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.

The greatest thing that D&D forgot

Now this is not going to be a big, or even any, revelation to many people who are reading sites like this, but over the last weeks I’ve been doing more research on great adventure location design, which led me many times into dead ends because of the same single preconception the people writing have about D&D as a roleplaying game. So here you have it from my mouth:

Early D&D* was an exploration game, not a combat game.

I think this is probably the single most important aspect that distinguishes oldschool roleplaying from “modern games”. With AD&D 2nd Edition it’s a bit muddy, but we can safely say that 3rd to 5th Edition and Pathfinder are all combat games first that have some additional rules for non-combat situation tacked on to them. But with oldschool games, the situation is really very different. Combat is something that can happen, but the whole game is build in a way that you really don’t want it to happen. Except if it is for dramatic reasons, of course. Stopping a major villain and slaying a terrible monster is great. But the rules as a whole are all set up to make combat a bad thing for the characters.

Combat provides very little XP, except when it opens the way to treasure that gives the party a lot of XP. Getting access to the treasure without combat is always preferable. Combat is the primary pressure put on players to not spend too much time in dungeons rooms and not simply dealing with obstacles by destroying them. Because both these things attact potential combat. Encumbrance exist to slow characters down, which means they take longer to explore the dungeon and are less capable of escaping from a fight. Encumbrance only is a bad thing if players don’t want to fight.

Combat also is deadly and gets characters killed, even if the party wins a fight. But combat also isn’t necessary. Any time the party encounters living things in a dungeon and there is no good reason why those creatures and NPCs are hostile, the rules have a reaction roll to determine how they react to the party. And the creatures attacking on sight is the least likely reaction. The next most unfriendly reaction in the Basic Set is “Hostile, possible attack”, which I regard as being most sensibly interpreted as “attacks if provoked by the party’s actions”. There is a chance that a monster actually reacts friendly and the next most positive result is that the monster leaves or considers offers. Because the monster does not want to risk a fight with likely dadly consequences either. And if a fight breaks out, there is also the Morale check, which is used to determine whether monsters who are taking casualties decide that they would rather abandon the fight than risk now even more possible looking death.

The whole game is set up so that combat hold almost all risk and no reward for the players and that even their oppponents prefer not to fight. Combat is what happens when an encounter ends in catastrophy.

D&D being a game of exploration instead of combat also explains the majority of traditional spells that keep getting carried on by each new addition even though they seem to be pretty much useless. They are useless in a combat game. But hold portal, levitate, and speak with animal all make so much sense in an exploration game.

* That is pre-Dragonlance, 1974-1984.

Domains and Endgame in the Ancient Lands

These last couple of days I’ve been thinking about and rereading the rules for high level characters and ruling over domains in the Expert and Companion rules. Domain play has always been something of an elusive beast that few people seem to have any real experience with. Got there once but didn’t stay with it long seems to be the most common statement.

When you look at the Cook Expert rules (1981), domain play is almost completely absent. It tells you that characters at 9th level can become rulers of a domain, tells the GM to handwave a monthly tax income, and has a half page of price lists for constructing a castle. But it doesn’t really go into what play as a ruler would be like.

In the Companion set, a lot more ink has been spilled about it. There’s lots and lots of rules for management and accounting. But as far as I am able to tell, there still is no real guidance of any kind what players would actually be doing in play. Doing the accounting for a domain and occasionally fixing the mess caused by raiders or disasters? How would this be appealing to players who so far have been exploring exotic places, navigated deadly dungeons, and had dealing with monsters and evil sorcerers?

It could be a fun game to some people, but doesn’t seem to mesh at all with what D&D has been up to that point. And much more importantly, it’s not a group activity. One player rules a domain and makes all the descisions for it. If all the players have their own separate domains, how would they be playing together? You can of course play a game of warlords, but that would be a competitive game, not a cooperative one. And a group of characters who have been working together for years wouldn’t suddenly become rivals and send their armies against each other. The only practical way I can see for having PCs become rulers over domains would be to have them retired from play and have them occasionally appear as quest giver NPCs played by their old player. Who would then be playing a new adventuring character to actually go on that adventure. If you have a large scale campaign with dozens of players and multiple GMs I could see that working for a handful of high level characters. But this simply isn’t the reality of how D&D is played. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of such groups that still exists today could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If there even are any.

One argument for domain play in a campaign with more Sword & Sorcery leaning that occasionally comes up is that Conan was a king. Kane was a sorcerer-warlord and Elric was an emperor. But the important part is that their stories are never about ruling and managing their domains. Sword & Sorcery tales about rulers are always about leaving the court with a sword in hand and fighting monsters. If you want to emulate the high level adventures of popular Sword & Sorcery heroes then domain management rules are completely irrelevant and out of place.

Occasionally there are big battles between armies, but even then those stories are not about being a field commander. It’s always about personally going after the enemy commander or pulling awesome stunts to destroy the enemy forces without having your own troops stab them dead one by one. Mass combat isn’t something that happens in Sword & Sorcery either. What you get is raids with a group of maybe up to a dozen people. Which would be a group of PCs and their henchmen.

So I’ve come to the descision that the high level elements of the Ancient Lands setting will simply assume that there is no such thing as domain play. Taking control of a stronghold and gathering followers will simply be down to players actually fortifying a place and talking to people. It may be done at any level and take whatever scale seems appropriate for a given situation. But for all intents and purposes characters will pretty much stop to advance after 9th level and only gain small increases in hit points at a very slow pace from their continued adventures, plus skill points for specialists and spell points for witches. (In my War Cry of the Flame Princess rules fighters reach maximum attack bonus and witches maximum spell level at 9th level, and scouts maximum Bushcraft and Stealth skills at 10th level.) I only ever had two campaigns reach 11th level and that was both in 3rd edition which has pretty fast level progression. So chances are pretty high I won’t ever see a 10th level character in the Ancient Lands anyway.

Adventuring seasons and long term campaigns

A few weeks back, Joseph had been writing about the idea of having parties going on adventures only for some months of the year when weather permits it and then returning for the winter to deal with business back home. It’s an idea that goes back at least as far as Pendragon, but also more recently appeared in The One Ring. And in both cases it seems to be an element that is quite popular with players and that constitutes a pretty important part in giving these games their unique spin. It basically has to main effects on a campaign.

One is that players have to regularly return to a safe haven for overwintering, which can nudge players to get involved in more urban or social adventures which they normally wouldn’t seek out. It also allows for a good blend of exploration adventures and domain management if that later aspect is desired.

The other thing that it does is to create a much stronger sense of the passing of time. One oddity of megadungeons, super-modules, adventure paths, and other kinds of published campaigns is that they often take characters from first level to high levels at an incredibly fast pace. Often just a couple of weeks or a few months at the most. After which they are as powerful and experienced as NPCs who have been at it for decades or even centuries. Even if the campaign includes time jumps like “after 5 weeks of sailing” or “several months later”, these things don’t tend to be felt by the players, to whom it might just as well have been “later that afternoon”. By regularly alternating between adventuring season and winter camp, you at least communicate the idea that the campaign stretches over a couple of years.

To add this aspect to your game, you don’t actually need any specific rules for it. All you really need to do is track the passing of days on the calendar. Even if it’s just a simple campaign of going to the dungeon and poking around, placing the dungeon a few days travel from the next village and putting each village with a dungeon a week or two apart¬† from each other will lead to a lot of time passing between each session. If you have a sandbox (one that isn’t about filling out a 6-mile hex map), put the various locations a good distance away from each other and players should very quickly rack up pretty long travel times. Once the campaign reaches the end of the ninth or tenth month, simply tell the players that weather is getting increasingly awful for camping in the wilderness and that they should find a place to stay until the fourth month or so.

If it fits the campaign, you can then simply jump ahead to the next spring and continue from there. There are also a good number of great adventures that can be had during the winter. But these are usually not long expeditions into the wilderness. Much more commonly these are things with isolated villages being threatened and no help coming until spring. The kind of places where you would expect adventurers to stay for the winter. These don’t have to be elaborate adventurers. They can easily be just simple one-shots for a single session, but can also be pretty big things as well. The advantage of this is that you will have the players remember that they actually have experienced a winter and it’s not something that was only mentioned once in passing. For my Ancient Lands campaign, I am planning to make a simple Random Event table, on which I will make one roll for every month in winter camp. With a 1/6 chance four times in a row, something is almost certainly to happen; perhaps even two things. These would probably have to be rolled in advance and not at the table, so you can prepare some material for it. But again, it doesn’t have to be big things. “Frozen Zombies” or “Winter Wolves” would be enough as a hook for the GM. Then you can start with destroyed farms or dead cattle in a stable and have the players deal with it as you usually would in a sandbox. Since the players are kind of stuck in the place and have nowhere else to be, they probably wouldn’t resist looking into it.

But when it comes to running an campaign with a level based system I also got another idea. There’s a small and perhaps not too well known rule in the 1981 Basic Set that characters can never gain enough XP to level up twice after a single adventure. However, the book doesn’t really specificy what constitutes an adventure. I am assuming it means a single session, but when you’re playing the long game you can also think much bigger. Like a whole year bigger. Which, when you consider it narratively, still isn’t really that long. A young adventurer who goes adventuring every year could easily reach 9th level well before age 30. Make it twice as much and you end up with PCs reaching their maximum number of Hit Dice around 40. That seems very appropriate to me.

In fact, it would be quite critical that the campaign is laid out so that characters don’t reach their annual XP cap on a regular basis. The required XP scores for advancing to the next level are roughly doubling with each level which leads to lower level characters catching up to higher level characters pretty quickly. Be they replacement characters for dead ones, new additions to the group, or characters who have suffered energy drain. If all the characters in the party reach the XP cap every year, then the lower level characters will never be able to catch up. So when you estimate how much adventuring the party will be doing in a year, I think aiming for half the XP needed to have the highest level PC reach the next level would be a good baseline.

If the difference in character levels gets really big you run into some problems with encounters anyway, but it’s going to be troublesome here as well. You can easily have characters with an XP cap a hundred times higher than others, which can very likely mean that the lower level PCs would reach their maximum right after the first session of the season, which I guess wouldn’t really feel that fun for the players. One possible option would be to have a year in which the highest level characters don’t go on adventures. However, unlike with spliting the players into two groups and having them adventuring separately for one or two adventures, you can’t really have these adventures simultaneously when you want the lower level characters to catch up with the higher level ones. The players with the higher level characters would have to wait until the other group has finished its adventuring season before they can get back into the action. I think that wouldn’t really be feasible for more than one session or two. Perhaps those players might like to play henchmen or create secondary characters, but I am not sure if they’d be really happy with that either. While I’ve heard that it used to be quite common for players to semi-retire their high level characters and start new ones in paralel, I don’t know if this is something players would still enjoy doing with the expectations they have today.