So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?

I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 20 years now, most of it as a gamemaster. And the one thing that has always bothered me the most, with every single campaign, was to find a way to get the first couple of adventures going in a way that doesn’t feel terribly implausible and forced. When a new campaign starts and the characters are more or less blank canvases, your only practical options are having a dungeon sitting right outside town and the players checking it out because they know that’s what they are supposed to, or to have a random stranger approach them and offer payment for getting a thing or rescuing someone. It just really doesn’t feel believable that people would trust this to unknown vagabonds instead of joining forces with others from the community. It is more reasonable at higher levels, but 1st level PCs are not much more capable than a posse with spears and bows led by a halfway capable leader.

I think to some degree, this is a personal problem. It’s something nobody else ever seems to worry about and players are completely happy to run with when they are dropped into a new campaign. But it always bothers me a lot and I feel it’s the primary reason why it always takes me so long to get a new campaign started.

But after all this time, I finally got the solution. And it’s really stupidly simple.

The characters may be more or less blank slates at the start of the campaign and completely new to the area they know nothing about yet, but that doesn’t mean they had no existence before the start of the campaign. Even if the players don’t know about them, the characters will have friends, relatives, and acquaintences outside their nondescriptive native villages.

It makes little sense to try to get help with very sensitive things from random strangers of dubious appearance. But things change completely when they come with personal recommendation. The letter from a distant relative might be a bit cliched, and I wouldn’t use it myself. But you can very well have the party arrive in a random, looking for a place to rest while making new plans, and randomly meeting people from their previous life. And these might just be the people who right now happen to need some tough and smart guys to help with a serious problem. To them, seeing their old pals showing up out of the blue at just this moment, would be a blessing from the gods.

I don’t know why I never thought of this before. It’s terribly simple, but compared to most generic low-level adventure hooks it’s amazingly elegant. The best thing about this is that it should work with every adventure ever written. You can always insert a minor NPCs whose only role is to introduce the quest starter to the players.

I really wish I had thought of this 15 years ago.

The most useless RPG advice ever

“If you want that, you really should be running a different game.”

That’s not advice. That’s just stupid. You might notice that it’s always “a different game”, never any actual specific game.

This is not helping. Never suggest this to anybody if you can’t recommend a specific system and explain why this might potentially be an interesting game to take into consideration for the campaign in question.

Failure is always an option

Yesterday there was a post on Mythic Fantasy about the idea that “combat is a fail state” is nonsense. Sadly it’s not possible to comment there directly without a Google Account, but now Necropraxis also picked it up so let’s make this a proper discussion.

“Combat means that the players have failed” is wrong, I agree with that. But I think this is just an oversimplification resulting from years of careless repetition, about an actually significant observation.

As I see it, it’s not that “combat means the party failed their task of stealing treasure undetected”. For ease of use by people who assumed everyone already knew what they were talking about, critical details were no longer mentioned in the ongoing discussion of the subject. But what I think it really means is that “unprepared combat in an environment not of their chosing means the party failed their task of maximizing their odds of survivial”. Combat is always an option. It’s a tool in the toolbox and one of the original classes was specifically made for this job. But swords are only one tool and not meant to be used alone. You don’t just walk through doors, put your hands into holes, make a lot of noise, and see what happens. Because then the opponents prepare for a fight and pick a battlefield of their choice. When this happens and the players chose to stand their ground and fight under the conditions their enemies want them to, then they have failed.

If they die in a fight that isn’t stacked in their favor, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. They have plenty of options to scout the environment and the numbers and positions of potential threats, to plan for retreats and set ambushes, to protect themselves with spells and potions, and to prepare a battlefield by setting or clearing onstacles. If they don’t make use of these tools, they failed in playing the game right. Which they might not know, so it is one of the GM’s duties to show the players that these options do exist and to set up dungeons in which they can be applied. You don’t need to tell them what to do in a fight, but to players who are not familiar with such games, it is not obvious that your allowed options are not restricted to their character sheets.

And also: Just because something is stupid doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. There are lots of reasons why players might want to create situations they know could have been avoided. I think most of us don’t play for a score, but for excitement. RPGs are not meant to be an optimization exercise but an adventure.

Genericness in a Sandbox of Modules

When it comes to setting up a sandbox environment for a new campaign, one suggestion you can frequently come across is to begin the process by assembling a pile of your favorite modules and adventures that you always wanted to use or reuse. Arrange them around the map and then look for opportunities to make connections between them, perhaps by doing some reflavoring of NPCs or switching out some monsters.

Having tried that out in the past, this process really does work quite well. You get something pretty solid with a good amount of inviting content quite quickly. But as someone who has a big thing for worlds that are high concept, with distinctive traits that create a specific and unique style, I discovered this approach to come with a considerable drawback. If your planned campaign is a fantasy adventure game, the pool for material to draw from will primarily consist of Dungeons & Dragons releases and third party offshots. The problem with these is that they have been created to either fit neatly into first Greyhawk and later Forgotten Realms, or to fit easily into most people’s campaign. Which are generally quite comparable to Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. It is what we can today confidently call Generic Fantasy or the Standard Fantasy Setting. Gaming Fantasy has also seen some use as a term in recent years.

That is not to say that such adventure’s aren’t good. Of course, 90% of everything is crap and so are most adventures, but there are some real gems among them that really make you want to run them. In fact, I would say that the best adventures are so good that they can grab you and you can get deeply immersed in them. Which generally is a great thing, but I found it to be a great hindrance when you are trying to create a new campaign with distinctive fresh style.

Of course it completely true that you can always reflavor everything. But my experience over the years has been that it’s always been a real struggle for me. When I want to make great adventures my own, I have to constantly fight them. Making them adjust to my setting instead of my setting adjusting to them. In a way, this gives real credit to those adventures.  They get me hooked and immersed just by reading them as a GM. When this happens, the writers certainly did something right.

But it’s not very helpful for me in my effort to create a campaign that feels very different from 15th century western Europe with magic and dragons. So I have increasingly abandoned this approach. Instead I now start by looking at a listing of the key stylistic principles and themes for my planned setting and deduce from that what kinds of adventure locations and antagonist would have the most potential to bring these to life. I still use concepts from some of my favorite modules which I take as the starting point for creating new original content, but no longer use the actual modules themselves. Except for Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Those are just too compelling not to use with only cosmetic changes.

Crossing the Streams of Time and Space

Whenever I am at a loss about how to make my dreams for my Greatest Campaign Ever™ closer to reality, I go back to reading old posts on Against the Wicked City and Hill Cantons. Joseph and Chris are the best. I would never have gotten here without their great ideas.

While I consider myself as adequately competent when it comes to running adventures, I never really had much success with the running of campaigns. Most games I ran were one-shots or mini-campaigns that quickly found a natural end when there wasn’t really any drive to expand them into longer running campaigns. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect that this is how the majority of games actually turn out. But I think most GMs have a dream of a multi-year campaign that takes characters far across the world and into the higher levels. Which I think of as a worthy goal to pursue, even if you never get anywhere near to that perfect image.

One thing that I have learned over the years of soaking up the wisdom of those who had come before, is to adjust your expectations to something that can actually work in play. An RPG is a game that is being played, which is an inherently different beast from a big movie or long novel series. You can create something equally amazing and fantastic as a GM, but you have very different methods available to you. The first very important thing is that you will get much better results if you don’t try to make the players act out a movie or a book. Square pegs, round holes. What this medium uniquely offers is to let the players control what happens. They can make the choices what the protagonists do. Not using this aspect with which RPGs can create fun and engagement is a huge waste, and at the same time also make the medium fight you in your attempt to tell your story.

Not having the game follow a written down script has become hugely important to me. If I don’t do that, I could just write a novel and that would work out much better. But it does come with a big challenge of how the players will be making choices about what they want their characters to do next. When RPGs began as dungeon crawlers, the answer was pretty simple and the question not an issue: Everyone came to the game to sneak through dungeons, face dangerous monsters, and get away with their treasures. So when you want to give the players a choice in what they want to do next, you really only have to offer them new dungeon levels that differ in the kinds of threats they contain. Lava monster, ice monsters, or hidden traps? Pick your poison. Or change your mind, leave the dungeon, and head over to another one.

Thing is, crawlers aren’t really doing it for me. I am being pulled by more fanciful ambitions of running campaigns for characters who are facing the eldritch dangers of the wild for more than a generic greed for treasure and power, or a generic sense of saving people. And I think that’s where I painted myself into a corner, wanting to do too many things at once.

I’ve been sitting down and made a list of the various things that I would like to have in my dream campaign:

  • An social environment and culture that really brings across the concept of Points of Light.
  • A world that feels imposingly large and like a Mythical Wilderness.
  • Long distance journeys to different parts of the world.
  • Letting the players take charge of where they want to go and what they want to do.
  • Working strongly with connections to regular NPCs.
  • A long time scale that has adventures happen over many years.

While looking at this list, I noticed that there are pretty much two different campaign concepts lined out. The first and third item point to a world that is highly decentralized, with strong separations between places, and few connections. The fourth to sixth item require an environment that is tightly connected and centered around a home base and familiarity with the local inhabitants and sights.

One is a campaign about widely different places separated by long distances, while the other is a campaign about closely interconnected people over a long time. This obviously is a non-insignificant mismatch. And it very much looks like a very likely root of my problem. It’s not that my plans for past campaigns had regularly failed. In the end, I always went into a new campaign without a long term plan and just hoped that maybe this one would naturally evolve into something bigger. So being able to identify why I never could come up with a proper long term plan feels like real progress.

The first obvious solution would be to make a choice which one of the two approaches I want to use for my next campaign and which one to drop. But perhaps there is a way to eat my cake and have it too. There clearly are two quite distinctive forms of play that are conflicting with each other. But while it very much seems you can’t have both at the same time, I don’t see anything immediately jumping out that would speak against using them in an alternating pattern.

The hypothetical fix is this: The PCs have a semi-permanent home base where they have their followers, assistants, and most of their contacts, and where they can invest their wealth in improving the place to provide them with better resources in the future. They go on adventures to distant places because their home base can be improved with a resource that can be found somewhere else, or because it is threatened by an antagonist who tries to take something away from them.

Jospeh Manola had some interesting ideas about Adventuring Seasons and Winter Phases, which was the main thing that created my interest in long time scale campaign when I first read it years ago. And I think these two phases are exactly what I might need. During the winter phase, the players learn about new opportunities that could benefit then in the future, and new threats that might become problems if they are not adressed. Some of them might be right outside their door and be dealt with in a week. But many of them would require long voyages to distant places, that would take them away from their home base for months. When they come back, there won’t be enough time to go on a second adventure before the winter. Every spring they will be facing the same question: Which opportunity is too good to risk slipping away and which threat is too great to ignore any longer.

A nice thing about this is that it gives the players a great amount of freedom of who they want their characters to be. They can chose to try to become rulers of their home base, couragous servants of their lord, explorers, or treasure hunters. They also can chose how to invest the resources they gained during their adventures, be it for their own luxury, to gain influence and power, or to improve the living of the people or the defenses of the town. The players don’t even have to pick any of these together. Each one can chose individually and it still makes sense for all of them to follow when one of them prepares for a new expedition.

There is some real potential here, and I am feeling pretty good about it.

Wounds and Longer Rests

Two changes that I am considering for D&D 5th Ed.:

Wounds

Thinking of hit points as the ability to shrug of scrapes and bruises until your attention and reflexes are suffering enough for one unlucky hit to slip through your defenses has long seemed to me as the most sensible way to imagine damage in D&D. The spell name cure wounds does imply otherwise, but it’s still the most plausible reasoning for why being down 40 hit points with only 1 hit point left will have no negative impacts and you can be as good as new after a night’s sleep. If you can fight, run, jump, and lift without any penalty, then you’re not really injured.

However, when you do get from 1 hp to 0 hp, you’re in immediate danger of bleeding out within literally seconds. That clearly is a potentially fatal injury. That a bandage and an hour of rest can get you back to full strength just can’t be reasonably explained when you are playing a campaign that puts the “fiction first”. It’s an issue that simply can be ignored completely without causing any problems. But it can’t make sense.

Personally, I quite enjoy it in action and adventure fiction when characters have to adjust or completely change their whole plans because of an injured ally they don’t want to risk dying. It’s a great narrative complication, and one that I think can add a lot to a campaign. My goal here really isn’t to be any more realistic, but to add complications and dramatic tension to the game.

The new rule for wounds is pretty simple. I think that’s actually always an important part of any new house rule. You want the players to have to learn and remember as few new things as possible. Whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, he suffers 1d4 levels of exhaustion. This means a character who already has 2 levels of exhaustion has a 25% chance to die immediately. Since exhaustion is not that common I consider this an acceptible increase of risk. And it does provide a strong incentive for exhausted/wounded characters to avoid combat.

Longer Rests

The DMG suggests an alternative rule for handling rests that increases the time for a short rest to 8 hours and for a long rest to 7 days. On the one hand, I favor adventures that have few fights often separated by days, so I like the idea of the PCs not being at full strength at the start of every day. Giving them only a short rest every night has some appeal. But when you have to rest 7 days for a long rest, then you really need to retreat to the safety of a town (and one that isn’t currently under attack). Effectively, this means that long resta only happen between adventures. And I like adventures that have the characters in the wilderness for a week or two. No long rests during a journey into the wilds seems way too extreme.

The main things that a long rest provides for most characters is the restoration of all hit points, the regaining of Hit Dice, and perhaps most importantly the regaining of spell slots, amd the ability to switch out prepared spells. Hit points can also be regained through spells, so spell slots really is the big problem when you can’t take long rests during adventures. However, both wizards and druids have the class feature of Recovery, which allows them to regain some spell slots during a short rest, once pet lomg rest. I think this makes for a good mechanism to regain some spells for all spellcasters. When you finish a short rest, you recover expended spell slots that have a combined level that is lower or equal to half your level. Unlike the class feature, this ability can be used on every short rest. If you cast very few spells over a couple of days, you can recover all of your spell slots.

I think the biggest uncertainty with this variants are warlocks. With their really heavily limited number of spell slots, this class is perhaps the most dependant on short rests. But on the other hand, this isn’t going to make a huge difference when there are only two or three encounters in a day, as they also have several invocations that don’t require spell slots at all.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this change primarily affects “narrative time”. Whether the GM says that you rested for 8 hours or for 7 days, does not greatly impact the actual “tactical time” of encounters. Not letting the party rest for a week in the wilderness is the same as not letting it rest in a dungeon for 8 hours. It’s just fluffed in a different way. However, a GM would also have to keep this in mind when considering the frequency of random encounters and the scale of the wilderness. It’s not quite the same thing, but I don’t think it will be too drastically different if this is kept in mind.

More things that I made and no GM needs

I’ve been spending most of yesterday turning my predetermined parameters for a calendar from two years back into actual calendar sheets showing moon phases, solstices, equinoxes, and potential eclipses. Turns out there’s actually three leap years for every 16 year cycle in which there are only 23 months instead of 24.

Since the moon is considerably larger in the sky than the sun, I decided that eclipses might not actually happen only on the 16th of a month, but ooccasionally also on a 15th or 1st. And there is a possibility that you get two eclipses two days in a row.

With all these things taken into consideration, the results look like this.

There are of course 16 of these. I plan on making these always available for players, though I don’t expect them to ever look on them. But they should. There could be rather important information on it. Eclipses are no time to be wandering around in the forest or be out on sea, and things might also get a bit more dicy on the equinoxes.

While I put together these charts, I noticed that there are 12 special days every cycle on which celestial events overlapp. There are the four days when the solstices and equinoxes fall  on a full moon, and four days on which eclipses might happen during regular equinoxes. Two days on which the solstices fall on a New Moon, and finally there are the two days on which an eclipse might happen on a new moon equinox. Those are really bad days. Somehow every ancient legend of heroes dying and cities being destroyed seems to date it to one of these days. Crazy shit will be going down on these days, no matter where the party will happen to be then.

As I said, this really isn’t something that any GM needs. But when you do have it, I think it might actually be quite fun.

Silly Stuff with Statistics

Yesterday I did what I always tell people not to bother with. Work out the population numbers and distribution of classed and leveled NPCs for your setting. It’s almost always pointless and often leads to nonsensical results. But I did it anyway, not because the setting and campaign need it, but because I sometimes simply enjoy the fun of working with numbers.

I went into this  with the following premises:

  • The global population of Murya, Fenhail, Yao, Kuri, Kaska, and Sui is 1 million.
  • 1 out of every 100 people has classes and levels.
  • The highest level any mortal can reach is 10th.
  • For every two 1st level NPCs there is one 2nd level NPC, for every two 2nd level NPCs there is one third level NPC, and so on.
  • Half of all leveled NPCs are spellcasters (half of which are Priests).

I first planned on having a global population of 10 million and make 1 out of 1,000 NPCs have levels. But someone pointed out to me that that seems too high if all the population lives on the coast and given the size of my map sketch. There are about 4,000 miles of coast and I estimated civilization being within 10 miles of the sea (on average, there are also some major rivers and highland settlements), which results in a habitable area of only 100,000 km². That’s about the area of Hungary, Portugal, or Cuba. And three quarters of Greece, which is always my default reference point. That’s not a lot of land to live on, even if the continent itself is the size of Europe. With 1 million people, this leads to an average population density of 10 people per km². Which is roughly the estimate for Greece during Roman times, which does include all the uninhabited mountains. Perfect.

I was also curious what results these premises would give me for the amount of NPCs of each level. And those got really quite interesting. For simplicity, I didn’t calculate with 10,000 leveled NPCs but 8,190. When you’re a bit of a math nerd, you know the powers of 2 by heart, which makes continuous halving of numbers very easy. The distribution I got out was this:

  • 4,096 1st level characters
  • 2,048 2nd level characters
  • 1,024 3rd level characters
  • 512 4th level characters
  • 256 5th level characters
  • 128 6th level characters
  • 64 7th level characters
  • 32 8th level characters
  • 16 9th level characters
  • 8 10th level characters
  • (4 11th level immortal sorcerer kings)
  • (2 12th level immortal sorcerer kings)

That’s really not a lot. And actually gets really fascinating when you consider players wanting NPCs to casts spells for them. The number of those gets really low.

  • 4,098 people can cast 1st level spells
  • 1,026 people can cast 2nd level spells
  • 258 people can cast 3rd level spells
  • 66 characters can cast 4th level spells
  • 18 characters can cast 5th level spells
  • (6 characters who can cast 6th level spells)

Only half of those are Priests who have access to the cleric spell list. Getting one of those 9 priests alive who can cast raise dead to resurrect your friend could be quite challenging. However, if you are among the 100 most powerful people in the world, getting access to these guys might not be that far out of reach.

I’ve got no intentions to track the numbers and levels of NPCs that appear in my campaign. That’s too silly and impractical even for me. Instead, I came up with some rules of thumb, when it comes to creating NPCs for the campaign, that do reflect these population numbers of the setting:

  • If the character does not seem important enough to get a name, personality, and motivations, it’s going to be a generic acolyte, bandit, cultist, guard, tribal warrior, or commoner with 2d8 hit points.
  • Leveled NPCs who aren’t important regional individuals are 1st to 3rd level. (There are thousands of them in the world.)
  • NPCs  of 4th to 6th level are among the most powerful individuals of their region and regionally famous. (There are hundreds of them in the world.)
  • NPCs of 7th to 10th level are among the most powerful individuals in the world and famous throughout the continent. (There’s barely more than a hundred of them in the world.)

These numbers all seem amazingly low, but when I looked at them I really started to like the resulting implications. These are distributions for campaigns in which the players play individuals like Conan and Elric, or the various ancient Greek heroes.

And still this is a world where there are CR 7 yuan-ti and CR 10 aboleths around, and CR 6 wyverns and CR 7 stone giants. A 1st level PC is not yet standing out, but when you get to 3rd or 4th level, you’ve already made it big. You are playing in the top league of heroes.

I am really looking forward to this campaign more and more every day.

What is in the box?!

Things are getting real. My apprenticeship as a gardener is coming to an end in barely more than a week and then it’s off to university for me again. And that means hypothetical ponderings for a future campaign are now turning into actual preparations for the next campaign. Probably not in february, and perhaps not in march either. But then it’s time to get butts on chairs and dice rolling.

I must confess that even as a GM with two decades of experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been a great GM. Judging from players’ reactions in the past, not a terrible GM, but really not a great one either. To me, all the campaigns I’ve ran where pretty meh. This time I am vowing to do better. I have spend a lot of time and effort into learning what makes great games in theory, and why I didn’t manage to pull it off in practice yet since my last campaign.

I think there are two things that have changed in how I approach a campaign now, both very much influenced by learning how Apocalypse World works and is meant to be run, even though I am now preparing for a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. campaign. The first one is that a campaign is about the player characters. The PCs are the protagonists who are driving the story and who are its heroes. We all play the game to see the PCs doing exciting things. Any NPCs that I have are supporting cast to enable the PCs to do exciting things. The second thing is that the world that I made also exists to enable the players experiencing exciting things. Every place that I create, every faction that I make, and also all the NPCs that I prepare exist for the explicit purpose of creating excitement for the players. If it burns, let it burn. If if dies, let it die. This world doesn’t exist to be the setting for a metaplot that gets constantly updated by some company. If the world looks completely different once the players have been through it, that’s totally fine. If everything gets fucked up by the players’ antics, then it was probably very exciting for the players to experience it. And that’s the whole purpose of playing the game.

As such, I decided to take another shot at a sandbox. Of the non-hexcrawl, non-megadungeon type. An environment that is full of strange sights and interesting people that will react based on what the players do. I have heard many great things about such campaigns, but one of the challenges is that for the world to react, the players first have to do something. And for the players to do anything, their curiosity first has to be caught by something. That’s the big problem with “Yo all start in a tavern. You can do anything you want.” If the whole world so far just consists of a nondescript tavern, there isn’t anything for the players to want yet. While there is a lot of information and advice around for preparing a sandbox campaign and for running a sandbox campaign, there appears to be very litle about starting one. Lots of people can tell you how to run session 0 and session 2, but what about session 1?

A good while ago I did come across one promising looking option someone wrote about years ago. At the start of a sandbox campaign, don’t let the players do whatever they want, but tell them what they should do. Start the campaign on a train, but then drop them off at the train station. If you do it right, you will have introduced them to enough things about the starting area during that initial train ride that they have sufficient information and incentives to take off on their own from there. Thinking about it, I remembered one of my favorite scenes from the Fellowship of the Ring movie. The hobbits have been on a quite wild adventure, that is much larger and wilder in The Lord of the Rings, and finally reach their destination where Gandalf told them he would take over as their leader and guide again. And they also expect him to take care of the threat that is following them. But he’s not there, and hasn’t been seen in the area for months. “What are going to do now?”

The hobbits of course still have their bigger goal of having to get the Ring to Rivendell, but I think this moment in the story is precisely that train station. The initial instructions are completed and the heroes find themselves in a place that is new and full of possibilities for them, but simply going back home and waiting for a new call to adventure isn’t a practical option either. Based on that, I have come up with an early concept for a campaign start that I currently very much consider using.

“In a wrecked ship that was washed up on the shore, you discovered a sturdy chest bound with iron. It resisted your attempts to open it, but a sage was able to detect an enchantment on the chest and  identify the lead seal on the hinge as that of a wizard who lives in a town a week’s travel up the coast to the North.

At the end of the first day of your journey to the wizard, you reach the local trade post where you can complete your preparations for the rest of the journey north.

The trade post is kind of a tavern, but the players start there as an existing party and with a destination where to head for when they leave. After they have bought whatever supplies they want and can afford, they have the option to take the coastal road north, or to get passage on a boat to their destination. If they take the road, they get two opportunities to chose between staying close to the shore or take a shortcut through the forested hills. Perhaps have any ship they take make a stop halfway along the road, between the shortcuts, so the players have another opportunity to switch from boat to one of the land routes on the second leg of the journey. This serves to teach the players that they have to chose between different aproaches themselves, without any guidance. Even at this point when their destination has been set for them.

Along each path there will be several encounters that introduce the players to various aspects of this world they are not yet familiar with. Some of which I want to include clues to something more interesting nearby. The players can chose to come back and check them out later once they have delivered the chest, or they can decide that the chest can wait and they go checking it out now. This also puts the players into situations where they can chose without any guidance. They have an objective, that isn’t really that interesting, but there also isn’t an hurry to complete it. If they run into something that seems to be more interesting to them, they are free to chase after that instead. Now one could argue that this has the major drawback of having to create three adventures while knowing that you will only be using one, which is super inefficient. However, this is meant to be a sandbox campaign. The players traveling along this coastal road again is quite possible. But even if they don’t, all of this content can easily be used on any other costal road in the future. It’s not wasted work, but rather some pregenerated content to use whenever it might come handy.

The chest is, obviously, a bit of a Macguffin. The players will recognize it as a plot cupon that they need to follow to find the main adventure. But it’s not like they actually have to take it to the wizard. What keeps them from opening it is a simple arcane lock spell. The chest can be opened by the wizard who it belongs to, but also by most 3rd level wizards with a knock spell and pretty much every 5th level spellcaster with a dispel magic spell. Or the players could chose to just chop the whole chest to pieces with enough persistence. In fact, it is going to turn out that the wizard isn’t going to take the chest off them for a reward.

And that’s the train station moment I am aiming for. The players find themselves in a town, that I hopefully can make appear as interesting to explore, with a chest they can’t deliver and would need to find help to open, some things they could go back to and explore further on the coastal road, and what I feel as being quite important, no place or quest giver to return to. If an NPC gives the players a mission and they can’t complete it, I would very much expect them to go back and ask what they should do now. If the wizard had hired them to get back his Macguffin and he isn’t there when they return, they most likely would assume that they are supposed to go searching for him because that’s what the GM has planned for the story. Making the starting adventure have no quest giver seems like something quite important to me to get that transition from preset goal to player drive  play.

Making the most out of combat encounters

Working myself into the deeper layers of 5th Edition, I noticed that defeating enemies in battle gives the PC massive amounts of experience points. If a party of four PCs were to only fight opponents with a CR equal to their current party level, it would take only 6 such encounters to get to 2nd and 3rd level, and after that 11 encounters for any further level. Though I have been told that in most cases, a single opponent of equal CR is a pretty easy fight.

Now at this point I want to repeat that I don’t believe in setting up encounters tailored to the current party size and level. While megadungeons and hexcrawls are leaving me completely cold, I feel like non-linear, open-world environments make the most interesting stories and experiences. When there are no places the party has to get to, and paths they have to take to get there, then there are no grounds to assume that the GM will take steps to ensure that the party will overcome any given obstacle. As players, you have no assurance that an obstacle can be overcome reliably by the party at their current strength, or that there any paths to their destination that they can take safely at their current strength. This puts it into the hands of the players to judge what dangers they are willing to risk, and when to try trickery or diplomacy over direct confrontation. Of course, to make this work, it is necessary to make it possible for players to judge the dangers ahead of them, and to attempt a retreat from a fight that turns bad on them. Otherwise the GM is just forcing random fights at the players, without giving them the agency to choose the level of risk they are willing to take. In practice, this primarily means not setting up ambushes by hard hitting opponents, and not cutting off the party’s only escape route.

Another thing is that I don’t believe the math to calculate CR being in any way reliable. But for the topic at hand, let’s continue with the assumption that challenge ratings and the encounter building guidelines were actually precise.

Under hypothetical ideal circumstances, a party of four characters fighting only single opponents with a CR matching their own level would, according to the tables, get a new level in six and a half days of adventure after roughly 10 fights. On first and second level even faster than that. This is of course ridiculous, and the designers did acknowledge that. Fighting only single opponents makes it very easy on the players. If multiple opponents attack all at once, the party will be able to fight significantly less of them on a day before they require rest to regain their strength. So if you want to fit more fights into a campaign that goes up to only 10th level for example, you could make opponents usually appear in groups of 5 to 10. Going with the hypothetical tables, that gets you only half the amount of XP before you statistically run out of power. Or 13 days of adventure with 20 fights. And when you think about it, for lots of common opponents it makes perfect sense to fight in groups. From the perspective of bandits or monsters, they want to win fights and survive, not put up a good fight before being defeated. And in a world where there is always a bigger beast, those at the lower end have every reason to band together for their safety. Just like PCs do.

But that’s still for the assumption of fights taking place in open fields. If you want to get the most out of your monsters, make them make their stands in places that are to their advantage. And frankly, fighting with the environment instead of just ignoring it makes every encounter at least twice as interesting and fun. Why would you ever not want to do that? Eyeballing the tables, I would say that if you make your opponents fight as teams and using the terrain to their advantage, it could probably take the party up to 30 “level appropriate encounters” to make it to the next level. This really isn’t insanely fast anymore. It actually seems pretty slow to me.

Though on the other hand, you sometimes really want to have big bad boss monsters. But I don’t think these really need to be that common. Most of the time it makes lots of sense for them to surround themselves with plenty of minions. After all, they also want to stay alive and should know that they are at a big disadvantage when they are outnumbered.

All in all, I think my initial suspicion that characters are gaining new levels way too fast in 5th edition doesn’t really stand up to looking at the tables. Now, of course I don’t trust the tables and I don’t plan on actually using them beyond the first couple of starting locations to get a first feel for the system. But still, I don’t think I will have to worry about making adjustments for how many XP characters will get for defeated opponents.