Dragon Heist: Session Zero

We had our session zero for Dragon Heist.  It was fairly low-key, everyone came in with a pretty good idea of the character they wanted to play and I don’t think anyone changed their character too much.  The main thing we established were what languages our various characters spoke to cover multiple bases.

Again let’s think of the goals for creating this Dragon Heist Character.  I’ve already expressed a stated preference to play a Cleric and I think they hit all these points.

First, a character that works at low levels.  While I would really like to do a Rogue/Conjurer Journalist, Dragon Heist is a level 1-5 adventure.  This is the realm best explored by single classed characters.  Fortunately AL Rules allow rebuilding at such low levels.  One of our PCs was taking a hard look at Druid with the Circle of Shepherds but the group consensus was that it was smarter to start Moon Druid and then rebuild to Shepherd later because the Conjuring spells are higher level.

Second, a character who does not know Waterdeep.  Me the player does not know Waterdeep the way I know Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter.  I don’t want to bring a character that makes me constantly think, “Boy this person should really know who The Xanathar is.”  This is expressed by their Aasimar race.

Third, we have some new players and frequent DMs getting a chance to play.  I want them to have a good time.  I should play a more supporting role in the party and give them the chance to put the big damage up on the board and shine the spotlight on them a bit more.  I should not be the Charisma character takes the lead in RP situations.  I want to be the character handing out Gatorade, managing HP scores, and dispensing buffs.  Cleric hits all those marks and the Sage background/Knowledge cleric gives my character the tools to help other people actually solve the problems.

I came away from the session with one idea to ruminate on going forward.  This was the question, “what does your character value?”  The character I’m running is the 4E Deva with multiple past lives, spent chronicling the universe in the service of the deity, Savras.  And there is a sort of problem with this that mirrors the Replicants from Blade Runner which is, the character is formed whole.  You come into the world as a complete adult person with basic skills.  But that person has no concept of emotional intelligence or personal desires.  The character is constantly laboring on chronicling the circumstances around them.  I picture this as information communicated through the holy symbol rather than writing down everything, although me the player will be trying to write down everything.

I can’t remember exactly how the person at the table phrased it, but they asked me what my character valued or desired personally, outside of this sort of greater goal of defining Waterdeep.  And my response was, “I don’t understand that question.”  They’re very much like the Eberron Warforged in a way.  This character didn’t have a childhood, they don’t have an idea that one day they will retire and look back on all their career.  They know, with certainty, that they will be reincarnated and continue their work.  Will it be the same work?  Maybe, maybe you fall and become a lower caste aasimar or even a Rakshasa.

I usually write these centered on my character’s perspective, their experience, and the adventure itself.  That isn’t just narcissism, the other players and DMs might not be okay with me making long posts about their characters and DM styles and I want to be respectful of that.

Story wise, we talked about the choice of villain. Dragon Heist marketing and cultural osmosis has kind of spoiled that this adventure has four potential villains and you can choose one.  It was smart to put this in the marketing because I think some people felt burned by Storm King’s Thunder where you only need to go to one of the five Giant strongholds and the adventure expects you to skip the others.  Putting upfront that the adventure is meant to be replayable is a smart move.  The villain choices put forward are: Jarlaxle, the famous Drow mercenary.  Manshoon, a wizard who founded the Zhentarim, The Xanathar, the beholder who runs the thieves guild named after them, and the Cassalanters, a noble family with infernal connections.

I would love to see what percentage of people go with what villain.  I suspect my thoughts on the subject are not unique.  I really did not want to do the Xanathar.  Coming off Tomb of Annihilation and watching Dice Camera Action I feel Beholdered out.  I suspect with Dungeon of the Mad Mage we’re going to get more Beholders.  I’m good with them for now.  With Jarlaxle I feel like you’re signing up for a whole Drow thing and I just don’t really want to do that.  Does everyone need to speak undercommon?

This leaves Manshoon and the Cassalanters.  As an aasimar cleric, it sounds like they’d have more fun with the fiendish nobles rather than the wizard.  And the twitter buzz has said that the Cassalanter story gets pretty dark and depraved which I’m all for.  The one time we don’t have a Tiefling in our party.

Savitri Part 2: Prepping for Dragon Heist

I won’t be reviewing this adventure because I’m planning to play through it which is a shame because it sounds like a damn good read.  I decided not to write reviews for ToA or a complete Yawning Portal because I have a hard time reading the descriptions for a dungeon.  They’re very technical and I have trouble really understanding them until I’m actually preparing to run them which might be never.  Typically I just read the plot and skip the encounters.  The reviews are looking damn good though and I’m definitely looking forward to picking this one up.

I like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter more than Waterdeep and I’m not sure why that is.  Especially since they are, you know, fictitious.  It’s like the Gate and Neverwinter remind me of Philadelphia and Boston, while Waterdeep reminds me of New York.  I think it’s because Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter have both gotten great sourcebooks in the last 8 years but Waterdeep has not.  It feels bizarre that we’re getting this detailed Waterdeep book 4 years into a D&D edition that has so heavily focused on the Sword Coast section of the Forgotten Realms.  But it seems like a good thing that 5E had a chance to ferment for a few years before they did this.

At first I looked askance at the idea of charging the full $50 hardcover price for a level 1 through 5 adventure.  I knew it was 256 pages but also, how do you spend that long on a level 1-5 campaign?  Storm King’s Thunder has a Level 1-5 section taking up 17 pages, Phandelver is maybe double that.  I kind of assumed that a substantial portion of the book was a long overdue 5E Waterdeep sourcebook and it sounds like that is the case.  I do wonder how long our group is going to spend on Dragon Heist.  Based on the twitter buzz it really does seem like your PCs are encouraged to wallow around and enjoy themselves.  One would normally think a “heist” would be on a timetable but I think that was called out as a problem in Tomb of Annihilation.  Putting the PCs on a literal deadline just meant they couldn’t enjoy the wonders of Port Nyanzaru or explore Chult at the optimal low levels to do so.

I’ve found in 5E that players ought to be 3rd Level within one and a half sessions.  From 3rd to about 10th level you really get into that Goldilocks sweet spot.  From 10th Level onward it gets very difficult to challenge the PCs but 1st & 2nd levels characters have so many limitations they sometimes just don’t feel like competent adventurers.  I have this dread sense that we’re going to be level 1 and 2 for 2/5ths of the adventure and that’s just not how 5E works best guys.  The game starts at level 3, most of the interesting class defining choices kick in at level 3.  That doesn’t really apply to me since I’m playing The Cleric where Domain is level 1, but the channel divinity is level 2.

I have actually come up with a hook for my character, my Aasimar Knowledge Cleric.  When making a character, you always want to ask yourself, why is this person here?  Why don’t they go home and make an honest living without having orcs swing axes at their heads?  Why are they camping out with 3-6 other chuckeheads in some goddamn tomb when they could be anywhere else?  My thinking is that this character is one of the deity Savras’s many “eyes” for lack of a better word throughout the multiverse.  They are tasked with seeing and learning all.  This being has been tasked with learning Waterdeep.  That’s it.  “Define Waterdeep.”  They’re learning all the people, places, things, and anything else in the city.  There are then the secondary goals of attracting followers to the Deity and compensating the city through good works.

This gives my character a reason to talk to every NPC, check out every tavern and guildhall, and pickup every hook the DM is laying down with the goal of defining Waterdeep which is a great pairing for the unofficial Waterdeep sourcebook.  The character is almost like a droid or replicant in its kind of “intelligent but socially inexperienced” nature.  It’s sort of like Ford Prefect crossed with a Missionary.  It’s definitely a fish out of water character which I seem to gravitate to.  Mechanically, I’d be planning to go Knowledge Cleric all the way.  I’ll spread out my stats and plan to prepare Enhance Ability so this character can theoretically be good at any skill, at least a couple times per day.  With the Aasimar +2 Charisma this might be better expressed as a Lore Bard, but I really want that Divine angle.  Tando would’ve been better as a Bard or Swashbuckler too but Mastermind felt right for him and Cleric feels the same way for Savitri.

Sometimes it’s helpful to think about your character in relation to other fictional characters.  For example, Nymeros the Triton Barbarian has a lot in common with Drax the Destroyer.  When I think about roleplaying that character I can think, what would Aquatic Drax do?  Obviously you don’t want to lean on that too heavily but it can be helpful in a pinch.  For this character I can think of three inspirations.  First, Brainiac from the Superman series.  For me, I tend to think of the Warner Brothers Animated Series first.  In that canon, Brainiac seeks to gather all the knowledge of a given planet and then destroys it.  This is perhaps a benevolent version of that character.  For that reason the second inspiration is Geno, the living doll from Super Mario RPG.  In that GREAT video game for SNES, the bad guy lands in the Mushroom Kingdom but he blows through heaven on his way there.  So the Heavens send this spirit to help Mario fix things and it inhabits this action figure/doll named Geno.  These two characters also speak to another thing, when I started this I really wanted to play a non-male character and it seems to make sense that this character is non-binary or agender.  Again, this is very much not the 5E Aasimar but it’s much closer to the 4E Deva in terms of lore.  Last character I thought of was Dax from Star Trek Deep Space Nine.  This speaks to the Deva Lore that they are continuously reincarnated and have past lives that they remember in flashes and whispers.

I think this’ll be a lot of fun and I can sort of playtest the concept the next game when we wrap up The Tortle Package.

Savitri the Knowledge Cleric

My eyes now turn to making a character for Dragon Heist.

A while back I played in a one shot game set in Ravenloft.  I decided to play a Halfling Knowledge Cleric.  I had a few reasons for this.  One, I didn’t know these guys and no group has ever turned away a cleric.  Two, going into a Ravenloft game with no real plan I decided my concept for the character would be the protagonist from HP Lovecraft’s “Shadow of Innsmouth.”  He was basically a Miskatonic University professor who wandered into Ravenloft and was in way over his head.  Which was basically how I felt driving an hour away to meet in-person a bunch of guys I only knew online.

A few months ago, we decided to play through a low-level adventure.  I had Dungeon Master Reward XP set aside for a couple low level characters but I haven’t designed them yet.  While I’m quite keen to play a warlock or bard for a long running game I decided to bring my Cleric back.  My biggest problem with this is that I don’t really know the Forgotten Realms well enough to fit him into the world.  He was just kind of this milksop Candlekeep sage without a lot of reason to be out adventuring.

Fortunately, the AL rules allow one to rebuild low level characters.  Not that you really need permission.  Just try something else if you hate the choice you made, don’t abuse this, and don’t call attention to it.  This is supposed to be a fun hobby, guys.

So I began looking through the books.  From a mechanical standpoint, getting to that 16 at first level really feels important for a spellcaster.  It’s fun to be competent.  I want to have a +1 to Wisdom.  I thought about being a Ghostwise Halfling but it feels very gamey and I don’t really understand the race.  I’d be doing it for the +1 Wisdom, not because I really want to play a Ghostwise Halfling.  When I think of my other Halfling character, Tando, he is most definitely a Stout.  I intend him to be Stout.  He enjoys material comfort and urban living.  Compared to other halflings he is not light of feet.  Ghostwise would be pure mechanics and I don’t want to do that.

I don’t really want to be a Half-Elf because they are OP.  Again, there isn’t a story there that I see, I just see the mechanics.  At some point I want to play a warlock and Vaelis Suncedar is a half-elf warlock for a reason.  With him I want to explore that Spock type child of two worlds angle.

My eyes settled on the Protector Aasimar.  +1 Wisdom, +2 Charisma, and a grab bag of other light/angel themed features.  It’s not overpowered.  I used a Deva Avenger in 4th Edition and remember it fondly.  Apparently if I select the Aasimar I am not allowed to choose the seven cleric spells in Xanathar’s Guide, which I do not agree with.  If you’re saying that an Aasimar can’t perform the Ceremony spell and marry a Triton that’s bigotry and I do not allow bigotry at my D&D table.

We have a message thread where we discuss game stuff and players thought they might like to have strong connections between the party members.  Like everyone is from the same village or family.

The other day one of the other players said something that kind of struck me, I described my Aasimar as a Guardian Angel for the party and they said that character sounded more like an NPC.  I’ve been mulling this over and I think I agree with them but I’m not sure it is a problem.  When I look at my other AL PCs, specifically Tando and Kellen, the diplomat and the journalist, they’re both very much followers for the party and aren’t really sure about this whole “professional adventurer” thing.  In the backstory I envision, Tando used to hire adventurers until the Goddess Waukeen called upon him to take up the career.  Kellen is a gonzo journalist chronicling the exploits of the party.  Even my Triton, Nymeros, has been somewhat forced into the adventurer role by the Geas of Dawn’s Beacon.  I haven’t really fleshed out his backstory as much as the others but the trend is still clear.

I think that as a kind of pseudo NPC is the only way to play in published adventures if you’re kind of a method actor/storyteller type player.  In the longer hardcover adventures you have time and space to shape it to the goals of the players but like I mentioned in a previous post, it’s really after the hardcover ends that you have the space to really get into those character motivations.  In a published adventure the characters desires are somewhat supplanted by the text.  And I’m not complaining about that; it is the nature of the beast.  You don’t stand in the front row of a rock concert and complain it’s too loud.  Obviously a DM can work around this.  Recall Dice Camera Action, how in Curse of Strahd, Chris Perkins changed the adventure so that Holly Conrad’s character, Strix, turned out to be the brother of Vallaki bad guy, Izek.  In the proper adventure, his sister is Ireena Kolyana, Strahd’s target.  He changes the adventure and that change is still paying off in just the recent episodes they’re doing two years after the start.

So let’s get back to Dragon Heist and my potential Aasimar Knowledge Cleric.  When I look at Dragon Heist and the posts I see on Twitter, the natural inclination is to remake Tando.  It’s an urban adventure, loads of NPCs, and Tando’s backstory is that he is a former courtier of Lord Neverember, a Realms NPC who apparently features prominently in the adventure.  That character would be a natural fit in this adventure.  But there are a few reasons not to.

  1. I did just play that character for almost 5 months in Tomb of Annihilation. As much as Tando the Rogue Mastermind is “my character” there is something to be said for the novelty factor that AL encourages. I usually gravitate to The Rogue but a push outside out one’s comfort zone can be good.  You play more characters, learn more mechanics, become a better DM.  One ought to try new things.  More than that, the entire book goes to level 5.  I’m not sure how long it will take, but my guess would be not very, especially not compared to the higher level stuff I’ve done like TOA or Curse of Strahd.  We ought to be level 3 within 3 sessions from the way 5E works and the concept of Tando was that he is a higher level character.  It would be strange to make him level 1 again just for the sake of playing him, it wouldn’t be Tando the Mastermind, it’d be…Jeff The Rogue
  2. The Team needs a Cleric. In AL, with each new Hardcover Adventure there is a new “season” of adventures. And the AL players start over with new PCs.  So most AL players seem to have a stable of characters ready to rock that they’ve built over the course of the now 8 seasons.  I don’t play often but even in the course of these few months I’ve built a few different characters.  One of the ways I kind of amuse myself is thinking that all my AL characters know each other (since up until now, AL is FR only).  And that together, they would form a functional adventuring party.  I have a Rogue, a Barbarian, a Warlock, but the team needs a gotdamn healer.
  3. It’s someone else’s turn. This kind of goes with number one. We have one, maybe two people at our table completely new to D&D and the longtime DM is taking a well-deserved turn on the other side of the screen.  If someone else wants to be The Rogue they should get a turn.  The team will need a cleric, no one else has volunteered, so I feel I ought to.  I’m not saying being the cleric is unpleasant or a chore but there is a work element to it that you need to manage health and buff the team.  There is also a Druid, Paladin, and Bard in the party so we’ll have no lack of potential healing but by taking the Cleric I’m enabling the party to focus more on themselves and let me handle the paperwork.
  4. Masochism? Whatever possessed me to take the Diplomancer Rogue into Deathtrap Land is also compelling me to take The Sage into Charisma Check Land. It would be too simple to take Tando into this adventure that his concept is well-suited to.

So who is this character?  To be honest, I’m not sure yet, at least not in the way I felt a strong sense of who my other characters are.  Right now, I’m leaning heavily towards Aasimar.  I have this idea that they are a cleric of Savras, one of the forgotten realms Knowledge deities. But rather than being a mortal servant, they are a vestige of the deity itself.  I have this concept of Savras having many literal eyes throughout the multiverse seeing and experiencing everything.  My character is one of these reincarnated spirits placed on Faerun to learn and die like Brainiac’s simulacrum or something.  In that way, they lore hews much closer to the 4E Deva than the 5E Aasimar.  Back then, the Deva were immortal servitors continuously reborn to fight the forces of evil.  Their racial power back then was to add 1d6 to any roll, to simulate their “remembering” how to do something from a previous life.  This makes a load of sense for the idea of a 5E Knowledge Cleric.

What I need to work on is The Big Why.  Why is this being involved in The Great Waterdeep Caper?  Doubtless that will come across in session zero.  For the idea of “My Character” Tando putting together a party of adventurers, I think he would see the appeal in trying to find this being of pure curiosity that lives to learn and discover all things.  At the end of the day though, the player needs to come up with a reason for why their character is signing up for the adventure beyond, “We play D&D on Thursdays.”

Assuming I stick with the Knowledge Cleric, I’ve decided to name her, “Savitri” after one of the Hindu gods of Knowledge.  This sticks with the 4E Deva theme, they were somewhat Hindu flavored.  Like my Triton, it creates a fish-out-water dynamic being from a less European culture.  I also don’t have any She/They PCs in my AL stable and I would like to remedy that.

For now though, Aasimar Knowledge Cleric for the motherfucking WIN.

Dragon Age Campaign – 3 Sessions In

I have started a new Dragon Age campaign.  This is the Green Ronin ruleset for the Thedas setting.  I set out to lovingly rip-off Curse of Strahd with a trip to the Fade.  But today, three sessions in and over a month since I initially met these folks, I took a step back and saw trying to redo Curse of Strahd/Mark of Mercy in a new negative light.

With regard to those two games I have become the stereotypical high school jock.  I want to bask in that D&D game that went pretty well two years ago and made me feel smart and good about myself.  I want to re-live the glory days.  It took me until now to see what I was doing and now this Dragon Age game feels sour.  Christ, no wonder I can’t get off my ass and write Eberron content.  My D&D brain is still trapped in this little snowglobe realm where I am the tragic invincible magic vampire warlord.

My original idea might not have been original but it was good and in keeping with the spirit of Dragon Age.  It is basically the same as The Blackmarsh plot from Dragon Age: Awakening except I put a spin on it.  What if, a group of demons took a group of people into the Fade to kind of feed off their negative emotions for a good long while?

In Awakening, this Orlesian noble called The Baroness frees these people from a Dragon but then starts killing them to keep her youth.  It is a very Bathory/Ravenloft inspired.  Eventually she drags their souls into The Fade until the player happens by.  The Player kills a fuckton of wolves and werewolves (again very Barovia).  A Darkspawn, called The First, traps the party in the Fade but gets sucked in himself as well.  The party meets up with a Spirit of Justice who urges them to oppose the Baroness.  The party either allies with the Baroness or Justice to get out of this shithole plane.  When they return to the physical realm, the Baroness comes with them and turns into a Pride Demon and attacks.  Then later she turns into a Spectral Dragon for some reason.

A bunch of demons keeping a really horrible person in the Fade to milk for emotions is very Dragon Age.  The moral quandary comes in when you realize this horrible person is also torturing a bunch of innocent souls for his jollies.  Do you take steps to end this whole thing?  What if ending it means the demons escape?  This was the exact problem from Curse of Strahd/Mark of Mercy.  Another thing I thought would be clever but was wholly unoriginal was having one of the Tevinter Magisters, like Corypheus or The Architect, be hiding out in this fade.  Either the Priest of Night or the Priest of Mystery, both would be appropriate.  Coming into this game I really wanted to use The Architect, I think it’s a cool NPC.

I think even though they’re unoriginal these would be some cool ideas for a high level Dragon Age campaign.  This doesn’t really work though for a bunch of people who have never played Dragon Age before, like my group.  Trying to pose them to a beginner group is a naked attempt to recapture the good old days.  What I should do instead is drop these hooks of what might happen and give them something in the real world to follow up on then get them out of the Fade in 2-3 sessions.  My problem with that and in writing something more original is that I’m still struggling to really understand these characters.  A big part of that is attendance.  We’ve had 3 sessions now with two players who’ve attended all of them.  I offered to run for the two of them last time and I normally prefer smaller groups but I think you really need a minimum of three people and a GM for it to feel like a proper game.  If you don’t know who’s going to show up you can’t write for them.  Maybe that’s not a dealbreaker with too many people but it is with too few.

So, I see the kind of error of my ways and I’m going to try and get on a different course.

And Now For Something Not Really That Different (Eberron)

So with the excellent Tomb of Annihilation complete it is time to move on to new territory.  Gods know I’m done giving my thoroughly uninformed opinion about Adventurer’s League rules.  No, where I found my mind wandering today was Eberron.  Specifically Eberron PCs.  Now odds are I will wind up DMing all the Eberron I can get my hands on.  This season of a la carte adventures is gonna bankrupt my ass.  Still one can’t help but think what one might want to play if one gets on the other side of the screen.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I tend to gravitate towards a specific character concept based on the game I’m joining.  I found a place for my beloved AL character Tando in the Forgotten Realms AL system.  I thought of the books that come out every six months with the world repeatedly almost being destroyed must fray the goddamn nerves of the poor civil servants who collect the taxes and hire adventurers to keep their homes safe.  But Tando wouldn’t work in an Eberron game.  The last war, the place of halflings in that world, it just doesn’t sing to me in a way that makes me want to play that character.

I mentioned in an older post from over a year ago I said I wanted to make a Gnome Journalist PC.  The mechanical elements of the character were described on Total Party Thrill’s “Natural Disasters” episode.  Their character creation forge that episode described a “war correspondent.”  This is PC who is also a writer for the Korranberg Chronicle, Khorvaire’s finest news source.  The reason I want to play this character mirrors the reason I play Tando.  Tando is surrounded and mystified by the gamey elements of the 5E FR.  The rapid and bizarre changes in the world every season are in fact an element of the inscrutable gods.  He is by nature a supporting character, here to bear witness to the earth shaking changes he cannot prevent, slow, or reverse.

The journalist is the same idea but more literal.  He journeys with the party chronicling their legends for the broadsheets.  I see him as a Hunter S. Thompson figure, engaging in pure gonzo journalism.  He’s seeing the adventurer’s life from the front lines, just like he probably reported on the final years of the Last War.

Mechanically, the build is very much spoken if I follow the suggestions of Total Party Thrill.  This character is a Swashbuckler/Conjurer.  I grappled with where precisely to put the intelligence score because this is very much a Dexterity/Charisma build.  The Sneak Attack provides the offensive punch, Charisma Powers Panache, and the character largely eschews inflicting saving throws in favor of shields, teleports, and other sorts of tricks.

Focusing on weapon damage makes pumping that Dex up to 20 important, but the concept asks for two feats, “Keen Mind” and “Svirfneblin Magic.”  Smurf Magic gives you Blur once per day and Nondetection at-will.  Keen Mind (in addition to the +1 Int) allows you to recall with perfect accuracy anything you’ve seen or heard in the last month.  A great ability for someone say like, a Conjurer with the ability to create perfect recreations of anything they’ve seen.

If those seem like awfully suspicious abilities for a journalist you would be correct.  Because he isn’t just a journalist no, he also makes a dandy spy which he totally would be for The Trust.  Now I have to briefly explain The Trust.  In case you are just joining us, Zilargo is the “Gnome Land” of Eberron.  While it has a government, an organization called The Trust features prominently in the text about Zilargo. The Trust is, for lack of better terms, The Gnome Secret Police.  Now after you stop laughing, a better analog would the a benevolent version of The NSA.  They use magic to spy on everyone to ferret out their secrets and schemes but they really do act in the best interest of the nation.  So far there hasn’t been a “The Trust is Evil” adventure although you could totally write them like that.  For my character not that I thought, mwhaha he should be a secret Trust person, no it is more that The Trust would recruit someone like this.  He’s immune to scrying and has a perfect memory, he’s basically a walking wiretap.  Really more Colonel Hunter Gathers than Dr. Hunter Thompson.  I’m fine with this.

The Trust as it relates to a party of adventurers would be: The PCs cross the border into Zilargo, legally or not.  The border agents immediately alert The Trust that, a group of five heavily armed foreigners just crossed into Zilargo.  The party now has eyes on them.  The DM should be rolling for divination magic and scrying.  When the party stops for the night, the extremely friendly innkeeper directs them to the best room in the inn which is being magically surveilled.  Everyone will keep asking their business, again very friendly.  And as long as the PCs are not out to harm Zilargo they can expect warm welcomes and great hospitality.  But the Trust knows what they’re doing and is weighing, is this a threat?

For a Background, I chose the “Detective” background from the excellent “Rats of Waterdeep” adventure on the DM’s Guild.  This allows you uncover hidden information about someone by talking to them for ten minutes in the style of Sherlock Holmes.  I decided to go with the forgery kit and a language instead of two languages.  For those languages, in addition to common and Gnomish, I added Dwarven.  There are close ties between the gnome and dwarf Dragonmarked Houses, Sivis and Kundarak, so this seems like a good idea.  A Deep Gnome also gets Undercommon but Eberron doesn’t really have a civilized Underdark in the fashion of the Forgotten Realms.  I wanted Undercommon on my rogue Tando so he could visit Underdark cities like Gracklestugh, Blingdenstone, and trade outposts.  There isn’t really anywhere to go with it on Eberron.  The Drow are on another continent and they don’t have much in the way of named cities.

Eberron does have a variant rule for languages where with the DM’s permission you can swap out your languages.  The reason for this is that in Eberron it makes perfect sense that a Dwarf from Sharn, which is about as far away from the Dwarf lands in Eberron as possible, would not speak Dwarven.  If you asked that Dwarf why, they would stare at you and say, “My Grandfather spoke Dwarven but we immigrated to Breland 500 years ago.  Why would I speak Dwarven?”  How many people do you know who don’t speak German, Irish, Chinese, what have you.  So I think I would swap out Undercommon for Goblin which just makes more sense for Zilargo and Eberron.  I might wind up doing Draconic instead since Zilargo is full of Kobolds, I think I might ask the DM if one language would be less useless than the other in a home game.

I’ve had this character in mind for a while now but one thing I hadn’t considered is what the new AL changes are going to do to the Wizard Class’s ability to copy spells into their spellbook.  A PC can expect to find 1200 gp from levels 1-10.  Just looking over my spell wishlist I can see that between 1st-2nd level spells I would like to spend about 1900 gp on new spells.  Now you get 2 per level free, but that is a real kick in the pants to Wizards specifically.  The Class’s primary strength is its versatility, to overcome challenges through preparation.  I think AL will have to compromise let Wizards spend their “treasure points” on copying new spells into their spellbooks and also creating backup spellbooks otherwise people are going to cheat on this. I guarantee you no DM is going have time to scrutinize the wizard’s spellbook to make sure each of those first level spells are paid up.

For skills they’re very similar to what I had on Tando, Investigation, Perception, Insight, Persuasion, Stealth.  Where I differ here is Deception vs. Sleight of Hand.  I’m conflicted.  In the Meta of 5E, Sleight of Hand does not come up often.  Deception can.  I think where I come down is that just as Tando is not the sort of Thief who needs Acrobatics, my Journalist is not the kind of spy that needs Deception.  He observes and occasionally lifts documents from someone, but perhaps Deception is a blind spot.

For a name I bounced around a few different choices but I think I’ve settled on Keller Sil Zoltan.  I was playing with a few different options but I like the “er” “il” “an” endings I just wasn’t sure what order to do.  Then I remembered Zoltan the magic fortune thingy from the movie Big and that settled it.  Maybe I will go with Kellen instead because I’m not sure I like how similar it sounds to “killer” which is too aggressive for an amiable fellow like this.  Kellen Sil Zoltar sounds a bit better to my ears.

Tune in next time as I consider what character to bring to Dragon Heist/Mountain of the Mad Mage.  I had originally wanted to use the Triton Barbarian, but the group has suggested making characters who know each other.  We have a couple new players so I’m again thinking of a supporting role like a bard or cleric so they can shine a little brighter.  Aasimar Bard or Cleric is where I lean right now.

Tomb of Annihilation, Final

Wow, we finally made it through.  Great DMing, great PCing, all around a pretty damn good adventure.  I joined in shortly after the PCs started making their way through the Yuan-Ti dungeon.  We’ve had maybe 18 sessions since then to put it away.  We spent about 2-3 hours on the final boss fight, The Soulmonger/Atropal followed by Acererak.  This session was the sort that begins immediately with rolling initiative and then the fight is on.

I was ready to bolt by the 2nd round.  The adamantine struts supporting the soulmonger turned out to be immune to magical damage, thus far I’ve never seen anything immune to magical piercing/bludgeoning, force damage.  It had a nasty habit of plucking us up and throwing us into lava, but that only really seemed to affect our party Slaad.

The main reason I wanted to bolt was the Atropal, the giant fetus baby god.  It dealt necrotic damage each round in an aura which means if we can’t do this in 11 rounds We Fucked.  It could deal a level of Exhaustion to the entire party as an action every round which in three rounds means We Fucked.  It was dealing just gobs of necrotic damage each rounds and I gotta say I was panicking.

Exhaustion is a weird mechanic in 5E.  It’s like Cover, it just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the game’s elegant way of “as few fiddly bit mechanics as possible.”  I really think Exhaustion is meant to be The DM’s Finger of God mechanic to kill players.  PCs have a million ways to dodge attacks, make saving throws, raise the dead, and get advantage to every goddamn thing.  There is not a good way to deal with multiple levels of Exhaustion.  At a certain level, PCs are nigh-invincible demigods but they cannot handle a tired.  With three levels, a character becomes basically unplayable in combat, with disadvantage to all ability checks, attack rolls, saving throws, and half speed.  Compare this with the 7th level spell from Xanathar’s, Power Word Pain, which deals similar effects to one person with a 100 HP restriction.  Or Foresight, the 9th level spell which inflicts disadvantage on everyone and is sort of the reverse with advantage to everything.  This is a lot of conspiracy theorizing to say, “Wahh, this is too hard” I just don’t think you’re actually supposed to use the Exhaustion rules unless you’re trying to kill the PCs for the wrong reasons.

I came pretty close to dying but the Druid was kind enough to give me the powerful Heal spell.  Ironically, I didn’t take anymore damage for the rest of the night.  The Necromancer was the MVP of the first half of the night by dealing loads of radiant damage to the Soulmonger (Look, he knew Sunbeam what do you want from me?).  MVP of the Acererak fight had to be The Slaad, a creature we adopted earlier in the temple who managed to tackle Acererak and drown him in lava.  It was very much like the Ballad of Fallen Angels in Cowboy Bebop.  It would’ve been poetic if the Slaad had died here but it actually managed to survive the lava.

With the Exhaustion, Waves of Necrotic Damage, and tentacles the first half was way way more scary than Acererak.  It turns out we got a regenerating 50 temp hit points to fight the lich and +3d6 damage against the Lich.  This did not however, prevent him from killing two party members with Power Word Kill and Finger of Death.  The Sphere of Annihilation did not really enter into the fight, he just lobbed spells at us.  Much Counterspelling ensued.  I wonder what this fight would’ve been light if Acererak had been given multiple reactions or Counterspell as a legendary action.

With the three bosses dead it really did feel like the rest of the night was hitting the gift shop on the way out the door.  There are a couple last traps and foes to kill the PCs but they don’t seem like they’re meant to be that hard, kind of more like the cheap jump scare at the end of a horror movie.  We found and slew the Arcanaloth, Mr. Fox, who provided us with black rocks to trigger the Leave the Tomb portal.  I wonder if it is possible to miss these and be trapped forever in the fucking place.  On the one hand it would be very much in the spirit of the adventure.  On the other hand it would be completely bad DMing to do that.  If it is possible to miss these things, the adventure better tell the DM “Your players need these to complete the adventure” otherwise that’s a plot bottleneck and that’s bad writing.

I do have to call myself out for two sins.  There were a host of appropriate-inappropriate comments hurled at the Atropal because we were essentially fighting a giant baby.  Inevitably, I took it too far into inappropriate-inappropriate territory.  I should not have done that.  Also, since it was our last session I brought wine, and as I’ve discussed with my therapist, I really wanted to demonstrate to the group that I could drink responsibly after I had too much to drink during an earlier session, which is not healthy behavior and I’m working on it.  But this time I went too far the other direction in announcing loudly that I was cutting myself off voluntarily which is the stupidest phrasing possible and my subconscious has already added it to my “Dumb Shit You Said Volume 43” set.

So where do we go from here?  I wish we could do more adventures with the same characters.  A blank page is tough to deal with but I do like to work from a good prompt and this adventure left us with a few.  For one thing, auctioning off the loot we took out of Chult.  For another, Mr. Fox’s spectacles are apparently a portkey to take you to Sigil.  And most obviously, Acererak is still out there waiting to regenerate in 1d10 days.  While we definitely can’t find his phylactery by then we can sure as hell get our shit and get the fuck out of town before he comes looking for us.

When I think of what would Tando Tossbottle do (WWTTD) I think his immediate priorities would be the auctioning of their treasures.  As a courtier, he would be the person you’d ask to sell that kind of high-end shit to wealthy buyers.  Then probably retirement after buying his way into the nobility, his life’s ambition.  With the money from the tomb and DM rewards Tando would be able to afford a wealthy lifestyle for about 27 years or more likely, 10 years of aristocratic living combined with some investments to support it.  But Tando is familiar with Order of the Stick, he’d be looking over his shoulder worried about liches.  I think that’s a great, archetypal adventurer’s story.  He has this great fortune but he can never rest comfortably with it knowing there’s an immortal spellcaster out there who considers him an enemy.  Now he’s locked in.  Think of other protagonists like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Walter White, whatever the reason they left home and began their story, there comes an event horizon moment where they realize they can’t go back home, they can’t set down the plot, they are on a path and they have to see it through to the end.  If Tando wants a family or a good night’s sleep he can’t stop hunting this thing, he has to find Acererak’s phylactery to put a stop to the motherfucker once and for all.

This kind of speaks to the biggest problem I have with Tabletop RPGs in general.  This isn’t specific to D&D, this is just kind of how I’ve found they all go.  And its that, the groups always break up or move on to another story before one story really feels finished.  And I know that’s just life (prepare for heavy shit).  That is actually how life goes.  Someone somewhere in the world is going to die today not knowing how Song of Ice & Fire ends.  And they won’t.  We die with unfinished business.  Maybe Tando never figures this shit out.  In Order of the Stick, Eugene Greenhilt, gives up his quest to slay the lich Xykon to focus on career and family, in that order.  In a way, I think the ending to something like Song of Ice & Fire will have to be unsatisfying in a way because one of the themes of the series is that nothing truly ends.  The two D&D hardcovers I’ve played through, Curse of Strahd as a DM, and Tomb of Annihilation as a player, both have epilogues where evil is vanquished but they do want to inspire you to continue playing D&D so they still have hooks dangling at the end.  Curse of Strahd ended with a great sequel hook, we have to find and bring back Tenebrous.  The sequel I envisioned didn’t have to take place in Eberron, it actually would’ve made a dandy Planescape adventure.  I could’ve just started running The Great Modron March or Dead Gods and I did take a lot of inspiration from those books for what I wound up writing.  But real-life prevented us from having that epic finale where the party has to stop Orcus and Strahd from marching their blue dragon army on Tiamat’s prison in the Pit of Five Sorrows and ending the multiverse.  And Tomb has the same sort of ending, the Forces of Evil have suffered a temporary setback but Acererak is still out there, one of the Sewn Sisters is still out there, what kind of crazy shit will they get up to next?  These adventures intentionally end with hooks for other adventures but we just never follow through on them.  I think part of my problem is I set my sights too high, when I say “finish a story” I’m envisioning this level 20 encounter with dragons and gods.  There are plenty of smaller stories I could finish quite easily.  I guess, just, the one feather in my cap that I’d like to achieve in my tabletop career to really finish that level 1-20 campaign, to have the characters finish their arcs and truly feel that there are no more mountains to climb.

For any player character you occasionally need to ask yourself, why is this person an adventurer?  Why are you not just, an innkeeper, priest, or cobbler?  There are easier ways to make a gold piece than risking your life fighting hags in some shithole.  Now sometimes the answer to that question is “because on Thursdays I play D&D with my friends.”  But I think to really get to know a character and make them seem like a real person you have to ask these questions.  I am going to work tomorrow because I need the money to pay rent.  Tando needs to start hiring wizards and sages and traveling the planes because he is a muggle and he’s going to need a deep bench of support to kill Acererak.  Nymeros Mutawassit has been tasked with killing The Xanathar beholder.  That one is not as life changing a goal as others, but you cross one off then you ask the question again.  Why are you here?

Hags and Hexagons

After completing the Gear Level we found ourselves in the 6th Level of the Tomb of Annihilation.  We knew from earlier that there were Hags in this place somewhere.  So when we walked into a room full of green mist and a cauldron with several people in cages and creepy idol dolls…yeah it was a reasonable expectation that this would be The Hag Episode.

There’s a cage and inside it were three people.  A clone of me, a clone of the Necromancer, and a clone of one of the Necromancer’s skeletons, at least how she appeared when she was a person.  I will admit that I think we spent a bit too much time faffing about here.  I didn’t expect to get a fully functional 2nd Rogue for the party but I think we spent at least 45 minutes in this room checking it thoroughly for traps and asking sharp questions of the six NPCs.  I don’t think we found any.  The Clones seemed to be non-useful.  Apparently the hags are using them as spies, they dream of everything we’ve experienced.  So we do not have the element of surprise and the hags aren’t at home. Shit.

The tiny idols have children’s souls in them, because hags, but this is also good foreshadowing for The Soulmonger which is in the next room.  There is a very nice helpful Scarecrow which I’m attached to.  Clay No-Face, a little clay person who can grow mouths and claws, and Joe-Hoe, a stuffed monkey with a unicycle for legs.  Again, no harm here.

So throughout the temple we’ve been acquiring these skull key things.  They’re literally skeleton skulls with a shape on top and the shapes correspond to the doors in this room.  There are five doors, one with each shape.  We have to go into these rooms, do something, and then we can use the keys to open the big door that leads to the soulmonger.  Trying to describe it that sounds a bit insane.

Okay so each room has a trial of sorts.  We elected to go from Octagon to Triangle, the reverse order we found the keys.  We reasoned this would be doing things from Hardest to Easiest.  It was.  The Octagon Room had a big iron spider fan that turned on when I opened a secret compartment in a lectern in the room.  Fortunately I was saved here.  In the Hexagon room, we found a creepy Ravenloft scene, a mirror with PIGGY PIGGY PIGGY written in blood on the wall.  We lit the six candles we found, a lever appeared, room solved.  The Pentagon room was a breather, a paranoia inducing feast.  We ought to have expected there was some shit going down.  I knew right away I would be partaking of the food because I decided to take, “I Never Stint Myself The Finest Food And Drink” as my flaw.  I was really surprised everyone else decided to eat the food as well.  I think the reason was that the trickster gods urged two PCs to eat and the 4th PC is a druid and immune to poison so he thought he’d be fine.  More on this later.

The last two rooms, Square Room and Triangle Room were pretty easy.  The Square Room vexed us a bit because the necromancer got rocked with like 20 force damage as we obliterated a dust mephit.  Then we were left with a gaseous lever and a pile of ash.  Apparently when we made a square in the room with the ash, that unlocked the lever.  The Triangle Room we solved with an unseen servant.

Then we came to The Hag Fight.  It is hard hard hard to challenge level 10-12 PCs in a way that doesn’t slow combat down to a crawl.  A DM needs to use their spells and their reactions and special high level monster abilities intelligently and it is a lot to keep track of.  Especially when the PC strategy boils down to “Go Nuclear With The Expectation We Will Take a Long Rest.”  There isn’t really a good way to counter that one, it almost feels against the spirit of D&D that the PCs come into multiple fights completely unchallenged and at full resources.  I’m not saying the hags were easy, I am saying that the victory didn’t feel like it cost us anything because we immediately long rested afterwards.

The main reason we rested is because apparently the Feast was cursed and one of the items (Not the Squash Soup) removed the PCs connections with our trickster gods.  I reasoned that Tando would only eat the soup because these goddamn hags took two of his teeth and he was not in condition for roast boar or alcohol and like me, Tando does not have a sweet tooth for cakes which the wizard ate all of anyways.  This felt a little cheap, like the result of the challenge is that you failed, you lost your god power, just parking your ass for 24 hours in the room next to the Soul Monger has to be aggravating from a DM perspective.  Fortunately we’re assuming that the lady back in Baldur’s Gate who set the party on this course is long dead so 24 hours is nothing to The Party.  In the fiction of the story, we should be getting MOBBED by Flesh Golems right now.

One of the hags did get away, we traded her life for info about the dungeon.  And we had good times with Mr. Thread and Needle, their cook.  We ended the session walking into the chamber of the Soul Monger.  This next session is it, victory or death, with our shields or on them.

Tomb of Annihilation – Grinding the Gears

We did a double length session of Tomb in an effort to put the book down before the new AL rules kick in.  More on that later.  We ended session about a month ago fighting over the Black Opal Crown.  When we resumed, we found that there were two Bodaks in the room.  Bodaks are nasty undead that can insta-kill you.  We managed to dispatch without much trouble, oddly.  We made our way to some small rooms that had some kind of potentially fatal effect, fire, drowning, suffocation, but we got through them, again, we quickly got the correct solutions, I’m not sure how we were supposed to find them but it got them fast.

This teleported us into the last Trickster God Room, Shagambi’s chamber.  There were a fuckton of statues ready to pounce if we made noise.  Not sure how many chances we got but we took one.  The DM was feeling generous and allowed the wizard a chance to ape the sorcerer and try to cast Silence silently, he did.  Bailed. Out.  With that we had enough time to disable the noise trap on the sarcophagus and open it.  We found some gemstones and a fucking mandolin.  An Instrustment of the Bards.  This is Shagambi’s item.  Shagambi, who in the story of the Nine Gods, is extremely literal minded and actually makes a Lance to literally lance off the the negative qualities of the Omuans like a boil, has a mandolin in its tomb.  Did the Omuans even have mandolins?  This is Africa-inspired territory, I can see there are bowed instruments on wikipedia, but it’s not the Culturally Appropriate Bowed Lute of the Bard, it’s the Mandolin.  On the other hand, A Wizard Did It.

So that kind of pissed me off.

We went past the four armed gargoyles, these things have a ton of damage and HP and we weren’t interested in fighting them.  As a DM, you learn to read when your players are communicating they do not want a combat and you really need to ask yourself, “is this combat necessary?”  I tend to lean a bit more heavily on skipping what I feel are storyless combats, possibly too often, but these gargoyles were definitely in that category.

We entered the next level, what I would later find out are “The Gears of Hate.”  We found a room with a big intelligent rolling boulder construct and after a strong hint from the DM, used the adamantine mace we found in Napaka’s tomb.  Apparently because we found it in Napaka’s tomb, the expectation was you will think, hey, this mace will insta-kill this monster two sessions later.  I remember there was a thing like this in the Mines of Madness gag adventure, where a diamond war pick is in a case that says, “In Case of Berserk Golem, Break Glass.”  The pick is needed to defeat the golem later in the dungeon.  I think this is something inspired by the original Tomb of Horrors but I’m just not crazy about trial and error puzzles, especially when I can’t figure out the solution.  The Crocodile Key goes to the Crocodile Chest?  Great.  Maybe put a design on the mace or make the head the same shape as the juggernaut?

We stopped there and picked up again three days later for our extra session.  As paranoid PCs on Level 5 of the Tomb of Annihilation, we did a lot of fucking around checking every thing every five feet to surprisingly little findings.  The first room, filled with plants, hey you’re going to fight them and trigger this gas really no matter what.

We played around with the controls a good long while.  Apparently the Acid Room does nothing.  I think we took the appropriate amount of time playing with it to ensure we did not accidentally kill ourselves.  Apparently I was the only one who thought plugging the ominous leaking tubes was a good idea because they started leaking ominous poison shit when someone decided to play with the gold lever.

There was a ton of combat in this session.  After the Shambling Mounds in the middle gear, we found five wardrobes with five different combat encounters.  We reluctantly butchered a lone modron monodrone and found some other stuff.  It felt good cutting our way through a hoard of orcs, small as it was.  After this, we found a Golden Elephant and it triggered a massive wave of Devils.  This included an Erinyes, a Horned Devil, and a host of lesser devils.  For those keeping track, an Erinyes and a Horned Devil are CRs 12 and 11, meaning that technically, one of them will pose an appropriate challenge to a level 12 and 11 party, and the adventure is geared towards parties of level 8-10.  So this combat seemed completely unwinnable and we retreated behind a wall of force, animated objects and eventually The DM and us just called it off.  Our reward was a golden chalice.  More on this later.

At this point time was running short so we powered through the last few rooms over the next thirty minutes.  We didn’t have any more combat, a large demon monster did not oppose us, and we found a skeleton key in the last room we checked, as per normal.  We ended walking down the stairs into the chamber of the hags that we’ve heard tell of, I can’t remember if we know they’re the Sewn Sisters or if I learned that from Dice Camera Action.  Another really good session and at the same time I’m kind of glad to be putting this book down in another 2 sessions.

I had never really set out to start playing D&D Adventurer’s League.  I saw online there was at least one group taking on new D&D players and when I went there it turned out some great people I knew were doing Tomb under the auspices of the adventurer’s league.  I had what they call a DCI number from years earlier, and as I read online it turned out that DMing organized play entitles one to XP like a D&D player would collect for their own character.  So I calculated how much XP I was entitled to and then started playing D&D AL with these great people I already knew.

My point in this little speech is that, as you probably already know, D&D AL is changing its rules for how its players gain XP and other rewards.  As someone who is not an AL player with anyone except close friends, and DMs AL adventurers only for close friends or at special events, I really don’t have a lot of skin in the game here.  More digital ink has been spilled by wiser people, you can check out Sly Flourish on twitter he’s got some great insights.  I also found this article very persuasive.

http://dmdavid.com/tag/the-adventurers-league-campaign-rules-offered-a-game-how-gamers-played-to-win/

Having said that, there are a couple things I find hard to understand.  Our group is moving through Tomb of Annihilation at breakneck speed to finish, “before the rules change.”  Guys, we can just finish the book under the old rules.  I can’t imagine any home group on earth that feels conflicted about this.  Who is doing the accounting here?  I’ll confess our group is a bit different, but we all know each other, who cares?  If we want to finish quick because we’re getting near the end and it is really exciting I agree completely.  Anyone asks, we finished a week before the rules changed.  Also, who is going to ask?

I’m not advocating cheating or anything, but people, a group playing D&D at home under AL rules so they can take their characters to conventions can just keep playing under the old rules and then check that their characters are compliant before heading out to PAX or Gencon and they’re doing no harm.  People who change the level of their favorite characters so they can play with their friends are doing no harm. I have a hard time viewing these people as part of the problem.  At the same time, I’m obviously not expecting some kind official sanction for people who are, “cheating for the right reasons with the best intentions.”  It’s still cheating.  But I think for a wide swath of AL gamers this is still predominantly D&D is still a game played primarily with known acquaintances and then occasionally with strangers.  No one is going to be kicking down the doors of your FLGS to make sure you’re complying with the new rules.  But at same time, as one might put on a clean shirt and not curse at a job interview, no one will care if you fix up your sheets when you take them out in public for a convention.  As long as you, and read this part carefully, as long as you are not a problem player it does not matter.  But part of not being a problem player is going along with the AL rules, aka The Social Contract when you go out in public.

I do wonder what these changes mean for D&D playstyles.  By that I mean, the New Rules completely abstract and gamify Getting Gold.  Previously, D&D adventurers went into dungeons and found treasure which they exchanged for items so they could get into different dungeons to find treasure to exchange for items and you get where I’m going.  This is not always the case.  Sometimes you spend your money on airships, castles, titles, anything.  But 5E has developed a reputation, at least in the AL section of play, that players are getting tons of gold and have nothing meaningful to spend it on.

I don’t think this treasure rule is going to work for players doing hardcover adventures who jump back to one shot adventures.  I thought about this tonight when we were fighting devils to get this golden chalice.  “If this were real” is a sentence prefix that, in the context of posing a hypothetical about a D&D story, is always the herald of snobbery, bullshit, and more likely both.  But if this were real, my character Tando would want that chalice. It’s a historical artifact, people want it, people who Tando wants favors from want it.  If Tando can get his Wizard friends to help him get it, that’s a worthy price.  But in the new system, is there an incentive to go for that item?  I seriously want to know this.  And I say that with the opinion “I don’t want hardcover adventures to be shaped to meet this new rule.”  It may be true that there’s nothing to spend the gold from that item on if we’re in an AL campaign, but does it mean anything in the context of the new rules?

If gold is valueless in 5E AL, it does have an alternate currency that seems far too valuable, Downtime Days.  In a home game, sometimes the players have downtime.  It refers to time when the characters, as real people in a persistent world, are doing stuff other than going on adventures.  Are they making items, do they have jobs, families, responsibilities other than getting gold and looting dungeons?  Downtime is great for character development.  It’s a question a DM should pose to their PCs, what does your character do on their day off?  Do they sit in a tavern and drink themselves blind?  Do they go swimming?  Read a book? But in AL, this is a currency and it has more value than gold.  You spend it to learn languages, get items, and apparently we will need to spend them to sell our treasures from this adventure for that apparently useless gold.

And again I say this as someone without much skin in the game.  I stare at the AL discord channel wondering what it would take to make me care this much.  I like having a five figure gold account on Tando, but does it really bother me if that’s going away?  Not really.  I’m definitely excited about the XP change because I could give a fuck about combat driven XP.  For as long as I’ve been playing 5E, hardcover adventures are milestone/checkpoint driven, AL adventures are combat driven.  Was I doing anything with my Harpers membership?  Hell no.

So anyways, that’s where I am right now.  Eagerly looking forward to completing this great adventure, The Tomb of Annihilation.  I’m eager to see where these AL changes go, I think they’re going to be fine for Con Games/AL seasons, but the relationship with hardcovers is going to be antagonistic.  I also have a new Dragon Age campaign which I’m very optimistic about, I have a great group of people and I think that will be a lot of fun.

New Dragon Age Campaign

Today I started GMing my first ongoing game in some time.  I found a group on Roll 20 interested in playing the Dragon Age RPG.  Some of them are very new to RPGs.  I haven’t DMed in a while and longer since I’ve run/played Dragon Age so it’s nice to have good slow paced game where it doesn’t end the world if I stop to look something up.  I had an idea to rip off adapt parts from Curse of Strahd since I know and like that adventure.  I was surprised to find that there is a very Ravenlofty section in Dragon Age – Awakening and I’m drawing on that part of the game for plagiarism inspiration.

I decided since, new group/it’s been a while to run a published module to get us started.  I’m using an adventure named, “The Dalish Curse” and it is pretty good.  I was going to run the module, “A Bann Too Far” but I realized just isn’t as good after I started trying to prep it.  It is also a bit too similar to “The Dalish Curse,” a town under attack, bad guys in the woods, twist ending!

“The Dalish Curse” has all the elements you want in a Dragon Age game.  Combat, roleplay, racism, small towns that can’t help themselves.  It’s a bit railroady for my taste, there’s a bit too much, “Do you take the next and only possible step forward.”  But this is intended, it is a starter adventure.

I like the players, I like the characters so I’m optimistic this will work out.  I feel better about things when I have an ongoing game to run.  Work is kind of killing me right now and last week I felt about as low as I think I’ve ever felt.  Gaming and specifically DMing something ongoing with a story to tell makes me feel like a version of myself that I like more.

I’m still trying to come up with a one word title I can use for this Dragon Age Campaign.  The games have been Origins, Inquisition, Awakening and other expansion titles like Trespasser, Descent, Witch Hunt.  I think Broken Vale might be the best idea, it’s pithy and refers to the Ravenlofty area of Thedas the PCs are going to go.

EBERRON!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So this one caught me by surprise.  I don’t know who in the WOTC family might’ve known about this, but those people who sign D&D NDAs are some Semper Fi motherfuckers.  They keep those secrets.  I’d heard over the weekend that there would be a “Ravinca” Magic: The Gathering themed setting book coming out.  Late Sunday I heard rumor that there would a second setting announced.  Then this afternoon I saw it on Twitter, MOTHERFUCKING EBERRON HAS COME TO 5E!!!  You’re goddamn right.  For the price of $20 on the DM’s Guild you can purchase a 176 page PDF of 5E Eberron content named the “Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron” by Keith Baker and WOTC designers.  This includes races, backgrounds, Dragonmarks, DM and Player Hooks, core themes and the quick highlights on the setting.  More importantly in the long run perhaps, it is now permissible to publish explicitly Eberron content on the DM’s Guild.  No more writing a jungle themed adventure and Ctrl+Hing “Xen’drik” with “Chult.”

One thing to get out of the way right now is that the rules in this PDF are still in that gray area of “Playtest” or “Unearthed Arcana” material.  I can’t take a Warforged from this thing over to an Adventurer’s League game.  And there is grumbling on Twitter about paying money for semi-official playtest material.  I’m sure more intelligent and polished arguments about this subject are coming from podcasters and writers.  But speaking for the plebs and marks shouting from the cheap seats on WordPress blogs, TAKE MY MONEY.  Guys, the 2 year free 5E playtest was a goddamn anomaly.  Keith Baker still needs to make a living and Wizards of the Coast is not going to step out of their financially lucrative Forgotten Realms comfort zone without money on the table.  I’m shocked that something I never heard of like Ravinca is getting a hardcover release instead of being a PDF.  I’m still betting that the best we can hope for in terms of a hardcover for non-FR settings is some kind of “Manual of the Planes” for 4-6 campaign settings with the Guild Adept program providing the bulk of the content.  If they want to test the waters with some PDFs then based on the quality of 5E and Keith Baker up to this point I’m willing to trust them on this one and pay for the pig still in the poke.

So let’s get into what we have here.  In Chapter One, we get into the themes and assumptions of an Eberron game.  The World Be Magical.  Eberron stories are Pulp.  Eberron Stories are Noir.  Think of it as Indiana Jones + The Maltese Falcon + Magical Trains.  Then there are the worldshaking events.  The Last War.  In Eberron’s main land area of Khorvaire, a continent spanning war that lasted a century has just ended in a shaky truce.  Think of it like the post WWI era.  The war is over but everyone is preparing for the next one. Then you have The Day of Mourning.  The reason the war ended was this great and sudden cataclysm that suddenly engulfed a nation killing everyone within its borders.  It’s a bit like if a nuke went off, except no one knows who set it off.  There’s also a brief overview of the factions and planes of Eberron.

Sidenote, I love that the PDF says, “Maybe your Tortle PC was just a normal turtle before you were transformed on the Day of Mourning.” TMNT! TMNT! TMNT!

In Chapter Two, we get into Khorvaire, the main continent of Eberron where most of the action takes place and more than likely where your PCs are from.  This is pretty damn good section.  It does not rehash points from the Eberron Campaign setting, although any proper nouns you spot you would be better off looking them up on your own.  Most importantly, it gives specific pointers on how a character from a particular area should be unique.  A PC from Aundair knows more about magic, maybe you should multiclass an arcane spellcaster, take a feat, or at the very least show some style.  A Karrnathi character has a more martial bent, you probably aren’t a Knowledge Cleric/Mastermind.  There are numerous references to races and subclasses found in Tome of Foes and Xanathar’s Guide so this might have been written fairly recently.

One thing I think this PDF really does a good job of getting across is the concept of “Everyday Magic” that is core to Eberron.  They use the phrase, “Wide Magic, Not High Magic.”  Eberron is a place where many NPCs can cast a cantrip, a 1st level spell, normally some kind of utility magic.  Nearly everyone learns the Guidance cantrip, but virtually no one can cast “Disintegrate.”  And it gives a good selection for examples of these items.  The person who runs the local laundry knows Mending and Prestidigitation.  Magic lanterns provide light in good neighborhoods.  It also brings up with what I think is a new concept called the “Wandslinger.”  With Khorvaire coming off a century long war there are a lot of weapons lying around and by weapons we mean Wands.  Basically it gives an excuse for everyone bad guy to be capable of some form of basic magic.  Then there are some suggestions for how to justify creating magic items, religion, planes, and other far flung regions of Eberron.

Then we get into the Races.  While there are some alternate rules for the core D&D races here and there, the real attraction here are the four races specific to Eberron: Changelings, Kalashtar, Shifters, and Warforged.  I’ve got to say, these are some meaty races.  They can do a lot and I think they might be a bit too powerful as written compared to other existing races.  Take a look at The Changeling.  Changelings get +2 Cha and +1 Int or Dex,  The Changeling key ability, you can change your appearance.  The catch is, it doesn’t change your clothes so it takes some preparation to use this effectively.  However you have advantage on Deception checks to avoid detection.  You gain two skills, Deception, Intimidation, Insight, or Persuasion.  You can use your reaction to impose Disadvantage on an attack once per short rest, basically Baby Uncanny Dodge.  You also gain Expertise in one tool and can speak 2 bonus languages.  That’s pretty damn close to the Half-Elf, everyone’s favorite OP race.  Worse at some things, better at others.  This is a lot of stuff for a race.

Eberron’s most iconic race, the Warforged, is not what I was expecting because of the design of 5E.  I figured there would be subraces but I hadn’t considered that the subraces would really overtake the idea of a “Default” Warforged.  When I think of a Warforged I think of the being hanging from the airship on the cover or on page 69 of this pdf (nice).  These pictures don’t really match up with the subraces presented.  First let’s go over the base race stuff.  +1 Con, Advantage/Resist Poison, Immune to Disease, Don’t Need to Eat, Drink, or Breathe, immune to sleep and exhaustion due to lack of sleep.  You don’t just don’t sleep but you do have a sleep mode that allows you to remain conscious of what’s going on.  AC is going to be the big point of contention.  Back in 3.5 Warforged had +2 AC and could not wear other armor.  Here the same idea applies, you have different “kits” of armor that can be changed after a long rest.  You can have Light, Medium, or Heavy Armor depending on if you have proficiency.  But the kicker is that Warforged add their proficiency to their AC.  So a Warforged Fighter at level 1 is potentially going to be rocking 18 AC. 20 with a shield.

The Warforged Subraces, as I said, surprised.  I think the “default” warforged is going to be best recognized as the Juggernaut subrace. +2 Strength, 1d4+Strength unarmed strikes, Powerful Build.  I figured their would be a skirmsher, there is, +2 Dex, +5 Speed, Stealth Movement Overland at Normal Pace.  The weird one is the “Envoy” subtype.  The lore here is a cool.  The idea is that an Envoy Warforged is a custom job.  They were built for a specific purpose, assassin, healer, what have you.  You get +1 to two scores, I assume one of those can be Con, because you did only get a +1 there.  You gain proficiency in a skill, a tool, and a language.  You have expertise in a tool and it is integrated into your body, so you always have it.  Examples from the PDF include Envoy Warforged with integrated thieves’ tools, musical instruments, cartographer tools (which sounds cool as fuck), or a disguise kit.  Integrated disguise kit could be the makeup shotgun from The Simpsons OR it could be a Replicant situation where you don’t look like a warforged maybe.  I really like the ideas that this brings to mind.

There are quick writeups on the other races and how they fit into Eberron.  There are alternate elf rules, not full subraces.  Like the Valenar Elf gets different weapons.  The Aereni Elf gets an extra skill with Expertise which seems very powerful.  There seems to be a lot of ways to get Expertise in this book.  It’s a fun ability but I think back to an episode of Total Party Thrill where they wondered if Expertise would proliferate into new material and be easier to get which steps on Rogue/Bard toes and raises the threshold to be “good” at a skill.

Then we get into Dragonmarks.  Dragonmarks have been tough to represent as a PC rule and separately as a thing in the world.  For a setting that very much felt like the logical conclusion of where the world works by 3.5 D&D rules, these have never really clicked.  This was discussed in making 4E Eberron rules.  In 3.5, a dragonmark gives you a couple spell like abilities but more importantly access to magical items that rely on your dragonmark.  And the problem with that is the couple spells are bit lackluster.  You would take the Mark of Healing and then get to cast a healing spell once or twice a day.  In coming to 4E, the writers pointed out that is not what they wanted.  Rather, someone with the Mark of Healing ought to be the best possible healer ever, or at least potentially is.  To that end, in 4E, a dragonmark was a feat, like in 3.5, but it made you better at something.  But this was very combat focused and feats weren’t that powerful in 4E, compared to 5E.

In 5E, a Dragonmark is a race.  And whatever else I might say,  I think it makes sense from a story perspective.  Dragonmarks are something that a character develops in adolescence before they become an adventurer.  A Half-Elf with the Mark of the Storm has a very different upbringing and life than every other Half-Elf.  A Dragonmark is not just something you take at a level, it is a big story hook and making them races conveys their seriousness.  For most Dragonmarked races, this gives you a new mechanic for D&D called an Intuition Die.  It’s a d4 you can add to stuff.  The Mark of Healing lets you add a d4 to your Medicine checks.  The Mark of Shadow adds 1d4 to your performance and stealth checks.  It’s basically permanent guidance for a specific skill.  At level 8 you can take a feat which gives you the more traditional stat bump, an increase in your intuition dice, and a couple spells.  The spells for different dragonmarks seem to have a huge variety in power despite being technically the same spell level.  The Mark of Healing grants Greater Restoration, a spell repeatedly used in hardcover adventures as The Only Way Through Various Plot Complications,  while the Mark of Passage grants Teleportation Circle, subject to some DM fiat but campaign changingly useful.  The Mark of Storm on the other hand grants Control Water and Control Wind once per long rest.  Lest I call that one out for being weak, recall that this dragonmark is the only thing that lets you pilot airships.

One question this brings up, and this is partly me being a jerk, is that Control Wind is a Xanather/Elemental Evil Spell.  Warforged are an Eberron race.  What will other campaign settings do to the controversial PHB + 1 rule for Adventurer’s League?  Restricting AL to just FR and Ravenloft seems terribly limited, long term I mean.  I’m sure plenty of D&D fans would like their FR characters they’ve had for years to travel the planes someday.  Will characters be PHB + Campaign Setting + 1 other book?  That seems logical if a tad unfair.  In that case, would Control Wind automatically make Xanathar’s your +1 book or would it not count because it is being granted by a campaign setting feature?  I can’t see WOTC relenting on this measure of restricting power creep but new settings would demand a change of some sort.

After Dragonmarks, we get into magic items.  In the spirit of the “Wide Not High” magic, Eberron is going to have a SHITLOAD of common magic items.  I can forsee the Guild Adept PDF on DMs Guild now of 101 common magic items.  98 fun flavorful ones, 3 that some jerk will twist to screw up adventures until DMs react and counter them in the PC/DM arms race.  The PDF also goes into a few examples of Eldritch Machines, basically magic superweapons and plot devices.  There are also warforged components, just a couple, all requiring attunement.  It would be very easy to convert the components from 3.5 I should think.

In the next chapter the PDF discusses Sharn, the City of Towers.  Khorvaire’s New York and most populous city.  It goes through the PHB backgrounds and each has 1d4 angles for how they could be applied to this setting.  Maybe you’re well known among the lower class wards of the city as an entertainer.  Maybe you’re undercover City Watch working with one of the city criminal organizations.  Maybe you’re a noble who lost their wealth and power in the Last War.  It covers the geography and wards of Sharn very briefly, criminal organizations, and deeper dives on the Callestan district, Clifftop, and Morgrave University.  All places where one might start life as a low level adventurer.  There are some plot hook and encounter tables, a list of 3.5 Eberron material (now available on DM’s Guild!), glossary, crests, and a map of Khorvaire.

So, final thoughts.  The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide was 159 pages.  This PDF is 176.  This is infinitely more valuable to me than the SCAG.  With the Mastermind and Swashbuckler being reprinted in Xanathar’s, I can probably count on two hands the number or times I’ve reached for SCAG in the two and a half years since its release for any other purpose.  Compared to this PDF, $23.81 for SCAG feels like a bit of a ripoff.  I really liked this.   I think I would rather 176 pages with Enough crunchy rules to run the setting and a referral to DMs Guild for Lore.  I could see them doing Dark Sun like this.  I think something like Planescape would require more pages to explain thoroughly Enough to a modern audience.  I would strongly recommend this to people who want to play Eberron in 5E.  I don’t think any of these rules are so groundbreaking they really improve too too much on the half dozen or so Eberron conversions you can find online.  But it is exhilarating to see new Keith Baker written Eberron material.  I’m excited by the prospect of seeing more stuff like this.  Between this and Ravinca I think breaking up the 3 books per year routine is a good thing for 5E.  I hope this does well.