Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Rappan Athuk: Campaign update (5th edition)


Greetings all, I'm probably months behind on an update as to the games I have been running with session updates and such. For the past year I've been running my group through Rappan Athuk (FGG, 5E version). We're ten sessions in at this point and my player characters just reached 6th level. I'll provide a brief synopsis on what has happened to date and what plans I have for the campaign going forward. I'll provide a full review of Rappan Athuk at some point, but I'm certainly a big fan of this megadungeon. I do have some frustrations with the published work of Frog God Games, but overall, there are some really great encounters, dungeon levels and ideas presented within this book.

I had my group enter via the river, on their way to Zelkor's Ferry, the local village / home base outside of the entrance to the megadungeon itself. On the way there, they ran across a group of fleeing adventures, likely on their way back from Rappan Athuk, that was being slaughtered by a group of Kobolds. My intention was to show immediately that this was a deadly campaign and that even the wilderness in this place could kill you. Following this encounter, the group was introduced to locale of Zelkor's Ferry and some of it's inhabitants. One area FGG could have improved the adventure itself, would have been to flesh out the NPC's there and add some faction involvement here, but they went the way of Keep on the Borderlands a bit and left that work to the DM. 

I took the liberty of adding a bulletin board notice for bounties and other such offerings that the group could immediately take one. The first few sessions, the group took on the work of clearing out a local castle that was overrun with goblins. Once cleared, with no claim to the castle, the characters took ownership and set about dumping their hard earned loot into the restoration of the castle. This one area where 5E struggles a bit, what to do with all of that gold? So far, this is working great and gives them incentive to go explore more.

About four sessions in, the group finally decided to check out the nearby entrance to Rappan Athuk, the Mouth of Doom. This is a satellite dungeon and not the main entrance to the megadungeon itself, I should note there are several means of gaining access through the wilderness throughout the region. They were hired to find and/or recover a lost adventurer by a concerned family member, even at level 3-4 at this time, there some close calls. The standard encounters and random encounters aren't so overwhelming, but combined with some of the lethal traps, the players had to learn quick to proceed with caution.

The most memorable encounter to date was with Dungie, the Dung Monster, located on the 1st level of Rappan Athuk. The players definitely underestimate how deadly and how tough this encounter would be. The creature stumbled upon them based on a random encounter roll after they had followed in a few acolytes of Orcus into the main entrance of the dungeon. They managed to flee and escape the encounter, barely, after the group's paladin tossed a body of one of the acolytes in the Dung Monsters path, buying them time to flee. The group has not returned to the main entrance of Rappan Athuk since then.

Recently the group took up a bounty notice to clear out a group of bandits holed up in another satellite dungeon near Zelkor's Ferry. Clearing the bandits went pretty smoothly, but the group discovered that the ruins went deeper into caverns and tunnels beneath the ruined keep. It was there, that the first death of the campaign occurred. The group stumbled upon a Stone Roper, one of the custom monsters from this adventure. Ropers in general are bad news, but this one is able to turn victims to stone once in their grasp, and so it was that the party's monk got a bit too close and was tuned into a gem encrusted statue of his former self. Again, the group was able to drive the creature off and escape, along with their statue companion. They managed to get him back to Zelkor's Ferry in hopes that the local alchemist could help them and that is where we left off last.

I have given the group the ability to take on downtime activities between session which I use to give them perks and provide adventure seeds for future sessions, my hope is to get them back into the main dungeon levels itself as this is the real meat and potatoes of the campaign, dealing with followers of Orcus and perhaps even the big guy himself at some point. For now though, the group is focused on getting their new castle restored and becoming a political power in the region, I have some plans for that as well, there may be others with a claim to the castle and they won't take the players planting their flag too kindly.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

5E adventures ranked (2020)

Wizards of Coast just dropped their latest (yearly) adventure this week, Rime of the Frostmaiden. I have not gotten my hands on the new book, so it will not factor into the rankings. With that said, let's look back at some of the hits and misses on the WoTC adventures since the launch of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons as best we can without major spoilers. These ratings are purely subjective and for fun, I do own and have played and/or run all of the below though.

14. Hoard of the Dragon Queen (lvl 1-7): The Cult of the Dragon pursues an ambitious goal....bring Tiamat from the Nine Hells into Faerun! This was the first adventure released for 5th edition, with most of the heavy lifting completed by the Kobold Press as the WoTC official team was busy finishing up the Core Rulebooks. Why is it so bad though? Linear, some encounter balancing issues and just the whole caravan to the Waterdeep bit is just not a fun section to play or run. I do like the use of the cult and actual dragons, but this one was a pretty big miss.

13. Rise of Tiamat (lvl 7-15): Those pesky Cultist of the Dragon are still at....This the follow-up to Hoard of the Dragon Queen. There are some pretty epic encounters written within, but the linear fashion in which you get to those....blah, just overall not a fun adventure. I do like the premise of high level adventures taking on an aspect of a deity, but really this just didn't do for me.

12. Waterdeep: Dragon Heist (lvl 1-5): A simple quest opens up a bigger conspiracy and plot within the fabled city of Waterdeep. This will probably be my most controversial ranking. Maybe I'm soured by my anticipation and let down for this book. Slight spoiler, your players will not be part of a heist despite the title of the book. There are several different options the DM can use for the nefarious villain of this adventure, all of which have detailed layers.....but.....as played it is very unlikely your players will see any of them. I had to home-brew a lot of this one to make it enjoyable for my players and honestly I feel like we could not get to end of it soon enough. Another miss from the WoTC team.

11. Storm King's Thunder (lvl 1-11): In the Savage Frontier, giants have set aside differences and banded together to strike out the kingdoms of man...This rehash of the of the Against the Giants series provides a sandbox setting for your characters to investigate and ultimately stop the giant menace. There are some good moments here, but it will take a crafty DM to put the pieces in place given the sandbox nature. One of the major strikes of the adventure is the intro....super weak. If WoTC hates low level play, why not just start the adventure at level three. You're better served to run the original Against the Giants series, which conveniently you can find in another adventure in this ranking.

10. Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus (lvl 1-13): Something wicked stirs in Baldur's Gate and the players are must find what has happened to Elturel, a neighboring city, their redemption waits in the Nine Hells. Kudos to WoTC shifting the setting here a bit. There are some fun themes, the Blood War, angels and devils, and some colorful scenes and characters in the Nine Hells. Drawbacks: again the intro feels really forced, removing some player agency and much the romp through the Nine Hells is a glorified fetch quest, where you have some of the notable figures ultimately take over and/or resolve things for the player characters. Close, but could of been better.

9. Dungeon of the Mad Mage (lvl 5-20): Dive into the fabled dungeon of Halaster Blackcloak, Undermountain. Explore haunted and dangerous halls in hopes of riches or a quick death...Each dungeon level was written by a different author, so they all have a unique feel. While I like the diversity in the dungeon, the over-arching plot can suffer a bit. There are some really good bits in here, but it is a bit watered down for the coddled 5E player. Magical locks preventing the players exploring certain levels until they reach a level....get out of here with that nonsense. If you want to run a megadungeon, go pickup Barrowmaze or Rappan Athuk instead.

8. Dragon of Icespire Peak (lvl 1-5): This adventure is part of the boxed Essentials Kit for new players. Players must take on the fearsome White Dragon of Icespire Peak before more havoc comes to the region. This is a pretty solid beginning adventure, there are some hand-holding bit, but some of the encounters are actually pretty tough for a new player, but I'm a fan. Sometimes straight combat isn't the answer, good players are made through such play. Most of the adventure is a series of bulletin-board types quest that you can do for the townsfolk, but provides new players and DM's with the tools to learn the game. You could worse if you're trying to break into the hobby than this one.

7. Princes of the Apocalypse (lvl 1-15): Elemental Evil stirs in the Dessarin Valley, storms rage, the earth shakes and mother nature herself stands to rip apart the world....This is the rehash of the famed Temple of Elemental Evil (a bit overrated in my humbled opinion). Oh boy, any DM definitely has his or her work cut out for them on this one....that being said, if your group enjoys some good dungeon rumps, there are some good ones in here. All manner of creature and beast will be tossed against the party, culminating into some really challenging and epic feeling battles. If WoTC could have organized this one a bit better it likely would have been a classic for the 5E era, but that was not the case. 

6. Out of the Abyss (lvl 1-15): Madness spreads through the realm of the Underdark. Can the players escape the clutch of the Drow only to find a far worse fate in the deep-dark depths...Of all of the adventures in the list, this one has perhaps the best start and first half. The group must find a way to escape as prisoners of the Drow, followed by a sandbox type romp through the Underdark evading capture while exploring the alien and dreamlike landscapes of the Underdark. The second half of the adventure doesn't follow-up as strongly, eventually leading the players to confront the demonic overlords who have been set loose in the deep realms, but if I were to run, I'd just drop that and enjoy the great first half of this book, of course with more Kuo-Toa!

5. Tales from the Yawning Portal (lvl 1-17): A collection of famous and iconic adventures from the history of D&D. This book isn't so much one grand epic adventure, but it contains multiple separate adventures across a broad level range. Sunless Citadel, Forge of Fury, White Plume Mountain, Against the Giants and Tomb of Horrors. It is a who's-who of fantastic adventures here, some of them from the master himself, Gary Gygax. I really love that despite what some of the talking heads say, they still bring back these classics from time to time through each edition. Sunless Citadel is one of the best beginning dungeon crawls ever and though nerfed a bit, Tomb of Horrors is back to terrorize your players again. You know I'm a fan!

4. Ghosts of Saltmarsh (lvl 1-12): In the seaside village of Saltmarsh scheming plots, dangerous groups and far worse are stirring. It will be up to the players to set sail and set things right....Again we have a collection adventures, some though not as famous, but formed into a cohesive series of adventures surrounding the fabulous locale of Saltmarsh originally set in the World of Greyhawk. The original U series of adventures is included here, mixed with some other nautical themed adventures to breath new life into this adventure region. Plenty of room for DM's to expand upon what is included here, I'm looking at you Tower of Zenopus on the region map. I really like what they did on this one, great book organization and the included faction play can set this campaign going in multiple directions.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver (lvl 1-5): What starts as a simple paid escort job quickly turns into a great adventure in the Sword Coast countryside. Outside of Keep on the Borderlands, I feel like this is quite possibly one of the best beginner modules of all time. A quick introduction and right into the encounter, followed by a short dungeon, where guess what some roleplaying and diplomacy from the players can easily win the day. The town of Phandalin provides a fairly solid sandbox for the players to explore and engage with, complete with competing factions and different plots to explore. The conclusion leaves the DM plenty of room to grow with as well. For such an early release for 5E, this one still holds up phenomenally.

2. Tomb of Annihilation (lvl 1-11): A great evil has placed a death curse across the land. Deep in the jungles of Chult, the characters must find the cause of the curse and end it before they meet their end....WoTC sends us the land before time of the Forgotten Realms in this one, Chult. Full of ancient temples, dinosaurs, undead and forgotten cities you will get the full Indiana Jones treatment in this as your players explore these lost lands. If you read any of my blogs, you know that I'm a huge fan of exploration in my games and this is by far the best offering from the official 5E releases for that type of play. The adventure culminates in forgotten city, full of Yuan-ti (snake people) and the deadly dungeon of the nine gods. Lots of puzzles, lots of traps....lots of death. This is a good one, not for the weak of heart, but plenty of chances for memorable encounters and stories to spawn from this adventure.

1. Curse of Strahd (lvl 1-10): The ancient vampire Strahd Von Zarovich is back for 5th edition to terrorize your players once again in the cursed land of Barovia. What can I say, I'm a sucker for Ravenloft. Despite being blocked by Chris Perkins on pretty much any social medial platform, this is his finest work. The NPC's, towns and sandbox elements of play presented in this adventure are all top notch. The reimagined Barovia for 5th edition is really fantastic. Your players will set out to find the elements and persons required to escape the dark realm of Ravenloft, doing their best to help the down trodden people of this cursed land, all the while being taunted and tested by the darklord Strahd. The culmination of course is the final assault on Castle Ravenloft, full of hungry undead and deadly traps, the darkness has teeth and it is coming for your players...now lets see some more Ravenloft for 5E, I'm buying all of that!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Old-School Essentials, Review

I recently was fortunate enough to receive my copy of Old-School Essentials, from Necrotic Gnome (Gavin Norman). My copy was the compiled rule set in the A5 Rules Tome combining the core rules, player options, spells, monsters and treasures into one fantastic tome. The book is amazing quality, hardback, smith sewn binding, with ribbon markers included. End papers contain charts for each of use at the table, this is definitely a theme of this rule set and book...so easy to use!

Old-School Essentials is a rework of the B/X essentials released in 2018 which is in itself a rewrite of the B/X (1981 Moldvay and Cook) D&D rule set. The rework is done to perfection making the rule concise and easy to digest. I was able to sit down this past Saturday and read through the entire Tome in an evening. The only thing I can maybe think to have been added for newer players was an example of play or even an intro adventure / dungeon, but I feel like this book was intended for those like myself already familiar with the rule set and looking for a clean and easy to use rule tome at the table as opposed to dragging out my old box set or using one of the available retro-clones such as Labyrinth Lord.

The editing and layout of this book are again just absolutely amazing, this beats anything I have seen from a 3rd party publisher and the quality and art in this book puts even the big dogs like WoTC to shame. I even noticed a few easter egg tributes in the art to some of the original TSR material...I'm looking at you goblin....

I was so impressed with this Tome that I had to go back and buy the book set which splits at the separate sections into individual books that I can envision being passed around the table for reference while another player uses a separate book in regards to their specific character need. Really...this is my favorite release of the year and will be my go to OSR rule set going forward without question. A+ work here and I can't wait to see what else releases from Necrotic Gnome in the future.

If you're looking for a copy, go here and get it while you can:  https://necroticgnome.com/collections/old-school-essentials

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Tis the season!

Here we are in December once again...the weather is cooling, hell, it snowed in my neck of the woods yesterday and Christmas is right around the corner. Time to give some shout out to some awesome products that any Dungeon Master worth their salt would be thrilled to own. Go give these guys and gals some support and check out their awesome products.

The Razor Coast (Frog God Games): A fantastic adventure ark set in The Lost Lands setting from Frog God Games. The players will battle forces from the depths of the sea in a mad dash to protect the last bastion of civilization, Port Shaw >> https://froggodgames.com/product/razor-coast/

Castle Xyntillan: I've been super pumped for the release of this new megadungeon, in the vein of Tegel Manor. Art by Peter Mullen gives this old school module the feel it really deserves, get it while you can! >> https://emdt.bigcartel.com/product/castle-xyntillan

Cha'alt: A gonzo futuristic, sci-fi, fantasy melting pot of craziness from Venger Satanis. Includes setting information and the Black Pyramid megadungeon. If you're looking for something different, this is your ticket >> https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/284600/Chaalt

Old School Essentials: Definitely one of the most anticipated releases this year. OSE is a near perfect rewrite of the original B/X ruleset. With fabulous art and organization, along with the books available in a box set for module use to set up your game to include the rules you want, this is a must have >> https://necroticgnome.com/collections/old-school-essentials

OAR #3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: When Goodman games, makers of the fantastic DCC RPG, announced they would be doing a series of original adventures recreated for 5th edition, I was immediately interested. The next in line is Gary Gygax's Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. The players will delve into a dungeon that is not exactly as it seems, a crashed space craft of extraterritorial origins will lead the players to fantastic treasure or likely just their death >> https://goodman-games.com/blog/2019/03/11/announcing-oar-3-expedition-to-the-barrier-peaks/

So what are you looking to stuff your stocking with this holiday season, comment below. I am always eager to see what is new and amazing in the OSR and RPG scene!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Balance in RPG games

One thing that I feel like the new editions of the game have moved towards is the notion of encounters must be balanced. CR for monsters, the ability of player characters to virtually smash and hack their way through most everything has led to the era of story and adventure path gaming. This is all kind of crap to me, but why is that you say?

Well gang, life is tough...daily at my corporate push button job there are times I cannot resolve issues with my standard practices or operations, you have to get creative, seek help and adjust on the fly. Roleplaying games should not be any different, what fun is it to just attack and hack every encounter to death?

So...how do we fix this...especially for 5th edition which has certainly made the entitled generation of characters much more over-powered than they should be? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Make your games more of a sandbox. Move away from the adventure path, tell a story type of gaming. Your players will develop their own leads, their own backstories through play and experience. Just give them a world and a few set places to play with and expand on that through play.
2. Place unwinnable encounters and monsters in your world. Obviously don't place these right outside of town or do....maybe that cave on the edge of town holds something dark and deep that should not be discovered. Those warnings in the tavern had some merit. Have encounters that the PC's cannot immediately win, they will run away hopefully, remember that encounter and seek ways to go back and win it. Trust me, most players are dying to know every little secret and when they do find a creative way to resolve it, reward them. You can even do this by ramping up the number of creatures encountered...5 kobolds, no sweat....50 kobolds waiting to ambush the party as they exit the dungeon, now we're talking.
3. Power up your PC's with magic items, not feats. This one is a little tougher with the newer editions of the game, but you can certainly house rule as needed for your tastes. In my games, there are no feats, but I allow my players to attune to 5 magic items as opposed to the standard 3. This motivates to go into those dark and dangerous places, poke around where they shouldn't, and hopefully discover those items that push them over the edge.
4. Change your monsters. This is a fun one...we all have that one player in our group who's memorized the monster manual, knows what is coming the moment you describe what their character sees. Adjust the stats, the abilities, hell even the look of your creatures....that group of goblins, give them players abilities and levels, then sit back and watch the confusion and panic.

Hopefully this plants some seeds to go challenge your players, the game is much more fun when it is challenging. When your players have to get creative, suffer, and work hard to overcome, those are the stories that will be told years from now around the gaming table.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Call of Cthulhu: The Haunting

So the group survived their encounter with the Dead Light when last we played. I had wanted to do a long term CoC campaign, but I've found the game sets itself up to be better played in scenario / module to module based games. This past Friday, I took the group through the classic module "The Haunting".

First, let me just say, I love the simplicity of this module and the fact it combines the great investigation elements of CoC along with a really great encounter to wrap up the module. I feel as if any group starting out in CoC should start here, just a really great and fun scenario.

The investigators are tasked by a Mr. Knott, landlord of a reputed haunted property to investigate and "cleanse" the house if needed. It is strongly recommended to route the players through the multiple avenues of researching and investigation prior to them going to the house itself. Information can be gathered at the local library, Boston Globe (newspaper filings), or City Hall. With a little bit of background, the group should hopefully learn the fate of the house's most recent occupants, along with its most notable resident, one Mr. Corbitt that was supposedly buried in the basement of the house....creepy...I love it.

At this point, the players can likely go directly to the house or visit a church associated with Mr. Corbitt, the Church of Contemplation for a bit more background information. My group of course choose to go directly to the house without doing any research, which was met with some ghostly apparitions and attacks, which prompted them to retreat and do a little investigation before charging back in, lesson learned! I should also note, that my group plays online via Discord voice chat and the Roll20 online tabletop application. I recently bit the bullet and subbed for a plus account to try out dynamic lighting and it was a huge hit for this module. Have the character tokens setup to show lighting as if carry a flash light as they inched their way through the house really added to the experience.

Once at the house and ready to evict Mr. Corbitt for good, the players are haunted by experiences throughout the house....radio turning on, lights flickering, ghostly noises and worst of all, an animated bed which managed to knock one of my players out the window for a near kill. Eventually the players will discover the basement of the house and a false wall built within containing the body of Mr. Corbitt. If they aren't careful, the spirit of Mr. Corbitt can psychically manipulate the use of a knife to literally stab the players in the back before they can breach in the inner sanctum of the burial chamber. My players carefully found the knife making a key check to wrestle away from the ghostly hands before it could do any damage.

With the way to the burial chamber revealed the final encounter and climax of the adventure is afoot. Mr. Corbitt will raise up from grave prompting sanity checks and using Mythos magic to thwart the group including dominate person which almost got my group killed...so close...they escape this time. Overall, a really great and simple module and best of all I believe this is free in the CoC 7th edition quick start rules. Go get it and run it!

This will be the last of the CoC scenarios for a bit for my group, we've decided to start a long term 5th edition D&D campaign....Rappan Athuk! I'm so excited to run this mega-dungeon, it's going to be fantastic....for me that is....my players....not so much hahaha!!!!

Friday, October 25, 2019

Top Ten D&D Monsters for Halloween

Oh how I love October and the lead up to Halloween. The cooler weather, leaves turning, ghost and ghouls roaming the neighborhood...such a fantastic time of the year. Like many other Dungeon Masters in the hobby, it is fun to run those spook and scary one-shots for Halloween, but there are so many monsters to choose from...what should your theme be. Well, here are my top 10 monsters for Halloween adventures, plus some suggestions of published work using them. This is definitely not the gospel and strictly my opinion, feel free to chime in on those you love as well.

10) Flesh Golem: not often used, but definitely iconic considering Frankenstein is one of the gothic horror tropes. Often used as the useful idiot, only killing by order of a crazed doctor who is pulling the strings; you can change this up by making the creature more horrifying...additional heads, arms or even monster parts. "Adam's Wrath" from 2nd edition Ravenloft is an adventure to consider, also "Trial of the Beast" from the Carrion Crown Pathfinder AP .

9) Zombies: you know this one would make the list. A good zombie adventure makes for a harrowing experience for a group of 1st level adventurers. I prefer a Night of the Living Dead approach....trapped in a house, survive the night from the zombie hordes, keep them coming until dawn and help arrives. "Night of the Walking Dead" from 2nd edition Ravenloft is another good adventure you could use.

8) Vampire: Sharp fangs hunting you in the night...oh the Vampire, another classic staple dating back to Dracula. Vampires can often feature as the main villain in an ongoing campaign...seductive, calculating and powerful...PC's beware! "I6: Ravenloft" if you haven't run this one for your group, go find a copy and do it, definitely an all-time great.

7) Gibbering Mouther: Straight out of Lovecraftian horror, the Gibbering Mouther is a favorite of mine. The ability to claw at and influence the mind of the PC's while this nasty guy closes in and devours their weak flesh...likely not a focal point of an adventure, but who says you can't do it. "The God that Crawls" from LoTFP would work for this one.

6) Green Hag: you can't do Halloween without some witches and the Green Hag is my favorite. Beware little children and player characters, this nasty gal has some stew to fix and she may need some of those body parts you're currently using. I've always wanted to add in a coven of hags themed around the women from Hocus Pocus.

5) Lich: Watch out for this bad boy. I've always been a huge fan of the scheming and mastermind Lich, often using them in my campaigns. To dial up the spooky factor, center your adventure around a wizard or cleric in the midst of their transformation into the undying lich...can the PC's stop them? Check out "Tomb of the Black Sand" a recent release from Jacob Hurst, an excellent OSR creator.

4) Wraith: Many will use ghosts for their haunting, but I really like the wraith. It is much more cruel and sinister. Let's not forget these nasty undead can level drain in the early editions of D&D...want to see some scared PC's, put a level drain creature before them. "Trial of the Beast" from Pathfinder, has a sinister little side-trek quest involving a wraith that had stolen away and killed many of a villages children, spooky indeed.

3) Devil: a lot of D&D is smash the monster get the treasure, but Devils are interesting creature to toss into the adventure. Often disguised or working along with the PC's, tempting them with offers perhaps too good to be refused. We all know your fighter won't turn down that flaming long sword of giant slaying +3, but eventually payment comes due. Hope your players are ready to fight for their very souls in Hell. "A Paladin in Hell" by Monte Cook is a great late 2nd edition adventure full of devils and demons to crush your PC's dreams.

2) Werewolf: Definitely my favorite iconic horror creature, the premise of man or woman trying to contain the beast within only to succumb murderous and animal impulses. For extra horror keep the PC's guessing whom the werewolf is in their remote village setting, perhaps their most trusted contact...maybe even someone within the party, evil indeed. 

1) Mankind (humans): Perhaps the most evil of all of the creatures. Cults and cultists are a favorite of mine. Worshiping their dark gods in the late hours under a full moon, sacrificing the village virgin for dark knowledge and gain, the allure of power and promise is often too much for man to refuse and these monsters blend in with the day-to-day surroundings of your adventure. "Against the Cult of the Reptile God" is a favorite adventure of mine, who in the village of Orlane can the PC's really trust.

Recent posts.

Rappan Athuk: Campaign update (5th edition)