Tabletop Babble is a new podcast from James Introcaso, once the host of the Round Table on The Tome Show. In his first podcast, he interviewed Mike Mearls. It’s a fascinating interview, where Mike discusses the state of D&D and its future. James kindly gave me permission to post a summary of the interview. Note that this is a summary, not a transcript; it is likely to be very much worth your while to listen to the entire podcast, as Mike and James go into more depth than I do here.
Mike Mearls is the head of the Story Team for D&D. He does long-term creative planning for D&D, which consists of looking at what games they want to do, the storylines they want to explore, and what settings they want to bring back. Chris Perkins may come up with the concept for an individual story, but Mike weaves those stories together with an eye on the bigger picture of D&D, especially in relation to other branded products, such as video games, board games, t-shirts and miniatures. He’s trying to make sure that there’s always something interesting happening. (James Introcaso compares Mike to Kevin Feige…)
Mike believes that the slow release schedule has been a big part of the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D can be big and intimidating, and in earlier editions, the breadth of options allowed for many broken (over-powered) combinations, as well as characters that were (mechanically) quite difficult to understand. Similarly, with settings, the amount of detail published for (say) the Forgotten Realms, would intimidate Dungeon Masters, as they didn’t feel that they could get enough of a handle on them to properly run and design adventures in the setting. The wall of information presented by previous editions so daunted potential players and Dungeon Masters that they wouldn’t even try the game.
The new edition has given an opportunity to all these people a chance to do so, without as many of the barriers that were there. The big “shelf of books” was a big part of the barrier to new people picking up the game. There weren’t clear starting points, and there weren’t clear lines of conversation about the game.
That last is interesting. Mike thinks that, in previous editions, because the release schedule was so cluttered, everyone was talking about different things (and the latest book might not get any attention at all). For a new player, it wasn’t clear what to get after the Player’s Handbook, because people were talking about many different products. Now, with the “event” release schedule, conversations are much more focused on the new product. So, new players might get directed to Storm King’s Thunder, because it’s the new product that everyone is talking about.
Another aspect of this is how the digital culture and D&D culture have melded together. Mike compares the D&D experience to one of his current favourite games, Overwatch. In Overwatch’s case, its publishers built the community for the game before the game was released, through a beta release, through announcements and teaser trailers. Thus when the game was actually released, new players discovered there was an active community around the game, making it easier to approach, with streaming and discussions active.
In D&D, the adventures now have blog-posts, podcasts and youtube videos giving tips and people actually playing them, allowing new players a much easier time of understanding how they work and how to play them. If you buy the starter set, you can find lots of advice and videos and other help you play the game. There’s now a convergence around this which makes for much more of a community feel: “You aren’t playing the game alone anymore.” It’s very easy to step into Storm King’s Thunder because that’s what everyone is talking about.
The release schedule thus focuses everything. You don’t have fifty different products to worry about; only a very small number of them. It’s easier for new players to connect.
Mike admits the D&D team didn’t foresee all of this. The decision to have a slow release schedule comes from surveys that indicated people didn’t want to buy lots of products. Mike, himself, never owned that many D&D books. In 2nd edition, he had the Complete Fighter (a gift), and the core rulebooks, but he didn’t have the urge to buy all the other books. Setting boxed sets? Yes, and Dragon and Dungeon magazines. It was only with 3rd Edition, when he had a full-time job, that he started getting everything, but looking back he thinks his 2E collection was closer to the typical player’s than the much more complete set of 3E. The kicker is that he was using barely any of the 3E material he collected.
Greg Leeds, the former President of Wizards of the Coast, challenged the D&D team to think about why they were producing a book (or more) every month. Was this the best business model? Were they sure this is what people wanted? And so, after a lot of discussion, they came up with the three products a year model. It felt like a reasonable pace, where players had enough time to read the products and use it, and so, by the time the next product came out, you’d be excited for it.
Mike is particularly happy with one rule that isn’t in the Player’s Handbook, but is used in the D&D Adventurers League, that characters can only use the Player’s Handbook plus one other source to create their characters. Players don’t need twenty books to create their characters: at most, they only need two. It sets a more realistic expectation of the typical player, the type of player that were excluded by the “you must have it all” philosophy. So, a new player can join the D&D Adventurers League without needing 20 books first.
Mike tells the story of a player who started trying to play D&D 4E using Player’s Handbook 3, because they treated it like a video game, where you always get the most recent core version of the game. The assumption they made was that the first PHB was outdated – and that everyone would be using the PHB3 instead.
So, the accessibility, the community, the slower product release, and the rise of fantasy in pop-culture have combined to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition a success.
The rise of fantasy in popular culture is quite important. Back in the 80s, if you mentioned you were playing a dwarf, the default assumption would be the dwarfs from Snow White. With the Lord of the Rings films (and many other fantasy products), dwarf now gets equated with Gimli.
Of course, there’s also the upcoming D&D movie (James attempts to get Mike to tell us the plot, but no luck there). The D&D team are involved in a similar manner as with their other licensees – the team acts as experts on D&D lore, making suggestions on locations, creatures and the like. Thus, their partners might need a big scary monster that isn’t a dragon, and the D&D team give suggestions on what it could be. Likewise, for locations in settings.
In some cases, the team makes suggestion on scenes as to what might be more iconic to the audience; for instance, what spells would be used by a wizard in battle. So, what the D&D team do is try to make sure the show (and products) conform to what people expect from D&D. Mike feels that in the 80s and 90s, studios were pretty casual about existing fans, and didn’t try to make sure the lore was right. Now, the studios understand a lot more the importance of the fans, and that getting them on your side to become advocates for the film or show is very important.
Mike thinks the early 2000s, with the release of Lord of the Rings, the Spiderman films and the negative reaction to the Star Wars prequels woke up people to the importance of all of this.
The Unearthed Arcana column is currently producing a lot of playtest material. The D&D team is approaching this from the viewpoint of story first. The story is not easier to create than the mechanics (it’s very easy to say something does 5 extra damage!) The upcoming mystic (psionic) class is a case in point; Mike thinks they’ve spent more time trying to work out what psionics is in the D&D world. How do psionics work in a fantasy world, when there’s already magic in it, and how do you distinguish the mystic from the spell-casting classes?
The team has worked through a lot of concepts as they try to get the visuals and the story right. Their view of the mystic has become that it’s a lonely vocation. Mysticism is about the self, with the psionic power coming from within, and trying to perfect yourself, and unlocking your inner potential. When the team looked at the visuals of this – how does a mystic look? – they came up with the idea of sculpting an inner astral form with your power. When a mystic evokes a discipline, the mystic is using their perfect self to impose their personality reality on the world. This leads to both looking at the personality of the mystic and its visual appearance.
Another effect of the story-first approach is that, when discussions aren’t all mechanics-based, but rather about the story of the characters and the game, it has proved easier for new players to join in those discussions. Talking about a dragon living in the tunnels beneath a sky-castle is much more engaging than just mechanics. Mike compares with the stories that get told about Skyrim – the stories are about the narrative rather than just “I have a powerful magic dagger!”
James asked Mike about his excitement level for the next storyline… a question made harder for Mike by the fact he’s working up to 5 years ahead, and so has a lot of storylines to be excited about! His answer was fun: He’s so excited about the 2017 storylines, that now he’s flipped into worrying that the 2018 storylines won’t match them! There’s one piece of art he’s been using in presentations that all the licensing partners have become very excited about. Mike never wants to be in the position of saying “We’re experts, we’ve done it”. He always wants to be learning and going forward… but the 2017 storylines are going to be hard to top.
Mike’s been happy with all their products, but he always sees things he wants to improve.
Mike asked on twitter a while back about what products Wizards could produce to help people get off the fence and start being Dungeon Masters. One of the things that has come out of that is that Wizards are now looking at the D&D Adventurers League and what role it plays. Not only in its traditional sense of a campaign where you can take the same character from table to table, but as a way of helping people to become Dungeon Masters and becoming better DMs. Mike suggested that over the next year you’ll see a lot of changes to the way Wizards approaches the D&D Adventurers League – not so much on the play side, but on support side, providing articles, podcasts and videos that help DMs prepare the games, breaking down the preparation step-by-step and producing Actual Play videos to help DMs. So, Wizards will be taking more of an active role on the social and teaching side of things.
So, while there has been a rise in videos showing the art of Dungeon Mastering, Mike hopes to shine more light on preparing to run adventures, and showing that it’s not as hard as some might fear.
It’s imperative that D&D keeps growing; Mike thinks it important that they find the barriers to people starting to play the game and remove them.
When 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, it also gained a series of eight adventures that took a group of adventurers from levels 1 to 20. Starting with the Sunless Citadel and continuing through to Bastion of Broken Souls, it demonstrated something that previous editions hadn’t provided: a complete “Adventure Path” series that went the full range of levels. However, players only familiar with the Paizo Adventure Paths would likely not recognise the structure of this original series.
The adventures were mostly stand-alone, to begin with, with only a couple of links between them. Yes, you got a (very) few references to Ashardalon and Gulthias, names that would become important in later adventures, but this wasn’t like – say – Tyranny of Dragons or Kingmaker where everything is part of one connected story. It was very easy to take one of the adventures and just play it; you didn’t need to play those that came before or after, because each adventure was self-contained. At $9.95 each for 32-pages of adventure, they were pretty neat.
The structure of the Sunless Citadel path reminds me most of the structure of many late-1E and 2E campaigns: one where the DM would throw together a bunch of unrelated published adventures because they looked fun. Certainly, this is a style that I’ve played in and employed (many times), with a few adventures hinting it at a later threat, because the DM has looked ahead and seen what the later adventures will hold. The design is “standalone first, connections later”.
So, when I ran my original 3E campaign, we started with The Sunless Citadel, moved through the next couple of adventures, and then wandered off into adventures of my own design – only coming back for a dip into Deep Horizon. And I’m not even sure it was the same campaign… for most of the last 16 years, I’ve been running 2 (or 3) campaigns, sometimes on a weekly basis. And Deep Horizon happily didn’t reference anything else in the other adventures.
Towards the end of 3E, Paizo started publishing Adventure Paths. These covered levels 1-20 to begin with (later fewer levels, due to the poor experiences people had at the highest levels). They’ve continued doing so, using their Pathfinder system. At present, I can see over one-hundred volumes on my shelf of their AP releases – it’s something like 20 Adventure Paths, including their initial releases in Dungeon Magazine.
These are ongoing stories. You start at the beginning, each adventure directly leads into the next, and by the end you’ve played an entire campaign that is (mainly) one story. However, they have a major problem to deal with. The problem isn’t that they’re bad or repetitive (although both could be true), but rather that the periodical release of the adventures – plus the underlying system – causes them to be relatively linear in form. One of the features I encountered when running 3E (over many, many sessions) is that two or three levels gained makes the monsters that were a challenge at the original level now utterly under-powered at the new levels. This is quite unlike how most of 5E plays – it takes a lot longer for monsters to become nonthreatening.
So this has a particular effect on adventure design: each section of an adventure must be set for a particular narrow set of levels. Once you exceed those levels, you need to proceed to the next section lest things get dull. When you add that these adventure paths are published as six chunks, the adventure thus has a straight line pointing in the way to proceed. Players can have a little freedom in each section, but the arrow inevitably points on to the next volume.
Now consider the new Wizards adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. There’s only one of them that could be published as a Paizo Adventure Path – and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons duology. (Even that does interesting things with the form, but it is the most linear and could be broken into more chunks if necessary).
Every other adventure presents an adventure environment. Storm King’s Thunder comes closest to the Paizo form – but could you imagine Paizo printing an AP instalment where you only use 1/5th of the adventure and ignore the other parts? That’s the structure of the Giant Strongholds in SKT. Curse of Strahd and Princes of the Apocalypse are primarily sandboxes, allowing the players to encounter threats in any order (though there are hints as to the best way to encounter things). These are only presentable in a single-book format. Out of the Abyss spends the first half as a sandbox, before wandering into a more traditional quest structure (while still allowing the DM and players the ability to use it as a sandbox if they really feel like it…)
The “bounded accuracy” of 5E makes these sandbox/environment adventures far more interesting than in 3E; the various locations stay relevant for a larger range of levels. Ogres? Yes, you could encounter those from levels 1-10, and they’re likely to still be relevant at all levels, though the nature of the encounter still changes. They could hurt you even when you’re high level – a far cry from the power curve in 3E.
One of the reasons I’ve been so excited about the 5E adventures is because they’re trying new things in their form, something aided by their presentation as single hardcover adventures. They don’t all appeal to everyone, but there are new things being tried, and we’re seeing a lot of exploration of the possibilities of adventure design and presentation. It’s a very exciting time to be reading and running Dungeons & Dragons adventures!
Oh, and Happy New Year! I hope you have a fantastic 2017!
The second of the Unearthed Arcana series on expanding options available to characters is now out. Its topic? Bards!
The two colleges included in the Player’s Handbook are both excellent and providing interesting variations on the basic topic. For me, it’s hard to top them – both represent character types that I enjoy playing. So, how do the new colleges stand up?
College of Glamour
The College of Glamour has as its concept bards that are imbued with the power of the Fae. This is an excellent concept; one that ties in strongly to current fantasy literature and older tales.
The “Mantle of Inspiration” allows your friends to fight for longer by imbuing them with temporary hit points, which is a nice ability, although it’s paired with a strange ability: your allies can also move closer to you when you invoke the Mantle. Just closer to you? There must be some literary source there that I’m not aware of. (In the Dresden Files, the fae can grant the ability to ignore pain, thus you fight stronger but don’t realise when you’re about to die…)
“Enthralling Performance” is the latest take on a mass charm ability for the bard; we’ve seen similar in previous editions. This one is the best version of the power I’ve seen; its effect is excellently described. The rules for how and when it breaks are a bit wordy, but line up well with similar charm abilities in the 5E spells.
“Mantle of Majesty” runs into problems. It’s a bonus action to activate, and allows you a bonus action to command creatures; thus, you have to wait a round after activating it before you can command someone. Hmm. I’d prefer it if the initial activation also allowed a command effect, as I’m sure that’s how many players will assume it works. The ability also seems to imply that all your charm spells now can’t be saved against; I hope that’s an error, and it applies only to the commands you give.
“Unbreakable Majesty” also has significant rules problems. One of the interesting points about the sanctuary spell is that monsters and NPCs don’t actually make a saving throw against the spell unless they try to attack you! So, in a diplomatic situation where there are no attacks, “Unbreakable Majesty” actually does nothing!
I like the idea of these later powers, but the rules issues cause to many problems for them at this point. So, this college needs more work!
College of Whispers
The College of Whispers presents a version of the assassin-bard or master manipulator.
Its first ability, “Venomous Blades” allows you to deal extra poison damage by expending a use of bardic inspiration. This is a power that, while not quite as versatile as the “Combat Inspiration” power of the College of Valor, can deal significantly more damage, but without the additional armour and weapon proficiencies granted by the College of Valor, it’s likely closer to balanced than you might first think.
Also gained at third level is “Venomous Words”, a fantastically evocative power that will likely only see use in very role-playing orientated games or by non-player characters. For a standard, adventuring bard, you’re rarely going to use it. In the right campaign? It’s gold.
“Mantle of Whispers” is another tremendously evocative power, and again one that requires a certain sort of campaign to be run to be of use: one full of intrigue and role-playing.
“Shadow Lore” keeps up this evocative theme; it’s a dangerous effect, but one that, at fourteenth level, isn’t overpowered. Once again, not a combat power, but one for intrigue campaigns.
There are fewer rules problems with the College of Whispers than the College of Glamour, but it is a far more niche college. I approve of this: yes, you want meat-and-potatoes colleges that any adventuring bard could take, but the two colleges in the Player’s Handbook are already of this sort.
So, at present I give the College of Whispers a thumbs-up; not for every campaign, but fantastic and much-needed in some games.
Barbarian primal paths have a problem, and that’s the Totem Warrior path. When one ability (the Bear Totem) is so good – gaining resistance to ALL damage except psychic – it’s hard to compete against that. With that in mind, here’s a few notes on the new Primal Paths that are spotlighted in playtest form in a recent Unearthed Arcana column.
Path of the Ancestral Guardian
Back in 4th edition, the default fighter was given several abilities that made it “sticky” – opponents would often be forced to attack it, and had moving past it to attack other, more vulnerable, characters. In many ways, this was due to the changing of the size of adventuring parties. In 1st edition, a party of nine characters, including three fighters in the front rank, made it impossible for monsters to get around them to the back rank when fighting in a 10-foot-wide corridor. The current edition of D&D, with movement made even easier around characters, the requirement for a “sticky” fighter is higher.
The Path of the Ancestral Guardian, therefore, allows a barbarian to take that role. The first ability gained, “Ancestral Protectors” is the stickiness: you can ‘mark’ (using 4E terminology) a foe which then can only attack your allies at a disadvantage, and has trouble getting away from you. The drawbacks to this power are significant: only one foe and it takes a bonus action (so two-weapon barbarians need not apply).
The next ability, “Ancestral Shield”, allows you to transfer your resistance to non-magical weapon damage to another character; unfortunately, it is a transfer, so you don’t have your resistance when you do this. This is a very corner-case ability. There may be times when it’s useful, but given (a) you have to be raging and thus in combat and (b) you’ll be hit more often than most characters, all-in-all this is a horrible power: entirely too situational, and rare that the situation comes up.
“Consult the Spirits” is a good flavoursome ability of little import, and “Vengeful Ancestors” allows you to do a small amount of damage to a foe that hurts a friend.
Overall, I’m not a fan of this primal path. The big problem is that it gets away from the core Barbarian experience – stand in the middle of combat and smash things – to something that weakens the core elements of the barbarian.
Path of the Storm Herald
This primal path is a lot more interesting; increasing the damage you deal to your enemies is always interesting, and the entire suite of powers are evocative and powerful. Too powerful? Possibly – but I’m in favour of anything that stops every barbarian choosing the Bear Totem…
“Storm of Fury” has two paths that are basically identical (Desert and Tundra) – they deal damage to every enemy that ends in the aura. Death to kobolds! The third path, Sea, deals more damage but only to a single foe. Being enemy-only is a good bonus, and the damage can become quite significant over a longer battle.
“Storm Soul” is great – resistance to a damage type and environmental effects, and the sea version allowing you to breathe underwater? Colour me a fan. “Shield of the Storm” extends the protection to your allies, although only having a 10-foot aura means that, when underwater, everyone will have to stay quite close to you or they’ll begin drowning…
And “Raging Storm” is really, really good, causing more problems with enemies moving than gained through Path of the Ancestral Guardian, though at a higher level.
Overall, I’m a big fan of this primal path, but it’s so good, it means that most of the other primal paths aren’t as worthwhile taking. Storm of Fury is better than the Berserker path ability (which has a drawback as well), and all the abilities are active and are useful in most circumstances. Hmm.
Path of the Zealot
Huh. This path allows you to be raised without needing a material component – of great comfort to all the clerics of Pelor that must keep tending you after you throw yourself into the midst of combat…
The idea of having a divinely-favoured barbarian is a good one, and of the three paths in the document, I’d say this is the closest to being balanced with the paths in the Player’s Handbook. “Divine Fury” can deal a significant amount of damage – although it should be noted that it affects allies as well as enemies!
“Zealous Focus” is great for resisting those domination or death effects that would otherwise take you out of combat, but there is a very high cost for using the ability. Ending your rage and not being able to use it again until you rest? It makes the level of exhaustion from the Berserker path look much more attractive.
“Zealous Presence” is very situational. It takes your action to use, which means you can’t attack (and generally barbarians are the highest weapon damage-dealers save rogues in the party). So, for it to be worthwhile, the rest of your party will need to be able to make attack rolls and with a potential that enough can hit that it makes giving up your attacks worthwhile. Given the rogue likely already has advantage, and the wizard isn’t casting attack spells at this level, it’s a special adventuring group that finds this useful. As I said, situational.
“Rage Beyond Death” is a classic barbarian power – the ability to keep on going even when you’d otherwise be dead. Just make sure you get healed before your rage ends! Note that you’ll die if you take damage that equals or exceeds your maximum hit points while at 0 hp; this power won’t save you then.
Path of the Zealot has its good points and its bad points. Great first and last abilities, the middle-level abilities aren’t so good. But that probably makes it more balanced, at least compared to Path of the Storm Herald.
That’s my take on these new paths. In a few hours, we’ll see the next set of archetypes that the folks of Wizards have for us…
Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game. It’s one of the most enjoyable pastimes you can have and, especially for Dungeon Masters, can require varying amounts of your time: from just a couple of hours running a session, to many, many hours preparing, designing and planning your world and future adventures.
These days, I typically use published adventures for most of my games. They allow me to run games that are completely different to what I’d design myself (which can, at times, get repetitive). I’m an experienced Dungeon Master with several decades of experience and can run most adventures you put in front of me. If you’re starting out, it’s different.
Here’s a secret: Not all adventures are good for beginning DMs to run. Some require more skill than you currently possess.
This is especially true of the current run of official Wizards of the Coast adventures. Most beginning DMs should be able to handle the adventure in the D&D Starter Set – just as well! However, if you’re a first-time Dungeon Master, you’re likely to find the beginning section of Out of the Abyss extremely challenging, if not impossible, to run well or to run at all. Indeed, I am very wary about running the start of Out of the Abyss, and I’ve been DMing for about three decades!
So, should these adventures have warning labels on them? “Experienced DMs only”?
My belief on this issue is no; although perusing a few reviews of an adventure before buying it is probably a good idea. The reason I don’t think such a label helps is because the reasons that people find DMing some adventures difficult vary from person to person. Dungeon Mastering is a collection of several skills: running combat, running non-player characters (NPCs), crafting storylines, evoking the world through descriptions and so on. We all differ on the areas we’re good at handling and the areas that give us trouble. Where I have trouble having just two NPCs accompany an adventuring group, there are new Dungeon Masters out there who delight in this, and create a much better game than mine with the same material.
An adventure I find complex is not necessarily an adventure someone finds difficult to run.
I have also recently seen the suggestion that adventures should be simple so everyone can run them. This is something I strongly oppose. The original run of 4th edition adventures were written simply so that anyone could run them. The result? The most depressing set of linear, boring adventures you could imagine. Not every adventure was bad (there are a few good ones), but the homogeneity of the approach became less and less appropriate, so that the high-level adventures, which needed to show off the best of the game, were extremely underwhelming. The amazing bits in some of the original designs were flattened out to fit the linear approach, and the result was less than it should have been.
Having an adventure that is challenging to run isn’t a mistake; it’s what should happen. These are adventures that challenge the DM to improve their skills, to become a better Dungeon Master. Relish them!
Nor should complexity just be limited to the higher levels of play. If the story works better with a complex beginning to the adventure, that’s where it should be.
If you’re a new Dungeon Master, it’s fine to not be ready to run every adventure that is published. It’s probably still a good idea to own and read the official adventures, just so you can become aware at the range of play available (and this run of adventures is one of the finest I’ve seen in the history of the game). However, if you think running multiple NPCs at the beginning of Out of the Abyss is too much? You can leave that adventure for later and run something else.
Each adventure provides its own set of challenges. Hoard of the Dragon Queen needs you to run set of potentially deadly encounters at its beginning for first-level characters and try not to kill all the PCs in your group. Princes of the Apocalypse requires you to craft a story that gets the PCs where they need to be (and not trying to take on 10th-level foes at 3rd level!) Curse of Strahd requires you to evoke a horror setting and have an ancient vampire play games with the characters. Storm King’s Thunder requires you to handle political intrigue. Learn from them, and rejoice in the range of different play that Dungeons & Dragons allows!
At this point, what happen to the crowd? And how do you represent that in game?
The standard answer for me and many other DMs is not great: we simply have the crowd mysteriously escape. We run a combat between the adventurers and the goblins, and the non-combatants are simply ignored. There are some good reasons why we do this. Primary amongst them is that keeping track of multiple, independent characters is very hard. It’s difficult enough to do when they’re actively interacting with the characters. Working out what a NPC is doing while a combat is going one when they’re not just attacking like everyone else? That’s difficult.
Then there’s the problem that your average commoner doesn’t have statistics that make them interesting in combat. If a goblin attacks a commoner, any successful attack will see the commoner unconscious or dead.
Given that, is it possible to make these combats in public places more interesting? Yes, it is. But it typically requires a little forethought and preparation. The solution I lean towards is creating a few “vignettes” – small one- or two-round encounters or situations that play out as the main combat progresses. They need to be important enough for the players to want to interact with them; if the players feel that they’re getting closer to victory by interacting both with the vignettes and the main fight, then thing are going well.
The other side of this is that the main force of the opposition can’t be so dangerous that the players would be foolish to split up; if dealing with a side force means that the remaining adventurers are slaughtered by the main force, then you’ve got a problem. Keep the situations manageable.
It is vitally important to describe the situations so that the players can make informed decisions about which to tackle. You don’t want the descriptions to go overlong – most players can only deal with a limited amount of information at one time – so you need to be short and to the point. Remember the film The Two Towers? How would you describe this guy?
You want the players to notice him and send someone to deal with him. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel” isn’t enough information. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel with a big flaming torch” makes him stand out a lot more – especially if you then remind the players of the explosives in the tunnel!
Of course, most vignettes won’t be so important. However, consider the following possibilities:
- You see two children hiding behind a wagon; three goblins are moving towards them.
- There’s a burst of flame from a nearby stall; you realise that flames are moving towards a large stock of alchemist’s fire.
- A young woman is carried screaming into the air by a pair of winged kobolds.
- A heavy, abandoned cart starts rolling towards a group of townsfolk trapped in an alley.
- A sniper is moving on the rooftops, taking shots at children he can see.
Exactly how much you split the group is worth considering. DDAL4-04 The Marionette takes the vignette method of combat design to its logical extreme: lots of small situations are described, and it’s expected that each adventurer takes one to deal with. Is this what you want, or do you just want them as sidelights to the main fight?
Selecting vignettes to reinforce the actions of the crowd as the combat progresses is also good. Start with ones that rely on masses of people; run ones with stragglers towards the end. Give the feeling that time is passing and people outside the main combat are still acting.
It is important to consider which characters will be free to deal with the situation; it will typically be the skirmishers, ranged characters and arcane spell-casters, so designing vignettes they can deal with is advised. If the heavily-armoured fighters are engaged in melee, it’s very hard to find a situation that warrants them disengaging. Yes, you might make it important enough, but it isn’t going to be a good decision if they take opportunity attacks and lose offensive opportunities as they race to deal with another threat.
However, having the rogue of the group racing over rooftops to catch a sniper is something that is fun – as long as it only takes a round or two. D&D is a group game, and having one character stuck away from the others rarely is as enjoyable as everyone participating together.
Creating a library of vignettes, so that you can pull out ones as appropriate to give the feeling of the fight not being just about the PCs, is something worth aiming for. A few alterations will allow them to be reused, and create more interesting situations for your players to face: a more textured approach to combat.
As most of you are likely aware, Storm King’s Thunder¸ the latest adventure from Chris Perkins and Wizards of the Coast, is now available in stores. It’s an adventure for 1st-10th level characters which sees them facing off against a lot of giants.
It is also, in a lot of ways, the companion to the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Your players have read that book? Good. They’ll then be able to visit many of the places in it during the course of the adventure. In any adventure where you visit a lot of places, it’s nice to actually know something about them in advance.
The adventure is very fascinating when you examine its structure. While Curse of Strahd felt very much like a sandbox adventure, as did – to varying extents – Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss, the new adventure has a more linear and structured flow… but in its own way.
It also demonstrates one of the chief benefits from designing for an audience of millions. You can design stuff that some groups won’t use – because lots of other groups will use it! This is a far cry from designing for home games, where time spent on adventure design for adventures the players don’t go on is time that could have been better employed elsewhere.
So, what does SKT do?
It has an introductory adventure that covers levels 1-4. Its purpose? Introduce a few themes and get the players to level 5 as quickly as possible. Or, players could bring in level 5 characters from another adventure, like Lost Mine of Phandelver. Yes, that works too.
It then allows the DM to choose one of three towns that are threatened by the giants. The players only go to one of them, not all three, and thus the challenge will be different for different groups. This is level 5.
After the town the adventurers went to is saved, then a bunch of new quests are offered to the players, and we get the “sandbox” section, where the players attempt to complete small quests while wandering around the wilderness and getting a feel for the land they need to save. This is level 6. (Chapter 4 of the adventure, which covers this information, is also the DM’s notes to the information presented in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.) The quests they are given are different depending on which town they started in and who they befriended.
Eventually, the players run out of quests and the DM starts up the main plot of the adventure by not-so-subtly sending them a guide to get them to the next section: a visit to a giant temple where they learn who they actually have to confront to end the threat. This is level 7.
To reach their final goal, they need to pick up an item to reach there. The players have a choice of what giants they want to face to get that item: Hill, Stone, Frost, Fire or Cloud. This is level 8, and is the second time a significant section of the adventure will be different depending on their choice. There are 64 pages of the adventure devoted to describing the lairs – that’s a lot of design, a lot which won’t be used in one play-through.
So, the players reach their goal, and at some point may go on another quest before finally defeating the overall villain. That’s levels 9 and 10. And the adventure ends with, hopefully, the players victorious!
And, as a devotee of adventure design, this is an absolutely fascinating structure. It’s structured – there is a well-defined progression of encounters – but the path taken through it will be different for each group. At a gross level, there are 15 major variations as to how the adventure progresses, with additional various occurring during the wilderness trek depending on choices made during the defense of the beleaguered town. Some sections may run similarly – particularly the ending – but a group could quite easily play the adventure three times and get a lot of new content each time.
This is an exemplary example of good adventure design. I feel that the one-book model makes it far more feasible (imagine trying to do this in a six-volume Pathfinder Adventure Path!)
It’s also worth noting that at all times the players have goals: there are tasks they need to accomplish. They aren’t set loose in the wilderness with nothing to do. The adventure always gives them a direction, but mostly allows them to choose how to accomplish it.
I’m used to adventures that are linear: you visit each location in order. I’m used to adventures that are sandboxes: you visit locations in the order that pleases you, and might not visit them all. I’m not used to adventures that have large sections of content that won’t be used on one play through because the design excludes the use of certain sections based on a structured path.
This is fascinating, incredible stuff. If you get a chance to DM or play Storm King’s Thunder, take it. And then play it again, and discover how the second run differs.