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.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Recent Campaign Starts

My Recent campaign starts:
1. Loudwater 4e (2011) - in tavern when goblins attack the south wall on market day.
2. Southlands 4e (2011) - on the road to Stone Axe Inn, witness wagon attacked by raiders.
3. Punjar Saga 4e (2013) - summoned to a tavern by Nerof Gisgal, Master of Smoke, to deal with the Beggar King.
4. Wilderlands Labyinth Lord (2013) - arrive fresh off the boat at Selatine docks.
5. Rise of the Runelords OSRIC (2014) - at Swallowtail Festival when goblins attack.
6. Curse of the Crimson Throne PF (2014) - summoned by dead fortune teller to slay mutual enemy Gaedren Lamm.
7. Wilderlands 5e (2015) - in tavern at Selatine.
8. Runelords of the Shattered Star (2015) - novice Pathfinders summoned to Heidmarch manor.
9. Nentir Vale (2017) - in country tavern when hobgoblins attack.

My impression is that generally the more open campaign starts with less "You must do this!" tend to have the most legs. Either in media res or a quiet/open start can work, but for sandboxing an open start gets players in the right frame of mind.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Campaign Creation

I definitely find history very useful and informative. I remember with my Nerathi-Alryan vs Altanian conflict being inspired by the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It warmed the cockles of my heart when a very aggressive player had a sudden epiphany as his Altanian PC Varek Tigerclaw looked down at the captive Nerathi noblewomen he'd just executed, and said "There are no good guys here". As the realm descended into genocidal civil war - spurred on by his own actions in fighting the 'bad guys', the Nerathi Black Sun.

That was around 2012. In 2017 turns out there are some good guys here, and Altanian PC Hakeem Greywolf has just united Nerathi & Altani in a new empire that commands widespread support from both sides and from other factions too, such as the Ghinarians of the Ghinarian Hills and the Amazons. Not to mention the gargantuan brass dragon & former Nerathi Archmage Dyson Logos, who sleeps beneath Dyson's Delve.

Hakeem's player is smart; after defeating the Black Sun, rather than declare himself Emperor he is ruling as Regent for his son Hassan, who when of age will marry the Nerathi-Alryan princess Eratha (daughter of Lord Bronze of Hara/Mara) and they will rule as at least nominal equals. So both sides have a strong stake in making the new empire work.

A lot of players would have taken the Varek/Black Sun approach of trying to completely annihilate the enemy. Which is satisfying, but creates more and more enemies utterly convinced THEY have to destroy YOU too. It was very satisfying seeing players take a different approach and build bridges, not charnel fields.


For travel into unknown territory in the Wilderlands I give a bit of colour, maybe some legends of the vicinity, describe what PCs can see, encounter checks and recently-were-here checks. Encounters I use a 6 on d6, roll a few times a day, then either select from nearest NPCs/monsters or roll on a table. These days I mostly use a d20 table based off donjon prerolled encounters from;enc-type=Road - most of those are non hostile encounters and IMO beat the "Manticore jumps out! Bugbears jump out!" approach encouraged by the 1e DMG & MM2 AD&D charts and other monster-heavy charts, though even there using a 2d6 Reaction check can produce something interesting.
I always roll checks in the open, players love/dread seeing that 6 come up with preternatural frequency.

I like to roll weather daily, pretty much given up on weather generators though. I use a d8 so the players know it's not an encounter check; 1 = really bad (or cold, stormy) weather, 8 = really good (or dry, sunny). Also use d8 for direction of wind, 1 = north; may modify if there is an obvious prevailing wind.

I will also use "Indiana Jones red line on the map" approach "3 days later you arrive" at times to abstract travel - almost never in Wilderlands, but in a big largely undetailed world like Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk it can be necessary. I have done it in Wilderlands when I really wanted to skip the road travel between two known locales, but have tended to regret it.

Maps - especially in known territory, but very often otherwise, I usually show players the hex map I'm using, as well a describing what they see. I generally find players are short of info & it helps to give them plenty. I also find the idea of fantasy PCs marking hex maps in-game a bit weird.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Megadungeons - Why is Stonehell praised and Dwimmermount condemned?

So, I'm running Stonehell. I nearly decided to run Dwimmermount, but Stonehell is much easier to fit into my established Wilderlands campaign. Been doing lots of megadungeon reading & thinking. My Stonehell campaign is going great I think, both the tabletop and online sessions. From what I can see, Stonehell generally gets a fair bit of praise and not much criticism, although the elegant "1 page dungeon" presentation means *extremely* sparse description. It certainly has plenty of "5 rats and 2000 coppers" - yet this doesn't appear to be a problem. Yet Dwimmermount, which was heavily influenced by Stonehell, was mercilessly attacked for, well, being the same as Stonehell (the final version is more verbose, and that gets attacked too). 

AFAICT, the criticisms directed at Dwimmermount in Joe the Lawyer's game could just as well be applied by my players to my Stonehell game - no 'story', empty rooms, torch sconces that (usually) don't move - yet they seem to love it, both the grognards I GM for online and the tabletop group who include complete newbies, and three players who came with me through 64 sessions of often-linear Paizo hackfest 'story' AP adventures and seem very very happy with the change of pace, with exploring vast dungeon complexes in search of gold and carting it in triumph back to town.

Is it a group thing? Did Tenkar run a bad game that night? What was the difference, I wonder. Maybe they were looking at it as a one shot, not campaign play. Maybe - I suspect this - they were thinking in Paizo AP or TSR competition module terms, of the dungeon as a place to go to achieve goal X then leave. But megadungeons are environments, not modules. They are a setting, designed for campaign play, with a mix of exploration, combat & social interaction - use of Reaction checks (2d6 or otherwise) is absolutely vital IME.

Finally, hostility to James M for the late Kickstarter delivery and/or for his personal qualities (being a traditionalist Catholic, his professorial air, his liking for minutiae) could be a factor I guess.

Anything else I'm missing?

Discussion here

Thursday, 7 December 2017



Cave Bear View Post
Another problem is that we seem to be assuming that nuclear war will be the most likely cause of our civilization's decline.
Epidemics, ecological collapse, and declining birth rate can do the job too.

Epidemics like the Black Death (with 50% death rate in Europe) seem to be recovered from very quickly - infrastructure remains in place, there are just fewer people using it. Ecological collapses have been significant historically, though not so much recently. I could imagine something like the recent issue with pesticides killing off all the honey bees (& other insects), or monoculture disease as with the Irish potato famine, as potentially leading to some sort of crisis. But there seems to be a lot of global excess capacity for food production currently (albeit concentrated in the USA & Canada) so I suspect this would be localised. 

I remember a decade or so ago when they were converting corn to ethanol because of a supposed coming fuel shortage - it resulted in an actual global food shortage because most of the planet now apparently lives off subsidised US food exports, sometimes disguised as 'aid'. I could imagine a disease, dust bowl or other event (Yellowstone eruption?) in North America reducing food yields dramatically, resulting in global starvation - mostly outside North America, since remaining food would be eaten there first.

Declining birth rates - likely did contribute to the collapse of the western Roman empire (& decline of the eastern RE). As seen there though, only a major issue if the declining population is replaced by dominant immigrants/conquerors who are unable/unwilling to maintain the more complex society of the declining population, resulting in a step-change collapse. Sans immigration, a society like Japan with declining birth rate & population but no change in ethny will not decline radically.

Also, looking at WRE case, initially there was only a total civilisational collapse in Britain, which had not been fully culturally Romanised. Once the Legions left, the native Britons were struggling to maintain Roman civilisation even before the Anglo-Saxon conquests. This resembles the situation in some areas undergoing European de-colonisation in the 20th century after WW2; the colonising civilisation had not truly taken root. Civilisational collapse in the Mediterranean region of the former WRE was only completed 300 years later with the Arab-Muslim conquests, which caused an ecological collapse in North Africa (goats ate the olive trees) and raiders/pirates destroyed sea trade and forced abandonment of coastal territories in southern Europe. See The Fall of Rome by Ward-Perkins for lots of data on this. The north African pottery records are fascinating! 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Megadungeons - My Stonehell Review

Megadungeons I own that I can recall are:

3e Castle Blackmoor
Greyhawk Ruins
I also have the 4e Undermountain book and some sub-mega dungeons like 3e Caverns of Thracia & Dyson's Delves, both of which I use in my Wilderlands, and Lost City of Barakus which I ran for a campaign ca 2004-2006.

Of the full megadungeons I would say Dwimmermount & Stonehell are by far the best presented and the two that strongly call me to use them. Dwimmermount is more professionally presented and reads very well IMO (I have the advantage of not having backed the Kickstater so no frustrations) but requires a lot of buy-in, you pretty much have to use its own world/setting, myths, history etc. It doesn't give quite as much freedom to innovate as I like. Stonehell by contrast was easy to drop into my Wilderlands Barbarian Altanis setting with minimal tweaking. The presentation took a bit of grokking, especially the way each section has 2 intro pages before the map - I like maps first - but I find in play it runs beautifully well, enough so that I bought both print & pdf copies separately. For monsters it uses Labyrinth Lord as a base but with many, many new monsters (which I convert to 5e D&D, the system I'm using). The prison theme is not inherently very attractive so to attract adventurers I have a rumour the Mad Vizier's treasure is buried there, plus dreams of the extra-dimensional entity infesting the place - the Nixthisis, who sends out dreams attracting violent types to the dungeon... a bit meta. :D

Overall so far after running it for a few weeks (3 sessions tabletop, about half a dozen online) I am enjoying it a lot. Significantly, at the end of a Stonehell session I feel energised & eager for more, whereas running WotC & Paizo stuff I tend to feel drained and eager to finish up. That's about the biggest compliment I can give.