The Importance of Realism

I tend to buy adventure modules and source books just because I want to see how the author(s) tackle problems.  Some of them, such as “The Cerulean Seas” campaign setting by Alluria tackle some really complex problems – in this case, such as buoyancy and depth – and the resulting document can be informative while providing keen examples of solving problems in a solid fantasy gaming fashion.

But a bit too often authors needlessly introduce unnecessary challenges to reality.  I will give you two examples.

I recently purchased a module because I needed something to cover me for just 3 game hours because I hadn’t created anything for my weekly game.  So I bought a module that happened to be the correct level and it was structured loosely enough so that I could adjust it to integrate fairly well into my campaign.  I should have been ready in like a quarter the time – I ‘d just have to read it.

And then I noticed that a portion the pirate-themed adventure featured a 170 foot pirate ship.  I don’t know if you know much about wooden ships, but I assure you that this is a honking huge wooden ship.  Not impossibly huge, but it would be an impressive wooden ship in any era.  My bullshit detectors were starting to spin-up.

Next I discovered that this behemoth of a ship was ‘crewed’ by 5 pirates that would sail the ship to intercept and engage any ship piloted by the party.  I am not saying that it would be bs_meterimpossible to sail a ship with just 5 people, but it would be very challenging just to sail the ship, much less engage another fully crewed vessel while attempting to control a 170′ mammoth.  The BS detector was now sounding loud and clear – DUH – DUH – DUH!

No one wants to have a realism discussion instead of gaming

Once your inner BS detector is sounding off, it is a problem – your disbelief is no longer suspended and you start to scrutinize everything else.  Just handing something that set off your BS detector to your players without sanitizing it can result in them having a similar “that’s a load” moment and a couple of those can create problems.  No one wants to have a realism discussion instead of gaming.

And mistakes of this nature aren’t limited to 3rd party publishers.  While reading a fairly recent (i.e. 5e) WoTC adventure document, I encountered a brief description of a young mother and her sextuplets.   Yeah, it was tossed in the middle of an adventure just that casually, hastily used to illustrate the generosity of this woman who was also caring for adoptive children.  Six suckling infants and still such a charitable soul that she is adopting non-human children! So noble!  So…unlikely.

There have been less than 200 cases of sextuplets since the 1800s

It took me like 5 minutes on Google to learn that there have been less than 200 cases of sextuplets since the 1800s.  And the success rate for the infants is low until recent times and it is still quite common to lose all of the infants.

As a player, I would have investigated the woman to see if she were following a goddess of fertility or if she’d actually been bedded by a god.  And if the DM seemed surprised that I was asking such oddly prying questions, my vote of confidence in the entire scenario would almost certainly be suspended and that dreaded reality talk about how things really work would have started.

Yes, I realize that we’re playing a game and that it should not be very realistic – it is, after all, rather abstract.  But neither should it flaunt ignorance or outrageous stupidity – unless that is the actual intent, to make players question or to dig deeper into something that is clearly, and obviously…wrong.

Neither should it flaunt ignorance or outrageous stupidity

Adding needless color text that creates disbelief, conceiving scenarios requiring some scant knowledge without doing any amount of reasonable research, or simply introducing something on the edge of believably that does nothing to advance the adventure are foolish, easily avoidable mistakes that reflect poorly upon the editors – the quality control people – first and foremost since they accepted the ‘work’ without pushing back or doing due diligence.


Hexcrawl Hazards: Becoming Lost

Getting Lost

1st edition VS 5th Edition D&D

Looking back at the origins of D&D, the first edition of the game has almost 2/3 of a page dedicated to the concept of adventurers becoming lost and subsequently offers suggestions on how to handle parties that lose their orientation.  Now looking at present day, the rules in D&D5e have atrophied to less than 1/4 of a page, with very few guidelines being presented.

Given how small that section is in the 5e DMG, I’d be surprised if very many DMs concern themselves with checking to see if a party did, indeed, become lost.  Which is a shame, because exploring the unknown and traveling across vast tracts of wilderness needs to taken seriously and stopping for instructions leads to role playing opportunities.

Without a hex grid, the rules for getting lost might require a compass, ruler, pencils…

The rules in D&D1e are largely based on the intransmutable foregone conclusion that you will be using hexes on your overland map which in turn simplifies the handling things like getting lost.  Without a hex grid, the rules for getting lost might require a compass, ruler, pencils, and a discussion that that would probably consume quite a bit of space and hence we get the very slim set of rules in D&D5e.

Here, then, are D&D1e guidelines for becoming lost:

Becoming Lost: Any party not guided by a creature knowledgeable of the countryside through which the party is moving, or which is not following a well defined course (river, road, or the like), or which is not using a well-drawn and correct map, might become lost. This is determined prior to the commencement of a day’s movement.  Determination is based on the terrain….

I italicized the portion of the text that tells you when to check.  This is a bit different in the 5e version of the text which appears as:

Unless they are following a path, or something like it, adventurers traveling in the wilderness run the risk of becoming lost. The party’s navigator makes a Wisdom (Survival) check when you decide it’s appropriate, against a DC determined by the prevailing terrain, as shown on the Wilderness Navigation table. If the party is moving at a slow pace, the navigator gains a +5 bonus to the check, and a fast pace imposes a – 5 penalty. If the party has an accurate map of the region or can see the sun or stars, the navigator has advantage on the check.

In the Gygaxian original view of the possibility of getting lost, a daily check is necessary.  In the lore of 5th edition, it is up to the DM to determine when he wants to check.  This allows you to remove much of the randomness that could interrupt the telling of your collective story.  For instance, it doesn’t make much narrative sense to be riding wildly to warn a town an impending invasion of a horde of lycanthropic halflings and then suddenly take a wrong turn and get lost.

In the Gygaxian original view of the possibility of getting lost, a daily check is necessary.

You will note, however, that no preference is given to Rangers, Druids or even Wood Elves – only to those with the survival skill.  I like it because it is uniform, but it might surprise the party druid or ranger to learn that he is not the go-to source of woodland navigation without the survival skill.

All of this thus far is making fairly good sense if it does make an overt reliance upon the survival skill.  But what about the nature skill?  Why isn’t it used?

The nature skill is a knowledge of a thing – it is passive, descriptive, informational.  Survival is hands-on, the doing of a thing – it is an active skill.  Nature could, in fact, be helpful – your character might know that lichen only grow on the southern side of the rocks and stones in this region therefore be able to re-orientate the party – still lost, but now sure of their direction of travel.  There is a time penalty for getting lost (1d6 hours to re-orientate) – the nature skill could and should be used to reduce or even negate that penalty.

Becoming lost is the realization that you have been wrong about where you are

Why did the 1st edition rules specify a check first thing in the morning?  To start with, the entire day would be spent moving in a random direction.  Until the terrain changes significantly or an unexpected river or other easily recognized terrain marker appears, the party does not know they are actually lost.  This allows the DM to place the party somewhere on the map and then later inform the party that they are starting to suspect that they might not be heading the right direction.  Generally speaking, becoming lost is the realization that you have been wrong about where you are and where you have been going.  In game parlance, you must have moved unwittingly in an incorrect direction.

How does a party discover that they are moving in the wrong direction? As previously mentioned, they could encounter a terrain distinction of some sort IF they have a good map.  Cutting across roads or trails might provide them with a clue if you’d prefer to role play the discovery.  Missing expected landmarks (towns, river fords, a mountain pass, etc) is another way for the party to become aware that they are adrift in the wilderness.

Travel time in the wrong direction is needed for the party to be, by definition, lost.

The 5th edition rules say that you can check at anytime to determine if the party becomes lost, but in order for this to mean anything,  some actual travel time in the wrong direction is needed for the party to be, by definition, lost.  So I would suggest that once a party becomes lost, that at least half a day travel happens before they become aware of any hint of a problem.

Direction of travel once lost
Direction of travel once lost – expanded version based upon the diagram shown in AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide page 49.

I had mentioned earlier that travel provides some role playing opportunities.  If the lands are inhabited, the party would be wise to occasionally have a chat with a local.  This would allow them to get a picture of what is happening in the area that might be of interest to the party (grim hints of a lycanthropic halfling horde, for instance) while confirming their bearings.  But then, everyone hates to stop and ask for directions – according to my wife, this is especially true of men.

In terms of winners and losers, AD&D 1e -vs- D&D5e, which one is better for handling getting lost?  I prefer the clever way that D&D5e handles the checks, but I also like the more hex-centric rules and handling of being lost afforded by the older 1e rules.  Using a fusion of the two rule sets and home brewing your campaign rules for getting lost is the way to go.



Rebuilding G1: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Sometimes I like to take on a technical challenge and I thought that converting G1 to D&D5e would be an interesting thing to try.  I thought that it would be cool to see how well 5e would overlay upon the old bones of G1 and it would be interesting to discern how much of the original AD&D model would still shine-through while creating a Fantasy Grounds module.

Schley’s version is a great improvement, being rendered in a 5′ scale

So I gathered up a copy of G1 and the first task seemed to be to either make or find a high resolution battle map.  A little bit of search engine action later, and I was staring in amazement at a Mike Schley version of the two maps in G1.  They were not a one-to-one match, but very, very similar while getting the job done.  Actually, Schley’s version is a great improvement, being rendered in a 5′ scale while the original was in 10′ map square.  I became a patron of Mr. Schley’s web store and bought the two maps.

David C. Sutherland III cover art for the original G1 module

Once I had the maps, I started to wonder if Mike just took on old modules and made maps, or what.  Why in the heck did he make this map?

The entire G-series was remade for the 4th Edition of D&D

It turns out that the entire G-series was remade for the 4th Edition of D&D starting in the pages of Dungeon 197 and subsequently reappearing in 199 and climaxing in issue 200.  It was designed for level 13-14+ characters, which made me a bit unhappy since the original G1 was designed for level 8 or 9 adventurers.  I am still targeting the level 8-9 range because I’d prefer to keep at least that much consistent.

Fantasy Grounds screen shot of the Steading map and adventure text
Mike Schley’s excellent map serves as the anchor for my conversion of the G1 module to D&D5e and as a Fantasy Grounds module

Reviewing the pages of Dungeon 197, I was actually very, very pleased with how they had structured it.  The Steading was zoned off into logical areas and it was tied into what would happen if an alarm was sounded.

A 25th Anniversary edition of the G-series was released as Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff

Still looking at things through a historical lens, I discovered that a 25th Anniversary edition of the G-series was released as Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff in 1999.  I suppose that this was swan song of D&D2e material – but it is not available online, so my interest in it died.

Very, very early into this conversion, you have to stare down the barrel of Gygax’s player killing design.  The second room in the original module contains over 25 giants.  If the alarm goes up elsewhere in the structure and this group fans out and gets organized, it could be very easy for a party to do a full wipe.

The second room in the original module contains over 25 giants.

Conversely, a room filled with Giants is an AoE wet dream.  I can still recall the party that I DMed for hitting that room with wands, a necklace of fireballs, and of course an actual fireball cast by the party mage.  Of the 25 giants, most were dead or nearly dead and the room was really an irresistibly huge XP pool and my group of players happily cannon-balled and belly-flopped into the warm, warm waters of combat experience.

Fantasy Grounds chart for use in G1 module
This is one of the custom charts to generate mundane finds when searching.

In fairness, things were quite a bit different back in D&D1e days.  Damage inflation hadn’t happened – doing over 10 points of damage on a single attack was doing good.  The giants of the time had hit points listed as: H.P.: 44, 3 x 40, 39, 5 x 38, 5 x 37, 3 x 36, 33, 30, 2 x 27.

Your average run of the mill D&D5e Hill Giant has 105 hit points – close to 3x the average hit points of the giants in the original encounter listed above.  More problematic for the players, these giants will not crumple and fold under the incandescent glow of a few fireballs.

So the number of foes has to be reduced – even an expert party would go down under the crushing power of 25 giants.  It still needs to be an overpowering group of grubby hill giants, one that you do not want to face in a fair fight, but something closer to manageable in case the party decides to risk direct conflict.

What I ended up with was a CR 16 group worth 14600 XP – not yet modified for difficulty which will be deadly.  The group summarizes as:

  1. Stone Giants x 2 (one being the chief Nosnra, one being the stone giant emissary)
  2. Hill Giants x 5.  I really considered going with three (one giant for each seat at the table), but decided to dig in the spurs and make sure the group had significant gravity
  3. Dire Bear x 1.  The chief has a pet bear and animals might pose problems or opportunities depending upon the group and their plans.  To create the bear, I modified a polar bear, gave it more hit dice (7d10), renamed it to DIRE BEAR and patted myself on the back.

Get the hardest encounter tuned and the rest of it just sort of falls into place.

Getting the principal encounter on the map ‘tuned’ to level 8 or 9 made me feel pretty good about how the rest of the adventure will turn out.  I think that I will use this approach during future conversions – get the hardest encounter tuned and the rest of it just sort of falls into place.

Area 01 summary (CR9 XP 4950):

  1. Hill Giants x 2 (one on the tower, one asleep against the main doors)
  2. Ogres x 3 (asleep near the main gate)

Add one more ogre and the difficulty jumps from HARD to DEADLY, so this monster encounter is a pretty good acid test to see if the group of players is ready for adventure inside the Steading.  If you are unsure, fudge it into an full encounter and if the party struggles, they might want to fall-back.

Area 03 summary (CR14, XP 11250)

  1. Morzul, Hill Giantess Shaman (started with a Hill Giant, copied the three powers from the article in Dungeon 197 and removed rock throwing – she is asleep in her room)
  2. Hill Giants x 3 (these guys are asleep and scattered in beds in two rooms)
  3. Hill Giant Younglings x 9 (I took an ogre and converted it into a Hill Giant youth.  The players have three rounds to get this group down before they attract the attention of the adult Hill Giants whereupon things could take a turn for the worse)

This is a controlled situation where player choices will make a difference.  If the adults become involved, the situation could deteriorate very quickly.

The Vault of Stenious Strauss (Pt 1)

I’ve been working on a module for five players of the 5th level.  I’ve been struggling with how I want to present it here and have decided to talk more about the technical aspects (pens, paper, scanners, software) and a bit less of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition (D&D 5e) choices that I’ve made.  The goal here is be more concerned with illustrating the creative process and less concerned with the nuts and bolts of rules.

Getting Started

After floundering around with several pieces of software to create digital maps, I finally tired of getting no where at all and ordered a pad of 11″ x 17″ graph paper with a 1/4″ grid.  I prefer a larger pad so I do not feel quite as cramped and it affords me room to make notes as needed.

By now, I already have a solid mental picture of what I want from the dungeon. It was constructed by a very wealthy alchemist named Stenious Strauss to protect a powerful alchemical weapon that he had made.  Because of this, I created the following criteria for the dungeon:

  • It will be heavy on large-scale situational traps.
  • It will be expertly constructed and of very fine quality.
  • It will not have been penetrated or otherwise entered in more than 200 years, so most opponents will need to be undead, elementals, constructs, or otherwise be able to survive for long periods.

Once we had a few ground rules, a handful of expectations and logical conclusions, things started to roll along much faster.  The plot details initiated an explosion of directed, well-focused production.  The more fuel you have on hand, the easier it is to get a creative fire burning.

The plot details initiated an explosion of directed, well-focused production.

Brainstorming, I developed a list of possible opponents that include Ogre Zombies, Flesh Golems, Quipper Swarms, a custom door greeter to set the tone, and a few other custom creatures once we get a bit deeper into this. It was more than enough to get started.

It is worth mentioning that much of my creature planning is done on and I find this site invaluable.  I also use which is a great place for getting the specifics for each creature in an encounter, all without opening a book.

Armed with this information, I sketched out the following map:

Vault of Stenious Strauss map (6 of 20+ rooms done)

Now I had something on paper and had a pretty good mental picture of how each of these rooms would work.

Increasing Detail

As the map got more detailed, I considered how I wanted several traps to work and made diagrams for them (sketches seen in the recent post about traps and arbitrary player character murder.)  I feel that it is very important to set a tone early in the halls of a dungeon that give the players an expectation, a foreshadowing of what is likely to transpire as they advance through the dungeon.  Of the first eight rooms, seven of them have traps.  After this insidious introduction, they should be much more aware and studious in their attempts to locate and disarm any traps that they might encounter.

Of the first eight rooms, seven of them have traps.

I now had enough to start writing room descriptions.  When finished, each room was taking up about 2 pages of paper, which I suppose was the price of having complex traps..  This added increasingly more detail for the map and I added notes or more detail to the sketch and fleshed it out a bit more.

Vault of Stenious Strauss, stage 2

Because I was enjoying myself and wanted the detail to stand out a bit more, I colored the paper very, very lightly with watercolor pencils which I activated with a brush that was only lightly dampened.  The paper is thin and has buckled, but it is a lot nicer upon the eye.

Continuing forward…  I will convert the hand-drawn map to a digital format with Fractal Mapper 8 – this is already almost done.  Though the dungeon isn’t fully completed, the players have already arrived and have penetrated over half of the rooms.

– Kilgore

Night Fight

I had a couple of strange turns of events in the meta-game of the weekly campaign that I am DMing.  One of my players could not play this week due to work obligations and I had a plot branch that was centered around him going to a town, back to home base as it were.  We also had added a new player and most of my encounters were a bit off as a result.

So, I tossed my prepared materials and decided to wing it with an outdoor mega-encounter.  A chance encounter with a lad riding for help that would pit the players against a small goblinoid army.

The heavily themed encounter list appears as:

Encounter Map One (woods and pasture)
6 x Orc, Orog - Total XP: 1,050 Adjusted XP: 2,625 Deadly
Orc Eye of Gruumsh, Orog, 3x Orc -Total XP: 1,200 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard

Encounter Map Two (wooded roadway ambush)
Goblin Boss, 5x Hobgoblin, 4x Goblin - Total XP: 900 Adjusted XP: 2,250 Hard
12x Goblin, Goblin Boss - Total XP: 800 Adjusted XP: 2,400 Hard
2x Bugbear, 2x Hobgoblin, 6x Goblin - Total XP: 900 Adjusted XP: 2,250 Hard

The gaming group  pushed through the encounters which were chained together one after another after another on each map.  They got no breaks and pushed on hard, trying to save the lad’s family.  I chained the encounters so there was almost no rest and to create a sense of urgency to get the groups down quickly before the next one arrived.

It was night fight, so they could hear the enemies drawing near, but had no sense of the composition or numbers of enemies.  Instead of the players assaulting the monsters, the monsters were ambushing or attacking them and it made for some wild fighting.

The warlock was down to shocking grasp and was all but dry-humping armored opponents

By the end of the second battle map, they were spent, almost every spell fired off, hit points low.  They had to take a long rest or be at risk of not surviving the next map.  The warlock was down to shocking grasp and was all but dry-humping armored opponents, for pities sake!

Anyhow, the players had really nuked the first couple of encounters and frankly wasted a few spells.  I think that by the time the evening of adventure was drawing to a close, that the casters might be a bit more hesitant to commit the big stuff in future fights, but we’ll see.

Good mages knew when to toss darts or daggers and when to unleash the big spells.

As a guy that played OD&D and AD&D 1e and then pulled a Rip Van Winkle until D&D 5e, it seems like spell casters have much more spells to cast these days.   Way, way back in the day when I actually had hair on the top of my head, the timing of a fireball, for instance, was critical.  Good mages knew when to toss darts or daggers and when to unleash the big spells.  Maybe those days are long past, and perhaps good mages today know what the right spell is to cast.  Regardless, there has been a major shift in active magic casting.

Next week the players will advance on to the third and final map of the encounter chain.  After a long rest will the boy’s mother and grandpa still be among the living?  Will they survive what might be a lethal encounter with the forces of evil?