5E Eberron Campaign

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I’m currently starting up a 5th Edition Eberron campaign. I have a lot of the books from the original version of Eberron in 3.5, and therefore more fluff than I could ever use, but it will take some adaptation to run this game. Unearthed Arcana has released some updates for basic Eberron material, which I am taking as my starting-point.

House Rules

First, some house rules. I can’t seem to run any RPG without at least a few house rules, and D&D is no exception.

Players roll all the dice. I just like this way of running a game, especially a game like D&D. I feel like the game slows to a crawl whenever the DM needs to roll dice for all the monsters and NPCs. Basically, where NPCs have bonuses I make those DCs, and where PCs have DCs (like Armor Class) I make those bonuses. I also use set damage, as in the MM. (Bonus: based on our first session, this rule works amazingly well, and is now how I DM)

Let it ride. I use this rule in all of my games. I get it from Burning Wheel. Basically, once you roll for something, the stakes remain. One stealth roll to sneak all the way in the castle. One roll to pick the lock. You can’t make another attempt until the conditions change.

Action points. One element of Eberron is Action Points. To emulate those in 5E, I just made the simple change that players can store, and swap, points of inspiration. Over time they can build up, and have a similar function to Action Points.

I’m also going to be working on house rules for House Tarkanan aberrant dragonmarks and the effects of the Mark of Vol, which I will share when I have them.

Principles

Everyone’s hack of D&D 5E to run Eberron will be a bit different. Here is what I have in mind for my own: in the Eberron setting material as written, as usual for 3.X D&D, the NPCs often have PC character classes, sometimes mixed with NPC classes. 5E’s approach from the Monster Manual and onward seems to be much more about exception-based design, including for humanoids who have abilities very similar to player-character classes.

One thing from Eberron that I’ll retain is that there are not many high-level NPCs in the world. So you get a setting where tons of characters have first-level spells of various kinds, and spells are relatively common up to maybe 3rd level, but if you need someone resurrected you’ll have to go on a question to find some sort of religious figure who can help you out. There also end up being plenty of threats that only the PCs can really deal with in the world, as CR 20 monsters abound.

Obsidian Portal

I love using Obsidian Portal for campaign management. It’s a good way to have a lot of my worldbuilding notes right in front of me, to track player-characters and NPCs, and to have something cool for players to dig through looking for Easter eggs that will help them in-game. This is my Obsidian portal page for Shadows of the Last War.

They Didn’t Meet In A Bar

To introduce the characters to one another, I threw them into a pretty contrived fight scene where some of their backgrounds came out all at once. After that, though, I had to have a reason for them to be working together. I hate the stage in a game where the PCs are pretending not to want to work together, so I decided to just force them together early on, and the players were OK with that. Sharn gave me an option I hadn’t used before – because of the high rent in Deathsgate where they all wanted to live, they are roommates. So now it’s a sort of dysfunctional episode of Friends, and the players all introduced their characters to each other by answering the question, “What kind of roommate are you?” It went great, and I recommend it as something to have in the goodie-bag for ways to get the party together early in a game, especially an urban one.

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #4

Big Fish Points

Big Fish is a cool movie. In part, the movie is driven by the conflict between story on the one hand and fact on the other. One refrain that comes up in the various yarns is when the storyteller says, “This isn’t how I die.” The story then takes some turn for the better, and we know that it doesn’t end here even if things look dire.

The idea here is for the player to have “This isn’t how I die” points which she can spend when, according to the rules-as-written, they would normally die. This is to protect a character from a meaningless death, or a death that doesn’t make a good story.

Zombie Dinner Bell

In a zombie game, or any game where there is a potential for drawing the attention of swarming foes, have a dinner bell mechanic. Every time the characters do something noisy, or something that would draw attention, the dinner bell rating increases. As it increases, the number of monsters attracted should increase, maybe geometrically. So in the zombie example, first you attract 1 zombie, and then 4, and then 9, or maybe even 1 and then 10 and then 100 for a quicker escalation. I think that the effect could be comparable to that of the Jenga tower in Dread.

Always Minimal Success

Few things are less fun, in a RPG, than rolling a failure that just means you have no impact on the story. You take your turn to act as the player, and nothing happens because of a dice roll.

This idea is for a system that attaches a minimal effect to every action. To take D&D as an example, we could say that every melee or missile attack deals a minimal amount of damage, maybe equal to the character level, or equal to their ability score bonus. Even if you miss, you have some effect, chipping away at your foes.

For skills and other abilities, I would add a minimal effect that can be accomplished without any dice roll at all. It is possible to make something interesting of a failed roll, but there should be times when a character just gets to be awesome without having to take a risk. To take D&D as an example again, if a character is proficient with a skill, there should be a basic action they can always take. If they are proficient with thieves’ tools, then they can open a normal lock if they aren’t under time pressure. If they are proficient with Athletics, they can swim across a river or climb a rope without rolling.

 

RPG Mechanic Round-Up #2

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More of the snippets of mechanics that I thought were worth sharing – to add to your own games, or hack into the games you’re running, or provide a jumping-off point for your own design.

Generalized Saving Throws

This is a bit of an OSR-related thought. As I look at the saving throws from OD&D or other OSR games, they strike me as very…specific. Like, a save versus wands? That is different from a save versus spells? All kinds of spells? All kinds of wands?

I think that 3.X had a great response to this, one of the best aspects of that redesign, which was to reduce those down to three saves: Fortitude, Reflex and Will. The question becomes – what are you defending against, if not a physical attack (which Armor Class handles)? Roll that save.

I thought about generalized saving throws, that would cover most situations that would come up in OSR games but aren’t quite as generic as the 3.X saves. Same question – what are you defending against? Or, what are you trying to do? The ones I came up with are: take cover (avoid blasts, area of effect attacks, breath weapons, etc.), remain calm (resist attempts to control emotions, enrage, instill fear, etc.), retain control (resist attempts at mind-control), break free of restraints (covers things like being turned to stone as well as ensnaring attacks).

last night in a conversation with a friend, we also came up with the Danny Glover Saving Throw, or the “I’m getting too old for this shit” saving throw. It would based entirely off of the character’s level, and would represent the fact that you’d only really learn to survive these extraordinary circumstances through experience. But it is just a measure of the character’s canny-ness and self-preservation, built up through an adventuring career as opposed to something you learn in adventurer school.

Debts Tracked Like Wounds

I had the idea that it would be interesting to list a character’s debts right on their character sheet, especially in a game that is heavy in social economy like Vampire the Masquerade. I think some extended character sheets from White Wolf might have had a “Boons” section, but I like the idea of debts right there staring you in the face when you look at your character. Very often, especially in most traditional games, what you have is real, whereas what you owe, or who you are connected to, is ephemeral. I think that the game becomes about what is on the character, or at least it should be about that for the players, and so putting debts on the character sheet like wounds or other conditions would potentially make an interesting change in a game and how players approach it.

To color the game a paritcular way, it would be great to start the game in significant debt. That’s definitely something everyone but Baby Boomers at the table could relate to, if nothing else. And in a game like, again, Vampire, it makes sense that you would start play indebted to the Prince (for letting you be Embrace) and to your Sire (for teaching and protecting you) and maybe even a Clan Elder or Primogen (because unlife is unfair).

Hold Person Revisited

Few spells are less fun in a D&D game than the hold person line of spells – spells or abilities that immobilize the victim. When used on a player-character, in particular, it just means, “Sorry player, you get to sit there doing nothing for a half hour while we work this whole combat out. Grab a snack?” Recent iterations of D&D have tried to address this by allowing a save every round to break the effect, but often this just means that hold person is almost never used. It doesn’t provide the crowd-control advantage, and PCs often have really good saving throws and get out of it quickly. But it’s still basically “save versus not having fun anymore.”

I was thinking of how to adapt hold person. Maybe what it does is enable a single attack, with advantage from 5E or the equivalent from your system of choice, that does damage as if it was a critical hit once, and then the effect expires. Basically, it holds the victim still long enough to really smash them, and then ends. I think this could be preferable because there is some tension – the player has to watch helpless as the monster closes in on their character, knowing a huge hit is coming. The PCs see the NPC freeze up when they fail the save, and call in the heavy hitter to take them out in one epic hit.

At the very least, it is a little bit less “save versus not having fun anymore.”

Still More to Come

I have more where these came from. I’m keeping these posts relatively short and sweet, and probably have material for at least two more. So, keep an eye out, and as always feel free to share your own ideas…

Large-Sized Characters In 5E D&D

As it stands, making any large-sized playable race in D&D 5E is more of a problem than is likely to be worthwhile. According to the DMG, a large-size playable race would deal double weapon damage at level 1, and with the way hit dice work in the MM, it could be argued that their class hit dice would be upgraded by one die type, meaning a large-sized fighter for example would have d12 hit dice instead of d10 due to size.

These huge advantages would be balanced out a bit by the fact that a large PC would have to squeeze in a lot of common situations – traveling through Dwarven tunnels or visiting the ubiquitous pseudo-Medieval taverns. I’d assume, though, that the DM would just have to adjust for that, reducing the number of five-foot-wide corridors and so on in a given adventure, or else the player playing the large PC would just be left out. Somewhat balanced, but definitely no fun, leaving a situation where the PC would have all the advantages and probably few, or none, of the constraints of being large.

The effects of the Enlarge/Reduce spell in the PHB suggest another interpretation, a bit less advantageous than what the DMG and MM imply. An enlarged creature deals +1d4 damage with their enlarged weapon and have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves and that’s pretty much it. Presumably, the DM just improvises the effects of being enlarged where it would be a detriment rather than an advantage, and obviously a savvy caster would not enlarge an ally in the middle of a cramped room or hallway designed for medium-sized species.

I don’t think either approach to a large-sized playable race is particularly good, whether taking our cue from the DMG and MM, or from the PHB. That being said, I like the idea of a large-sized playable race a lot. I think it adds something to a setting and to the options available to players, and there should be a way to balance things out. In 3.X this balance came in part with a penalty to Armor Class and stealth checks, and I think that makes sense conceptually.

So here is what I think a large-sized race or species in D&D 5E should include: +1d4 damage from large-sized weapons, advantage on Strength saves and Strength checks, disadvantage on Dexterity saves and Dexterity checks, +1 hit points per level, and a cost of living multiplied by four (including meals, water skins, clothing, equipment, etc.).

An Example: Dark Sun’s Half Giant

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength and Constitution score both increase by 2.

Age. Half-giants live about twice as long as humans, becoming adults around the age of 25 and often living to 170 (for the few who die of old age).

Alignment. Half-giants adopt their alignment from the people they spend the most time with, or fear or respect most. This means that their alignment will be more subject to change than others, though one axis till tend to remain consistent. So they might be consistently Good, but sometimes Chaotic and sometimes Lawful, or consistently Chaotic, but sometimes Good and sometimes Evil.

Powerful Build. Half-giants have advantage on Strength checks and Strength saves.  They also have disadvantage on Dexterity checks and Dexterity saves. In addition, their build grants them +1 hit points per level.

Size. Half-giants are Large sized creatures. They occupy a 10′ by 10′ square, and have a 5′ reach. They also deal +1d4 damage with all weapons, in addition to the listed damage.

Speed. Half-giants have a base speed of 35 feet.

Upkeep. The cost of living and all equipment for a half-giant costs four times the usual amount.

Fighting Class Obsolescence

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Clearly, not all classes are created equal. I remember playing AD&D as a kid, and wanting to play a thief. I read through the thief class description where for the first 10 levels or so, my thief skills would be abysmally low. I’d have a less than 50% chance to do the things that thieves are supposed to do – pick locks, pick pockets, that kind of thing. As a result, I never played thieves in D&D, because I didn’t want to be consistently terrible at my character’s wheelhouse.

Melee classes in fantasy games that include spell-casters often suffer from being under-powered, especially at mid and higher levels. While the spell-casters are traveling to other planes, raising people from the dead and incinerating their foes, the fighter is still swinging her sword once or twice per round. The druid shapechanges into a huge cave bear – the fighter swings her sword.

I get that fighters are a good option for players who want a simple character to play. Playing casters, or classes with a lot of special abilities to juggle, is challenging. 4th Edition D&D, designed to help address problems like this by giving all classes special abilities that functioned in similar ways, ended up striking some players as repetitive. Your function in combat mattered more than your class, and the differences were boiled down to fluff and flavor. Previously in 3.X D&D, and then in Pathfinder, they attempted to address this issue with feats and feat chains providing special abilities like Great Cleave and Whirlwind Attack.

Then there is the “dirt farmer” class that some older games include. The System Mastery guys love going off on these kinds of classes that are clearly not fun at all, but included because of misguided ideas of “realism” or “history.” Why be a cleric when you could be a merchant?

Point is, for forty years of character classes in TRPGs, it seems there are almost always some classes that are clearly less fun than others. At high enough level, that class is normally the fighter. So, what to do?

Fix It In Design

4th Edition’s attempt – replace class with role. 5th Edition D&D – give them all magical abilities. Fighters with superiority dice. Look at level capabilities that other classes have and try to give the weaker classes abilities that, if not equivalent, are at least comparable, while in line with their theme.

If your 10th level mage is flying through the air lobbing lightning bolts at her foes while your fighter is still trundling across the ground waving a sword around once or twice a round, that’s a design problem. Not because “balance” is intrinsically valuable for its own sake, but because in a game based around a group of adventurers, all classes should be able to contribute to similar adventures. It’s a problem if some classes become luggage for their more powerful, versatile allies.

Fix It With Equipment

This is especially an option in games like D&D that become dependent on equipment at higher levels. Often, fighter types (who are usually the under-powered ones) have more equipment ‘slots’ than other classes, wearing armor and bearing shields and often able to simply carry more.

Think about the things that other classes can do in your game, and give the fighter, or equivalently limited class, the ability to do similar things. Of course you don’t want to impinge on what makes other classes special, but just make it so the fighter doesn’t have to be accommodated or left behind every time.

Fix It With Hacking

Go into the game you’re playing, lift the hood, and mess around. Talk to anyone playing a class they feel is under-powered or just being left behind by the other characters. Find out what your player sees as a win, and give them a bit more of that. See when the story slows down because she has to be accommodated somehow, and figure out how to keep her going.

Play Better Games

Not all games use classes at all, and not all games with classes are created equal. If you’re frustrated with the incompetence of your AD&D thief, maybe check out an OSR game that emulates AD&D but benefits from 30 years of design insights.

5th Edition D&D is a pretty good start here. I think that 4th Edition also did a good job, but in essence your combat role replaced your class, and then class became a source of color and some customization options, like a sub-class from previous editions.

Obviously, other games get rid of classes altogether, relying on point-buy systems or using other methods to describe characters.

The idea, of course, is for everyone to be having around the same amount of fun, and engagement with the game, each session. There is just a lot of sub-optimal design out there that gets in the way.

 

Dystopian Gods in RPG Settings

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Who Accumulates Power?

What kind of person accumulates power, generally speaking? A good person or an evil person? In the current context of rising inequality as well as the resurgence of vile ideologies from the recent past, we see demagogues holding onto power despite movements like the Arab Spring and rising to greater power in Europe and the United States. And while inspiring to many, movements like Occupy have done little to slow the accumulation of wealth among fewer and fewer oligarchs; similarly Black Lives Matter has yet to see significant victories as they continue the fight for Civil Rights.

It’s been said that the last person who should have power is the kind of person who seeks power out, and we can see how our political systems reward wrongdoing and make doing what’s right all the more costly and difficult. How much more so might this be true of gods, and how they gather power to themselves?

I think that in many ‘standard’ D&D campaign settings like the Forgotten Realms and Eberron, the good-aligned gods are too powerful. There is this sense that there should be a balance of alignments in the world, most explicitly in a setting like Krynn, and so you often have good gods facing off against their opposite number while neutral gods move back and forth in allegiance, or go off and seek their own ends.

The problem is that the balance offers too much hope. I understand, it is fantasy after all, but for me a more compelling story can often be found when the protagonists are underdogs, fighting against overwhelming odds. Add that to what seems to be true about the nature of power in the world we know, and I think that our game settings should feature more overwhelmingly powerful evil deities.

Example: Midnight

In the Midnight setting, published in a first and second edition by Fantasy Flight Games, first for D&D 3E and then for D&D 3.5, there is only one god – the Dark Lord Izrador. All other deities have been shunted out of the material plane entirely, leaving only the occasional nature spirit and no good-aligned outsiders at all. The only deity available for clerics (or their Midnight equivalent, Wisdom-oriented channelers) is a god of evil, and it is a genuinely scary thing in a game to have what is usually the most over-powered class, the cleric (especially in D&D 3.x), as exclusively antagonists. Your enemies will have supernatural healing available to them, and waves of undead at their command.

Midnight is a superb setting to explore issues of resistance against a dystopia that is not only political but metaphysical as well. Is there any hope at all against overwhelming odds? If not, what meaning can you find? Where are the places for heroism? Midnight forces these questions on players precisely because the power of the evil deity is overwhelming.

Idea to steal: the setting is monotheistic, and that deity is evil. 

Example: Call of Cthulhu

The obvious flagship setting for overpowering, terrifying deities is clearly the Cthulhu Mythos. (Even though in the original story, Cthulhu is taken out by being rammed by a ship) For the most part, there are no gods of good – they are illusions, or impotent when compared to the seething cosmic horrors gazing hungrily at Earth and its inhabitants.

The Mythos can be an example of this idea taken too far, however, because so often one of the core themes of a Mythos-based setting is helplessness. And I don’t want to go that far. I don’t think movements for justice in our world are hopeless – it’s just that they are perpetually outgunned.

Idea to steal: there are gods, but they are overwhelmed by all-powerful cosmic horrors. 

Classic Example: Middle-Earth

For almost all of Middle-Earth’s history, including its mythic history, the Valar, equivalent to the benevolent gods of a pantheon, are at worst balanced out by Melkor in influence, and if anything, Melkor has a far greater influence on how history unfolds. Similarly in the Third Age, Sauron has a much greater influence than any of the Valar, and those who resist him are always doing so as underdogs, or in secret, or as part of a desperate ploy.

Unlike the other Valar, Melkor takes up residence in Middle-Earth itself in Utumno, guarded by Angband, the Hell of Iron. The same is true of Sauron in Mordor of course (well Mordor, then Dol Guldur, then Mordor again). The caricature of Middle-Earth is that it coddles its protagonists (to which we get responses like Moorcock and Martin), but it is hard to describe a setting where the deity of evil has a physical address anything but frightening.

Idea to steal: the most powerful of the various deities is an evil deity, and s/he rules a physical realm in the world while the deities of good are distant and can only intervene indirectly. 

Un-Balance Your Gods

I think that the gods of good in a fantasy setting should be overwhelmed, limited, and in a word, scrappy. They should face overwhelming odds, always feel like they are outclassed and fighting from behind, and sometimes have to fall back on luck to survive.

Just like the heroes.

There, I Fixed It: The Wish Spell

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Something that the System Mastery guys love to harp on, all the way back to their very first episode: Dungeons & Dragons’ wish spell (and similar spells in the wish tradition from other RPGs as well). As written, wish spells, or wishes in general in TRPGs, are almost always explicitly ways to disrupt players’ expectations and, in a word, screw them. GMs and DMs are often encouraged to find any possible loophole, any interpretation in the player-character’s wish that might justify screwing with them.

In 5th Edition and 3.5 as well, other than that, a wish spell is for the most part just a catch-all for replicating an 8th level spell. There is otherwise a list of possible effects that are clearly defined and limited in scope. Part of the problem is that wishes in the folkloric sense should not be spells – the simple solution here is to excise wish from the list of arcane spells entirely. But if you want to keep it, or if your game is going to feature a significant number of genies, then there must be something better than punishing players with it. (If you want to punish a character, hand them a Deck of Many Things and stand back).

The potential problems with wishes should be obvious, and there are plenty of folkloric stories about well-intentioned wishes going wrong, or at the very least not having the effect that the wisher intended. On the other hand, these problems are usually ways of moving the story forward so that the protagonist can learn something or change in some way. All too often in TRPGs, wishes are simply opportunities for the DM to punish a player for trying to be creative, when it’s the DM’s decision whether to allow wishes in the first place. For those DMs whose players are not masochists, I have some other thoughts.

The first is that a wish should be fun. Here I’m thinking of Aladdin’s first (official) wish in the Disney animated adaptation of his story regarding a certain lamp. He basically gets what he wishes for, and if anything, Genie goes overboard (as Robin Williams invariably did) in embellishing the whole scene. Rather than being a stingy saboteur, one pictures Aladdin’s DM just throwing cool things at the player-character until the player’s head spins. There are complication, of course, as “Prince Ali” draws the attention of a sinister visier and is suddenly plunged into court life having been a fruit-stealing street kid not long ago, but the story moves forward with the wish fulfilled at face value, plus interest.

Wishes should be fun. D&D should be fun. It should never be a DM power trip, or about ‘punishing’ players.

Second, a wish should indeed have a cost or an unforeseen complication, but this cost or complication should be something that is part of the story moving forward and continuing to be fun. The street rat suddenly lifted to Princedom has no actual idea how to be a Prince. No history, no family, no connections, no homeland, nothing. And as mentioned, he draws the attention of the sinister vizier. I would even recommend discussing possible complications with the player who is making the wish. I know this is not everyone’s play style, but in my experience this doesn’t diminish the fun – you kind of trade surprise for a higher guarantee that you’ll all enjoy the twist.

Third, a wish should take context into account. I still think that DMs should just eliminate wish from all spell lists where it might appear, and keep wishes as a story element. Obvious options are powerful fey or genies whom the PCs have worked to befriend. Maybe the goal of a whole campaign could be to earn a wish from a powerful entity, and then to use that wish to restore the kingdom, or end a curse, or cure a plague. But remember that the wish is interpreted in context. If a PC makes a wish granted by the genie, that genie will interpret the wish, and a wish granted by an ifrit will be very different from one granted by a marid, or a djinni. Rather than a chance to punish players, this is a chance for a DM to show off her creativity. To use this example again, a wish granted by a genie voiced by Robin Williams will be one thing – one granted by a stingy cantankerous fey quite another.

Remember that a wish’s fulfillment does not need to be immediate (unless maybe the PC adds that to the request – in which case, it could rain gold pieces or cause other upheaval). Feel free to take a moment in game when the wish is finally made (which again should be a huge story moment) to go think through what it will look like when it is fulfilled.

Discourage players from gaming the wish. A player might be tempted to go off and write out a page-long run-on sentence as her wish, full of legalese and dependent clauses. Depict the wish-granter getting bored and starting to wander off. Understandably, players will anticipate the DM trying to twist their wish against them, and will try to avoid that eventuality. Maybe reassure them, if necessary, that this is a big story moment and you’re not going to sabotage it.

So, to summarize the wish spell – don’t make it a spell at all. Make it a story element. Make it fun. Have a cost or unforeseen complication, but make it one that moves the story forward in an interesting way. Take the context of the wish, and the wish-granter, into account. And push the players not to lawyer the wish, even if you just have to reassure them.

Do you have any stories of wishes going well, or poorly, in your campaigns? If so, share in the comments.