinter is just fine.

Ok, ignoring that for now, it's a ruin with some ruined and some intact buildings. 

Why do intact buildings have a DC 10 Strength check to open? Can't the character's just retry until they succeed? There's no text or description of any surprise states in the standing buildings . . . which are exclusively filled with prone zombies.

The druid is nice! Another faction for players who can inform them of the threats in the area, including the twig blights, ash zombies, cultists, and dragon. He flees from any combat. He has no stats.

Why doesn't he help the players? The goblins are a threat and the dragon isn't? 

The only picture of Venomfang on the Web
(That isn't on the cover of the Starter Set)
Venomfang, the young green dragon is here. 12d6 in a 30 foot cone. Flight. Three nasty attacks. I'd like to see the party that can drive Venomfang away without a death. I think this is fantastic!

What's Venomfang like? The only description of his character is the following:
"[He is] searching Neverwinter Wood for a suitable lair. . . Venomfang has been laying low. . . Venomfang does not want to give up such a promising lair. . . Venomfang spends much of his time greedily admiring the loot."
It's a dragon, right? Shouldn't it be given a little character?

The cultists want to side with the dragon. They will treat with the party and betray them to the dragon. What does the dragon do? This is a pretty complicated situation and little to no guidance is given to neophyte Dungeon Masters. This is a starter set. Just a simple instruction reminding them that however they play out the encounter is ok or providing some alternatives would be nice.

Wyvern Tor

Distance from Phandelver: Approximately 60 miles in foothills.

A hidden orc camp with 6 Orcs and an Ogre?

This encounter isn't very interesting and provides little treasure, but a bunch of experience (1,250) for completing the quest and more for slaying the orcs. It takes a full column length to describe "A hidden orc camp with 6 orcs and an ogre", one-half a full page.

It is likely a fairly difficult combat and the "Hidden Camp" part of the encounter will likely be fun, but the DM facing text:
"The tor was formerly  the home of a large and dangerous nest of wyverns, but a band of bold adventurers dealt with the monsters years ago. Though the wyverns never returned, other creatures lair here from time to time.
calls back the frequent 'background text' sin that does very little to help Dungeon Masters in play or new Dungeon Masters run the encounter.

On the other hand, it is only a single page column to get a dozen line encounter across. It could have been a full page.

Cragmaw Castle

The finale of Chapter 3.

This is very nice. One of the most enjoyable activities for players is planning an assault. The players know they need to find this area but do not know where it is. Once found, they have the opportunity to plan their assault or infiltration. There is specific support within the adventure for the players attempting to disguise or infiltrate their way in without combat.

Various opponents and obstacles inhabit the tower which consists of a tight and often debris covered battlefield. It also includes a trapped, starving, but not necessarily hostile owlbear. The boxed text returns to its refreshing brevity here.

If the players are not cautious, then in the final encounter, the bugbear king will take Gundren Rockseeker hostage and threaten to kill him if the character's don't back off.

This is a difficult and challenging encounter for the players and there is no guidance in the adventure for how to handle the fallout from this encounter. What if they do back off? Then Gundren will likely be dead before they can mount an attack. What if they attack? Then Grol, the bugbear king will take the opportunity to kill the very person they are here to rescue. This requires some actual creative play to resolve successfully and will likely leave a neophyte party quite unhappy or frustrated with the outcome.

Not that this is a bad thing. Just that there is little text or space devoted to the complexity of the situation. A paragraph or two might be helpful for new Dungeon Masters in navigating situations like this.

What's Gundren Rockseeker like? He's like a questgiver that just gives quests. A sentence or two of characterization would have been nice.

You don't have to characterize every non-player character. In fact, leaving a few uncharacterized allows the Dungeon Master to insert their own favorite behaviors for non-player characters. But many major non-player characters not described or given strong characterizations puts more work on the Dungeon Masters head.

Thoughts

Some slipping back into old habits resurfaced here, but not anywhere near to the degree to which they used to render adventures unusable. 

It is notable that I could run this from the booklet and would not need to completely rewrite the adventure. I quite commonly find myself doing that for adventures both old and new. 

I also find that I'm reading more confidently, not quite so worried as I move forward that I will encounter a bit of madness or derangement that reads as a slap to the face. 

We'll be looking at the last section later this week!

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On the Phandelvers, Part II: The Town of Phandalin

The first review is here.

Liveblog! First section, PRETTY GOOD.

Now we get to town which is where I predict things will go haywire. OR WILL THEY?

The towns are a reclaimed ruin?! (+1)

Noting at this point that the players being from the extremely cosmopolitanism Neverwinter means they have a very good excuse for knowing a lot of random D&D tropes.

"When the characters explore Phandalin, you don't need to keep track of how much time is spent at each location. Instead, imagine that you're directing an old-style western movie. . . To begin, ask the players where they want to go and what they want to do in town. . . When the players pick a spot, refer to the description."

Checkpoint reached, activate theme park!

Seriously, I'm being derisive, but it's good advice.

Oh, hay, look, an almost useful NPC summary! No personality cues, but it has names and who they are and what quest they give. I mean WotC has heard of a relationship map, right?

You are not expected to fight the NPC's because you have no reason to fight them. But I'm totally stoked that it says that if you do, where to find their expected stats. (NPC's are for killing!!)

Town Descriptions


Am I wrong or is the location organization scheme random? It sure isn't alphabetical and it's not numbered. 

Talkin' bout the inn

It's good that they have some NPC's hanging out at the inn with information, but this is a real missed opportunity. Here is how a miner is described.

"Lanar, a miner." 

I'm glad that we are all for basic tropes and keeping things simple. Maybe I'm spoiled from playing in our wonderful online community for so long. But would it have been that hard to write:

"Lanar, a miner with a handlebar mustache, physical fitness buff"

The option for players to explore if they are those kinds of players, or for the DM to direct them to the inn which acts as a hub to the various quest lines is fantastic. Good design.

Talkin' bout the town

Damn it Forgotten Realms. "The Order of the Gauntlet" Really? And while we are on the subject: Phandalin? Pact of Phandelver? I would be soooo much more excited about this adventure if it took place in the dunfalcon. (Greyhawk, don't you know). I'm going to rename everything with the bestest village name generator table on the internet. The characters are now in Crapleigh, and they hear about the Pact of Crapdelver.

Isn't it better already?

Each location offers a quest or two, which is pretty bog-standard. Several locations also offer the opportunity for different members of the group to join different factions! How nice! Different character temperaments can join different factions.

Is that a Quantum Orge in my scenario or are you just excited to attack me?

Is the Redband Encounter a Quantum Ogre?

Well, the "capstone" of the second section is the clearing out of the Redband bandits. So the hook of "They seek out the party and pick a fight in the street" is to encourage characters to confront the Redband before they venture into the more dangerous wilderness. 

As written, however, I would have to say it is not a Quantum Ogre. It specifically says they seek the players out. The module explictly provides support for avoiding the encounter below. There is certainly the possibility for the players to take action that might prevent them from being found.

Logistically, very few groups playing 5e will want to avoid the encounter. Every location in town makes the Redbrands seem suspicious. But if they did want to avoid the encounter, then there is support in the module for that. One townsperson just wants the leader killed so they can take over. The rules support free knockouts and capture allows the players to interrogate the bandits.
"If [the player's] aren't clear that investigating the Redbrand hideout should be their next move, have one of the NPC's they've already met in town make the suggestion directly and point them towards Tresendar Manor. If the players want to follow other leads in the area, it's ok to move on to part 3 of the adventure and let the ruffians wait. The next time the characters return to Phandalin, make it clear that the Redbrands are causing even more trouble, and that the need to be dealt with."
I'm particularly chuffed by the decision to include the underlined Quantum Ogre advice in the article above.
What's in it for me. . .

If your players cannot make a decision because they lack information, give it to them!


The Redbrand Hideout


Another dungeon with multiple entrances and multiple paths? What is this I'm reading?

Ok. Perception skills suck. They are a shortcut to avoid play. But they are going to be a feature of these games, and in 5e, it's at least somewhat more difficult to raise your search skill due to the bounded accuracy. Let's look at how they handle it.

"A waterproof satchel hangs from a submerged rope attached along the south wall of the cistern, about 2 feet below the surface of the water. It's not visible from above the water, but can be found by a DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check or automatically by a character probing the cistern with a pole or jumping in."
How does the Wisdom (Perception) check work?
". . .you need to describe where you are looking for the DM to determine your chance of success. For example, a key is hidden beneath a set of folded clothes in the top drawer of a bureau. If you tell the DM that you pace around the room, looking at the walls and furnature for clues, you have no chance of finding the key, regardless of your Wisdom (Perception) check result. You would have to specify that you were opening the drawers or searching the bureau in order to have any chance of success." -- Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules, page 61
So basically, "I search the room" gives a fairly low chance to discover the satchel (around 50% for characters with an 18 Wisdom) whereas looking in the pool obviates the need for a roll and supersedes character skill. Note also, that it requires an active check to discover. Passive perception won't find it.

Hidden treasure, discoverable by player skill. There's no cost check to using the Wisdom (Perception) skill -- no wandering monsters -- but their could be very trivially. And even if they do use the skill, they have to indicate what they are doing so the DM can "determine your chance of success"!

My biggest complaint is that the DM shouldn't be determining the chance of success. He should be determining the difficulty of finding the object.

I am officially giving the module a pass for the grass-growing, paint-drying, dull as rocks magic items. Some of them are at least named with history, even if they are +1 sword, does +1 to hit and damage.

Oh! My eyeball just twitched! Hoop jumping!

"Clever characters might even persuade the bugbears to help deal with "traitors" or "impostors" elsewhere in the dungeon. If you don't think the players are doing a great job roleplaying the deception, you can have the character who is doing most of the talking make a DC 15 Charisma (Deception) check to convince the bugbears to do what the party wants."

Sigh. Can they please not teach DM's to force players to jump through subjective hoops?

Yay! I got to complain about something. *grumble* *grumble* *stupid module being pretty well written in spite of it being published by the big evil corporation*

Droop is no Meepo. He's a goblin you meet, being abused by big, nasty, bugbears.

Wtf is a Nothic?

What the F&^% is a Nothic. Oh look a picture.

I'm here to party!
Nope, still not helping. Reading the description. Once crazy wizards, unlock player secrets, hunger for flesh, not trustworthy. 

So basically a weird monster that does rotting damage with its gaze. That's actually kind of boring. Again, I'm spoiled. It should have weird alien motivations that convince the party to work with it in spite of it being completely and wholly evil. 

It's sure as heck no Meepo.

Spoilers

The bad spider is a drow. I'm bored already. Maybe I will be surprised when I reach that section.


Things I would have to do to run the town adventure


  • Rewrite the NPC reference
  • Keep a whiteboard for the players to use as a quest journal, a' la video games. 
  • Draw pictures of each NPC
  • Rewrite the locations and the quests/factions/NPC's at each location so I don't have to flip through the book. 
This isn't really the module's fault. It has to be the way it is for new players. If they opened it up and it looked like an accounting ledger (which is what my references tend to resemble) they would put it down and never play it. It's nice and welcoming and easy to read and fairly densely packed with information and adventure hooks. 

Gah, it could be better but it's pretty good.


We did tell them how and they mostly listened. Sigh. I'm sure the Player's Handbook will ruin everything and fighters will get worse and wizards better.

On a Deep Carbon Observatory

I guess this is the week where I read things and tell you about them. AM I DOING A GOOD JOB?

Well, up till now, probably. I think it's probably a terrible idea to read Deep Carbon Observatory and then go back to Phandelver. It's just not fair to Phandelver. It's not like they have anyone on team "Official Publisher" as brilliant as +Patrick Stuart.

What is it?


A module about finding lost treasure.

(It's a nightmare, run, run away)

The beginning. 

You are immediately presented with three terrible situations as you enter town. You can possibly resolve one, while other people drown, commit suicide, or are eaten by cannibals. When you resolve your situation OR when d4 minutes pass, two or three more things begin to happen nearby of a similar nature. This continues six more times, each choice leaving more and more people to die.
A man struggles with a makeshift raft full of children and the old. Focused only on his task, ignoring all else. Callao will lose control of the craft and it will slip away -- Deep Carbon Observatory
Or
An old man drags a drowned body. Curtis Ghyl, naked and starved, curses death as he takes his wife’s corpse out into the wilderness, saying he is ‘going home’. He will die soon.-- Deep Carbon Observatory

There are no lily white heroes here.

Each encounter is evocative and interesting, as well as genuinely a little sad.

The overlooked detail.


However I have higher standards for DIY projects then official published material, and the key fore each of the encounters required a bit of flipping back and forth. There are some logistical issues. Lists are sometimes orphaned with their last entry on the next page. Some text has erratic leading/kerning/spacing. There are some DM facing information that is difficult for the players to access.

These complaints are petty.

All poisons should look like this poison list.
5. Thaumo-Conductor: Barbed bolt with metre-long hair-thing copper wire attached. 1 hp damage on hit, 2d6 to pull out. Wire does not impede movement but grounds all offensive magic within ten metres in your flesh, regardless of who casts it. -- Deep Carbon Observatory
There are terrors and horrors on the journey met. But the true strangeness is gained once the observatory is reached. The characters are thrust into a super-science nightmare. Moths that obliterate space around a space allowing your perception to inhabit it. Salt nymph philosophers. Nightmares and mysteries in the dark. And wealth beyond their dreams if they can survive with their bodies and souls intact. . .

A special note about the art by Scrap Princess. It's wonderful. You look forward to the next illustration, never sure what you're going to see, and you find more in them each time you look.

I have seen it referred to as avant garde. That's irrelevant. I would run it with a bog standard Hackmaster party. Success has more to do with player skill than power and levels. The opportunity for wealth and the problems that come with it are vast.

The nearest I can figure is avant garde is code for everything in this module is interesting and novel.

What was the last module you bought where that was true?

It's 10$ and there's a print version coming soon.

There are three waiting servants here. The first is a network of delicate capillaries filled with diamond dust; the second a network of arteries filled with ruby light; and the third a network of veins glowing umber. They were all taken from the same man. They will do no harm and only serve. -- Deep Carbon Observatory

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On the Chthonic Codex

+Palolo Greco is at it again.

This is the Chthonic Codex, Volume III of III, Mysteries and Mystagogues.

How is it?

Well, there's a desert on fire, filled with ruins. and a series of moist chthonic cavities, protected from the infernal conflagration above.

Protected. Ha!

What is it?

Mysteries & Mystagogues is the Game Master’s guide for Chthonic Codex. It’s not really structured as a typical GM book. M&M is really an improv tool for running a Chthonic Codex game. - Lost Pages

It's a book full of tables for subsystems for OSR games. It's thick with a flavorful setting, but not one that invalidates whatever setting you're currently using. The setting comes across in the tone -- one of a world where everything is deadly and mysterious and capricious, and everyone else is either your master, knows more than you, or is using you for their own ends.

Cudgel the clever has certainly met more than one result on these tables.

Tables full of interesting things:

In addition to the picaresque generation of 'what happens next' there's a section for achievements, that once unlocked, grant the players certain bonuses. It's a neat idea for the players to do certain things and be surprised by a small bonus.

There's a series of tables that describe steps needed to research and unlock the power of new spells. You discover a mystery and need certain paraphernalia to confirm your analysis, then you gather a key and travel to a location to discover the mystery of the spell via some act. Rather:

Mordecus the vain upon finding three misplaced library books notes that the second words of each of the titles spell out "fire" "ball" "spell". Taking this as a sign, he gathers four strands of hair from a zombified toddler. After examining these items, he discovers his three omens. He must acquire a necklace of strung together nick-nacks and travel to the broken wall of unescapeable thoughts where he must spend a few days with a chum and a plum, bum and drink rum, and strum and hum to unlock the knowledge of the spell.
Soon, the Mystagogues arrive! On the wall, one of the many marks, a portrait of a strange man begins to speak. He says the initiate must visit the Hidden Well in the Cave of Sorrowful Joy and use the spell Reveal the Unseen to see the well. Once discovered, the portrait instructs Mordecus that he must shed his blood into the well and the knowledge of the spell will be yours. The portrait then grants you the boon of learning the spell you will need, Reveal the Unseen, due to the quality of your plum, rum, and humming. 

The example above was randomly generated from the table in about 4 minutes. Maybe had to roll about 10d6. THIS WAS AN EFFECTIVE USE OF MY TIME.

Then there's the tables of Mysteric Powers. Or parodies thereof. Small unique abilities that characters or people may possess. Oh, and a giant table of Laws of Reality.

So, that might be totally awesome to discover in play.
A law of reality: Bones if held, mutate insects during winter
Do a few of those at the start of the campaign and just keep an eye out. It sounds like fun, I'll almost certainly do some of these before the start of my next campaign.

There's a complete system for generating dynamic Hypogean contents (caverns and underground caves in the mythic underworld), encounters, and artifacts.

It is a beautiful .pdf, and I cannot wait until the difficulties get worked out and I can get my print copy.

For 6$ it's a heck of a deal.


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On 5e Backgrounds: Ratcatcher

Ratcatcher


You earned a living on the streets catching rats. You got little respect from anyone and there are few that would consider you their peer. You know a bit about the underworld and a bit about tracking and a lot about ways to both kill and eat rats. You'd be surprised how often that knowledge comes in useful to fancy pants adventurer types.
Skill Proficiency: Animal Handling and Nature
Tool Proficiency: Choose one of Poisoner's Kit or Thieves' tools. Pick one Musical Instrument.
Equipment: Common clothes, Crowbar, Hunting Trap, Hooded Lantern, 2 Oil Flasks, 1d6 rat corpses in a sack, Iron Cage, Shovel, 50' Hempen Rope, A Small but Vicious Mastiff

Feature: Murine Nature


You've been chasing and catching rats for too long. You can squeeze though spaces as a small creature, no matter your size, and you have advantage on rolls versus animal venom and disease. You also have an intuitive sense about tunnels and caverns. While underground, you can generally tell which direction is north and determine which directions eventually lead  to passages up and down.

Suggested Characteristics


You do work no one else is willing to do. Not only that, but you can't even talk about the horrors that come up through the sewers. Unlike most hoity-toity adventurers, there's no chest of gold at the end of your day, just a few coppers the guv'ment can scrape up, plus whatever you can sell your rats for at the market. You do it anyway.

d8 Personality

  1. You like being alone, scouting ahead. That way no one can be mean to you.
  2. You don't talk much, because you enjoy making other people uncomfortable. That's the same reason you don't bathe.
  3. You're only comfortable in the tunnels and underground. Being in the sunlight makes you nervous. 
  4. You really like meeting people and talking with them. You have a broad definition of people that includes animals. Especially rats. 
  5. You hate disease and are fastidiously clean. It is extremely important that you eradicate everything that makes people sick!
  6. Underground you can hear the whispers better than you can above ground. Sometimes they tell you very interesting secrets. You're pretty sure other people might be trying to get the secrets from you.
  7. You like rats. And dogs. And cats, pigs, and goats. It's people you don't like. Animals aren't duplicitous. And they are loyal. Unlike people.
  8. You get to know things other people don't, because you see their trash and garbage. You really like that feeling. Maybe someday you'll know an awful lot about a lot of people!

d6 Ideal

  1. Duty: If you don't stop the rats, who will? (Lawful)
  2. Merciful: You can catch and release the rats into their own habitat, doing as little harm as possible (Good)
  3. Nosy: You can find out all kinds of secrets about people in the sewers (Neutral)
  4. Explorer: You find beauty in new and secret places (Chaotic)
  5. Freedom: You take a bad enough job and no one bothers you. (Chaotic)
  6. Power: No one complains if you practice making poisons on rats (Evil)
d6 Bond

  1. You saw something once, down in the sewers, and it told you it was coming back for you. Now you hunt for something to stop it before it can get you.
  2. You had a pet rat once. You're not so much a rat catcher, so much as you're trying to kill all the other rats so they don't get in the way of finding your friend. 
  3. Ratcatching goes well with your drug vices. You're always looking for another chance to get high.
  4. You've got a missus and six kids at home to support. You've always been too busy working to get any kind of better job.
  5. Your mastiff is your best friend. He loves catching rats more than anything in the world, and that's why you were a rat-catcher. 
  6. There are people after you and no one has ever looked twice at a rat-catcher.
d6 Flaw

  1. I'm better than everyone else because I'm willing to do what they aren't. 
  2. I hear and see things that sometimes make it difficult to know what's real and what's not.
  3. I love the smell of the sewer hate when I don't smell like it. I like the reaction I get when other people get a load of me! 
  4. I don't like people very much and crowds freak me out. When they talk to me I get nervous and just do or say whatever I have to to make them leave me alone.
  5. I've seen people act like rats, I've got more respect for them than I do folks. Easier to kill a man than a rat, besides.
  6. I didn't learn my education so good 'cause my head damage! Mama only dropped me two times (Hold up 6 fingers).

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On the Phandelvers

So, did you know the Dungeons and Dragons starter set came out?

What's this? A lost mine in Phandelver? Guess I'll spoil the crap out of this online.

*flip, flip*

There's a green dragon on the cover. Holy crap, there's the lair of the dragon on the cover right in the middle of the module. "The character's aren't likely to slay the dragon". An encounter they can't win!? What kind of D&D is this?

Oh, Look. A description of the DM's role that doesn't say he's a storyteller.

A list of DM Advice I can read without going blind in my right eye from rage! Keep the gaming moving? Let the players contribute? Be consistent and fair? Don't ask for ability checks unless there's a challenge?

It's nice to see that a DC 10 check is an easy check and doesn't scale to player level. The cap on the DC's really reminds me of some of the modular systems in old school gaming.

Somebody put the word Boxed Text in bold and it makes me sad. It's followed by instructions to read or paraphrase the boxed text. Sad. I consider that this possibly gets a pass because it's a module for new players who are 12 and then I realize that is exactly why it doesn't get a pass.

Oh, here's some text telling you that you won't find monster stats in the adventure. You'll need to flip back to the back. Super-helpful to the DM running the adventure! *sigh*.

Background


Am I spoiled? I think I'm spoiled. 

"Five hundred years ago, dwarves and gnomes made an agreement known as the Phandelver's Pact, by which they would share a rich mine in a wondrous cavern known as Wave Echo Cave. Times were good, and the nearby human town of Phandalin prospered as well. But then disaster struck when orcs swept through the North and laid waste to all in their path." -- Lost Mine of Phandlever

"Once, long ago there was a Kingdom of unspeakable wealth that traded in dark wonders, secrets and death. And many of the strange things now on earth were theirs. . .Then, as their kingdom slowly died, they hid their treasure palace in a lake, and set there: sleepless and indestructible guards. Everyone knows where it is, on the Lock, upriver of Carrowmore. No-one who goes there has ever come back." - Deep Carbon Observatory
To be fair: This background in Mines is like four paragraphs long. That is eleventy-two less paragraphs than is traditional for the publisher of D&D.

That is 70 of the 89 words of the Deep Carbon Observatory background.

The Forgotten Realms


Neverwinter Concept Art
Holy crap, Phandalin is like 50 miles from Neverwinter! That town has like 25,000 people. Oh, heck. The players are coming from Neverwinter!

"The adventure begins as the player characters are escorting a wagon full of provision and supplies from Neverwinter to Phandalin." -- Lost Mine of Phandlever
The 50 building town of Phandalin
"Neverwinter was regarded by many, including the erudite travel writer Volo, as the most cosmopolitan and the most civilized city in all of Faerûn, quite a reputation, considering the breadth and variety of the continent." (Forgotten Realms wiki)

No provincial adventurers these! They are leaving New York to go on a grand adventure in Bald Knob, Arkansas, Population 200!

Goblin Arrows

"Any character can drive a wagon, and no particular skill is necessary." -Mines of Phandelver

I am super glad that the actual text doesn't contradict the rules. There's that proficiency in land vehicles and you don't need it for stuff like sitting in a seat and leading oxen. Saying this out loud in front of the module reiterates the early statement about not needing to roll for simple or basic things. Yay.

"As you come around a bend, you spot two dead horses sprawled about 50 feet ahead of you, blocking the path. . . any character who approaches the horses can identify them as belonging to Gundren Rockseeker and Sildar Hallwinter." -- Lost Mine of Phandlever
More giving information the players should have to the players without skill check hoop jumping! I'm six pages into this adventure and haven't blacked out from rage and confusion once!

Also, finding the dead horses of your boss who you're going to meet in the road is a good hook. No explanation. Just surprise bad news.

An adventures first combat


Should be simple, right? There's a nice walk-though for first time Dungeon Masters, explaining step by step how to run combat.

"Keep track of everyone's initiative count in the margins of this book or on a separate piece of paper." -- Lost Mine of Phandlever

Mark up the book is awesome advice! Heck, I'll go ahead and take the time to write in the goblins stats where I need them.

The Goblin Trail


The outcome of the battle isn't assumed. Perhaps the players lose, perhaps they capture and not kill the goblins. After the combat we get this nice bit of text -- the first text in the module that causes my eye to twitch.

"Any inspection of the area reveals that the creatures have been using this place to stage ambushes for some time. A trail hidden behind thickets on the north side of the road leads northwest. A character who succeeds on a DC 10 Wisdom (Survival) check recognizes that about a dozen goblins have come and gone along the trail, as well as signs of two human-sized bodies being hauled away from the ambush site." -- Lost Mine of Phandlever

That. . . really isn't so bad.  Players have to choose to investigate. If they do, they will find the trail. Most will have over a 50% chance to notice that bodies are dragged, and even if they don't, the hidden information is A) specific and B) not necessary to the players. Personally, I'd explicitly say that it's a goblin trail outside the skill check.

Yes the module is super wordy but again, I don't hold that against it. It's an introduction set for people who never played before. If Menzer Basic came out today, I think some of us would burn it in a fire.

Along the trail are some traps. There's a lot of talk about how much healing there is, but. . . If I fall down and take 1d6 damage, are we resting for an hour and losing my 1 healing hit die? Are we drinking a 50 gp healing potion from my 4d4/5d4 x 10 starting gold? I've only got 6-14 hit points. I probably already took a short rest after the combat.

Whoo-hoo! 75 Exploration XP for finding the goblins hideout! Or wait, is that story XP? Are you trying to control my behavior and steal my agency 5e? I'M WATCHING YOU.

Cragmaw Hideout

General features is super-useful and essential. Let's me know logistical details about the complex to adjudicate player actions. Holy smokes! There's a box describing what information you can get from captured goblins. Sweeet.

Hm, this map is a lair with 4 rooms. From the entrance I can go to 3 of the rooms. It is a multi-level map with a bridge over a river for part of it. part of it loops back over another part of it. Is the first cave of the new D&D a Jaquayed map? What strange universe am I living in? Apparently it's the universe where both DM keyed and player facing maps for hangout online games are for sale from the artist.

The cave contains some wolves, a few goblins, including one totally willing to betray his boss, a captured human NPC to rescue, an arrogant bugbear, a few traps and surprises that can make things very difficult for a party, interesting battlefields and a chest with treasure.

Also noting the longest boxed text in the cave is 5 sentences. Upon finishing this first small cave, the players will have enough experience to become second level and pick a focus for their characters.

The End of Part I


It's wordy, filled with overused tropes, and contains few surprises or anything too weird or strange. But you're not killing rats.

For someone that hasn't ever played before, it's a great funnel to the following sections of the adventure. The module assumes people who have never role-played before, and presents them with quite a few options and freedom to learn both the rules and how to take actions to obviate the rules and bend them to their advantage, as well as punishing them in a possibly lethal way for neglecting to do so.

We'll be looking at parts 2-4 in the coming days on the Hack & Slash Blog.

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