Dungeons & Dragons

Site update 2 May 2021

I added some more gaming recaps to the Roleplaying section. Part of Tomb of Annihilation (5e), Forge of Fury (5e), Lost Mine of Phandelver 2019 (5e), and Servants of the Cinder Queen (Dungeon World). Tomb and Lost Mine were in-person games, while Forge and Cinder Queen were purely online using Roll20.

Curse of Strahd 5e

I have been running this campaign on Roll20 since mid-2020 and it is still going on. I’ve long heard it was one of the best 5th edition campaigns, and now that’s we’ve put the foot to the pedal and ground out a sizeable chunk of the adventure, I would have to agree that it is one of the better ones – if not the best. I never got into the Ravenloft setting in 2nd edition (which I now regret) but I did run Ravenloft I6 several years back (link here) and it was great fun. But Curse of Strahd is a different beast, taking the PCs from 1st to 9th level (more or less) and pitting them not just against Strahd and his deplorable castle of death, but the whole kingdom of Barovia and the myriad NPCs and mysteries enmeshed within. And there are a LOT of NPCs and mysteries.

One of our favorites so far has to be Pidlwick II, the evil Chucky doll. Although the PCs were supposed to meet him much later in the campaign, I loved the picture and idea of the character so much that I transplanted him to Vallaki and included him as part of a Tarroka clue to directly benefit a party member, and used Pidlwick as a permanent ring of regeneration. The player benefiting from P2 loves him so much and would rather have his own PC die than give up the evil doll! Now that is devotion.

Princes of the Apocalypse – Reloaded


I doubt anyone is reading this 6 year old D&D campaign anymore, but if you ARE, I have reloaded and updated all the links to the stories so they should be accessible now. Princes gets some flack in the community for not being that great, but I thought it was awesome. I did change things up some, so maybe that had something to do with it. We never got to the absolute end – maybe one session away – but life interrupted and the campaign had to stop. However, the penultimate session really works well as a campaign capper and was fun as heck, so I’m happy enough with that. My favorite parts of Princes were all the sessions at Feathergale Spire, and the side quest at Yartar that I inserted myself, it wasn’t part of the adventure really except as a passing mention.



Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft


Hot off the Wizards of the Coast press is a brand new sourcebook that I’ve been eyeing for a while. As a DM currently running (and loving) Curse of Strahd, this book may come a little too late, but from what I have seen so far it is way more than just “Strahd and Barovia.” Much more.

The cover notably has the quintessential vampire himself, along with Van Richten and Esmerelda (who nearly died herself in my current campaign at the fists of a grumpy golem in the Amber Temple). So while the sourcebook certainly does help one flesh out Barovia, it is much more as it fleshes the Domains of Dread as a whole, which incorporates other demiplanes and darklords other than Barovia and Strahd, including (but not limited to):

Bluetspur and the God-Brain, Darkon and the Inheritors, Mordent and Wilfred Godefroy, G’henna, The Nightmare Lands, Sea of Sorrows and more. It’s a book for DMs and players, but mostly DMs, which is nice because the majority of 5e books geared toward players don’t interest me.


DR. VIKTRA MORDENHEIM, DARKLORD OF LAMORDIA

Some of the new rules include:

Seeds of Fear

Aside from supernatural sources of dread and monsters who strike terror in their victims, fear is subjective and often quite personal. A battle-hardened warrior and a reclusive scholar might not deal with frightful circumstances in the same way. During character creation, a player can choose up to two Seeds of Fear to represent things their character finds truly frightening. The Seeds of Fear table offers some examples. These can change over time as characters grow, overcome old fears, and discover new uncertainties. Work with players to determine when their Seeds of Fear might change.

A character never has more than three Seeds of Fear; if you gain a new seed and already have three, choose which of your old fears is replaced by the new one.


Fear

An overwhelming foe or horrid monster doesn’t need magic or some supernatural ability to strike fear into the most stalwart adventurers. During any frightful encounter, you can call on a character to make a saving throw to resist being scared. The character must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened until the end of their next turn.

Any of the following circumstances might be reasons to have one or more characters make saving throws to resist being frightened:

  • The character experiences one of their Seeds of Fear.
  • An enemy is immune to the character’s attacks or spells.
  • An enemy demonstrates it can deal enough damage to reduce a character to 0 hit points in one blow.
  • A creature is alien or monstrous in ways the character never could have imagined.
  • An object undermines a character’s understanding of reality.

Stress

Charging headlong into terrifying situations is the stock in trade for adventurers. Among the Domains of Dread, though, periods of respite between harrowing experiences can be rare. Even the hardiest adventurers find themselves worn down over time, their performance suffering as they struggle to cope with the dread and despair.

Various circumstances might cause a character stress. Stress can be tracked numerically as a Stress Score, increasing in trying situations and decreasing with care. At your discretion, a character’s Stress Score might increase by 1 when one of the following situations occurs:

  • A tense, dramatic moment, especially one involving one of a character’s Seeds of Fear
  • Every 24 hours the character goes without finishing a long rest
  • Witnessing the death of a loved one
  • A nightmare or darkest fear made real
  • Shattering the character’s fundamental understanding of reality
  • Witnessing a person transform into a horrid or unnatural creature

When a character makes an attack roll, an ability check, or a saving throw, they must apply their current Stress Score as a penalty to the roll.



Now, of course these rules are all optional and are ultimately meant to invoke a sense of dread that pervade the various domains. In my current Curse of Strahd campaign, fear and dread ALREADY pervades the campaign pretty darn well, so I’m probably not going to jump in and make it any harder (except in maybe some exceptional circumstances). The players long ago learned that in Ravenloft you have to pick your fights, and running and hiding is a very viable solution to things you can’t beat to death with heavy weapons and harsh words.

This is not a comprehensive review of the Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft but just a quick heads up and nod to its existence. After I’ve had more time to read and absorb the material I will probably add a more in-depth analysis.

Until then, keep gaming!


Level Up – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2021

Coming Soon to a Game Store Near YOU!!!


I have to admit I’m somewhat excited about this. As a DM who has run 5th edition D&D since the beginning around 2014, while I do like the game, I feel it has run short of options and could use a new coat of paint. I’ve been slapping new paint on it for a while already, and it works well enough. 5e is simplistic in that adding or modifying rules doesn’t really unbalance it much (if at all) so you can house rule to your devious heart’s desire. But lots of people don’t want to take the time, or players themselves don’t trust someone’s house rules unless there is an official codified book they can turn to for answers and clarification.

Introduce A5e – Level Up.


From Enworld Publishing and Enworld, one of the world’s most popular websites for Dungeons & Dragons the past 20 years, Morrus and his team have been busy crafting Level Up with extensive feedback from gamers and playtesters. When released summer of 2021 it will be fully backwards compatible with original 5e (O5e) so you should be able to have a regular fighter and LU fighter side by side in the same party and not have any trouble.


CHANGES & UPDATES

There are far too many to list in this blog, but refer to the publisher’s page for a full rundown of changes A5e is bringing to the game. A few highlights include:

  • A detailed exploration system that utilizes a new Supply mechanic, so that PC supplies dwindle as they explore the lonely and forgotten moors and roads of their world.
  • Combat Maneuvers – to give martial fighting characters a wide range of options similar to spellcasters.
  • Knacks – which are akin to mini-feats that characters acquire as they level up.
  • Monster Legend & Lore, Signs and Behavior; traits the PCs can notice or learn or observe about a monster prior to meeting it or during an encounter.
  • Exploration Challenges, Boons and Monster Sign

And much more. That’s really just a very brief notation on things that Level Up will be addressing. So, if you are a DM or Player who has wanted your 5e game to be a little more complex, a little more challenging and a little more detailed, A5e might be right up your alley.

Master of Ravenloft (1986)

Master of Ravenloft, 1986

Here’s a blast from the past. Going through an old attic box I randomly picked up Master of Ravenloft, and since Curse of Strahd is the 5e campaign I’m currently running, it seemed quite the coincidink. Or…it as FATE would have it. Which seems much more appropriate to Ravenloft. I posted the other day too about the new Ravenloft campaign setting from WotC, so this is just Barovia-lovin’ left and right.

I actually don’t remember reading this one. I’m sure I did, but the details escape me. I recall the earlier D&D Endless Quest books with more clarity, like Return to Brookmere and Dungeon of Dread. I do think I’m going to give Master of Ravenloft a looksee though. I wonder how it compares to the module itself – I6 – or if it is a fairly watered down version. Flipping through I noticed an entry about the fabled Sunsword, and my 7th level PCs just newly acquired the lightsaber from the Amber Temple (after a terrifying trip through its halls).


OOhh! A MIMIC!

Well, of course the Choose Your Own Adventure is watered down. You play a lone paladin named Jeren Sureblade (snicker-snicker, Really, Jean?) who is determined to face the Lord of Ravenloft and prevail. Which, we know is absolutely impossible in just about any edition of Dungeons & Dragons unless you’re a super high level warrior or cleric decked out with more magic items than in Demogorgon’s treasure vault.

WELL, , looking at the inserted character sheet (AD&D gamebooks had character stats, unlike the simpler Endless Quest books) Mr. Sureblade is a 15th level friggin’ paladin. So ok, he’s badass. In D&D that’s damn near demi-god status. He’s also got a Rod of Lordly Might in his back pocket, not a shabby weapon at all, no not at all.



This makes me wonder how a 15th level paladin in 5th edition D&D would fare against Count Strahd von Zarovich with the Sunsword and a Rod of Lordly Might and no backup. Would he stand a fighting chance? Could he actually KILL the vampire? In a straight up fight, in a closed environment with no escape – yes. Yes he could. But a smart and clever Strahd has many escape routes, many contingency plans, and many, many, many allies to cover his escape. Ideally anyway.

My party hasn’t reached Castle Ravenloft yet. They did meet Strahd once at a very formal and entertaining dinner where the vampire told them some of his dark history. The PCs were treated well enough, and in a way they gained a deeper understanding of their foe, and a small amount of sympathy. But not too much. They still want him dead, if for no other reason than that they can’t leave Barovia until his grip on the demi-plane of dread is released.

But that final confrontation is coming. It is well nigh, bustling at the horizon like dark storm clouds. Can they defeat the devil of Barovia and find their way home, or will their souls be forever tormented in the Mists of Ravenloft?


Online Gaming vs. In Person Gaming

Even before the Covid pandemic hit the US officially in March 2020, I had been planning to shift my gaming routine from the tabletop to virtual online. I had a good gaming group and a great game room for physical play, but I had friends out of town where that wasn’t a viable option, and given the leaps and bounds VTTs had taken over the years, it seemed a no-brainer to engage the new technology. Despite my reluctance to learn a new skill and software. And that was really the main obstacle: I love gaming in person, have done it for decades, and I did NOT want to learn an entirely new suite of abilities in order to facilitate the same thing. Plus, I had a hefty amount of money invested in miniatures and models and maps for use at the table. Moving the operation online would invalidate all of that.


DECEMBER 2019 – Lost Mine of Phandelver

Now, at the time I was running Lost Mine of Phandelver. Well, running it for the second time; the first was at the beginning of 5e, but now I ran it for a new group of players, and it was better the second go around. They had even made it all way to the titular Lost Mine and weren’t too far from meeting the Black Spider when – you know. Pandemic happened and everything shut down. Pretty much permanently. Well, for the next 12+ months anyway. I don’t think any of us really saw that coming and just how long the isolation would last.

Anyhoo, my point of all this is that I had to make a drastic shift from in-person to online games practically overnight. I had a few gamers help me out who had prior experience with Roll20, so that was our go-to system. I even purchased Fantasy Grounds, but for some reason that VTT didn’t click in my mind as well as Roll20 did. I think it works fine for online gaming, and the automation is better than Roll20, but I just couldn’t get past the system’s quirks.

The first small campaign I ran was Forge of Fury from the 5e Tales of the Yawning Portal. This was just supposed to be a practice run and not an in-depth campaign, and at first that’s how it went. And yeah, the first two sessions were rough. I didn’t know how to navigate Roll20, the layers and lighting effects gave me an infernal headache, and I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough to wrap my brain around thing. It was depressing. I had lost access to my favorite hobby! Or rather, I now had a pale imitation of my favorite hobby.


Early first Forge session screenshot

Well, I had a better time the second or third session, but during the interim between games I practiced Roll20 about 4 hours a day. I wanted to run this game seamlessly, and I wanted to record it in such a way as I did my old in person games; snapping shots with a camera to edit and upload. I eventually installed a program called Sharex that allowed me to instantly screen grab whatever I needed with the touch of a button, and that let me tell the stories I wanted to much easier. In fact, once I got used to “covering” a 2D map, it was much easier to snap a screen than it was to take photographs of the physical game board. Of course, the 2D maps don’t have the wonderful 3D physicality of the game table, but they have something the table can’t remotely match: dynamic lighting.



I’ve read on forums that some people don’t care about dynamic lighting, or think it is overrated. To each their own of course. Some people also hate gaming with miniatures, and I think you mofo’s are crazy. Miniatures are awesome (but more about that another post). Dynamic lighting let me do things at the virtual game table I couldn’t replicate in person. I could have shadows and darkvision and realistic torches and lanterns and it could all be done visually and not require the player’s imagination.

Was this easy to accomplish in Roll20? Hell no. It took a lot of practice to work out the kinks, but the end result was very satisfying. I think any of the VTT’s that utilize advanced lighting code will have their own quirks to work through.


Forge of Fury – 60 foot darkvision example

So 2020 ended up with me diving into the deep end of Roll20 online play, subscribing to the Pro account and tinkering with codes and API and all that jazz. I will never understand coding but I admire those of you that do. Roll20 needs an overhaul in my opinion, and I’ve only been using it for over a year. Too much of the cool stuff is hard to access and harder to manipulate. But when it works it works pretty well.

On a side note, I have heard that Foundry is an excellent new VTT and although I have it, I haven’t mucked with the mechanics too much yet. I’m sure that will change.

The point of this post those is the transformation that took place the more I ran online games. I liked them. I REALLY liked them. And the more we played every week – multiple times week after week – my appreciation of the medium grew. Access to maps, tokens and props were all available at a few clicks of the mouse. I used to painstakingly print maps and cut and tape them together, roll them up and transport them to my destination. With online play, that’s all a thing of a past, and now I could indulge in fantastic color maps for mundane encounters with no combat needed whatsoever.

I still love gaming in person, but the perks and convenience of playing online can’t be ignored. I’ve had as much fun from the DM side of the screen as I ever did before. I still play with maps and props and miniatures and sound effects and voices and acting. None of that has changed. We don’t use cameras to see each other (that’s a downside) but the benefits of online play in the modern age are still fantastic.

I don’t think I will be giving it up anytime soon.