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.

Creatures under Leaf and Moon

I went into the creation of the Green Sun setting (which I think could get a proper name by now) deliberately avoiding any elements that are specific original creations of Dungeons & Dragons. And I still think that this was a really good idea. Dark Sun and Planscape are both my favorite D&D settings, and I am far from alone in that opinion. And they both have their own setting specific casts of monsters, many of which became quite iconic, that aren’t part of the regular D&D economy. Especially with Dark Sun, which has only unique creatures other than elves, dwarves, and halflings, but even with Planescape most of the famous monsters first appeared in that setting and where added to the regular monster manuals later.

Setting out to make a non-D&D world first and only later starting to think of how it would translate to D&D rules (which wasn’t even a given when I started the work) led to a very different outcome than if I had just sat down with a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and browsed for the classes and creatures that I want to use. But now that I decided to start the first campaign using the setting in D&D 5th Edition and a lot of my creatures can be done perfectly with reskins of existing creature stats, I don’t feel bad about picking other creatures that I find fitting for the setting from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters as well.

Monsters

These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.

  • Hydra (CR 8)
  • Giant Ape (CR 7)
  • Wyvern (CR 6)
  • Phase Spider (CR 5)
  • Umber Hulk (CR 5)
  • Girallon (CR 4)
  • Manticore (CR 3)
  • Carrion Crawler (CR 2)
  • Ettercap (CR 2)
  • Ogre (CR 2)
  • Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1)
  • Gnoll (CR 1/2)
  • Aaracockra (1/4)
  • Kuo-toa (CR 1/4)

Spirits of Forest, Mountains, and Sea

This category consists of fey, as well as all plant creatures and most elementals. They are all detected by a detect good or evil spell and affected by similar magic.

  • Genie (CR 11)
  • Treant (CR 9)
  • Stone Giant (CR 7)
  • Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 7)
  • Air Elemental (CR 5)
  • Earth Elemental (CR 5)
  • Water Elemental (CR 5)
  • Unicorn (CR 5)
  • Wood Woad (CR 5)
  • Succubus (CR 4)
  • Merrow (CR 2)
  • Will-o-wisp (CR 1)
  • Deep Gnome (CR 1/2)
  • Myconids (CR 1/2)
  • Blights (CR 1/8 – 1/2)

Spirits of Beneath and Beyond

This category covers spirits that are native to the Realm Beneath, the subterranean wilderness that is inspired by Pandemonium and Gehenna, and also beings from the stars, though there aren’t any of those at this point. They are all either aberrations or fiends.

  • Neothelid (CR 13)
  • Ultroloth (CR 13)
  • Arcanaloth (CR 12)
  • Aboleth (CR 10)
  • Nycaloth (CR 9)
  • Mind Flayer (CR 7)
  • Piscoloth (CR 7)
  • Fire Elemental (CR 5)
  • Mezzoloth (CR 5)
  • Canoloth (CR 4)
  • Helmed Horror (CR 4)
  • Grell (CR 3)
  • Choldrith (CR 3)
  • Howler (CR 3)
  • Dark Stalker (CR 2)
  • Grick (CR 2)
  • Meenlock (CR 2)
  • Chitine (CR 1/2)
  • Dark Creeper (CR 1/2)

Undead

Undead are limited to the very basics. Undead in the world are always the result of warlocks using powers gained from Spirits from Below and Beyond and never rise naturally.

  • Wraith (CR 5)
  • Wight (CR 3)
  • Ghoul (CR 1)
  • Specter (CR 1)
  • Shadow (CR 1/2)
  • Skeleton (CR 1/4)

Beasts

This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.

  • Axe Beak
  • Brontosaurus
  • Crocodiles
  • Giant Badger
  • Giant Beetle
  • Giant Boar
  • Giant Centipede
  • Giant Crab
  • Giant Hyena
  • Giant Octopus
  • Giant Rat
  • Giant Wasp
  • Hadrosaurus
  • Plesiosaur
  • Pteranodon
  • Sharks
  • Snakes
  • Tiger
  • Triceratops

There are a handful of additional creatures that I want to incorporate, but for those I have to write stats first. When I have them, I will share them here with descriptions.

I didn’t plan that eight of the Top 10 biggest critters are all underworld monsters, but that’s actually a pretty cool outcome.

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.

After 1640 days, 5th Edition started to look rather appealing

When the Basic Rules pdf for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was released, I was not impressed by it. I had had high hopes for it when the playtests started, but it didn’t turn out as the game I was hoping it to be and I lost most interest in it. What I had been looking for at that time was an improved version of the ancient Basic/Expert rules, or at the very least a polished version of AD&D. Which is not what this game is. I was not impressed.

“We said: meh.”
“M-E-H. Meh.”

But now I find myself in a rather different position. As my apprenticeship, and accordingly my current living arangements, are coming to an end in a months, the stars will be right to get my new campaign off the ground. I created the setting deliberately avoiding making it a D&D world, inhabited by D&D races and D&D monsters, with the D&D classes making up the ranks of influential figures, and societies being build around the presence of D&D spells. I wanted it to be something that has its own identity first and gets rules applied to it later. I envisoned something very much like Dark Sun, which technically is AD&D, but with some tweaks to races and classes and serious reflavoring turned out into something distinctively different from Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Dragonlance.

For the last week I have been playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate, the game that first introduced me to not just Dungeons & Dragons, but also RPGs, and made me see that fantasy is more than just The Lord of the Rings. And it got me interested in running D&D again. I had briefly flirted with Dungeon World, but that game is neither D&D, nor Apocalypse World; something less than the sum of its parts. I got excited again for actual D&D, with classes and levels. Which for me meant B/X. The game much simpler than 3rd Edition and much less messy than AD&D. But when talking with people with a general interest in playing a campaign in the forseeable future, I got to consider the possibility that there might be an overwhelming popular demand to play 5th Edition again. And I wanted to check if this is a game that I could be persuaded with sufficient force to run, or something that I would fight against with my dying breath.

This time I sat down with the actual Player’s Handbook. Not just the Basic Rules or the SRD with their limited coverage of all the class specializations. And as it turned out, it really has quite a bit to offer for a Green Sun campaign. While talking about systems, the conversation came to the big problems that made me regard 3rd Edition and Pathfinder as completely unplayable by now: Ever growing gaps between modifiers as levels go up, way too many small situational modifiers to remember during combat, skill points and feats slowing down character creation and especially creating NPCs and monsters, and spell slot preparation. And all of these have been adressed, quite successfully, in 5th Edition. The proficiency bonus and fixed saving throws keep modifiers from escalating, the advantage mechanic takes care of most situational modifiers, and skill points are gone and feats are much rarer and optional. Spell slots are still called spell slots, but they are actually a kind of spell points now. Regarding the mechanics, this is a game I can definitely run without any pain.

When it comes to character races and classes, I am still feeling somewhat ambiguous. Humans getting +1 to all ability scores still feels very wrong. Rogues getting 1d8 hit points per level still feels too much. Superiority Dice and Ki Points let characters do nonmagical things only a limited amount of times per day. And other things like that. But with some I can live, and when adapting the system to the setting, I am going to have to limit the options of classes and specializations anyway.

The first thing that really draw me to the system is the bard. Because I soon realized that the bard makes for an awesome shaman. If you say that the character does not use inspiring music but chants to the spirits for blessings and protection, you got yourself a solid shaman. The class has access to all the basic healing spells and the enchantments and illusions can be treated as spirits messing with the targets’ minds and perception. There are a few cleric and druid spells that would round out the spell list very nicely, but even with just the default bard spells, you can have a campaign setting that has only bards but no clrics, druids, and paladins.

That already had me intrigued, but what really got me excited was the warlock.

The warlock is just the thing that I need to represent the sorcerers of the Green Sun setting. The Fiery Spirits of the Realm Below from which the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend gain their powers are perfectly matched by The Fiend. The Sorcerer Queen of Halva is an Archfey. And the Old One is just what the Dark Spirits of the Realm Beyond are meant to be. The warlock is a class that to my Baldur’s Gate defined sensibilities has always been inappropriate and out of place. But this is different now. I don’t want to run 90’s Forgotten Realms. I want to run Green Sun. And shaman bards and warlocks fit it perfectly.

Here is my current idea how the campaign in D&D 5th Edition could look like:

  • E10 style world: Without unlimited feats, actual E10 makes no sense, but both PCs and NPCs are capped at 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist, though they might still appear as monster abilities.
  • Classes: Barbarian (Totem Warrior), Bard (Lore), Fighter (Champion), Ranger (Hunter), Rogue (Thief), Warlock (Archfey, Fiend, Old One), Wizard (Enchanter, Transmuter).
  • Spells: Only 1st to 5th level. No teleportation, matter creation, force barriers, extradimensional spaces, or light. No evocations and necromancies for wizards.
  • Armor: Leather scale (studded leather), lamellar (scale), heavy lamellar (chainmail), shields.
  • Weapons: No light hammer, crossbows, flail, greatsword, lance, morningstar, rapier, trident, warhammer, warpick. They are all not matching the tech level of the setting.
  • No Two-Weapon Fighting and no full healing on a long rest. Because I have the right to be pedantic about some things.

The beautiful worlds of E6

At the very end of the run of Dungeons & Dragons’ 3rd Edition, someone came up with an idea to turn the game from one that covers heroes who start as complete nobodies to become practical demigods into one that emulates a more grounded style of fantas with a single very simple modification. In Epic 6, player characters can only advance up to 6th level, instead of up to 20th level and possibly beyond. Characters can still advance, but instead of getting new levels with everything that includes, they only get further customized through gaining one additional feat in place of additional levels. Numbers remain relatively small and within a range that has proven itself to work really well in practice, and most of the powerful spells remain outside of the players’ hands. It’s about getting characters to the level that is considered to be my many the one where they best represent the common image of a proper fantasy hero and then staying there. No new rules need to be learned and all the existing material of the game that is available to 6th level characters can still be used just as it is. As a rules hack, it is incredibly neat and elegant.

But to me, the really amazing consequence of E6 is not on the side of the players. In my own experience, very few games ever had characters reach 7th level and beyond. The great power of high level characters never became an issue in any of the games I played and ran. The reason I got so fascinated with E6 back when I still played 3rd Edition is the many implications that it has for the world around them. It’s not just that player characters are limited to 6th level, the same limitation also applies to NPCs as well. This means you can’t simply go to a big temple or wizard school and pay someone to cast 4th and 5th level spells for you and you won’t be able to buy scrolls of these spells as well. A considerable portion of magic items also can no longer be crafted by either PCs or NPCs either. Even if magic is as widely available as the game seems to assume by default, the limitations of what spells are available to the wizards and clerics of the setting lead to a rather different “high magic” setting with a lot of low-power magic and an almost lack of high-power magic.

But where it gets really interesting is the fact that these limitations on the powers and abilities on PCs and NPCs don’t apply to monsters, as those don’t normally have levels. Many people seem to prefer to adjust the world of their game accordingly by limiting the monster population to creatures that are considered appropriate challenges for 6th level parties by the rulebooks, but I’ve been much more a fan of keeping all those big critters around as they are. This way you get a world in which even the most powerful mortal heroes are incapable of taking on directly. If an older dragon or greater demon needs to be dealt with the players will have to work out different strategies to face than other than straight up challenging them to a fight in their lair. At the same time, powerful magical creatures are the only source of access to higher level spells which they have as inborn abilities rather than learned through advancing in levels. If you need powerful magic, you need to find a powerful magical creature and convince it to provide it for you. A world in which “high level” PCs stand head and shoulders above the common rabble but are still dwarfed by magical monsters is something I’ve not really seen much in fantasy. Something that I find very fascinating from a worldbuilding perspective. While I like the mechanics of Symbaroum, the way it is written it only makes advanced PCs vulnerable to common soldiers and bandits, but at the same time it also lets them take out the most powerful monsters just as quickly. Limiting the possible strength of monsters the way they are feels somewhat disapointing to me. There is a space for fantasy in which fights can take almost the form of Russian roulette by making engaging a powerful foe a great danger. But setting things up in a way that a head on assault isn’t really a viable option strikes me as much more interesting.

Wilderness Adventures for characters of level 4+?

Common wisdom appears to have it that parties in B/X transition from pure dungeon adventures at 1st to 3rd level to the wider world of wilderness adventures after reaching 4th level. The Expert Set adds rules for characters of 4th to 14th level and rules for wilderness adventures. And of course B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands are the most classic dungeon adventures and X1 The Isle of Dread was the first D&D hexcrawl. So obviously it must be true. Basic characters stay in the dungeon, Expert characters expand outdoors.

But I’ve come to wonder whether this really is the intention behind the way rules are split between the Basic and Expert Set. My suspicion is actually that the choice to split the rules into multiple sets was done with the intent to introduce both players and GMs to the rules gradually and not overwhelm them with everything at once. Which I think might have been a pretty good choice. The original Basic Set was a total of 60 pages. The Rules Cyclopedia comes to 300. That’s a lot of stuff to digest in one go before you feel confident that you know what you need to start playing. If you want to teach the basics of the game, you do need the dungeon, but outdoor adventures are indeed something that can, and perhaps should, wait for a bit later. Once everyone who is completely new to the game has got the hang out of the basics. By putting level 4 to 14 into the next set, the amount of spells that players (and GMs) are exposed to is much easier to overlook and you also get a collection of monsters that for the most part wouldn’t be absurd to face for a new beginning party. (Looking at you here, Dragon.)

I suspect that the separation of content was done as a teaching aid, primarily for GMs. It’s not so much that adventures change at higher levels, but that GMs can expand once they have become familiar with the basics. When you look at the Expert Set it says that “now” new paths of adventure are open, but does not do so in the context of character level. It is “now” that the GM has access to these expanded rules of the game. The Rules Cyclopedia does not touch upon this whole subject at all, from what I was able to tell.

Another strong piece of evidence, as I see it, are the modules B10 Night’s Dark Terror and X1 The Isle of Dread. Terror is a Basic module for characters of 2nd to 4th level while Isle is an Expert module for characters of 3rd to 7th level. Both begin at Basic levels and continue up into Expert levels and they are both wilderness adventures. The creators of these modules clearly did not write under the assumption that “you have to be this high” to go on adventures in the wilderness.

Raise Animated Dead

Resurrection of dead characters is a difficult topic when it comes to fantasy in general and to RPGs in specific. To make it short, I am not a fan of death being an effect on a PC that can be removed with the casting of a spell. Once a character in the party has access to this spell, players can mostly expect their characters to live forever. As long as the cleric survies the battle, everyone is probably going to be fine. If the time limits are generous, then it becomes mostly a matter of having the money and transporting the body to a high level NPC, which can become an available option much earlier in the game. This significantly changes the game and doesn’t really line up with pretty much any fantasy fiction. It just doesn’t seem right for my prefered style of Sword & Sorcery and so I created the aspect of life and death in the Ancient Lands around the assumption that resurrection is impossible. There is no soul separated from the body and once the life has been extinguished it is forever gone. Nothing there to bring back into the world of the living.

However, resurrected NPCs can be pretty cool when used sparingly. The undead sorcerer. The returned hero of old. The helpful ghost. I don’t really want to have these completely banished from my campaign.

One possible solution, that I think could be quite fun, is to make it possible to return a body back to life but the resulting creature ends up being somewhat odd. It looks like the person and has the memories of the person, but ultimately it’s something different. A magical construct. For antagonistic NPCs this is good enough. They can still be villains without any special limitations. For helpful NPCs this would still allow them to perform some kind of task that benefits the PCs, but they can’t really return back to their old life. Of course, you can get endlessly philosophical about the question whether a being with the same appearance and memories would be the same person or an artificial fake, or perhaps a separate but still fully human twin. I think usually they would be, but I believe it should be possible to come up with ideas to make them sufficiently similar but different that they would not be welcomed back into their old lives. That’s another step to be figured out later.

But regardless of how the world reacts to such resurrected characters, the players might and will quite possibly have very different oppinions. Players might have no problem with playing a character who has all the traits of their old one but has only philosophically changed. To make it effective, resurrected PCs should be unappealling to play on a continous base. One quick and easy solution would be to make it impossible for them to gain any more XP. This might make it appealing to have the character complete his last quest for dramatic reasons while not really offering much incentive to keep going after that. Another nice limitation that might help in making the characters unnatural nature apparent would be to not make this return to life permanent. Maybe it lasts only a month or a year after the character is gone for good or it takes continual magical rituals to preserve this temporary return to the world of the living.

Dark Sun Sandbox

No, this is not a pun.

I wrote about sandboxes and taking the idea of default goals from megadungeons on monday, and how it finally made sandbox campaigns click for me.

And it finally made me understand how I would properly run a Dark Sun campaign. A sandbox is a perfect match for it. One issue with the setting as described is that all the interesting possible oponents are fabulously powerful. If you want to engage in the current public affairs of Athas, you’re facing immortal sorcerer kings with limitless resources and whole armies of seriously dangerous minions. Yet doing regular bandit killing and caravan guarding would be just way too bland for a setting like this. Even being an ordinary adventurer looking for gold in dungeons would be kinda meh.

But as a sandbox it all makes so much more sense. The default action in a Dark Sun campaign is “don’t die”. When you’re in a city, then the templars of the sorcerer-kings are everywhere and looking to kill or enslave you for the slightest reason. If you’re not in a city, then it’s a constant fight to not be killed by the desert. Sitting around idle is never an option, you are always facing a threat. If you don’t have any specific goal for now, then simply staying alive and free will always keep you occupied. It’s a world that really comes to life through random encounters. Random encounters are not the hand GM nuding the players to do certain things. They are the setting itself being hostile to the players, which really is one of the big selling points of Dark Sun as a setting.

And going on more specific adventures with a defined goal can always be treated as a means to accomplishing the default goal of staying alive. Helping others is not something you do out of kindness, but because they will give you resources and assistance in return, which then can help you to survive the deserts and stay ahead of the templars for a little longer. And in the long term, the players can make allies and gain the friendship of slave tribes or bands of elves, or can call in a debt from thri-kreen. Or even somehow get the gratitude of a clan of halflings. Lunatic canibal halflings who live in the one forest in a desert world that everybody else stays way clear of. As they grow in personal power and gain allies, players can eventually get into a position where they can mean actual trouble for any of the sorcerer-kings. Whichever one of them the players decide to hate the most.

The Tyr Region is perfect for a sandbox, and not just because it’s full of sand. However, given that the setting was created for AD&D 2nd edition and that the really cool concept was quickly turned into garbage by a heavy handed metaplot that had NPCs do all the things that would have been cool for players to do, I very much doubt that this was the intention. But that’s clearly how I would run it.

Eldritch Lore: Elementals

Air Elemental by javi-ure

A while back I’ve seen someone describe elementals in Dungeons & Dragons as fundamentally boring. I think they are really cool, but what is it that they rally have going for themselves? When you look at their description in the Monster Manuals and Expert Sets, really all that you get is a description of how they look and their abilities in combat. And that’s really everything there is about them. What little there is about their role in the wider world makes them appear more like mindless temporary golems controlled by wizards than actual nature spirits. I have to agree. Elementals in Dungeons & Dragons are super lame.

Yeah, well… I’m gonna go build my own fantasy setting. With blackjack and cool elementals!

Elementals

Earth Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals are the oldest and most numerous of the spirits inhabiting the Spiritworld. Even more so than the spirits of trees and animals, they are the spirits of the land, sea, rivers, and sky themselves. They have no shape or form of their own, but wherever the elements are present there are also elemental spirits inhabiting them in the Spiritworld.  Whenever they have a need to interact with the physical world around them they can manifest a body shaped from their element. Weapons can not damage water and fire and even when rock is crushed an earth elemental can maintain a body made from rubble. The only ways to deal any harm to an elemental spirit are magic and the elements themselves. Dousing fire with water or turning water into steam with extreme heat can overwhelm the power of an elemental spirit, causing it to lose its hold over its physical form and disappearing back into the environment to recover its strength. Like all spirits, elementals are hurt by iron as well, but bronze, wood, and stone have no effect on them whatsoever.

Fire Elemental by javi-ure

Elementals don’t have any needs as living creatures would understand them or even desires like the shie, naga, and raksha. They are eternal beings as old as the world itself, who will probably continue to exist until the end of time, long after all people, beasts, and other nature spirits will be gone. Yet they are not mindless forces of nature, nor completely devoid of emotions. The main priority pursued by elementals is to be left in peace. The one thing that drives them into furious rage are disturbances of their comfortable quiet. However what costitutes a disturbance to these enigmatic beings is never clear to tell. The presence of beasts large and small is a constant and regular occurence throughout all the world and most of the time elementals make no distinguishment between people and animals. The affairs of mortals are of no relevance to them and so they are generally ignored by elementals. However, their apparent peacefulness can very quickly turn into determined agression by causing a commotion in their vicinity or merely getting to close for their comfort.

Water Elemental by javi-ure

While elementals usually don’t talk to other creatures they are capable of speech, speaking in the languages of spirits of the earth, water, and sky. They simply lack any desire to communicate with other beings. But when approached with care by a shaman they can be drawn into a conversation and reveal themselves to be quite intelligent creatures of great wisdom, though much of it has little meaning to the short lives of mortal beings. When interacting with people, elementals often take a vaguely humanoid shape but they can also assume forms resembling various great beasts or simply appear as rolling clouds or bulges of water. The minds of elementals are nearly as alien as those of the ancients that predate the formation of the world, but being a fundamental part of the natural world their presence has none of their warping and corrupting effects on the land and creatures around them.

Lesser Elemental

XP: 500
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 19
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 6 (27 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d6
Earth: Slam 1d8
Fire: Slam 1d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 12
Poison: 10
Breath: 13
Device: 11
Magic: 14
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Greater Elemental

XP: 1,200
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 21
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 8 (36 hp)
Attack: Slam 1d8
Earth: Slam 2d6
Fire: Slam 1d8 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 10
Poison: 8
Breath: 11
Device: 9
Magic: 12
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.

Elder Elemental

XP: 1,900
No. Appearing: 1 (1)
Armor: 23
Move: 120′
Air: Fly 240′
Earth: Climb 60′
Fire: Fly 120′
Water: Swim 180′
Hit Dice: 12 (54 hp)
Attack: Slam 2d6
Earth: Slam 2d8
Fire: Slam 2d6 fire
Saving Throws
Paralysis: 8
Poison: 6
Breath: 9
Device: 7
Magic: 10
Morale: 10
Special: No damage from bronze, wood, and stone weapons and natural attacks. Full damage from iron weapons. Half damage from cold, fire, and lightning.
Fire: No damage from fire, normal damage from cold.