Monday, 19 March 2018

Mass Battle Stats - scaling things up

In most RPGs, the combat stats for an individual might just as well be the stats for a unit. Here are some thoughts on effective scaling:

The main thing is to choose an appropriate scale. Generally speaking, you want a 2-digit number of figures/chits on the board for it to feel like a battle, and something like 20-50 figures is ideal.

Times Ten Scale - "Battlesystem"
A unit is 10 men - a squad. A group of units is a company of ca 100 men.
Distances on the board/battlemat are x3, feet become yards, so 5' > 15' or 5 yards.
Time is also x3, so each unit round is 3 rounds of individual combat. Resolve 3 individual rounds for your PCs, then roll a unit round to see how the army is doing.

Times One Hundred Scale - "Hastings"
A unit is 100 men - a company or century. A group of units is a brigade of ca 1,000 men.
Distances on the board/battlemat are x10, so 5' > 50'.
Time is also x10, so each unit round is 10 rounds of individual combat. Resolve 10 individual rounds for your PCs, then roll a unit round to see how the army is doing.

Few battles will need a larger scale, but...

Times One Thousand Scale - "Cannae"
A unit is 1000 men - a brigade. A group of units is an army of ca 10,000 men.
Distances on the board/battlemat are x30, so 5' > 50 yards, 150'.
Time is also x30, so each unit round is 30 rounds of individual combat. Resolve up to 30 individual rounds for your PCs, then roll a unit round to see how the army is doing.

A force of 200 men becomes 20 units, in 10-man squads.
A force of 2,000 men becomes 20 units, in 100 man companies.
A force of 20,000 men becomes 20 units, in 1000 man brigades.

Treat each figure as a unit of the appropriate scale. Roll initiative etc as normal. One roll per side is fine, but individual rolls by organised group of units (company/brigade/army) or their leaders works well too, and may better reflect the disorganised state of battle.
Have groups of figures/units organised into cohorts/brigades of ca 10 act on their turns.
For a unit group, roll to hit for all units/figures. Use average weapon damage. Add up the number of hits and multiply by damage. Remove figures whose hp equal up to that damage total. Fractions can be ignored, since some damage is bound to be wasted, except for lone units.
Use morale rules as normal for your game.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Made it!

Today the pub where I host my Wilderlands D&D Meetup said there was Rugby on TV, so they wanted a £260 credit guarantee (bargained down from £300) to let us play there. I had been going to say no, but my players convinced me otherwise, that they could eat and drink that amount - and they did, £290! Made it! :D

This may have been our last week with only three GMs running, all Wilderlands, all same campaign world and map, just a few miles apart. Next week we're adding a 4th GM in a linked campaign setting, which will let us increase size to 28 (24 players & 4 GMs) - and one of my players is pretty keen to make it 5 GMs if I let him go... :) ...That'd let us have over 32 people playing 5e D&D in the Wilderlands of High Fantasy!

Thursday, 1 March 2018

3e/PF to 5e Conversion

I ran a bunch of Pathfinder adventures using 5e. It is definitely harder than running OSR material in 5e, but remains doable. I had several handy monster conversion metrics:

Halve AC over 10. Halve stats over 20 (& cap at 30, obviously). Increase damage +50%. Increase hit points +50% at levels 1-10; at very high level the listed hp are often fine as-is. Ignore feats and weird crap on multi-page stat blocks, but look out for signature abiliities to convert.
Finally, calculate attack bonus & save DCs using the 5e rule of Proficiency + Stat bonus, +8 if it's a save DC.

This works great 95% of the time. I occasionally fluffed when eg converting to Legendary status, the headless horseman who could through a 15d6 hellfire ball 4 times/round was a mistake - with massive damage spell-type attacks you may want to keep the 3e/PF damage as listed.

5e D&D Followers & Henchmen

I think the big lacuna in 5e DMG for domain/lord play is the lack of follower rules for high level PCs. So I've been adapting the 1e DMG rules, which work well - eg I rolled on the Fighter table for a Barbarian-14. I use the Thief guild rules for Rogues establishing networks. For a Cleric establishing an urban temple I used a formula for cult followers = (level + CHA bonus)x5 - but if she establishes a proper holy fortress I'd probably use the DMG armed followers table for her too.

For PC-class Henchmen I'm also using the 1e DMG rules, with a level limit of 1 per Tier, which closely matches the DMG limits. So:

PC Level > Henchie level
1-4 > 1
5-10 > 2
11-16 > 3
17-20 > 4
20+Boon > 5

Max number of henchmen = PC CHA bonus+2, so from eg 1 at CHA 8 to 7 at CHA 20.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Some early morning thoughts on 5e D&D

Been running 5e D&D both online & tabletop for just over three years now. A few thoughts.

The monster creation rules are garbage, I just have to do it 3e style and eyeball a CR.

The encounter-building rules are also garbage, I do it 1e style and ignore them, which works great in 5e.

The rapid advancement from 1st to 3rd is one of those 5e things that works much better in practice than on paper, and has significant potential gameplay benefits when combined with 'bounded accuracy'. Unlike 3e-4e or even really 1e-2e, I can start new players & new PCs of current players out at 1st level alongside 5th level veteran characters. They can contribute to the group, and if they survive they can catch up fast, hitting 3rd in a couple sessions. And there is something very special about starting D&D at 1st level. Partly the new PC is easy understand, partly there is kind of a freshness to them, their whole life ahead of them, combined with a feeling of vulnerability.

XP - Been playing around with this a lot. The 5e XP system is over-focused on monsters I think, and tends to make wandering monsters a source of welcome XP rather than a threat. I was giving 1/5 monster XP but been finding that too little, and tending to over-award "quest" XP to compensate. Currently going with 0.5 standard monster XP, plus XP for gold looted from the dungeon & returned home. Did that last session & seemed to work; the party didn't do great on finding treasure so total was about 3/4 what they'd have got from standard full monster XP. 11th+ PCs will get only 1/10 treasure XP though, since 11-20 treasure awards are much bigger while XP per level almost flatlines.

Advancement Rate:
Overall for my sandbox Wilderlands I generally want an advancement rate of around 3-5 sessions/level, from 1-3 sessions at 1st-4th going to maybe 5-8 sessions at levels 5-10 and much slower, around 10 sessions/level, at 11-20. This is generally what I'm seeing in play with the XP chart as written, though with occasional spikes - 2nd level PCs carry off the orc hoard, or high level PC solos the dragon/lich/BBEG. That's great, advancement spikes are a good thing in my book.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Getting Started With Sandboxing in Fantasy RPGs

The best advice I can give: 

i. Make a small starter sandbox using hexes, say 1 mile/hex, around 300-400 squares miles is good.
ii. Fill it with stuff - your ideas, published site based adventures, rolls on et al, liberally plastered over the hexes.
iii. Have a PC-friendly starter village towards the middle, with a few named NPCs, and useful services such as an Inn, marketplace, smithy, and lord's hall.
iv. Give the PCs 2-3 starting rumours of nearby adventure sites.

Do it right and you have opened the door to many years of great adventures.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Death of High Level Characters


Should a GM let high level characters die?

I certainly would let them die, if that's the natural outcome of play. But old school D&D rules tend to make high level PCs robust, and also tend to make the players of high level PCs highly skilled! So it's not a common event. And it tends to be a dramatic, epochal event when it happens.

I think it was in 2016 I last saw a really high level PC perma-death: At the climax of my BECMI campaign, my son's PC the Duke-Sultan William of Castellan/Karameikos/Alasiya, an MU 18 (boosted to 19th caster via Ioun stone) was pressing home the attack against the Heldannic Knights during the Soderfjord invasion of Ostland. He had just nailed the Heldannic Knights-Marine with a well-placed fireball as their Warbird's bay doors opened, saving his party from being overrun by a couple dozen high level Fighters, when he was Disintegrated by the Heldannic Warbird's Bile Belcher cannon. AIR he was targetted 3 in 6 and would have survived on a roll of 4+ on d20, but made me roll and I got a 2. William was gone, after years of play (he had started at 4th around 4 years previously, when my son was only 5 years old!) but his side was victorious, King Hord Darkeye of Ostland was defeated, his kingdom conquered, and William was mourned by an assembly of high level heroes, including his son Bravery the new Duke-Sultan, the High Priestess Lady Roseanna and Baroness Alexandra Vorloi, all great champions in their own right.

In that case I was already planning to end the campaign with that session, although I did end up doing some epilogue stuff.

No very high level (15+) PCs have perma-died in my 5e Wilderlands sandbox game yet; High Priest Thuruar (Clr-15) did perish to the hellfire ball of the Death Knight Varek Tigerclaw*, but Hakeem the Barbarian defeated Varek and was able to get Thuruar raised by Lady Meda of Thusia. If a really major PC like Hakeem (now Barbarian-20) did die it would certainly alter the campaign (Hakeem's newly founded empire would almost certainly collapse, for a start) - but it certainly wouldn't end the campaign.

*A former PC reanimated by the Necromancer Borritt Crowfinger, BBEG of the campaign for many years until his final demise a few months ago.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
Ah, so there's no main quest of sorts, so there's no big deal if one group dissolves because they were never going to stick around in the first place.
The open campaign is bigger than any one quest, but I've seen major (like 20+ session) quests emerge from play, like the time a group of PCs decided to quest far to the north of the normal campaign area to find and destroy the Gate Castle of the Black Sun. We still had a fair bit of PCs swapping in and out over those 20+ sessions, but I'd say there were 3 core PCs, and if all had died then that particular quest might logically have been abandoned/failed.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
What was his reaction to the death?
Some tears, but he took it manfully, especially for a nine year old.  Since his PC was almost an Archmage I accepted his request for a 'force ghost' scene where Sultan William appeared to his widow & mother of his 4 children, Princess-Sultana Adriana the daughter of King Stefan Karameikos, back in Karameikos where it had all begun 25 game years & 4 real years before. He bid her a very touching farewell & departed to the higher worlds.

If people come and go based on whatever quest their PC is interested in, what happens if your one PC is interested in something nobody else is? Does that mean you have to rely on coincidence to be able to join whatever session is happening? Like, I could imagine 20 different PCs, with like 12 different goals spread between them, making a fairly fractured group that may never actually get together in any real combination.
Well if the player is playing online or if I see them regularly offline (eg my son Bill) then I can do them solo sessions. Eg Bill has a plan for Shieldbiter his Barbarian-17 Dragonborn to solo the ancient black dragon Matriarx of Dread Isle, we'll do that at a suitable time. If the player can only make my regularly scheduled Sunday tabletop sessions then I would need to resolve any solo plans abstractly. If they don't want to take part in a particular quest the others want then they could sit that out, make a new PC for that quest etc.

Normally players & PCs are happy to team up for adventure, whoever's idea it is, as there are rewards in fun, gold, XP etc. But I do see stuff vetoed, eg the PC Hakeem refused Shieldbiter's request to help him go up against the ancient red dragons beneath Fortress Badabaskor, rumoured to possess the sacred Dragon Armour and Dragon Shield of ancient Arkhosia.

Edit: Rely on coincidence - yes just like in the comics (Savage Sword of Conan, notably) and pulps, heroes are always running into each other in unlikely circumstances.  But I also have a home base, Selatine port village, that serves as the heart of the campaign, the starting point for (most) new PCs & PC groups, etc. With lots of PCs based there they naturally interact and form adventurer parties.

Oh, also re the tabletop element, I would be willing to run up to two separate groups on alternate weeks if necessary, if the PCs split up. And I have a co-GM who helps out, running the Bratanis region, a low level campaign area west of Selatine. PCs can go back and forth from there, being GM'd by him one week then me the next.

Quote Originally Posted by Ravenswing View Post
partly due to what I call the Tasha Yar Rule, which boils down to that I'm not going to kill a PC for no better reason than a grunt orc made a good roll.
Mileage... I *love* it when some mook NPC gets lucky and takes down a high level PC or BBEG!  Not something I see often in 5e, but the Blight Belcher disintegrator cannon that took out legendary wizard Duke-Sultan William Karameikos was crewed by zero level nobodies... Who were then swiftly dispatched by the furious Sir Bravery, William's elder son, in a rage worthy of Achilles.

Bill also lost his level 8 Dragonborn Fighter Drakonok to a horde of mook orcs a few weeks ago - turns out that in 5e challenging an entire orc tribe to battle is not such a great idea. Mind you when Drakonok's companions (who had fled the orc horde summoned by Drakonok's roared challenge) came back across the scene an hour or so later, the breath-frozen, stabbed, and arrow-pierced orc bodies were piled high in the corridors of Stonehell.

Quote Originally Posted by rawma View Post
With very high level characters, they can form parties implicitly to some extent
IME very high level PCs in sandbox open game tend to get played less often; they tend to be focused on political shenanigans rather than adventuring, and the player will start to spend more time with their lower level PCs adventuring in lower level parties. Eg in my Wilderlands currently one player has PCs of levels 5, 9 & 20, another has 4, 5 and 17, a third has 5 & 13. A 4th or 5th level PC can adventure with third or eighth level PCs, an 8th level can adventure with 5th or 13th, but very high level characters tend to dominate too much, aren't challenged by most adventures, & often have better things to do.

Quote Originally Posted by rawma View Post
The permanent loss of one of those characters would just mean that that player doesn't play at the higher level table until another character reaches a high enough level.
One thing I learned running an open sandbox campaign was to limit PC starting level; I settled on 8th as the maximum starting level, being the high end of what feels like mid-level in 5e. It doesn't work letting everyone roll up new 20th level PCs just because one guy got a character to 20th. Characters need to feel organically part of the world, and keeping them to 8th initially ensures that.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
In those kinds of games, do the PCs ever bond with each other and have any roleplaying?
I find the more PCs are independent entities, not just part of The Party gestalt, the more roleplaying I see, and the more interesting interpersonal relationships form among the PCs.

Quote Originally Posted by Madprofessor View Post
Agreed! A one on one solo adventure is an awesome way to play. Doesn't happen often though.
I like doing online solo high level political stuff, and some PCs like Hakeem the Conanesque barbarian PC are great to GM solo. Mostly though for tabletop I greatly prefer GMing a group, ideally 3+ players; these days I tend to feel a bit awkward running solo games, and there is the lack of player-player interaction sparking new stuff.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
Actually, a related question: how do you guys feel about long term campaigns ending in a TPK?

This isn't "two sessions in and everybody wipes," but having played for years and made it to a final boss, and then getting destroyed.

Good, bad? Just play it out and let it end on a sad note? Give them a way out?
This is only a meaningful question in single-party campaigns, especially linear ones with one goal. My Wilderlands sandbox has lots of different PC groups and a TPK would not be an issue; TPK of a very high level group probably means a big victory for some bad guys (or good guys!) but the world goes on.

In a single-party campaign, the group wipes, I may use that setting again later. Again BBEG victory will change the campaign world but it likely is still useable. I certainly won't fudge to keep them alive. It makes the game meaningless if the PCs can't lose.

Quote Originally Posted by Just Another Snake Cult View Post
Four of the players in my decades-long D&D campaign voluntarily retired characters after they got them to a point where, I guess, they felt like they "Won", or at least had a nice stopping point (Two took over domains, two married NPCs). They exited the stage of their own volition and effectively started over with new low-level characters. This was their own idea.

Is this common? Uncommon? Do most players keep playing a PC until they absolutely can't anymore?
In multi-PC games it's very common to retire or semi-retire the high level ones. Eg in my Wilderlands Hakeem Godslayer defeated the Black Sun, reached 20th level, founded the Empire of Altanis-Nerath. He's now basically retired from play, the player has a 5th & a 9th level PC for regular adventuring.

In an Adventure Path type game everyone plays the same one PC to the end of the campaign.

Quote Originally Posted by AsenRG View Post
Look at it like this: the new PCs get to start as underdogs, in a very different place!
I'd actually like something like this to happen.
I've done it a couple times recently - one group TPKs, another group starts off in the post-TPK milieu - but in both cases it was a couple years later IRL with new players as well as new PCs. Both times it made for a stronger campaign IMO; the new players were never in any doubt that failure was an option. 

The two cases I recall:

1. Rise of the Runelords AP - PCs were wiped out by Nualia at the end of Book 1 ca level 4, resulting in the destruction of Sandpoint town, the intended home base for the campaign. Years later Sandpoint was a goblin-infested charred ruin. Eventually the Black Dogs mercenary company was hired by Titus Scarnetti, one of the few survivors of Sandpoint, to clear the ruins - this went on mostly in the background of the new campaign though the new PCs did interact with Titus; Quillax the Druidess even delivered his wife's baby and ensured the child was born without the taint of Lamashtu (his wife & daughter had been captured by Nualia's Lamashtu ("mother of monsters") cult but ransomed back, so there was a fear they could have been infected). 

2. My Wilderlands - catastrophic PC defeat at 10th level, in the final battle the lead PC Varek Tigerclaw fell in the doomed defence of Bisgen town against the Necromancers of the Black Sun; leading to the rise of the evil Empire of Neo-Nerath. Subsequent PCs spent years battling the Black Sun as it embarked on a genocidal campaign of conquest; at one point the new hero Hakeem Greywolf battled Varek Tigerclaw, now a Death Knight of the Black Sun - and ripped out his black diamond heart. 

Quote Originally Posted by joriandrake View Post
I really have to take time to read the whole blog of yours. Was Varek player controlled for the battle with Hakeem?
Varek at that stage was a soulless husk of a Death Knight controlled by Borritt Crowfinger, NPC Necromancer & Prince of the Black Sun. So GM-controlled.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
What happened with that first group that TPK'd?
In "Burnt Offferings" the encounter with Nualia in Thistletop as written is a death trap. There's a narrow 5' tunnel with a pit trap/portcullis, it's perfect for a tough fighter like her to cut through the PCs 1-1. I was using 1e ADnD; the group hit the pit trap/portcullis (one PC* got his foot severed!), then got attacked by the yeth hounds & Nualia while disrupted, and were slaughtered. When I played it myself (in Pathfinder) the GM would have TPK'd us too, if he hadn't fudged massively, letting us flee then come back and redo the encounter (with Nualia still just sitting there, yuck) now with optimised tactics. Second time round my Cleric used 'Command' to force Nualia to come to us out of the kill zone, where we could deal with her.

*An unfortunate Paladin.

Quote Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
Well, what is an unsuitable death. Is getting killed by a random encounter unsuitable?
I rem once in the early '90s Mortis Deathlord, a ca 25th level 1e AD&D PC in service to demon prince Graz'zt, was trekking through the mountains along with two similar level NPCs, on their way to assassinate the enemy King of Trafalgis, a viking realm. I rolled up a random encounter with 4 adult red dragons, who proceeded to wipe out these epic villain characters. 

It was definitely bathetic - and AIR I did have the PC resurrected some years later to continue service to his dark master. But the old stories have loads of bathetic ends. Jack Vance is inspirational.  The PC Mortis was ultimately executed by Graz'zt when he (a) started to get cocky, beginning to see himself as Graz'zt's equal, and (b) accidentally violated a non-aggression pact Graz'zt had with Thrin, a lesser god lawful good PC.

Originally Posted by mAcular Chaotic View Post
Here's another example, and one that might come up in a session soon: an assassin targets a PC in their sleep. This is appropriate for the context of the situation, but still, this is one of those situations where a PC, if the dice go bad, could die before they even know what happened.
If this happens I'll generally do the rolls at-table so players can see what happens. Many D&D versions make it hard to take out a high level PC at table. 

I don't make assassins omniscient. I recall one time a Neo-Nerath assassin struck as the ca 10th level PCs were resting at a mage conclave on their way to close the Black Sun gate. With the PC group was an NPC (from The Licheway, I recall) who claimed to be an Archmage, he dressed the part but was really a phony, a 2 hd non-caster. Anyway, when the Black Sun assassin was choosing his target, naturally his top priority was to take out the enemy Archmage...  ...And the PCs slept peacefully all night.

I generally find player characters with powerful enemies do take precautions, and aside from 3e/Pathfinder I can usually have those precautions be effective, or dice for it (3e/PF is broken IME and often requires handwavium why high level caster NPCs don't use scry-and-die on the PCs). I recall one serious assassination attempt - the PCs were in Ahyf, local hive of scum and villainy, and got into a big fight at the fighting pits liberating some pit fighters. Hakeem was badly wounded killing Gorok Halfogre the pitmaster, giving three Black Sun assassins who had infiltrated the town a chance to strike when he & his friends fled town. It resulted in a brutal night battle on the road but the PCs managed to prevail and took shelter in a farmhouse, fearing more assassins.

If Hakeem or similar high-value PC was foolish enough to put themselves in a position where an assassin could strike as they slept, I would roll with it, using the 5e rules they would take a critical hit in damage, plus poison - likely would kill a Wizard PC or similar squishy, but a high level Barbarian or similar might well survive the wound, wake up and kill their attacker. It would take a lot of CR 8 Assassins to take out Hakeem, 20th level Barbarian with 2 Epic Boons inc Epic Fortitude, CON 24 & 325 hp (takes half damage from weapons while Raging, so effective 650!). My son Bill's Dragonborn Barb-17 Shieldbiter with 209 hp might be more vulnerable, but generally it's the high level casters who really need to worry.