We Interrupt This Broadcast for Breaking News!

I know I haven’t been posting as regularly and for that I am sorry. I have been playing a lot more D&D lately, through Adventurers League. It turns out playing more D&D leaves less time to write about D&D! Go figure.

I have plenty of content in the pipeline, have no fear. But I’m thinking that I’m going to be publishing every other week rather than weekly. I’m trying to balance work on this blog with a lot of other things, including a way to play test my monsters–which is good for everyone!

So stay tuned, True Believers! Excelsior!

 

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Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 9: Sandbox – Agatha and Conyberry

I’ve been busy working on regular feature content here on my blog, so I kind of got behind on this LMoP series. Plus, I’ve recently started playing in Adventurer’s League. Adventurer’s League is the organized play set up for D&D 5E. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m meeting a lot of cool people. But I realized that if I run LMoP for Adventurer’s League, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the remixing and redesigning I’ve talked about in this series. It gave me some food for thought.

Here’s the main thing–I’m not a huge fan of the Forgotten Realms. Yet the Realms is the official setting for all the hardcover adventures published for 5E, and is the official setting for most of AL’s modules as well. Recently AL has made Eberron another option, but there are only a few modules so far, and the official setting guide is a work in progress. At any rate, it’s unlikely that I will run any non-AL games in LMoP anytime soon, and may not run any AL-legal games there either, since there are so many other options for low-level play now. But I feel obligated to finish this series, so here we go.

Agatha evidently has a history in Faerun lore, because she was created by R.A. Salvatore in one of the Forgotten Realms novels, then later added in official Realms material published by WotC. According to the My Realms post on Agatha and Conyberry the Neverwinter Campaign Setting had the most interesting information on this village. I recommend you read the post, it has fascinating possibilities for this area: warwing drakes, orc bandits, werewolf villagers, floating chunks of land resulting from the Spellplague and the merging of Toril and Abeir, descriptions of how banshees typically affect the land around them.

All of the stuff mentioned in that post from My Realms would work if you are running LMoP in the Realms. And since it’s taken from official Realms lore, it’s probably even legal for Adventurer’s League play. But so far this series has mostly been based on what I would do if I were trying to incorporate LMoP into my own homebrew setting.

If I were to place Agatha and Conyberry in my setting, I would skip the banshee business and make Agatha some type of hag. Probably a green hag, since they live in forests. Like banshees, hags are a pretty high level threat for a Tier 1 (Level 1-4) group of PCs. But since this is supposed to be a roleplaying encounter and not a combat one, I think it would work. Here are some other reasons I would make Agatha a hag:

  • Agatha is a perfect name for a hag. If you look up famous witches or hags from history or folktales, you’ll see names like Jenny Greenteeth, Peg Powler, Grindylow, Nelly Longarms, and other such colloquial names. Perhaps you could add something to Agatha, such as Agatha Cackle or Agatha Greenskin.
  • A green hag would be an appropriate denizen of a green dragon’s forest. Green dragons tend to remake the forest containing their lair into an eery, mystical and dangerous place. Dark, evil or corrupted fey creatures would be very at home in such a forest. The hag could be an ally or servant of the green dragon who also appears in LMoP (at the Ruins of Thundertree). In the Realms, Conyberry isn’t that close to Thundertree…but if you are putting it in your own setting, you can put both in the same large forest.
  • Making Agatha a hag opens up so many more adventure hook and story possibilities. Hags like to make bargains. Their bargains often have a steep price, but clever adventurers can sometimes get the better of them, or can deliver on a seemingly impossible condition the hag sets for her assistance. In folklore, Baba Yaga was a fearsome hag–but she did assist heroes at times, and even more often the people she tormented were evil people deserving of punishment. For a more recent example, the three Crones in The Witcher 3 are very much based on the hags and witches of folklore. They protect a region (and one village in particular), but the price for their protection is creepy and gross. Sacrificing an ear, or sending your child into the forest (to be fattened and then eaten) were the price of protection in that game. So for Agatha, perhaps in the current adventure, she could offer information to the PCs…but she demands a favor in return, to be redeemed at some future point.

In my post on setting up nodes in LMoP, I suggested some ways you can plant clues that point to other locations in the area. I won’t go into those here, but depending on whether you keep Agatha true to her history in the Realms (a banshee who for some reason protects Conyberry), or whether you make her into some other form of monster (such as my idea of the green hag)…find ways to connect Agatha and Conyberry to the surrounding areas, and find ways to connect her to the main story of this adventure (the Cragmaws, Wave Echo Cave, and Black Spider).

I hope this has been helpful! Next in our series is an examination of the Ruins of Thundertree. See you next time!

Friday Resource Roundup #2

Hi folks! I’ve had a lot of stuff going on the past few weeks, so I haven’t been able to post as often as I would like. But let’s get to our resources, shall we?

Podcasts

The other actual-play podcast I listen to is Dames and Dragons. There are women who’ve been playing D&D for a long time, but the myth that RPGs are for guys persists. Some women and non-binary folks have had really awful experiences. Despite all that, there are several really good all-female groups doing actual-play podcasts. Dames and Dragons is one of the best. If you like The Adventure Zone, you’ll probably like Dames and Dragons too.

Blogs

The Angry GM has a great blog/website. His style is not to everyone’s taste…but he knows his stuff, and there are a number of wonderful article series for you to read. Most of my 5E conversions and custom monsters (for my Monster Monday feature) are based on his Custom Monster Building for Beginners series.

The Worldbuilder Blog by James Introcaso is chock full of resources for DM/GMs. James Introcaso is one of the founders of the Don’t Split the Podcast network, and hosts a podcast himself, called Tabletop Babble (an excellent podcast I believe I linked to in my first Resource Roundup).

Videos

Seth Skorkowsky does reviews of adventures, and also does videos with tips for both players and DMs. He has a veteran’s perspective, talks about other RPGs and not just D&D, and has some humorous NPC characters that make appearances in many of his videos.

GM Tips on Geek & Sundry is a playlist of videos on the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. It starts with Matthew Mercer as the host, then later switches to Satine Phoenix as the hostess (she is still hosting the series). Great advice, and Satine brings in other DMs to talk about how they run games–often to talk about a particular topic, a particular approach, or situations that commonly give DMs problems.

Other Stuff

The Only Online Gaming Convention – AetherCon This is coming up soon: Nov. 9-11 so I thought I would link to their website. As far as I know, it’s completely free! They use Roll20 to run games. I’m not sure how they handle panels. I just found out about this online convention a month or so ago, and it’s my first time. But it seems really cool, particularly for people who can’t afford to go to a lot of regular conventions, or are limited by other factors.

Monster Monday: Spawn of Dragons!

My Monster Vault

Continuing in the vein of last week’s monster, we’re going to look at dragonspawn. Wizards of the Coast has put out some good info on dragons, and even provided a couple of drakes. But so far, they haven’t released an official product that updates dragonspawn for 5E. So we’re going to look at one dragonspawn–Greenspawn Razorfiend–that has both 3E and 4E versions. We’ll use those two versions as guideposts as we build a 5E version.

You can find the 3E version of the Greenspawn Razorfiend in the 3E adventure, Red Hand of Doom. Here’s the stat block:

GreenspawnRazorfiend_3E

And you can find the 4E version of the Greenspawn Razorfiend in Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons. Here’s the stat block:

GreenspawnRazorfiend_4E

What’s interesting is to see the differences between the two editions. Of course, the mechanical aspects of 4E were so vastly different from previous editions, there are naturally going to be differences there. But if you look closer there are deeper differences. 3E has an acid breath weapon; 4E instead gives the dragonspawn a ranged “spittle” attack, and makes it both acid and poison. 3E mentions a “spring attack,” but 4E just mentions that it can jump 4 squares (which is 20 ft.). When you look at the ability scores, there are also some interesting differences. The Strength and Wisdom scores are similar, but the Constitution and Dexterity scores on the 4E version are much higher. The 4E version is very stupid, but has a high Charisma…? Both versions have wings, but don’t mention a fly speed. The 3E version mentions a swim speed and waterbreathing, but the 4E version doesn’t say anything about it being aquatic.

So before we start our custom build process, we know a few things. The greenspawn has wings with sharp edges, and a breath weapon which is acid or poison damage. It’s Strength, Dexterity and Constitution are very high, it’s Wisdom is above average, but it’s Intelligence and Charisma are either average or below average (that 4E high Charisma doesn’t make sense to me). The greenspawn can’t fly, but it can jump really far. We know it’s a relatively high-level monster, probably Tier 2 (5th-10th level) or Tier 3 (11th-16th level).

So as a reminder, here’s our steps for building a custom monster.

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

Building

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? We know that this monster is a skirmisher (because it says so in the 4E version). A skirmisher is a melee fighter that deals a lot of damage, but is also highly mobile. Oddly, though, it also has a ranged attack. Whether we use it as a breath weapon, or just a ranged attack, it’s unusual for a skirmisher. Usually breath weapons are a recharge attack. The 4E version of this monster has a regular ranged attack–but it also appears to be created for higher level PCs. So my take is that the greenspawn uses its breath weapon, then uses its melee attack (wingblades). Since it can jump far, it will either disengage and jump away, or use its jump to get to another opponent.
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? We are building a monster for a Tier 2 party. Tier 2 is 5th-10th level. I’m shooting for the mid-range of Tier 2, so 7th-8th level.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? This is really interesting. The 4E version of this monster is worth 1600 XP. It’s labeled as a level 13 monster, but if we look in the DMG on page 82, a deadly encounter for a level 7 PC is 1700. Meaning this would be a really hard fight for a level 7 PC…but it’s possible. That’s for one level 7 PC. If we target 8th level PCs, a hard encounter is 1400 XP per PC. Four level 8 PCs would give us 5,600 XP. I think this dragonspawn qualifies as a hard encounter. A CR 6 monster has 2,300 XP, and 2 of those would be 4,600 XP. We could fill out an encounter with other creatures to make 5,600 XP. So we’re going to build it as a CR 6 monster.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits) Dragonspawn are not natural creatures. They are created by dark rituals that infuse a dragon’s egg with the blood of animals or monsters. But 5E doesn’t seem to have subtypes at this point, so we’ll just go with “dragon” as the type. Our Greenspawn Razorfiend should have some of the traits and abilities that green dragons have. All green dragons have the Amphibious trait, which means they can breathe air and water. Let’s give our greenspawn Forest Camouflage, which gives it advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to hide in forested terrain. We’ll give it Standing Leap also, since both 3E and 4E versions mention its superior jumping ability. Green dragons are treacherous, manipulative, and scheming. Rather than brute force, they prefer to use trickery, seduction, and manipulation to bend the wills of their foes–corrupting them even as their victims are unaware of their corruption. But the greenspawn razorfiend is a fighter. How can we reconcile this?  For attacks, we’ll give it a wingblade attack, a pounce attack, and a breath weapon attack. Now the 3E version has acid breath, and the 4E version has acidic poison spittle. Green dragons in 5E are strictly poison (acid is for black dragons) so the breath weapon is poison damage. But since green dragons are beguiling and manipulative, let’s have the poison breath also bestow a status effect. We’ll call it Beguiling Toxin. It’s a poison cloud, which also bestows a weakening effect that I’m stealing from gold dragons (I don’t understand why metallic dragons get to have one damage breath and one status condition breath–that just seems unsportsmanlike). The attacks will be listed in Actions, and none of the traits we picked have any effect on the CR. So we end up with:
    Amphibious. The greenspawn can breathe air and water.
    Forest Camouflage. The greenspawn gets advantage on Dexterity (Stealth) checks to hide in forested terrain.
    Standing Leap. The razorfiend’s long jump is up to 20 ft. and its high jump is up to 10 ft., with or without a running start.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? Now for the hard part. It’s likely to be with some of its friends. So we’ll make it a CR 6 monster. Remember, Defensive CR is HP and AC. CR 6 gives us a proficiency bonus of +3, an AC of 15, and HP of 146-160. This creature is Large, so it uses a d10 for hit dice. It’s going to have a high Constitution, say a +3 bonus. So we’ll use 153 (18d10 + 54) HP. That fits into our range. This monster also has a high Dexterity, also a +3 bonus. With a proficiency bonus of +3, that means its AC is 16 (not 15). But we only bump to a different line in the table if the listed AC varies by 2. So we stick with AC 16.
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? We’ve given this monster three special attacks, right? Wingblade, Pounce, and Beguiling Toxin. Remember, Offensive CR is Attack Bonus and Damage per Round. And if a monster has special attacks that are limited in use, you add up max damage from all attacks over 3 rounds, then take the average. The greenspawn is really strong, so its Strength score gives it a +4 bonus. That means its attack bonus is +7. That’s only 1 higher than the standard attack bonus of a CR 6 monster. For damage per round, we have to add up damage for the wingblade attack, the pounce attack, and the breath weapon attack. For the breath weapon attack,  we assume that at least two people are hit with the attack, so that’s 70 damage for the breath weapon (that’s 35 [10d6] times 2). The Pounce attack includes one claw attack for 13 (2d8+4) damage, and a bite attack for 15 (2d10+4) damage if the target is prone. The wingblade attack is 22 (4d8+4) damage. If we do the math, that means 120 damage over 3 rounds, so the average is 40 damage per round. That’s in the range for a CD 6 monster.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive or Offensive CR? Short answer–it doesn’t, because none of our non-attack traits have any effect on CR according to the DMG.
  8. Final Tweaks. We don’t really need any.

Final Result

Okay guys, here’s what we end up with. EDIT 10/17: After getting some feedback, I tweaked the stats in the stat block and revised the text above.

GreenspawnRazorfiend

That’s it for today, folks. Have fun with your dragonspawn!

 

 

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 8b: Setting Up Nodes in the Sandbox Section

In my previous article, I said there were 4 nodes in the sandbox section. But there is one more node: Cragmaw Castle. I didn’t include it in the previous article because it’s a destination node. How do I know this? Because Gundren Rockseeker is there. If the PCs go there, they can fulfill one of their objectives (if they accepted Sindar’s quest), and there is information there that will lead them into the next story section. The whole point of this section is for the PCs to find information on two things: where is Cragmaw Castle, and where is Wave Echo Cave.

So we have 4 nodes and we need to set them up using the Three Clue Rule. There need to be clues leading to each other node, as well as
the destination node.

Nodes Clues to Other nodes Optional clues
Agatha and Conyberry Orc corpse has clue to Wyvern Tor; Agatha mentions Necromancer at Old Owl Well; party sees a green Dragon fly over (Ruins of Thundertree). Treasure map leading to another adventure.
Old Owl Well Kost the necromancer wants the orcs at Wyvern Tor removed; he wants to ask a question from Agatha; Most had green Dragon scales, mentions Thundertree. Something that mentions the megadungeon.
Ruins of Thundertree Druid Reidoth knows the location of Cragmaw Castle and Wave Echo Cave; Green Dragon mentions Necromancer at Old Owl Well; Reidoth warns the party about Agatha at Conyberry; party finds letter mentioning Wyvern Tor. Reidoth mentions that the twig blights have moved on from somewhere east of this area; perhaps mentions Guldias the renegade druid.
Wyvern Tor If party defeats the orcs, they find a journal that describes the other nodes and Cragmaw Castle. Something that mentions the orc artifact, or their war plans.

You can see that some of my optional clues are vague. That’s because I don’t have a current group going through this adventure, and since optional clues lead to other adventures and the adventures that I choose depend on the players, I’m keeping it open.

Next time I will look at each location in depth, and show you how to adapt what is written to your particular game.

 

Monster Monday: And Now for Something Completely Different

My Monster Vault

I have a lot more ideas for Bile Spider Goblins, but I thought it might be good to have a little variety. So today, we’re converting a 4E monster that hasn’t made it into the Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. We’re going to convert the Needlefang Drake Swarm. Because what’s more terrifying than a swarm of small bitey things? A swarm of dragoney small bitey things!

To recap our process steps:

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

This little doozy is going to be fun. I love swarms, just generally. Because they are simply terrifying. Ever played the video game Dishonored? Swarms of rats in that game can take down a fully grown man, fully armed, in a heartbeat. Then they kill him and devour him in a few minutes. In movies, TV, heck even legend and lore–swarms of little bitey things are universally feared. And rightly so. If swarms of insects or rats isn’t enough to terrify your players…this swarm of tiny drakes might do the trick.

  1. What the H*ll Is It For?  Well that’s tricky. It’s definitely a melee fighter, because it’s a swarm. And it pulls people down, to make it easier for them to attack.
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? In 4E, this was a level 2 monster. So I’m targeting PCs at level 2.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? The difficulty of this fight depends on how many of these you throw at them, and whether they are accompanied by other monsters. If the PCs can focus solely on the swarms, it’s probably a medium fight even if there’s more than one. If the swarm is fighting with, say, other drakes or with goblins–that’s going to be hard fight. Maybe even deadly depending on how you build it. But for our purposes today, let’s make it a medium fight with just the swarms. A medium encounter for level 2 PCs is 100 XP per character. So for a party of four PCs, we are looking at 400 XP.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? Here’s where it gets fun. We have to add the Swarm trait, because it’s a swarm (duh).
    Swarm. The swarm can occupy another creature’s space and vice versa, and the swarm can move through any opening large enough for a Tiny drake. The swarm can’t regain hit points or gain temporary hit points.
    Now we’re going to add a fun one.
    Pull Down. Whenever the swarm succeeds on a hit, the target of the swarm must succeed on a DC 13 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone. If the target is prone, the swarm can make a second attack with Swarm of Teeth.
    And we’re going to flavor its attack action too. Instead of the usual Bites action most swarms have, we’re going to call it Swarm of Teeth. The mechanics of the attack will be the same as Bites, though.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? We’re shooting for a CR of 1/2 total. If we compare our swarm to the swarms listed in the back of the Monster Manual, the swarm of insects is CR 1/2…but instead of 50-70 hp, it has only 22 hp. So we probably want to bring our drake swarm’s hp down a little too. For a CR 1/2 monster the AC is 13. But to go down a level for hp, we need to have the AC at 15. With a proficiency bonus of 2, that leaves 13. We’ll say the drakes’ natural armor gives them an AC of 10. That means we need a Dex bonus of +3 to make AC 15 (AC 10 natural armor, Dex modifier of +3, proficiency bonus of +2). Going to hp, the hp range for the CR 1/4 level is 36-49. We don’t need a Constitution bonus. So we’ll shoot for the low end of 36 hp (8d8).
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? Looking at the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (p. 274), the Attack Bonus for a CR 1/2 monster is +3, and the Damage per Round is 6-8. But our swarm is going to try and knock down its target every time it hits. If it knocks down its target, it does twice the damage because it gets a second attack. The swarm of rats does 7 (2d6) damage; the swarm of insects does 10 (4d4) damage. But they don’t knock their target prone. If the swarm does 5 (2d4) damage per attack, then the average over 3 rounds (assuming one knockdown) is about 7. That puts our damage right in the range for a CR 1/2 monster. Our final Attack Bonus is +5, and our Damage per Round is 7…but our attack does 5 (2d4) damage. It does 3 (1d4) damage when the swarm half its hit points or fewer.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect the Defensive CR and Offensive CR? We actually made allowance for the traits’ effects in step 6, so we don’t need to do anything else here.
  8. Final Tweaking. We don’t need to do any at this point.

So we’re done! I’m sorry this post got out later than normal; I had stuff going on over the last weekend so I wasn’t able to get my post done in time to publish this morning. I hope you guys find a use for this Needlefang Drake Swarm. If you do, let me know in the comments how it worked (or if it didn’t).

NeedlefangDrakeSwarm

Resource Roundup

Hello, and welcome to my newest feature. My plan is to list some of my favorite D&D information resources each Friday. I’m not sure how long this will work, as eventually I might run out of resources to list. But I’ll be posting this on Friday for as long as my resource list lasts.

Podcasts

There are two kinds of D&D/RPG podcasts I listen to: actual-play podcasts, and information podcasts. The first actual-play podcast I started listening to was The Adventure Zone, and it’s still one of my favorites.

As for information podcasts, the DM’s Deep Dive by Mike Shea is a really good one. Mike Shea is known for his Sly Flourish website, and for The Lazy Dungeon Master. Mike also recently released an updated version called Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Blogs

One blog/website I refer to a lot (and link to in my articles) is Justin Alexander’s The Alexandrian. I’ve particularly gotten a lot out of his Gamemastery 101 articles. He’s been writing stuff about RPGs (not just D&D) for a long time, and his site is chock-full of great information, design techniques, and stories from his games to serve as examples.

YouTube Videos

There are a surprising number of RPG-related YouTube channels out there. They aren’t all to my taste, and the ones I recommend may not be to yours. I encourage you to do a search, try different YouTube content creators, and find the one that speaks to you and the games you run. With that caveat out of the way, here are two I recommend.

Matt Colville – I really like Matt Colville, just in general. I like his presentation style, I like his sense of humor, I like his take on D&D, and I like his general worldview (as he has presented it on his channel, anyway). His Running the Game playlist is something I go back to again and again, because the videos are full of both information and encouragement.

WebDM – These guys are funny, albeit sometimes in an awkward way. But they remind me of people I actually know, and their sense of humor matches mine. On top of that, they provide really useful information, both for GMs and for players. They do a lot of D&D stuff, but also dip into other RPGs such as Numenera, Warhammer Fantasy, Pathfinder and Starfinder. YMMV as to their particular style–but they have a LOT of good content.

 

Well folks, that’s it for this week. I have a lot of resources still to go, and I do look around for new resources fairly often (and I frequently get recommendations from other RPG folks I know). So hopefully we’ll keep having this Resource Roundup feature for a while to come. Remember to check my blog next week for Monster Monday!

A Brief Interlude about Node-Based Scenarios

So I’ve mentioned Justin Alexander’s website before, The Alexandrian. He has developed an idea called Node-Based Scenario Design. His site has a whole series of articles on it. I’m going to try and summarize the concept, but if you want you can read the whole thing on his site, starting with Node-Based Scenario Design – Part 1: The Plotted Approach. Since we have been talking about the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver, and since a sandbox can’t be handled in a linear way, I thought introducing the concept of Nodes, along with some of Alexander’s other design ideas, would be helpful to DMs who aren’t sure how to run a sandbox adventure.

The basic principles of Node-Based Scenario design are these:

Identify Nodes

The easiest way to identify nodes is to look at the locations you want your PCs to explore, or the locations you think are most likely for them to explore. I think there are other types of nodes, but this seems the easiest to wrap your head around. And it applies to our problem of the sandbox, too, because we’ve already identified four locations in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver.

Seed Clues with the Inverted Three Clue Rule

The Three Clue Rule states: For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues. The reasoning behind this is that with three clues, you have enough redundancy to ensure that the PCs will find and correctly interpret at least one of the clues, preventing a bottleneck and keeping the scenario moving forward.

This logic leads to the Inverted Three Clue Rule: If the PCs have access to ANY three clues, they will reach at least ONE conclusion. 

So if we look at Phandalin as our starting node, we can label the four locations in the sandbox as A, B, C and D. In Phandalin, we have seeds leading to each of those four nodes. Now, we do the following.

  • Node A: Place clues leading to nodes B, C and D.
  • Node B: Place clues leading to A, C and D.
  • Node C: Place clues leading to A, B, and D.
  • Node D: Place clues leading to A, B and C.

Using this approach, you can be sure that the PCs will find some of the clues, and will therefore go to some of the locations in the sandbox. As written, there are also two locations (Thundertree and Conyberry) that can potentially lead to Cragmaw Castle (the end of “The Spider’s Web” section) and Wave Echo Cave (the location for Part 4 of the adventure). You can decide to add that same information to any of the other nodes in the sandbox section, to ensure that the PCs actually know how to get to those two vital story locations.

Prepping the Nodes

So you’ve got four nodes, and you don’t know for sure which nodes your PCs will decide to go to. How do you prepare? In his article “Don’t Prep Plots, Prep Situations,” Alexander lays out the following design principles:

  • Three Clue Rule: For any given problem in an adventure, you need to prep at least one possible solution, and remain open to any other solutions the PCs come up with. But for a chokepoint problem, prep at least three possible routes to success. A chokepoint problem is one that would halt the player’s progress in the scenario.
  • Goal-Oriented Opponents: Instead of trying to predict what your players will do, focus on what the bad guys want to do. This can also apply to NPCs who are not necessarily opponents–determine what the NPC normally does or wants to do. This can be a simple bullet list, or a detailed timeline. It’s up to you and how much time you have or want to spend.
  • Don’t Prep Contingencies: Don’t get caught up in trying to determine what the NPC will do if the PCs get in the way. This is exactly what you are trying to avoid! If you know what the NPC wants or what it normally does, you can respond to the PCs actions in the moment, at the table.
  • Know Your Toolkit: In order to react appropriately to the PCs actions, while you’re at the table, you need to know what you have to work with. What resources does the NPC have, that they can use to respond? Typical tools are: equipment, personnel, locations, and information. This is particularly important for prepping a possible confrontation with a “bad guy”, but can be useful for any NPC that is not already an ally to the PCs. Because any neutral NPC can become an adversary depending on what the NPC is like, and what the PCs choose to say or do. Like any toolbox, you need to know what each tool does. A hammer is used with nails; a screwdriver is used with screws. Figure out what each resource (location, personnel, equipment, information) can do, so if the PCs toss you a “nail” you know you can reach for the “hammer”.

Conclusion

If you use the principles in this article, you can prep each “node” in the sandbox section of Lost Mine of Phandelver in a minimal way. You can be reasonably certain that the players will find the information they need to get to the next part of the story, and reasonably certain they will find whatever other information you seed in those locations (such as clues leading to other locations for future adventures).

Next time, I’ll show you how to use these principles, by setting up those nodes myself.

 

Monster Monday: Bile Spider Goblin Ratkeeper

My Monster Vault

Hello again friends! I only have one monster for you today, because I am slowly learning that this process of custom-building monsters is way more time-consuming than I ever anticipate. Even last week’s monsters, which were supposed to just be reskins, took a lot longer than I expected.

So to recap our process steps:

  1. What the H*ll Is It For? (Roles)
  2. Who’s Going to Fight This? (PC level)
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? (Encounter Difficulty)
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special? (Traits)
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? (HP & AC)
    1. Adjusting Defensive CR
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? (Damage Per Round & Attack Bonus)
    1. Adjusting Offensive CR
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? (Adjust CR for Traits)
  8. Final Tweaking

Goblin Ratkeeper

This one is totally original. In fact, this goblin is so original I couldn’t really find a current 5E equivalent for the traits I wanted to give it. At first I wanted to just give it an aura, but the aura was a rat swarm, and there isn’t really a type of aura close enough to that for me to be able to figure out whether it would work or whether it would break the game. So I switched to a trait where the goblin can summon a rat swarm. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any monsters in 5E that can summon things (if you know of one that I missed, please let me know in the comments!). So I’m totally in the dark about how powerful this trait will be.

That said, let’s proceed to the build.

  1. What the Hell Is It For? I had to go back to 4E to get the role for this one. The Goblin Ratkeeper is what 4E called a controller. A controller has abilities that control the battlefield–disable enemies, help allies, move things around, create obstacles or obstructions that damage enemies or hinder their movement. While not a magic-user, the ratkeeper can summon rat swarms and help that swarm or other allies when they are nearby. The ratkeeper can also move the swarm around. This seems to fall within the scope of a controller role.
  2. Who’d Going to Fight It? This goblin is designed to be fought by a part of PCs who are level 2-3. It is never alone–it always has other goblins, or rats (giant or dire) fighting with it. Keep that in mind if you use this in your encounters.
  3. How Hard Is the Fight? This is a Medium encounter for level 2-3 PCs. XP threshold for that is 600 (taking into account that there will always be other monsters fighting with the Goblin Ratkeeper). We’re shooting for a CR 1 for the ratkeeper, which is 200 XP. So you would have to add other goblins and rats whose total XP adds up to 400. Keep in mind the action economy, though, and don’t make the group too large. Once PCs get to level 3 they become more powerful and durable, but if outnumbered they can still get into a death spiral pretty easily.
  4. What Sh*t Makes It Special (Traits)? Here’s where it gets interesting. I couldn’t really find an equivalent existing trait for what I wanted to do here, so caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) with these guys. Hopefully I will be able to playtest some of the stuff I’ve created in Monster Monday posts some time soon. Until then, it’s a mystery. If you use any of my monsters, please do comment and let me know what worked and what didn’t.The first trait we are giving our ratkeeper is: Summon the Swarm. Once per encounter, the ratkeeper can take a bonus action to summon a swarm of rats to any unoccupied location within 10 ft. of the ratkeeper.
    Second trait: Ratkeeper’s Medicine. When an ally is adjacent to the ratkeeper, the ally can heal 1d4 hp as a bonus action.
    Special action: Pied Piper. As a bonus action, the ratkeeper can move a summoned rat swarm 5 ft. in any direction without provoking an opportunity attack on the rat swarm.
  5. What’s the Defensive CR? As with the other goblins we’ve made, the HP for a CR 1 creature is too high. So we’re going to go for a Defensive CR 1/2. However the HP for a CR 1/2 is also a little too high for a goblin. So we’re going to bump the AC from 13 to 15, which means we can use the CR 1/4 numbers for HP. We end up with an AC 15 (leather armor, +2 from Dexterity, +2 from a shield) and 38 (11d6) HP.
  6. What’s the Offensive CR? Since we lowered the average Defensive CR to CR 1/2, we have to raise the Offensive CR to CR 2. This means an Attack Bonus of +3 and Damage per Round of 15-20. Like with Defensive CR, we’re going to tweak the numbers a bit. We raise the Attack Bonus to +4, and the Damage per Round becomes 12. This is a combination of the damage from the ratkeeper’s weapon, and damage from the rat swarm the ratkeeper summoned. This assumes that the ratkeeper will summon the rat swarm immediately, attack every round, and make sure that the rat swarm can attack every round. I admit, this is fudged a little bit. When I playtest it, I will come back to this post and edit the stat calculation.
  7. How Does the Special Sh*t Affect Defensive/Offensive CR? The truth is…I don’t know. Since I couldn’t find an equivalent trait or action for the ones I’m giving the ratkeeper, I won’t really know what effect the traits and special attacks have until it is playtested. Again, I will edit this post depending on what I find out.

Here’s what we end up with. Hope you enjoy it!

GoblinRatkeeper

 

 

Lost Mine of Phandelver Remix Part 8a: Sandboxing in the Starter Set

The interesting thing about the design of Lost Mine of Phandelver is Part 3, “The Spider’s Web.” Several people in the town have side quests, things they want the PCs to help them with. Some of these side quests lead to other locations in the area around Phandalin, making this a small sandbox section.

Now, across the history of D&D, some beginner adventures have been linear, and some have been more of a sandbox. B1 Keep on the Borderlands is an early classic from Basic D&D (1E D&D era). It had a base town, a sandbox area with a cave system you could explore, and so on. In 3rd edition, there was H1 The Sunless Citadel. This one was more linear. You did have two ways in to the dungeon, and there were two major factions on the first level, meaning that depending on which entrance you used you would either have to fight or negotiate with that first faction. Basically the dungeon was pretty linear, though. In 4th edition there was Keep on the Shadowfell, which had a few locations which had clues, but it wasn’t really a sandbox because the focus wasn’t on exploring and going where you wanted.

As I mentioned in A Brief Interlude About Railroading and Sandboxing, linear adventures can be useful–particularly if your players are new to D&D, or if they are kids/teens. Open sandbox adventures can be a better pick for experienced and/or older players. So the key thing is–how do you adapt this so it will work for either type of group?

Analysis and Problems

Here’s the thing that bothers me the most about this section of Lost Mine of Phandelver, even though this section also has a LOT of potential. This adventure is included in the Starter Set, something specifically designed for new and/or younger players–but there is no guidance given for how to run a sandbox adventure. Those players who are more comfortable in a linear adventure will be lost. Even those who like exploring aren’t given a satisfactory reason to explore these locations. The side quests that are supposed to lead them to these areas outside of Phandalin are weak and essentially pointless. Even a young or new player will probably notice that, and that is not a satisfying story experience. If you play D&D, usually you want to take part in a story that is exciting and meaningful–you’re saving someone, or saving a town/kingdom, or working with factions to establish a power base, or pulling off the greatest heist in history. Your character may not always be the stereotypical hero–but you have a goal, and you want your actions to work toward that goal. Right?

Here’s the run down on the side quests related to the sandbox areas:

  • “Old Owl Trouble” – given to the PCs if they talk to Daran Edermath at Edermath Orchard. If they complete the quest, he will approach certain members of the group to recruit them to the Order of the Gauntlet (a Forgotten Realms faction). It leads the PCs to Old Owl Well. This is about fighting undead, for…reasons. POINTLESS.
  • “Reidoth the Druid” – given to the PCs if they talk to Qelline Alderleaf at Alderleaf Farm. This leads the PCs to the Ruins of Thundertree. There’s a whole lot going on here, but the druid seems most concerned about the big green dragon. He can give the party directions to Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle, but otherwise he is POINTLESS. Not to mention being oblivious to the rest of the crap going on in the ruins.
  • “The Banshee’s Bargain” – given to the PCs if they talk to Garaele at the Shrine of Luck. This leads the PCs to Agatha at Conyberry. This is a totally pointless quest as written. You give a gift to a banshee, she for some reason grants you the answer to one question. If the PCs ask about the spellbook, she says she doesn’t have it and doesn’t know where it is. If they ask where Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle is, she’ll tell them but then the party doesn’t get the quest reward from Graele. POINTLESS.
  • “Orc Trouble” – posted on a board outside the Townmaster’s Hall. This leads the PCs to Wyvern Tor. This is essentially a bounty hunt. POINTLESS.

That’s it. Other side quests in town don’t lead to the sandbox locations. Guess what? As written, none of the side quests listed above have anything at all to do with finding Gundren, or getting entrance to Wave Echo Cave, or finding out more about Black Spider. With one exception–the druid in Thundertree might know something about Wave Echo Cave or Cragmaw Castle, because the druid knows the area really well.

None of the side quests relate directly to the main plot of this adventure. Reidoth can give them directions. Agatha can give them directions, but the party will fail the side quest that took them to Agatha. Everything else? POINTLESS.

My Solution

So here’s how I am fixing this. I plan to redesign the side quests, and tie them more firmly into the main plotline. I also want to plant seeds for other possible adventures I might run in the area. For example, Reidoth could be a way to lure the PCs to investigate the ruined abbey where I plan to place The Sunless Citadel (because twig blights are a plot point in that adventure). Old Owl Well could be on top of a megadungeon (something I plan to do in the near future). If I decide to run Red Hand of Doom (another thing I’d like to do), then Wyvern Tor could represent a scouting party of orcs looking to expand their territory–this could be an adversary I work into Red Hand of Doom, placing the local villages/towns between hammer (the dragon and hobgoblin army) and anvil (an approaching orc army).

Find Your Solution

This one is a little tricky. If you are playing in the Forgotten Realms, you could reinforce the faction element in some of the side quests by asking yourself “why is this faction interested in this particular problem?” If you’re playing in another setting, you could abandon the faction element, or replace the Realms factions with factions native to your setting. Another approach is to look at other adventures you want to run (either published or homebrewed), and find a way to connect one or more side quests to those adventures. In any case, if you want the PCs to explore and take advantage of all the content the sandbox section has to offer, you need to make these side quests important. Plant something specific in each side quest that links to the main goal of the adventure–a useful item as reward, clues to help them find Gundren, information about the Black Spider, and so on.

Each of these sandbox areas has a rich history and multiple plot hook possibilities, so I’m going to look at each of the four separately. But before we get to the individual areas, I’m going to talk about Node-Based Scenarios and the Three-Clue Rule. See you next week!