Fool me once…

As it turns out, I’ll be returning to work from hibernation this year in February and not in March, as I had expected. And I’ll not be moving into a new place until early March at the earliest, quite possibly in April. So the next two months aren’t going to be quite as chill as expected and I’ll won’t be settled in until we’ll be full deep into the planting season. This means my original plan to get a new campaign started and established after Christmas will have to be pushed back to probably somewhere in May, as I don’t want to start a  campaign for four weeks and then potentially disappear from the face of the Earth for a couple of months. (Once the plants arrive in the stores, our work for the year is mostly done, so off-season starts for us in May.)

This also means that I can spend the whole of this month on further elaborate campaign prep, and expand on it in whatever idle time I’ll be finding in spring. And one thing that has been on my mind recently is that despite my previous experiences in the campaign from one year ago, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition might not be all that bad.

At the end of the Inixon campaign, I talked with the players, who mostly were GMs themselves with much more experience with the system than me, and while they mostly agreed with the issues I had spotted in the rules, their opinion was that these things are fixable without too much trouble by picking a few of the variant rules and changing the approach to handling certain things. I had similar conversations again twice last months about where I had been dissatisfied with how the game handled, and again the responses I got was generally that my observations are correct, but that the game doesn’t have to be run that way and play quite differently if you don’t.

The main issue I had with the system was that PCs have a lot of fancy toys to play with quite early on. Many of these cool powers are related to combat, and seeing how excited the players were about getting them, I wanted to give them opportunities to actually get some use out of them. Unfortunately, these fights made them advance to new levels and get new shinier toys before they really got much chance to play with their old ones in interesting and creative ways. I really didn’t want the players to sit on the cool new powers they were clearly excited about and not being able to use them, and as a result things somewhat escalated into a series of battles with little inbetween. Eventually I decided that there was a good point in the story to wrap up the campaign around the time the PCs would have reached 6th level, instead of continuing into a fully open-world exploration of the Isle of Dread.

The obvious answer to this issue is of course to just give the players fewer XP. But I think in hindsight the issue wasn’t so much the specific XP awards, but that throughout my now 20 years of running D&D, a pace of having characters gain a new level about every 4 game sessions or so had always worked very well in 3rd edition, Pathfinder, and oldschool games. And that’s just the pace that I had kept with the Inixon campaign. Not sure if that’s really the case or a change in my perception as I change my style as GM, but to me it really feels like characters in 5th edition get a lot more new powers with each new level than I was used to. And certainly as compared to B/X, of course. It also was the first time I really wanted to use the approach to not have the players wait until higher levels to get cool magic items with interesting powers, and be more generous with magic treasure that has minor and situational powers. It doesn’t increase the power level of the party that much, but it absolutely adds to the amount of cool toys that the players have at their disposal and are eager to try out. With all that in mind, aiming to let PCs level up about every 4 game sessions really seems to fast. Better seems to aim for 6, or maybe even 8 game sessions on average. I think that should be a good start to address my main dissatisfaction I had with the game.

Somewhat related to that was another issue I had with dungeons. The campaign had started with Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which really does provide a solid reference for why this dungeon exists and what the inhabitants want with it. That went really well. This was followed by a fantastic unstructured stay in a pirate town, in which the one part I wasn’t happy with was the dungeon from Escape from Meenlock Prison. It was okay, but I felt it turned into kind of a slog. Eventually we got to Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and I really had no clue what to do with it but to put some ruined mansions down and fill them with hostile monsters. The game kind of implies it wants me to do dungeons with cool encounters, but it also isn’t letting me know how to actually do that, and I just got frustrated with it and decided not to go into The Isle of Dread after that. I felt that I just don’t get the whole point about dungeons other than being series of monster fights. However, in the past year after that, I learned a huge deal about classic dungeon crawling and what that is all about. The Basic/Expert exploration system is a fantastic campaign structure with an actual solid 30-minute-gameplay-loop, that 5th edition (and really all D&D starting with 2nd edition) seriously lacks.

And there’s a couple of things about 5th edition that I really like. I’m a big warlock fanboy, especially after having two of them in the Inixon campaign, and I am seeing so much worldbuilding potential with this class as the supernatural and weird is concerned, and for all the adventures that can come out of it. I also think that the druid circles of the land are quite a nice element that I’d love to play with. I had pondered the idea of a setting in which warlock magic is the only way mortals can access supernatural powers, which seems really fun, though probably doesn’t get too much cheer from players. But considering my previous ideas for the Shattered Empire, a campaign with only warlocks, druids, and bards as spellcasters sounds like something that could be really cool for a very-early Medieval campaign drawing on central-eastern Europe as reference.

So I am willing to give the system another try, with the following adjustments:

  • Characters gain XP by milestones, with the default type of milestone being the return of a treasure back to civilization. The amount of XP depending on the value of the treasure, and the obstacles standing in the way being appropriately difficult. My aim is to provide treasures that let characters gain a level every 6 to 8 game sessions or so.
  • A short rest takes a full night of rest, and a long rest requires taking a week off in a town, castle, or similarly secured and hospitable place. In practice this means going without a long rest for each whole adventure. This means druid spells that provide food, water, and similar ways to make wilderness travel easier for each day won’t be able to cover the whole trip. Similarly healing spells have to be rationed for the whole adventure. Having friendly sanctuaries in the wilderness will be a huge benefit, which is one of the really cool concepts I’ve encountered in The One Ring.
  • Encumbrance is done by inventory slots and not by weight, which makes it trivial to track instead of a big nuisance.
  • The Encounter syste, from B/X gets imported just as it is, with wandering monster checks, reaction rolls, morale, and all of that.
  • Initiative is done by sides instead of initiative counts, which is always a huge reduction in my personal mental workload and speeds up play considerably as it cuts down greatly on players taking time to consider their next move at the start of their turn.

I am still somewhat cautious about the idea, but I think it can only turn out better then the Inixon campaign. And that one was by far the best one I’ve ever run.

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