This one’s unusual, because I didn’t do it. My Aesir-level playtester +Luke Campbell loves fae and sidhe and all things funky, and he ran a playtest on his desk, taking a notionally high-challenge sidhe – not the rulers, but still powerful – of the Fey and pitting them against four 8th level characters with a typical party makeup. I’ll just post his words and you can see how this turns out.

Pre-fight Commentary by Luke

I volunteered to help write up some of the monsters.  Oh whatever did I get myself into?  But it has been a real blast, even if a lot of work.

I’ve tried to get a set of antagonists and actors in the world that are evocative of real-world beliefs about mythical and legendary creatures with a Norse focus (although with influence from all around Europe).

Recently, I’ve been working on the upper level fae, what the Norse would have called alfar.  These were powerful beings, almost divine in some ways, hidden spirits of nature that were set apart from and (in some ways) above men.

One question during the design process is figuring out how much of a challenge an encounter with one of these beings would be.  So I took a typical alfar (or fairie, or sidhe, or whatever one might call it) and set it against the archetypal party of a fighter, cleric, thief, and wizard. Then I tweaked the fae’s design parameters, and ran it again.  And again.  And again.  Our poor party was caught in a Groundhog day-like cycle.  Sometimes it was a cakewalk.  Sometimes they got curb stomped.

I finally got dialed in on a design I liked, of about the desired challenge rating, which I could use as a base for ever more powerful variants as the fairie nobles and ladies acquired power and mystical connections to their archetype.  I reported back on some of my findings to the playtest group, and Douglas asked me to do another test with some minor rule tweaks.  So I did, and kept careful note of what happened.  In the process, my generic party acquired names, and perhaps a bit of personality, as did their wily foe.

Then I sent my notes to our playtest group – and here they are. A blow-by-blow breakdown of the fight, in all its gory detail.


Prelude

Our setting: my computer desk … err, a windswept ledge crawling along the sheer cliff-sides of the Frostharrows.  The path has just passed under an overhang (that looks oddly like a computer monitor), widens out to a ledge of relatively flat ground with good footing about 40 feet across with a sheer cliff plunging down to the right and jumbled scree and boulders to the left (difficult terrain, odd that they are in the shape of keyboards)), before turning 90 degrees and continuing along the front of the desk, err, mountain for about 100 feet before turning again.  A clever person with sharp eyes might notice a narrow path between the keyboards – um, scree and boulders.  Just before the path turns, sits a large boulder (mouse), and beyond there are large rocky outcrops (books and piles of paper) around which the path winds, with broken ground and difficult footing.  The boulder is where Fairlane will be sitting when first encountered.  The characters will be represented by lego minifigs, and distances measured with a ruler, using 1 inch = 5 feet.

The wind blows chill, bringing with it a light dusting of snow and making eerie howling sounds in the canyons.  The sun has risen, with the crisp light of late morning that you get in the mountains.  Since our heroes are on the east face, they have had daylight for several hours, and got an early morning start.  Although chilly, once started the hiking has invigorated and warmed them although they are likely to stop soon for refreshments.

Fairlane has spied the party approaching – trespassing in his hold! But they might make fine tools with which to harass his neighbor-enemy.  As the party rounds the bend, they see an old man, possibly a goat herd (but we know him as Fairlane in disguise) sitting on the bounder, scratching designs in the dirt with a stick.

… and that’s enough for now, until I get down to actually gaming things out.  I may run several tests – previously some were very short when the entire party got charmed and were sent off on a wild goose chase.

Dramatis Personae


Frode the Fighter, Human Fighter (champion) level 8
Str 20 (+5); Dex 13 (+1); Con 17 (+3); Int 9 (-1); Wis 12 (+1); Cha 11 (0)

Vigor 74 (8d10+24); Threat DC 16, Hit DC 27 (+4 from shield); DR 8 (plate armor)

Wounds 20; Control 21

Proficiency +3; Saves: Str +8, Con +5
Skills: Athletics +8, Intimidation +3, Insight +4, Perception +4
Defense fighting style
Second Wind (1/rest): As bonus action, +1d10+8 vigor
Action surge (1/rest): +1 action
Extra attack
Improved critical 1
Remarkable Athlete: +2 to Str, Dex, Con if proficiency doesn’t already apply

Longsword: +8 to hit, 5 ft. 1d8+5 damage (crit 19-20)
Handaxe x 4: +8 to hit, range 20/60, 1d6+5 damage (crit 19-20)

Welch the Wizard, Human Wizard (school of might) level 8

Str 13 (+1); Dex 16 (+3); Con 20 (+5); Int 20 (+5); Wis 14 (+2); Cha 13 (+1)

Vigor 74 (8d6+40); Threat DC 13, Hit DC 24 (+4 with shield spell)

Wounds 21; Control 16

Proficiency +3; Saves: Int +8, Wis +5; Skills: Arcana +8, Investigation +8, History +8, Insight +5

Spell Save 16, Spell Attack +8; Cantrips; Acid Splash (2d10), Mage Hand, Prestidigitation, Mending; 1st (4 slots): Magic Missile (2x2d4), Shield, Sleep (5d8 vigor), Mage Armor; 2nd (3 slots): Continual Flame, Invisibility, Web (2d8+8), Scorching Ray (3x3d6); 3rd (3 slots): Counterspell, Fireball (4d6), Lightning Bolt (4d6), Fly; 4th (2 slots): Black Tentacles (3d6/4d6), Polymorph

Sculpt Spells; Arcane Ward: absorbs 13 damage

Quarterstaff: +4 to hit, 5 ft., 1d8+1 damage; Dagger: +6 to hit, range 20/60, 1d4+3 damage

Ragnar the Rogue, Human Rogue (thief) level 8

Str 15 (+2); Dex 20 (+5); Con 12 (+1); Int 14 (+2); Wis 16 (+3); Cha 9 (-1)

Vigor 51 (8d8+8); Threat DC 15, Hit DC 26; DR 2 (studded leather armor)

Wounds 14; Control 20

Proficiency +3; Saves: Dex +8, Int +5; Skills: Acrobatics +8, Athletics +5, Investigation +5, Perception +6, Stealth +11, Insight +5, Sleight of Hand +8; Tool Proficiencies: Theive’s tools

Sneak Attack +2d6; Cunning Action: Hide, Dash, or Disengage as bonus action; Uncanny Dodge: Use reaction to halve damage from attack; Evasion: 0 damage if Dex save succeeds, half damage otherwise; Fast Hands: bonus action to disarm a trap, open a lock, sleight of hand, use object; Second Story Work: climb at full speed, +5 feet to running jump distance

Rapier: +8 to hit,5 ft., 1d8+5 damage; Dagger: +8 to hit, range 20/60, 1d4+5 damage; Shortbow: +8 to hit, range 80/320, 1d6 damage (crit 18-20)

Carr the Cleric, Human Cleric of Justice and War level 8

Str 20 (+5); Dex 11 (0); Con 18 (+4); Int 12 (+1); Wis 20 (+5); Cha 14 (+2)

Vigor 75 (8d8+24); Threat DC 14, Hit DC 25 (+4 from shield)

Wounds 21; Control 18

Proficiency +3; Saves: Wis +8, Cha +5; Skills: Insight +8, Religion +4, Medicine +8, Persuasion +5

Spell Save 16, Spell attack +8; Cantrips: Light, Guidance, Resistance, Mending; 1st (4 slots): Divine Favor, Heroism, Bless, Cure Wounds (1d12+8), Detect Evil, Guiding Bolt (4d6), Protection from Evil; 2nd (3 slots): Magic Weapon, Zone of Truth, Enhance Ability, Lesser Restoration, Prayer of Healing (6 x (1d8+8)), Protection from Poison; 3rd (3 slots): Righteous Fury, Remove Curse, Dispel Magic, Protection from Energy, Magic Circle; 4th (2 slots): Banishment, Locate Creature, Freedom of Movement

Channel Divinity (2/rest); Destroy Undead (challenge <= 1); Judge of Character: advantage to determine falsehood; Righteous Arms: Use channel divinity for maximum damage for 5 turns; Improved Heroism: add +11 to vigor when using heroism spell; Divine Strike: extra attack as bonus action

Mace: +8 to hit, 5 ft. 1d6+5 damage; Shield: 3 hits

Fairlane the Fairie Freeholder


Medium fey, chaotic neutral
Speed 30 ft.
STR
DEX
CON
INT
WIS
CHA
13
20
15
16
16
20
+1
+5
+2
+3
+3
+5
Defenses
Wound Thresholds
Threat DC
15
Morale
Injury
KO
Death
Hit DC
26
0-4
5-8
9-17
18+
DR
0
Control Thresholds
Vigor
112
Grab
Grapple
Restr.
Incap.
Vigor Dice
15d10+30
0-4
5-9
10-18
19+
* DR +1 to +5 with mage armor.
Proficiency +3
Saving Throws. Con +5, Cha +8
Skills. Acrobatics +8, Deception +8, Insight +6, Perception +6, Persuasion +8
Damage Resistances. Bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from non-magical and non-ferrous weapons
Condition Immunities. Charmed, sleep
Languages. Sylvan, Common
Challenge 8 (3900 XP)
Innate Spellcasting. The fairie’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 16, spell attack modifier +8). The fairie can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components, as a 10th level sorcerer:
  • cantrips: dancing lights, mage hand, mending, message, minor illusion, prestidigitation
  • 1st level (4 slots): detect magic, mage armor, sleep, shield
  • 2nd level (3 slots): hold person, suggestion
  • 3rd level (3 slots): counterspell, major image
  • 4th level (3 slots): arcane eye, polymorph
  • 5th level (2 slots): creation
The fairie has 10 sorcery points, and the Heightened Spell, Quickened Spell, and Extended Spell metamagic abilities.
Magic Resistance. The fairie has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. This power does not work if the sidhe is in contact with iron or steel.
Trackless. A fairie leaves no tracks. Although it has a normal scent, it leaves no scent trail. Difficult terrain is treated as normal terrain.
Fleet Footed. The fairie can take a dash or disengage action as a bonus action. Climbing does not cost the fairie extra movement.
Elf-Stroke. Any physical attack by the fairie, unarmed, melee, or ranged, deals an extra 10 (3d6) necrotic damage as vigor. This can be delivered as a touch attack, if no weapon damage is to be caused. DR subtracts from weapon damage first, and then necrotic damage.
Actions
Multiattack. The fairie makes two attacks.
Fey Charm. The fairie targets one creature that it can see within 30 feet. If the target can see the fairie, it must succeed on a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw or be magically charmed. The charmed creature regards the sidhe as a trusted friend to be heeded and protected. Although the target isn’t under the fairie’s control, it takes the fairie’s requests or actions in the most favorable way it can.
Each time the fairie or its allies do anything harmful to the target, it can repeat the saving throw, ending the effect on itself on a success. Otherwise, the effect lasts 24 hours or until the fairie dies, is on a different plane of existence from the target, or ends the effect as a bonus action. If the target’s saving throw is successful, it is immune to the fairie’s Fey Charm for the next 24 hours.
Fey Veil. As long as it maintains concentration, or until it attacks or casts a spell, the fairie is hard to notice. It can make Dexterity (Stealth) rolls in plain sight, at a bonus of +8. There is no need to roll a Dexterity (Stealth) check for creatures with a passive perception score of 21 or less, they will not notice the fairie without actively looking.
Shortbow, Magical. Ranged Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, range 80/320 ft., one target. Hit: 3 (1d6) piercing damage plus Elf-Shot ability (critical on 18-20).
Shortsword, Magical. Melee Weapon Attack: +8 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 4 (1d6 + 1) slashing damage plus Elf-Stroke ability.
Change Shape. The fairie magically polymorphs into Medium or smaller beast, humanoid, or fey of its challenge rating or less; or back into its true form. It retains its Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, its Vigor, its traits and actions (except for armed melee attacks, if the form lacks hands for holding weapons). Otherwise, it takes on the physical (but not mental or magical) traits of the creature it changes into. The fairie’s equipment can polymorph with it, remain carried or worn, or fall to the ground, at the fae’s option. A fairiecannot polymorph if in contact with iron.

Fairlane is scheming against some of his neighbors, and plans to use guile to get at them.



Play of the Fight

The kids are in bed, the chores done, and the pythons fed.  Lets do this.

The fairie casts Mage Armor on himself well before the heroes reach him, expecting there may be trouble, and using a level 5 spell slot to gain DR 5.  The wizard has long ago cast mage armor on himself using a 4th level slot, and then took a short rest before setting out for the day to recover that slot.

Our heroes approach the old man sitting on the boulder, cleric and fighter in the front, rogue and wizard in the second row. The old man, actually the fairie, attempts to charm the fighter, figuring him to be the weakest-willed among the group (turns out he’s right).  The fighter rolls a 12+1=13 for his save, and fails to meet the DC of 16.  Frode the fighter doesn’t know why, but he feels he can trust this man.  The party reaches the fairie.

“Greetings, good sir,” says the cleric.

“And a good day to you, my lords,” replies the fairie.  “What brings you to these lands?”  The fairy now tries to charm Ragnar the rogue.  Ragnar rolls a 15+3 = 18, easily beating the DC.  He feels a cloud pass over his mind before he shakes it off.

“What trickery is this!” shouts Ragnar.  “He is not what he seems, he is trying to befuddle me!”

“Nae,” says Frode.  “You must be mistaken.  We can trust this man.”

“Fool!  He has already taken you.”  Ragnar retorts.

During this exchange, the fairie tries to charm the wizard.  Welch the wizard rolls 10+5 = 15, and succumbs to the fairies charms.  “Ragnar,” Welch calmly explains, “there is no need to get paranoid about this old, harmless man.  Likely, he needs our help.”

“Not you, too!’  cries Ragnar.

And now it is Carr the cleric’s turn. The save is 5+8 = 13, not good enough.  “Ragnar, be reasonable” says Carr.

Ragnar looks at his companions wildly.  There is only one thing to do – kill the vile sorcerer trying to enchant his friends.  Quick as an ermine, he slips around past the front of the line, draws his rapier, and tries to impale the fae.  His attack roll is 12+8 = 20, threatening the fairie.  Fairlaine ducks just in time as the blade whistles over his head, taking 3+5 = 8 vigor, with 104 remaining.

“Help!” pleads Fairlaine.  “He’s mad!  Won’t someone help a poor old man?”

Time to roll initiative.  In order of initiative Fairlaine (25), Carr (15), Ragnar (14), Welch (10), and Frode (9).

Fairlane waits, preferring to let the party fight each other rather than risking his charm by attacking.

Carr will not let that scoundrel Ragnar hurt this poor defenseless old man, but neither does he wish to hurt is friend.  Grappling it is!  Carr steps around behind Fairlaine and tries to tackle Ragnar.  He rolls 9+8 = 17, threatening him and causing 8+5 = 13 vigor as Ragnar avoids Carr’s lunge.

Ragnar disengages and slips into the rock fields, then uses his bonus action to hide.  He rolls 3+11 = 14.

Welch tries to spot Ragnar.  He rolls 13+2 = 15.  Good enough, but he just spent his action peering around.

Frode tries to spot Ragnar.  He rolls 1+4=5.  No good.  Frode steps out between Fairlaine and the scree jumble to try to protect his new friend from attacks coming from that direction, if needful.

Fairlaine rolls 2+6 = 8.  Not good enough to see Ragnar.

Carr doesn’t have to roll, his passive perception is 15.  Fearing his friend is under the influence of some malign magic (ha!) he tries Protection from Evil, which would give Ragnar an extra save (at advantage, no less) if that were the case. “Ziu, protect this man!”  Of course, Ragnar is the only one not affected by fell magic, so nothing happens other than Carr expending a 1st level spell slot.

Ragnar pops up and looses an arrow at Fairlaine.  He rolls 7+8 = 15 and 2+8 = 10, and takes the 15.  This just barely threatens the fae, but it’s enough.  Damage roll 3+2+3 = 8.  Fairlaine dives aside at the last moment, losing 16 vigor and leaving him with 88.  Ragnar takes his bonus action to hide again: 13+11 = 24.  He vanishes like smoke in the wind (well, better than smoke in the wind.  Smoke tends to hang around and be visible for a while).

Welch drops a web spell on Ragnar’s last known location.  Since Ragnar didn’t move much, he may be caught.  The spell rolls its attack: 9+8=17, and Ragnar takes 5+6+8=19 vigor as he avoids the sticky strands.  Ragnar now has 19 vigor left.

Frode looks for Ragnar.  20+4 = 24.  Just barely, he sees Ragnar, crouching behind a rock, with webs all about him.  “I’m sorry, my friend, but this is for your own good.”  He strides forward, navigates the unstable talus, and tries to grab the rogue.  Welch sculpts his web spell so that Frode can pass through.  Frode rolls 19+8=27 for his attack.  That’s a solid hit.  The damage roll is 6+5=11 – Ragnar backpedals furiously, spending 18 of his remaining 19 vigor in vigorous defense to reduce the control to 2.  Frode has a tenuous grip on Ragnar’s boot.

Fairlaine feigns concern, but does nothing else other than laugh inwardly.

Carr turns to Fairlaine.  “Let me help you, good man.”  He uses a cure wounds spell to allow Fairlaine to recover 3+8=11 vigor.  Fairlaine is now at 99 vigor.

Ragnar starts his turn in the web, so he takes 4+5+8=17 control.  He is now well and truly restrained (19 control, control maximum 20).  Ragnar tries to escape.  His roll is at disadvantage for being restrained.  He rolls 5+8=13 and 3+8=11, so he gets the roll of 11.  Okay, what do you need to roll to threaten a web spell?  It doesn’t say?  I’ll say he needs to meet the spell save DC, which is 16.  Ragnar goes nowhere.

Welch concentrates on his spell.

Frode tries to get a better grip.  He has advantage because Ragnar is restrained.  6+8 and 20+8, for a critical hit with 28.  He causes 12 control.  Ragnar is now incapacitated.

Fairlaine says to Carr “Thank you lord.  But my nerves are still shaking.  Can you spare another?”

Of course, replies Carr, giving Fairlaine another cure wounds spell.  Fairlaine heals another 5+8=13 vigor.  He is now at 102 vigor.

Ragnar can’t do anything.  Technically, he takes more control from the web, but at this point, who’s counting?

Welch concentrates on his spell.  “Do you have him yet?” he asks Frode.

“Not yet” Frode replies, and tries to get Ragnar in a come-along.  Since Ragnar is restrained, I’ll just give Frode an auto-crit.  3+3+5=11 control, for a total of 25 control from Frode alone.  “Now I’ve got him!” exclaims Frode.

“I’m still not quite back to normal” says Fairlaine to Carr.

“Ziu heal you” prays Carr, and Fairlaine recovers 11+8=19 vigor.  He’s now back at his original 112 vigor, and Carr is out of 1st level spells.

“Many thanks,” replies Fairlaine, and then (since he was waiting) activates his fae veil.  He rolls a 13+8=21 on his hide check.

Ragnar does nothing.

Welch drops the web spell.  It is no longer needed.  But where did his new-found friend go?

Frode drags Ragnar out of the rocks and into plain sight.  Then looks around in confusion for the old man he was helping.

Fairlaine realizes he will get no good out of these fools any more.  Might as well dispose of them.  The wizard is most dangerous, so Fairlaine stabs Welch in the back.  17+8=25, 5+8=13.  Fairlaine takes the 25.  This is a solid hit.  Damage is 3+5=8 for the shortsword, and 4+1+4=9 for his elf stroke, for a total of 17.  Welch takes a frantic defense, and suffers a loss of 34 vigor.  He has 40 left.  Since Welch was attacked, he can make a new save against the charm – 13+5=18, and Welch is free!  “What?  Who?  YOU!  FIEND!”

Carr suddenly notices Fairlaine as he tries to stab Welch with his sword.  An attack on his ally, enough to allow another save against the charm.  17+8 = 25.  Carr’s mind unfogs.  Ragnar was right all along!  Carr casts protection from evil on Frode using a second-level slot.  Frode rolls 15+1=16 and 8+1=9, taking the 16.  Frode can see freely now!  He releases Ragnar.

Ragnar hides as a bonus action, rolls a 10+11=21, and disappears behind the boulder Fairlaine was first sitting on.

Welch turns on the fae that just attacked him.  “You worm!  Be a WORM!”  He casts polymorph on Fairlane.  Fairlaine’s Wis save is 16+3=19 and 18+3=21 (remember, he gets advantage on saves vs. all magic).  Both succeed, so he could take either one.  No matter, Fairlaine is not destined to spend the next hour eating dirt.

Frode turns on Fairlaine, his blade flashing.  His first attack is 7+8=15, his second 8+8=16.  Both threaten the fae.  Damage is 3+5 and 4+5, for a total of 17 vigor.  Fairlaine is now at 95 vigor.

Laughing, Fairlaine turns on his veil again.  12+8=20.  Where did he go?

Carr casts Detect Evil using a second level slot.  He now knows where Fairlaine is.  Then he uses his Divine Strike to attack with a bonus action.  14+8=22 to hit, 4+5=9 for damage.  Fairlaine is now at 86 vigor.

Ragnar tries to spot Fairlaine.  19+6=25, That’s more than enough.  Unfortunately, he just used his action trying to find the fae, so he has to wait until next turn to do something.

Welch doesn’t want to waste time trying to look around.  He drops a fireball on his own location (offset a bit to avoid anyone hiding behind the boulder, like Ragnar).  He uses Sculpt Spell to exclude Carr and Frode from the blast.  Fairlane was still right behind Welch, so he is caught in the detonation.  His dex saves are 1+5=6 and 15+5=20.  He takes the 20, and only loses 2+4+6+1=13 vigor.  Fairlaine is now at 73 vigor.

Frode tries to see Fairlaine.  1+1=2.  No dice.  Still, he moves to where he thinks Fairlaine might be.

Fairlaine stabs the wizard again.  14+8=22 and 4+8=12, taking the 22.  Damage is 4+5 and 6+6+4, for 25 total.  Welch has 15 vigor left.  Everyone can see Fairlaine now.

Carr uses a 3nd level slot to cast cure wounds on Welch.  9+10=19 points are cured, and vigor recovery is doubled.  Welch now has 53 vigor.

Fairlain’s back is to Ragnar.  Ragnar darts from behind the boulder and strikes with his rapier.  14+8=22 and 15+8=23 – good enough to hit, and the 23 is a crit.  Damage is 7+7+5 for the rapier, and 4+4+6+6 for sneak attack.  So 39 base damage.  Fairlaine spends 72 of his remaining 73 vigor in frantic defense to cut down the wounds to 3, which are soaked up by the mage armor.

Welch blasts Fairlaine with magic missile.  Does casting a spell within reach of an enemy give the enemy an attack of opportunity?  I’m not going to bother looking it up at this point, and say no.  Fairlaine uses his shield spell as reaction to negate the magic missile.

Frode steps around opposite of Ragnar, Fairlaine is now flanked.  Frode attacks twice, both times at advantage.  18+8=26 and 8+8=16 for the first attack, 2+8=10 and 3+8=11 for the second.  One solid hit, doing 5+5=10 damage.  Fairlaine loses his last vigor point, his mage armor absorbs 5, and he takes 4 wounds.  He rolls an 11+5=16 to avoid demoralization, and succeeds.

Fairlaine doesn’t like his position right now, and uses his bonus action to disengage, strikes at Welch as he leaves, and moves 30 feet away.  His attack roll is 12+8=20, a threat.  Damage is 5+5+6+4+5=25.  Welch has 28 vigor left.

Carr chases Fairlaine down and strikes him twice with his mace (once for his normal action, once for his bonus action).  First strike 4+8=12, second 7+8=15.  The second connects.  Damage is 6+5=11, minus 5 for the mage armor, for 6 wounds.  Fairlaine is critically wounded but rolls a 20+2 on his con save to avoid unconsciousness,  He succeeds, and is only injured.

Ragnar takes a bonus action to dash after Fairlaine, then shanks him in the back with his rapier.  Fairlaine is not flanked or surprised, so Ragnar doesn’t get a sneak attack.  He rolls 14+8=22, good enough.  Damage is 6+5=11, reduced by 5 for mage armor, for 6 wounds.  fairlaine is now at 16 wounds out of 17 wound maximum.  He rolls 18+2=20 to avoid unconsciousness, again succeeding.

Welch lets lose a lightning bolt.  It doesn’t matter whether Fairlaine succeeds or fails his dex save, he’s going to take wounds.  I’ll roll anyway … 16+5 and 4+5, for a save.  But with no vigor left … 4+4+5+2 = 15 wounds.  Reduced by 3 for the mage armor to 12.  Fairlaine is now at 28 wounds, and automatically falls unconscious.  He rolls a 6 to avoid death, and fails.

Post-fight Commentary by Luke

The fight is over.  Fairlaine lost, and lost his life.  But our heroes are pretty banged up.  Ragnar’s vigor is almost entirely depleted, and Welch is at about 1/3 of his normal vigor.  Both Welch and Carr have used up a lot of their spells.

Since it is getting late, I won’t tally up the damage inflicted by each individual right now, but we see that Ragnar’s one sneak attack was the decisive blow that changed the fight around.  The discussion of removing the critical threat range bonus would have meant that it would have been far less devastating.  It would still have been a good, solid blow that would have cost a lot of vigor, but it wouldn’t have been the one attack that mattered the most.

There are probably some rule errors here – misinterpretations, and math mistakes, and so forth.  A number of character choices were probably sub-optimal.  They would have been made in actual game play, too, so I’m not too worried.

D&D is a fun game.  I have many fond memories of playing AD&D in grade school, engaging in epic quests to save the world in Junior High, and sitting around the table with a handful of good friends from the university, laughing, eating pizza, and wrecking carefully imagined worlds with our character’s antics.

Still, when I sit down and think about old AD&D and the newer SRD that more modern versions are based on, there are a number of weird bits that bother me.  They don’t get in the way of a good game, but the model builder and simulationist in me makes me want to fix them, tweak the game until I get a beautiful, consistent framework of rules that is not only fun to play but scales well and does a fair job representing real world antics (albeit with a heroic bias).  What I’m looking for is probably impossible, but can be approached, even if at a distance, to get something less able to break suspension of disbelief.

Dragon Heresy goes some way toward this goal.  By conceptually separating vigor and wounds from hit points, you get rid of a number of bizarre results that come from the traditional conceit of the ever-increasing spiral of hit points at higher levels.  Now your 16th level barbarian doesn’t causally shrug off a sword through his guts, he nimbly sidesteps the blow … for a while, until he gets too tired out.

A neat idea, but does it work in practice?

Yes.  Playing the game is as easy as the traditional SRD, with more dramatic results.  The grappling system, in particular, is a work of genius.  Douglas has done an impressive job putting together this rule set, and his dedication to seeing it published and available to the table-top gaming community is simply inspiring.  It has been my privilege to help in this process, in my own small way.

It is enjoyable seeing the setting develop.  From a nebulous initial concept into a fully fleshed out world.  It is enjoyable to be involved with the creation, working toward a realized world with strong motifs and influences from Nordic culture.  It is enjoyable to be a part of getting the rules and descriptions to evoke a sense of northern pagan Europe in the early middle ages.

And I think we’re doing a pretty good job of it.  A world with fae spirits hidden in rocks and hollows, where great and terrible gods occasionally walk the world of men, where brave adventurers set forth in their longships to go raiding and pillaging and exploring in exotic lands.

Douglas did specifically ask me to mention what I don’t like about Dragon Heresy as well as what I do.  They’re minor points, and will not get in the way of having fun, but here are a few additional niggling details that scratch at the back of my brain when I spend too long thinking about things rather than just getting out the dice and gaming:

  • The way ranged combat versus melee combat works is a bit odd, in that an arrow is assumed to cause wounds unless you take a frantic defense, while a sword causes vigor.  I understand the rational behind it – you can’t parry an arrow very easily, but two sets of rules for different kinds of attacks breaks my desire for simplicity.  Is there a way around this?  Maybe, maybe not.  Having been through many rules revisions over the course of the game’s development had me starting out these playtests with a misconception that got fixed when I actually read the more recent set of rules – treat an arrow (or other ranged) attack like a normal vigor-causing attack, but don’t include your proficiency bonus to your hit DC.  This has the advantage of a more consistent conceptual way of handling things, and the disadvantages of requiring keeping track of two different hit DCs for your character depending on circumstances, and of needing to go back an re-write the rules again, and making sure you catch all the places in the text where things need to be changed.  
  • A wimpy goblin with Str 6 and Dex 20 will do massive damage with a shortword since he gets to add his Dex bonus to damage instead of strength.  Weird.  He should do wimpy damage as well, because even though he’s squirly and sneaky he’s still a wimpy goblin of wimpiness.  A gargantuan Str 30 lindorm gets +15 to hit with his massive venom-dripping jaws lined with rows of serrated steak-knife teeth, in addition to any proficieny bonus.  What ever happened to Sinbad gracefully evading the blows of an immense and powerful yet clumsy monster?  I understand there will be an optional rule somewhere about using Dex for all hit bonuses and Str for all damage bonuses, but I don’t know what shape it will take, how it will interact with finesse weapons, or any other details.  Still, it would get around issues I run into when finding a tiny orm gets to add lots of damage to its attack because it has a high Dex and similar confounding events I find as a monster designer.
  • Making monsters big and small leaves me wanting some basic guidance on how attributes and damage scale with size.  Unfortunately, the SRD is inconsistent on this.  Dragon Heresy has done some great things on getting critters to scale better across a vast size range, but its still not perfect.  Of course, getting a truly consistent set of rules would take you so far from the SRD that you probably wouldn’t be playing a D&D-like game any more.
  • I’m not sure armor or shields should impose penalties on Dex bonuses or as much disadvantage as they do on some skill checks.  This is a bit of a case of getting hoisted by my own petard – Douglas asked for ways to keep sheilds from being overwhelming, and I made a bunch of suggestions, and they actually got used.  Perhaps if you have proficiency you can ignore the Dex penalties and disadvantage on ability checks?  I don’t know.  But as it stands you can have a very high Dex character actually get easier to hit if he uses a shield.  You certainly do want to preserve character niches, allowing your viking warrior to have his mail byrnie and shield while the outlaw rogue puts on a more modest apparel and your wizard wise in the ways of seidr to merely be wearing a robe, cloak, and floppy-brimmed hat.

As I said, minor points.

Overall, it’s a good game, fun to play, fun to be involved in the design process.  I look forward to seeing it turned into an actual product, one I can hold in my hand and see displayed on the shelves of game stores, one where I can feel a sense of accomplishment at being involved, in however small a way, in giving back to the community of like-minded gamers that has given me such joy over the years.

Post-fight Commentary by Doug


First, I have to thank Luke for being a ridiculously awesome playtester. He’s written a ton of monsters, is tireless at stress-testing the game, and knows a lot about fey and Nordic mythology, which has been very valuable during the test.

Discussion, then!

Sneak Attack

The discussion over how much damage a sneak attack ought to do, and on what frequency, has been an active one. The relative ease by which a rogue can gain advantage means that they will frequently outdo fighters as damage-dealers. +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I have groused about that in the past in certain games – I want to say even Swords and Wizardry, but I might be wrong there – but the two of us have noted that it feels odd and aggravating when it’s way scarier to stand at the line of battle with a rogue than with a fighter. I have zero problem with a rogue on a sneak attack getting a very high burst or effectiveness capability – the ability to halve DR or go straight to wounds or something. He sneaks up on you and sticks a knife in your neck or armpit. 

But toe-to-toe, and on a sustained basis, one should be scared to stand next to a fighter, and not just because he’s got more hit points than you. The switch to vigor and wounds helps this a bit, but only from the defensive end. The fighter can whittle away your vigor and then deal wounds and he has more of his own to lose in the process. But that’s not terribly satisfying; the fighter should be dishing out some hard stuff.

Anyway, we toned it down a bit for Dragon Heresy, but doing some math revealed that some of the benefits I’d given really tipped the scale back to the rogue in a huge way. A few modifications later, and I’ve got an answer I’m satisfied with that does the least violence to the expectations of playing an SRD-based rogue when sliding over to DH, but still caps out the one-turn damage of a rogue to just under that of a fighter at mid-level. Early on, rogues are just better from the sneak; at high levels, fighters can dominate. I’m comfortable with this.

Playtest Artifact


This battle was over before it started, because the Alfar/Sidhe/Fey’s greatest ability is the charm ability, and that was quite successful. Only when Luke clearly and obviously decided to have Fairlane throw down and start a real fight at four-to-one odds did it turn against him. That was a playtest artifact, to be sure, but a deliberate one. A “real” GM and circumstance should have the faerie continue to plague the party, acting as friend while trying to set them up to get horribly killed. For fun.

Under the Hood


I hope this extensive example gives some insight into where Dragon Heresy is going. You can see the new monster stat-block, the interaction of wounds and vigor, and some of the other mechanical differences – shields, Threat DC and Hit DC, and other things.

Ranged vs Melee Combat


I think the latest rules resolve this. You roll hits the same way vs the same numbers – you have the same Threat DC for ranged and melee in nearly every case. You only get your increased Hit DC against arrows, though, if you have a shield or something else you can interpose (a Monk can do it with the right ability, for example). But you don’t get to parry them, and sidestepping and dexterity-based avoidance is rolled into your Threat DC. If you do have a shield, it enables your Hit DC, much like sword-on-sword, and with the same rules and targets.

The lower damage for arrows that you see on the weapon chart is a direct outgrowth of this – vs no-shield foes, the easier hits mean higher damage output, and I wanted to keep it balanced. You do get an expanded crit range for arrows over other attacks, though.

DEX and STR based damage


I’m with Luke on distinguishing between attack (DEX) and damage (STR). But that’s not the official SRD way to do things. I’ll write it last, because it’s an optional rule, I’ll offer up a way to just have DEX be the to-hit modifier, and STR be the damage one. That will also get into an optional rule for higher STR bows doing more damage – the draw weight effect. 

Optional! But it’s a nudge towards plausible verisimilitude for those that care.

Armor and Shields and DEX, Oh my


By now, if you haven’t seen the videos of people exercising and doing all sorts of things in full plate and other heavy armor then you might not care about this. But really, instead of armor being classed as having DEX penalties just for it’s type (light/medium/heavy), there should probably be a factor that says “this armor is heavy, and you take a DEX penalty for every N points of STR your Strength is below Y value.” You might split proficiency into armors that require extensive fitting and buckling to assemble (splint, plate, half-plate, and maybe scale) vs armor you just wear like clothing. But to be good as armor, it needs to move. Armors that don’t move well are a real drag, and would be a good point of differentiation.

I like this concept, even played with a bit (and every armor in DH has a Strength value now) to put the hooks in place to do something like this. Ultimately, I settled for minor tweaks to the SRD way. 

But I do like the concept that if you want a full DEX bonus for full plate, you need STR 18, and each 2 points below that removes -1 from a prospective DEX bonus (just making numbers up here). So your typical STR 16, DEX 14, CON 15 starting fighter type that found a suit of full plate would have a natural DEX bonus of +2, which would be cut down to +1 by his Strength. This would grow to +2 when he got stronger, but no higher unless he also improves his DEX.

A STR 12, DEX 20 archer that found the same armor would start with a natural DEX bonus of +5, but being 6 points under the STR rating would cut that down to +2 as well.

Make the STR requirement 5 + Weight/5, for example, for armor.

I do still like limiting DEX bonuses for shields, though. It’s a 7-8 square foot chunk of wood (more or less) strapped or gripped in one hand, both encumbering the hand and taking it out of play for fine work. It’s somewhat awkward and harder to move around object with it than without it, impacting Stealth.

But Luke and I are in agreement in principle on this – I do not like the extreme reduction in DEX and mobility caused by the type/class of armor being worn. I left it as-is, though, because of the reach of the concept. It impacts class balance, feat choices, and bounded accuracy for the classes. Giving full bonuses would make various armors insanely good – if you can get +5 DEX bonus with DR 8 plate, you’re nigh-unstoppable. 

Maybe that’s OK. It’s certainly hard to damage a guy in properly made full plate.

Parting Shot

Once again, thanks to Luke for such a huge playtest and full-detail report. 

I hope that this provides a good view into what Dragon Heresy will feel like to play, and hope it gives a reason to back my Kickstarter when it shows up.

Cheers!

We finished up the clearing of the village from last game. I’m not going to do a full session report, because I’m a bit burned out at the moment. Not in a bad way, but if you’ve been keeping track of what I’ve been up to, you’ll see that the game last night came at the end of a frantic week.

An awesome week, true. But frantic.

So, what happened in the game?

The Village is Secure

The group picked up at least one PC stronger than we left off last game. We had all 1st level characters, or maybe 1 second level, but mostly 1st level. We had

  1. Sunshine, a Monk. Low DR from Unarmored Defense, uses an axe and martial asskicking
  2. Adaemis the Servitor, Cleric of the Light. He was created before I had full domains so he used the SRD5.1 straight out of the book, and that’s fine too. Any domain that can be associated with a Norse god or goddess can probably be shoehorned into the setting. Chain mail (DR 6), spear, shield, and the usual compliment of healing and damaging spells.
  3. Graves Battleborne, a fighter. Chain mail (DR 6) and a glaive. He uses the reach to very good effect, usually. 
  4. Jack Redwald, Ranger. Leather Armor (DR 1), rapier, longbow. Very good tracker, good stealth, perception, Insight, and Animal handling. He and Adaemis made most of the key spotting rolls this game.
  5. Yuri is our Warlock. Quarterstaff, dagger, and studded leather, but who cares when you have Eldritch Blast. More on that later.
  6. Tomas (Tom Rakewell). Rogue/Thief. Rapier, dagger, shortbow. Stealthiest of the group.
So the party started out looting the bodies of the dead Lizardfolk shaman, and they found a key on him. Almost immediately thereafter, they found a locked chest, and the key fit it. There was also a bunch of blacksmithing raw materials. Total loot about 473 gp. 
There was discussion about making hide armor from the lizardfolk skin, since they have DR 3. The group correctly identified the likely reaction of any and all lizardfolk that see such armor, but then, lizardfolk eat people, so I’m not sure there’s going to be much “Coexist” going on here. I think they did eventually decide to skin the guy.
There was also some sort of discussion and die roll about what happened when they killed the shaman, and Tom (I think; it might have been Jack) rolled a 1 on History, which is the skill used to get information on humanoid and civilized groups. We decided that he was absolutely certain that all of the lizardfolk and kobolds were spiritually bound to the shaman, and when they killed him, any remaining would just up and die. 
Certain. He must have read it at a scribe-site on EteraNet or something, and EteraNet is thoroughly fact-checked (WodenFact certified) and never wrong. So to quote Lieutenant Gorman from Aliens: “The village is secure!”

The only houses they hadn’t dealt with were the four village houses to the northeast on the map. The one labeled 10 was unusual in that it did not seem to have an adjoining field, but was set away from the main square. The PCs didn’t know this, but it was the ranger/scout of the village, who liked to live away from things, but wasn’t a farmer. 

Adaemis and Jack, I think, both noticed that the house was sealed to be light-tight, and the right kind of rolls provided that it seemed quite similar to the treatment the Inn/Tavern had been given to keep light out when Kobolds were home.

Adaemis passes along this warming. But no, no. The village is secure. Tom just opens the door and walks in. Two kobolds rush him, the other wakes up groggily. He backs out frantically, and we’re treated to the lovely spectacle of a STR 9 rogue trying to hold the door against two ST 7 kobolds.

His fellow team-mates stand back and ask him if he really needs help. After all, the village is secure. Perhaps he’s dealing with ghosts? Should the Cleric try and turn undead?

Guys! Guys! A little help? Please!

From what? The village is secure, after all.

Empty Featureless Plain

Anyway, at this point, one of our eagle eyed characters – I seem to recall Adaemis rolled a 20 on damn near every perception check that game – noted that a fully-armed lizard man had stuck his head out of House 11, some 135 yards (about 400 feet) away. Within longbow range. Jack fires an arrow at it, and the lizard-warrior uses his reaction to simply brush the arrow out of the air with his shield.

He and one other lizard man emerge, form up two abreast, and start dashing into combat.

We decide that three PCs would make mincemeat out of the kobolds, as they let the door open, the kobolds rush out into the sun, gain disadvantage, and are very nearly slaughtered on the spot. At least one injury, one injured with broken morale, and one groggy. We rule that there’s no point playing that out round by round.

The lizard-man fight is the first “close from long range” fight we’ve had. The PCs rapidly developed tactics to deal with shield-wielding foes. Well, for one, once they closed to within 240′, Eldritch Blast kicked in.

It’s a cantrip, so it does vigor rather than wounds as a basis. But it also does force damage, like magic missile, which means armor doesn’t protect and you cant take it on your shield, because force damage. This more or less makes it better in every respect than a longbow. No ammunition. higher damage roll, the damage type bypasses armor, and a gigantic range. I know I have to tone this down or provide countermeasures.

Anyway, the archers (short bow and longbow) and the Warlock keep up a steady stream of pain headed downrange, and by the time the lizards close to 100′, one of the lizardfolk is hit and his morale breaks. He flees, breaking the two-lizard shield wall and allowing the team to concentrate fire on the lizards. They have decent DR and high Threat DC from their shields, but dude, it’s six-on-one. But the second guy does manage to throw a javelin through Sunshine, who gets mad and delivers two crushing blows that either fell the lizard or damn near. At 22 vigor and with a shield, he’s a tough defensive nut to crack, but crack him they do.

After that, a few arrows and an eldritch blast at the fleeing opponent ends the combat.

Lessons Learned

  • Playing once a month and handing out experience like a bean-counter is no fair to the players. They all happened to level up this game, but three months per level is not fun.
  • Game hasn’t broken yet. Some rules questions came up, and my on-the-fly ruling (I have not memorized 367,000 words of rules and setting) tended to match the rules.
  • I actually had a laid-out and printed copy of The Book of Heroes, and that matters.
  • As +Peter V. Dell’Orto mentioned in his own report, shield are good, but they’re not perfect
  • Eldritch Blast is way too strong
  • To no one’s surprise, charging across an open field for 400′ was stupid. 
  • That said, the second lizard was able to close to 30′ and put a javelin through Sunshine (doing some serious wounds, actually) before being slain.
  • Players like to take trophies. Gross ones. I think a few sessions ago they collected the scrotum and d20s of an ogre or something; this time, they killed and skinned lizard-folk to get the raw materials to make hide armor.

So, I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I’m convinced Dragon Heresy is a solid foundation. There’s enough similarity with the parent system for easy entry. There’s enough differences that it’s its own thing. Those differences impact play choices, which is exactly how it should be.

This is not GURPS DnD. This is Dragon Heresy, an SRD5.1-based game that has some mechanical differences and distinctions that are holding up well in play. Honestly, while there are a few things that need tweaking (my team and I are having a serious discussion over the Rogue’s Sneak Attack ability, and the power of Eldritch Blast, a cantrip, makes us think about force damage, the Shield spell, and how strong a cantrip should really be), these things are tractable and relatively minor.
What’s Next

Well, of course Group 2 plays this coming Saturday. They’re a 7th level party going through a module written for 5e that I’m deliberately converting somewhat on the fly just to see if I can. These are, after all, playtest games. That group needs to head around to the front entrance, where they’ll be met by a new player. Yay, and yay for more women in the game. 
As you probably read, I had a busy week last week. I’m well on my way to forming Gaming Ballistic, LLC. I have identified an editor, an indexer, a layout consultant, and +Rob Muadib, who has done an excellent job thus far in bringing The Book of Heroes as far as it has gone, will still be with me to finish the project, though at a reduced frequency of contribution because real life. I also got a bunch of quotes on printing books, and wow, if you do your homework that full-color, smyth-sewn hardback is damn affordable. Very reasonable stretch goal.
I also got the first color version of my map for the game (one of three), and HOLY CRAP it’s good. I may see how the cartographer feels about leaking a glimpse. But it’s good enough that I will be featuring it prominently in my Kickstarter video. Which I have to write and produce. But I have some friends, like +Jay Meyer of Great Northern Games, who have done this before. And I’m sure I can ping +Erik Tenkar about what he likes to see in a video, as well as others in The Industry for advice. I feel like I’ve not been an ass-hat to folks, and that is returning to me with tons of help and advice. +Amanda Valentine has been world class, as has +Ryan Macklin, in helping me out. +Alexander Macris is a gentleman and very generous to give me the nod to pillage ACKS for a few things.
This industry is filled with a sufficient quantity of awesome folks that no one will lack for advice, help, and guidance should they want to walk this path. Because as we all know, the best, surest way to make a small fortune in Independent Publishing is to start with a much larger fortune.
But that’s OK, because the availability of The Editor isn’t until late in the year, and so I get to slow down a bit (or really, just multitask more reasonably) anyway. I still have writing to do, but it’s mostly creative, not mechanical, so can be banged out with a minimum of fuss.
As the poets and historical figures Martin L and William S once said: “This shit just got real.”
(Martin Lawrence, not Martin Luther. And William Smith, not Will Shakespeare. Geez.)

We mostly got our quorum for today’s game. The players and I had decided that this game would start at level 7 instead of level 1, to test out the mid-power game.

So whom did we have?

+Anne Hunter was Gudrun, a level 7 human runic barbarian. She carried a greatsword and a shortbow, and has DR 2 thanks to Unarmored Defense.
+Wright Johnson was Dakar,  a level 7 human berserker barbarian, who brought a greataxe and a longbow to the fray, with DR 3 from Unarmored Defense.
+Nathan Joy was Ka’Shyx, a level 7 dragonborn cleric of the Justice and War domain. He sported DR 6 from chain mail armor, carried a shield and a warhammer.

This was a test on several levels, and I explained to the players that I was deliberately trying to convert a bog-standard 5e adventure to Dragon Heresy somewhat on the fly. They were OK with this, so it was good. 

I purchased the module – Palace of the Crowned Skull – from the DM’s Guild. It’s Pay What You Want, and I threw in $5. I took screenshots of the map and put them in Roll20, using Dynamic Lighting for the first time. I came up with a good way of quickly putting in the blockers, and honestly the hardest part is rescaling the maps.

I have a suggestion for the +Roll20 crowd for this, for what it’s worth. you should be able to define two squares, likely of about 20×20′ or even more, and say “the native image that’s being imported has 20×20 squares that are this big.” The squares will usually be (say) at the upper left and lower right of the map. Since both squares are 20×20 (four 5×5 squares), that gives a centerpoint for each, as well as four parallel lines in X and Y, as well as four 20′ lines in X and Y. The map can be centered, aligned, and rescaled accordingly to the grid on the blank Roll20 map. Poof, instant alignment and rescale, making a very tedious portion of the import process trivial.

Anyway, the vision-blocks worked well, once I figured out a few things.

Playing through the module worked well. I dropped the references to the Forgotten Realms, and relocated the keep to a very convenient ruin on my own setting map. It fits so well that I really should contact Bill Volk about repurposing it for Dragon Heresy, but it’s DM’s Guild, so I probably can’t. But that makes for a pretty good test  run.

Anyway, the conversation with the representative from the noble family went easily, the players asked some of the right questions, and were satisfied with the offer of 800gp each for their efforts.

One thing we quickly realized is that we need a table of expected wealth by level. Not just because we were starting at level 7 so we needed to know what stuff they might be able to afford (can the cleric afford plate armor by Level 7? My Level 6 paladin was tromping around with +2 plate by then, but the GM was very, very generous with magic items and threw bounded accuracy right out the window). Armor is a huge deal in DH, as are magical weapons, so knowing what’s possible is key. I think I know how to resolve this! Roll once on the Hoard Table with a challenge equal to level – for a level 7 character in DH, at the low end it might only be 800gp. At the high end, it’s 4,200gp and two powerful magical items (rare or very rare). 

They didn’t find any wild encounters, and traveled the roughly 60 miles to the keep in two days. It was easier to find with the provided map, and they made good time and did enough preparation to not draw any monster encounters.

They elected to come up the back way, and immediately encountered a Hill Giant on a large lower area of the castle.

They detected the Hill Giant first, and he was on patrol, walking predictably in circles on the platform, which was roughly 90×140′. They got a first-shot at the (Challenge 5) giant, but he wasn’t surprise (he had a good Perception roll).

The players immediately twigged to the right tactics – the two barbarians started peppering him with arrows, draining his vigor. Now, the hill giant had DR 6, so mostly could ignore the shortbow, but with two attacks (one of which could be used for aiming), the archers could vastly increase the odds of a critical hit, which made even the shortbow a threat. 

Initially, the giant pinned the players at the top of a narrow staircase, but then a good/lucky shot got through and caused a few wounds. This caused the giant to lose his nerve, backing off with the Demoralized condition.This allowed our players to flank him and spread out on the platform, while continuing to pepper him with arrows and the cleric used Sacred Flame a lot.

The giant retreated until his morale re-solidified, whereupon he attacked again.

It should be noted that he (and Dakar, for that matter) more or less didn’t roll higher than an 8, almost ever. The one time the giant did roll well, he was Demoralized, with disadvantage on attack rolls and skill checks, and so what would have been two shattering hits on Gudrun turned into “the mighty Casey had struck out.”

So they beat down his vigor and then went to town on wounds in hand-to-hand combat, mostly using flanking and good tactics to render the giant unconscious. They emerged unscathed, with 1 gp and 170 sp, and 965 XP each as spoils.

They did a bit more exploring, found a bit of treasure, including a potion of healing, and we called it a night. We played a bit less-long than we’d planned due to some confusion on timing.

Parting Shot

Was it an easy fight?

Yes and no. It went about as I expected it to go.

The hill giant was bad news, with 49 wounds required to kill him (but fewer required to demoralize, injure, and knock out), and 105 vigor with which to soak defenses. However, my experience here is that many-on-one, with the defender lacking a shield and the attackers well endowed with spells and ranged weapons? 

Always, always bad for the one. The giant had to make use of frantic defense to turn wounds to vigor on nearly every ranged attack, though he probably should have just taken more shots, trusting his high DR to spare him from all but lucky shortbow attacks. Still, the three players really made with the pincushion syndrome, and there’s not much the hill giant could do about it. He’s too stupid to come up with clever tactics (INT 5).

He hit Ka’Shyx with a thrown rock, but he used his reaction to take it on his shield, damaging the shield (it was a fairly poor roll) with one “hit,” and three hits and it’s broken. Unless he has the mending cantrip to repair it, he can only pull that trick 1-2 times more, and then he’ll need a new shield.

On the other hand, he rolled really badly. Throwing rocks, he was looking at 2-20 wounds per rock. With his greatclub, two attacks for 8-15 vigor each. Even with 60-70 vigor, our barbarians (who elected not to rage, because of the exhaustion effects). So only a few hits, not even counting criticals, and our heroes would have been the ones on the short end of the stick. A few hits and the PCs would have been severely short on vigor, and one greatclub crit and you’re looking at 11-65 vigor loss, and if that also exceeded the Hit DC, that could double to “you’re at zero vigor and taking plenty of wounds through only DR 2 or DR 3.”

So again: it went as I expected. A couple of hits and it was bad news for the PCs. But they did not take those hits, and kept up a steady stream of vigor-reducing attacks. Had there been a few minions or lower-level guys to take up the slack, it may well have been very different. Heck, I bet two or three goblins would have occupied enough mindshare that the hill giant would have been a magnified problem.

Lessons Learned


The massive amount of work writing up stat blocks for all the critters paid enormous dividends. I was able to just look up “Hill Giant” and adjudicate the fight with a couple of glances at the table. 

The adventure ports over easily and well.

The game still rewards sensible tactics that are intuitively obvious to players. Flank your foes. If your foes do not have shields and you’re many on one, hang back and pelt ’em with arrows. 

Taking a blow on a shield is a good thing. Having a shield is a good thing.

High DR matters, and GMs and players alike should be encouraged to think about this. Take the time to aim when dealing with armored foes, as it allows you to increase your chance of a crit by quite a bit.

The emergent behavior of our giant becoming demoralized and then in a few rounds snapping out of it and pressing back to the attack works freakin’ great. That has been a real pleasure to see.

I still need to write up a quickie combat flow algorithm for maximum clarity. It’s clear enough, but you can never be too clear about this sort of thing.

Good session. The game still plays well, and I don’t think I need to adjust challenge ratings much. Fights may well end up “gee, we’re all OK” or “tomato paste” more frequently than the SRD5.1’s base assumption of everyone down a bunch of Hit Points.

Tomorrow will be a big writing day, and then pushing hard for the rest of the week to finish the complete draft of both books. I’m guessing 350,000 words total. Maybe two books of 250-280 pages each. Solid but not with their own gravity well.

More later! 

We had another playtest of the Dragon Heresy RPG. It was a surprisingly challenging session in terms of personal interaction. The productive way to look at this is in terms of how the rules and text of the game can attempt to deal with what is usually one of the only real problems in RPG play, which in my opinion is expectations management.


That is, players conflict with each other, and the GM, when their view of what the game world, rules, or (for lack of a better word) mission or purpose of the game is differs from others.

Some of this, in the case of a game that is still being written, with a setting that is being defined, is clearly because the ground rules are not yet fixed. Some of this was not.

Gods and Men, Men and Men

For Dragon Heresy, and specifically the pseudo-Norse setting that is being worked up, I very much need to say something about certain things. These include the Aesir – the Norse gods – and their relationship with humans and dwarves in the setting, and also the relationships that their clerics have with the Aesir, their “flock,” as well as other Clerics. 

The Aesir, the Norse pantheon, is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that there are people walking the world that have personally had relations with these deities. Some of those relations are of a very intimate nature – when someone says “I got to know Odin personally,” or especially Loki, one might be implying a certain amount of superposition.

So there’s really no “whose God is real” sort of thing. They all are, at least within the Norse pantheon. My setting is silent on whether other pantheons even exist, much less influence this world – that’s a GM decision and could go either way.


But at least the default assumption in my world is that people will feel a calling, or kinship, or affinity for one or some of the Aesir, and will tend to associate with them, pray to them, and try and bolster the strengths that that particular deity embodies. Using the more-common names, if you believe in Fate and Destiny as paramount, even over the gods, you probably follow the Norns. If you will be bound by no man or contract, but uphold dignity, honor, and delight in righteous conflict and equally-righteous hangovers, Thor’s your man. If you believe in a form of righteous vengeance that is both ice-cold and white-hot, but still justified, you are in the province of Skadi, who is basically Elsa when she’s pissed off.

But none of that means that you are going to, as a Cleric, be converting people. You don’t proselytize from one god to another, though certainly if a person is uncertain about where their affinities lie, a cleric or druid or paladin or strong follower from another class, might encourage a deliberate choice, especially if the interlocutor discovers traits in the undecided person that might be amenable to the way their deity approaches things. 

That’s how I see it, at least. And you certainly don’t say “Believe in Thor, abandon Odin, because Odin doesn’t exist.” Because that’s a great way to get on the bad side of lots of people. The Aesir are a family show, so to speak. And they do have their strife, of course:

Bruce Banner: I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats. You can smell crazy on him. 

Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother! 

Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.

Thor: He’s adopted?

Now, my setting doesn’t have the Marvel version of Thor (Donnar in my setting) in it – though I do think that it’s marvelous (see what I, oh, nevermind) and Hemsworth does a great job. But even when dealing with Loki, it’s love-hate. Well, unless you’re Freya (Valfreya in my setting).  Then it’s just hate-hate. So there’s not exactly competition for believers in a way that makes people stand on street corners asking “Have you bathed in the presence of Odin today? You really should convert to serving his Glory!”

But I didn’t make that terribly clear, and it caused an issue. So: lesson one learned about the importance of setting for establishing expectations.

Lesson two, and I really, really should have known this from before. Medieval, or even faux-medieval, social structure is ridiculously structured. When dealing with your social betters, you are mostly considered somewhere between clearly inferior but allowed to speak, to worthless slime that is lucky to not be decapitated on sight. 

OK, that’s extreme. And the right to kill and depart was mostly a Japanese thing. But after our group of 1st-level characters dealt rather effectively with a bandit problem, I had the town Constable approach them through an intermediary about helping to solve a problem that the jarl of Midgard (one of the big towns along the north of Audreyn’s Wall) had with a relative’s son. They challenged the right or even the fact that the Constable was actually representing the jarl’s interests. 

That got a bit testy, as the relative social standing of first-level characters is not always clear in SRD5.1 games. During the discussion, I likened it to a new college grad demanding to go over the head of their Senior Manager and speak directly to an Executive VP. At worst, it’s a grave breach of protocol. I would guess that this guy – the constable – was something like an 8th to 12th level Fighter or Barbarian, possibly a Ranger, now that I think of it. He was the local captain of the guard and ran the jarl’s messenger service – very important posts. Anyway, I didn’t make it clear enough where this guy was in both the hierarchy of power, and the relative social standing of characters of a given level. Players will tend to think that the world is more egalitarian than it is, and that the nobles and administrative functionaries are lower level and weaker than they are. This was almost my party’s undoing in +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderlands campaign, where we got somewhat lucky and managed to not get killed and burned by the 15th level Fighter we challenged the authority of. 

What I learned


I was viewing the roleplaying exchange from three points of view, all of which were negative from my perspective.

  1. The cleric involved was taking a very tough tone with the Constable, in terms of trying to convert him from Tyr (Ziu, in my setting) to Sol (brother sun, the lord of light). When the Constable noted he had his own beliefs, the conversation persisted, which violated my view of how the setting’s clerical domains worked. That is basically hidden from the players, for whom the only words of guidance are in a reasonably recent version of the manuscript – fluff text that post-dates when these guys made characters:

    “The pantheon of the Aesir is broad, and to follow one patron does not, cannot, preclude the others. A cleric that hews to the path of the Storm Domain will not deny the actions or validity of the followers of Skadi (Winter) or Ziu (justice and war), but prefers or favors a certain way of looking at, and solving, problems. When any Aesir speaks, the clerics of Torengar are wise to listen, though it is far more likely that such a message from Donnar will be delivered to a cleric of Donnar, of course.”

    I should have made this more clear. If I did make it clear, I would look to the players to respect that distinction – or be prepared to suffer the consequences, up to and including the Constable delivering a mighty beat-down.

  2. The party was engaging in spectacular disrespect of the Constable’s position, behaving as if he was a mere flunky for a low-ranking noble, and they wanted to deal directly with the jarl.

    That’s on me, in that the relative power level and social strata are not established. So the vast impropriety of the suggested direction was not apparent to everyone. This is what happens when rules come before setting in the writing process, and also when modern sense of egalitarianism and the expectation that noblesse oblige is expected because the parties are equal, rather than the expectation that the much-superior noble will condescend to have congress and treat with honor those of lower station.

    There will definitely be a social interactions mechanism – or suggested mechanism – that will be invoked here. I’m thinking of both mechanical help – setting the DC of a particular die roll, such as Persuasion or Deception – based in part on the difference in level of the two parties. Not the difference in proficiency – social strata differences are wider than that.

    But also, just a general level of how the society works and the adventurer’s place in it, as they will frequently be outsiders to a given town, and maybe outside most other societal boundaries. They might belong to no guild, have no association with the locals, and basically be tolerated because the King has this writ thing going on where he’s encouraging people to go North and conquer the lands.

    None of this was made explicit, and there needs to be some level of “careful here” in the text. The “good” news is that the Norse structures were fairly, as they say in corporate speak, “flat.” So there were basically three (broad – very broad) classes. Slaves, freemen, and jarls. The king basically being first among equal jarls. But of course, there were myriad informal strata, and not all jarls were of equal power, respect, and influence. And my world is not Scandinavia, but influenced by those cultures. So I’ve got some writing to do, and soon, on this topic.

  3. Lastly, game expectations. This is a playtest campaign. So while it’s not a series of unconnected fights or conflicts designed to test one or another parts of the rules, it’s designed to put the rules through their paces, and I’ve been so busy writing these last few weeks that I really didn’t have a ton of “choose A, B, or C” options prepared. I’d toyed with dropping these guys into a dungeon from the OSR, but looking through my options, I saw that would actually be a bit of work to convert, so I was out of time. So I whipped up a depopulated village, re-populated it with four encounters worth of bad guys, and tried to drop a job in the PCs lap. That was of mixed success, as one may have gathered.
The Play of the Game

The job itself? 5gp per adventurer to bring back simple word of what happened. An extra 20gp per person if they solved whatever problem caused the issue, and they managed to negotiate for a bit more if they brought back proof of the jarl’s cousin’s son’s fate. Plus, the implicit “plus whatever loot you can find” that always exists in these things. 
They were given three days worth of food, and were given the use of a riding horse each – worth 75gp (about $5,000 USD!) each, but to be returned. 
What if we steal them? Well, then you’re outlaws and not welcome south of the wall. Ever. Oh, just checking.
So north they ride, and the Ranger kept them fed and watered. They approached the village from the south, at mid-morning. 
Long story short, they checked out the buildings, found signs of blood and death but no bodies, and eventually checked out the tavern (2).
(The map was generated using the Inkwell Random Village Generator, which is entirely awesome).
The tavern had bodies in it, plus four kobolds – two regular and two winged. They don’t like sunlight and so were inclined to stay inside, and the players pulled off a sweet, sweet surprise attack, killing all four quickly. Bodies inside were stacked like cordwood, being rendered down as food for the bad guys. Eww. But they did quickly locate the jarl’s (deceased) relative. So, evidence obtained.
They then realized that when they scouted the smithy (9), they never did clear it, only looking inside for a threat but not finding any. So (wisely) they decided to clear the building. Inside was a lizardfolk magic-user, who rolled a 20+ on the Perception check vs the rogue’s relatively modest stealth check the first time around, and was ready for them – when the rogue came to the door, entangling vines sprouted in front of it, but I made a mistake in placement and left a clear space in front of the door. So the grappling attack on the rogue failed, and he was able to roll a natural 20 on an acrobatic dive into the room, which was entirely awesome.
The fight was hard, but the shaman rolled fairly poorly, saving throws were made, and many-on-one always works out poorly for the one, especially in Dragon Heresy, which indulges in GURPS-like death spiral behavior at times, by design. So the shaman was overcome. 

It should be noted that I missed something important – the lizardfolk have natural DR 3, which takes 3 points of damage off any potential injury that gets by his defenses. I really need to print out my new monster section, or get +Rob Muadib to lay it out so it compresses into a smaller book, so I can look at natively Dragon Heresy stat blocks. Fewer mistakes would be made with this expedient.

By that point, it was nearly midnight, so we called it. The silent village was beset by at least one lizardfolk shaman, plus some kobolds. They still have not yet explored the houses to the northeast. That will be next time.

Parting Shot

The point of these playtest campaigns is for me to see what a group of players might do with the setting. Well, like it or not – and at the time, I did not – I found out. Some of this is expectation management, and some is that I need to write down the soft rules of the setting in an absolutely clear way. 

If I can’t express the expectations for social strata and interaction in five or fewer guidelines that could appear on a 3×5 card as guidance, I will have failed my readership in terms of providing simple, digestible guidance for how such things work. So there’s an important part of the setting that is basically “how to live in it.” Good learning there.

Another is way more explicit guidance on how holy men are expected to act. 

The combat system also needs a flowchart or a series of steps, laid out explicitly. This is present in one form already, but needs to be expanded by a few steps because even I, as GM, tend to forget a few things – but that’s because the rules have changed from the first iteration to the final one.

Explicitly: Armor Class is now two quantities. Threat DC and Hit DC. If you exceed Threat DC, something happens. If you exceed Hit DC, you are assumed to bypass all footwork, parries, and normal defenses such as shields and strike the target. From there, you have to punch through armor DR to cause injury.

Very early incarnations of the rules had an attack that meets Hit DC just inflict wounds. Then I introduced Frantic Defense, a way of turning wounds into vigor loss as an option, and then that turned into the default way of doing things. But sometimes I revert to the olde ways.

Anyway: combat flowchart. Which again will be short, few special cases, and easily internalized. It will fit on a 3×5 card or smaller in easily-readable font.

I need to write a GM advice/Running the Game section/chapter, which will have some guidance on when the PCs will be powerful enough to expect to strike out on their own and make a play for establishing a land-hold of their own. Before that, the players will be taking odd jobs and basing themselves out of a city, or even perhaps joining a more-powerful adventurer as retainers. I have a few ideas on how to make that viable.

Finally, I had a dialog with a well-known name in the OSR community about some rules he wrote that I wanted to borrow, and he agreed to let me take and modify them. This was fantastic news to me, but more on that later, perhaps.

So a lot learned this time, but very little of it had to do with combat mechanics or the hard-style rules material. Even negative experiences – or even especially negative experiences – can drive learning, and last night’s game was a case in point. I got a lot of soft-style setting learning, which is timely, since my remaining tasks are:

  • Finish the fluff text and editing of the monsters section. This is non-trivial, since there are 250-300 monster entries and there will be both fewer (as we decide that, say, an ancient Egyptian monster or ancient Mayan monstrosity or Celestial has no place in the setting) and more, since there are scarce-few good fey in the SRD, and my setting needs to be lousy with them. Plus a lot of re-skinning. Sure, crocodiles would not be found in the northern parts of my setting . . . but swamp ormr? Sure. What are they? Ahem. Crocodiles with the name changed, and the lineage/monster type set to “dragon” instead of “beast.”
  • Write the setting information. My notes have been growing on this, and my own mental understanding of the setting and world. But I have to put them into the manuscript. I know how I’m going to do it, too, for the main.
  • Write the outline for the GM book, which will include sections on the setting, general adventuring guidance, rewards and treasure, magic items, and specific guidance on expectations management and running the game for GMs.

Stuff like:

  • A foe with no armor and no shield is going to be easy meat for PCs, almost regardless of wound/vigor capacity. 
  • Conversely, foes with a shield or DR X or higher armor are going to be tough nuts to crack. In my playtest games, archers simply stopped shooting at guys with shields. There are ways to beat this, but they require a line of disciplines archers acting in concert. This has not yet occurred.
  • How to use the morale rules so that every encounter does not end in a TPK for one side or another. 
  • When to insist on using passive scores for certain tasks. I already have a “no fishing” boxtext and thought of a simple alternative for GMs and players that like to roll dice that works equally well.
  • Other tidbits that came up during the playtest campaigns that can be turned into general guidance. 
But here we come to the crux of it all. The game’s quite nearly done, quite playable, and offers some benefits to lots of different groups of gamers. I was hoping to be able to publish one book instead of two, but I’m not going to make a tome that’s a single 550-page volume. I may, however, go the GURPS route of having (for example) the book mostly concerned with characters and basic game play be page 1-275, and the campaign and setting book start at p. 276 and go to p. 525. We’ll see what my playtesters think of that.

+Christian Blouin has started a new blog and a new campaign, and it’s in the 3rd edition setting of +David Pulver‘s Transhuman Space.

This will wind up being a bit of a fact-free post, because while I own several of the books (at least two, and only in hard-copy), and have loved reading through them, I’ve always found Transhuman Space daunting as a potential campaign setting.

It is truly a top-notch imagining of a future world. It’s got utopia and dystopia baked right into it, far-removed and side-by-side. 

It’s got terrifying nanobugs, takes the drone revolution to one of several possible logical conclusions, and memetic warfare, which might have seemed far-fetched or unlikely when the setting came out, but in today’s selective-information climate on social media, now seems nearly inevitable.

I think what puts me off of such a deep, rich setting – and isn’t that a hell of a thing to write – is that both the GM and the players either have to know, or will want to know, more about the background than they can easily absorb. 


Heck, +Christopher R. Rice is running a mildly alternate history campaign with superheroes in the Aeon Campaign whose game I transcribe, and even some of that – our area of New York City, what events actually happened as the players remember them, vs what events happened differently for the characters can be hard to sort out.

Transhuman Space takes that to 11. I’d almost want to read a few novels, and have the players do the same, to approach that setting as “OK, make characters for X, assuming you’re part of that world and always have been!”

But those don’t exist (pity – it would make great fiction fodder, with as much depth as many award-winning SciFi novels. I’d devour a THS novel with more gusto than I read Accelerando, for example, and I read that book with fairly significant gusto). So I balk at running the game.

How to get around that?

The first would be to either pick, or invent if it wasn’t there already, an isolated region on earth, in orbit, or in a way-out-in-space location where the information the players have to absorb before game-time starts is limited. 

That way, the characters and the players will be overwhelmed when presented with however many billions of people, AIs, cybershells, nanobugs, memetic wars, regular wars, economic wars, and Third-through-Fifth Wave cultures are currently vying for supremacy and survival.

Parting Shot

I look forward to seeing how the campaign shakes out, and in particular how information loads are handled.

In a way, this is the same quandary that any group faces when looking at a developed setting that isn’t firmly grounded in common knowledge. 

I think it’s the reason why “It’s our world, but now with Monsters!” is so popular as a stepping-off point for games. (or, as +Ken Hite told me when I was talking about/showing him the setting map for my Dragon Heresy RPG, “just use Earth, you big baby.”)

There’s a lot of background knowledge we bring along when we’ve got a lifetime of familiarity with a place. Good and bad parts of town? Social behavior between different groups of people? Different ages of people (chronologically – in traditional Korean culture, for example, you are expected to defer to elders, and from what my native-born Korean martial arts master was saying, it doesn’t take much to differentiate between “same age” and “can’t socialize equally.”)

When approaching a world or a map like Transhuman Space, where sure, it’s the same geography, but social, political, and economic assumptions must all be modified or jettisoned, it makes for a bit of an urge to say “yeah, give me my broadsword and let’s go kill orcs.”

Many “deep” fantasy worlds run into this problem too. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it, and am in the process of being guilty of it for Dragon Heresy. But the question remains: if setting is important, and if background matters, how, without assigning a hundred pages of homework, do you bring everyone along so that the setting informs relationships and choices, and the play of the game?

In short, how do you keep from drowning?

A long while back I got to attend a training seminar by the McChrystal Group. It inspired me to write a bit about using that business framework in RPGs, and in S2E7 of the Aeon game, it came up again.

How? We were trying to work out ways to use a recent treasure trove of information to split up our quarry, the selfish and violent Rep Singleton, from his major resource base.

As we were spinning plans, something was bothering me. Without rehashing it all, I felt that many of the plans were a bit convoluted, and also didn’t ring true to something that would not cause both our quarry and the mercenary army he used to lead to sit up and take notice of us rather than at each other.

We resolved this by reverting back to my six questions that all prospective evil overlords need to answer (or really, the GM must answer for them) in order for plans to make sense.

Without further ado, here they are again.

1. What will the world look like after the main actor gets his way?

There needs to be a concrete vision of the future here. Some picture – even if it’s twisted – where the main actor sits back with his or her beverage of choice (wine, beer, the blood of the enemy, whatever) and says “Ahhh. Now that’s how it’s supposed to be!”

If you can’t articulate that goal, then you need to keep going. I always rebel at the concept articulated in the Matrix movies – “What do all men with power want? More power!”

No. That power, wealth, or whatever isn’t usually the goal. In fact, it’s more like #6 – how you keep score.

But for our example case, as we were spinning plans to make it look like our quarry had betrayed this monstrously large power base, we needed to ask and answer a question – what could be worth it? He had access to a powerful army, influenced them heavily from behind the scenes, and wielded the power of life over death for any within his reach.

So . . . why betray something that huge? Either the end goal was revenge over someone, and he was willing to burn his resource base to get it, or his goal was to end up with something bigger. By perhaps offering up secrets from the one organisation, he can roll up and either collapse or assimilate his other competitors. And maybe even make a play for ruling the world (that sort of goal is more plausible with certain in-game and real-world mental disorders).

But we then had a few ideas for things that our quarry would like to see the world look like when he’s done, and that made the rest more plausible.

Turing it around, we then asked ourselves the same question. What would the world look like when we were done, as heroes?

Well, we wanted Singleton in jail, stripped of power and influence. Both because we promised, but also because he was a corrupt, violent man that was gaining in influence an using it to hurt people. As heroic types, that’s a problem.

We also wanted Blue Skies, the massive and powerful Private Military Company, to not have an army of 500 metahumans trained like SFOD-D. The redeemable should be working with other hero teams to help people. The neutrals should be left to guide themselves. The criminal should be brought to justice. Mostly we focused on the metahuman component there, but we seemed to have joined Team Iron Man for the moment – that much force needs a responsible check. And we also wanted to dissipate and disperse Blue Skies without leaving a spectacular power vacuum that would just allow it to be re-established “Under New Management.”

So that’s what our world would look like if we win. That let us get on to other things.

Heck, even more locally and immediately, we wanted Singleton’s wife safely in Witness Protection, Singleton arrested, in jail, and out of power, and not a single soul interested in his redemption.

2. What are the main actor and his helpers willing to do to achieve their goals?

Methods are important. We knew from the data dump that both players would be willing to do pretty much anything to achieve their aims. Blue Skies wants to remain the premier PMC, and probably has other goals of their own that we will need to figure out in order to oppose them effectively, especially since we have hard evidence of the atrocities they’re willing to perpetrate to accomplish whatever mission they’re on.

For the heroes, we are much more circumscribed, which is one of the things that makes us heroes. We’re much more tightly tied to the rule of law, to evidence, proof, and justice, due to our sanction by the MAPS program. Like a mini-Avengers team.

So we won’t purposefully cause plans that will hurt anyone but our quarry – Cannot Harm Innocents deliberately. We have chosen to work within existing power structures, but are willing to engage with some fringe elements such as hacktivists, and The Pusher, to ensure that the known violent criminals will be brought to justice formally.

Because almost certainly we will not be willing to, say, simply shoot the old management in the head from 700 yds. Or engage in a systematic anti-metahuman purge. Avoiding that was the climax of last season, so no.

And right in the moment, our S2E7 plans included lots of shady behavior, but we tried to break as few laws as possible. We were constrained in how we sought evidence, we tried to ensure that anything we did discover was not fruit of the poisonous tree, so we could act within our status as legal agencies and not vigilantes. We came close in a few places, but managed to do this right.

3. What does the process of winning look like to the main actor?

For setting up Singleton, we decided that winning looked like his selectively leaking information to competitors to set them up to be either eliminated or assimilated, so that eventually Singleton could sit at the head of an even larger PMC, also integrate Blue Skies, and either set up a government of his own, or continue to wield influence within the US government. That seemed plausible enough, and such machinations were part of ye olde data dump.

For The Cavalry (us), that looked like getting ahead of, and stopping, major illegal activity and various atrocities that Blue Skies was involved in. It looked like getting to the other metas who could be influenced and enticing them to leave Blue Skies behind. And it looked like the company tearing itself apart from within, since we didn’t have the resources to take them on directly.

Again back to S2E7, winning looked like Singleton telling his wife to get out of his sight to ensure he wouldn’t harm her, that we got enough data to help keep Singleton from exerting enough power to find and punish his abused spouse.

4. What does the main actor need in order to win?

This is part of the strategy part. What resources do we need, or did Singleton need, to get with the winning part.

For him, he needed clandestine contacts and arrangements with other PMCs and with large clients. Planting such evidence (especially variations of real evidence, which we had lots of ) to indicate that he was setting out to displace or replace the Board of Directors at Blue Skies, as well as start into another business for himself. So he needed money, contacts, independence, and plausible deniablility.

For out plot against Blue Skies, we need Singleton and Blue Skies focused on each other. We need to get Blue Skies’ key players likewise at odds with each other. We need access to the metahuman ranks and a way to pick off the ones that are good-natured enough to join the forces of light and sweetness. We need to have data as to their plans so we can interfere with the most egregious of them. We will need a way to keep our activities from betraying the fact that we have compromised their files and are reading their mail.

For our S2E7, we needed a distraction to give Leslie Singleton a reason to be first seen by her husband, and then to be told to leave – he had to want her gone. We needed a distraction that would keep him busy while we got her to Witness Protection. We needed a safe room that simply could not be found. We needed the information to prevent future follow-up attempts. The fact that we got all of this and enough data to start nibbling at Blue Skies was a bonus.

5. How does the main actor go about getting what she needed to win?

This is all about tactics, and it’s flexible. In the case of breaking up Blue Skies, we’re still working it out. For our notional plan for keeping Singleton on the run, we just needed a few hits here and there to keep them focused on each other.

The details of the tactics we used to get Leslie out were detailed in the play report.

6. How does the main actor know if his plans were succeeding or failing?

This is all about metrics. Concrete win/loss figures or some sort of scoreboard that we can use to determine what courses of action are worthwhile, and which are not.

For getting Leslie out, we were looking for how smoothly our plan went according to the timeline, how many contingencies we had to pull out (like dealing with metahuman protection instead of human bodyguards), and the extent we got data – almost literally ‘how many counts of criminal activity can we score evidence for?’

We didn’t do as well in pre-establishing metrics, so that’s an area we can do better on in the future.

Parting Shot
The use of these questions to figure out what a person or organization will do has helped me a lot in working out plotlines – even complicated ones – for my gaming. If I have (say) a Vampire Overlord near the top of a Vampyramid/Conspyramid, what is it they’re trying to do? What will the world look like? What about the competition? What do they think the world should look like? Where do those things overlap? Where are the different? What resources does each faction need to win? Are they the same or different?

All of this will drive how the bad guys carry out their plans. And those plans will make sense – or at least be consistent – because the tactics will be directed at getting the strategic items that the orchestrator needs in order to “win,” in order to bring about their new world.

The “nice” thing about this framework is it can also be used to logic your way through the illogical. If your Cthulhoid demigods are trying to rewrite reality, you can still get to “what do they need to do this?” and then drive tactics and plans.

If you’re working up Hydra or some other Nazi-like classically evil organization, you can work through the things they’re willing and unwilling to do, and what winning looks like – and look to real history to find metrics, horrific as they are.

And for the good guys? Working through at least one good answer to these questions will restrain the worst Leroy Jenkins impulses, which can lead to fairly campaign-destroying behavior at times.

My GURPS Aeon Campaign character was in a bit of a fix. He wasn’t really shining in his designated role of, well, Commander. That was both his name, and his mission, and frankly, his skill set.

He’s got an amazing number of points in Wildcard skills. Actually, that’s not exactly true. His breakdown for what seems like 1,250-1,300 points is something like

  • 320 points in attributes
  • 285 points in advantages
  • 335 points in powers and special abilities
  • 55 points in specific skills and techniques
  • 250 points in wildcard skills
  • His power armor suit makes up the rest

So you can see that while he is a powerful character with very good stats, they’re spread around. They are, in fact, spread around quite a bit. His overall good-to-great levels of stats contain one truly exceptional one – ST 24, boosted to ST 28 from his combat suit. The rest is a high DX 18, IQ 14, and HT 16. His Perception and Will are boosted to the campaign maximum, or near enough – they’re both 18 or 19. 

His powers include his enhanced ST, and a couple of 50-pointers. So nothing huge from a telekinesis/energy control perspective. It’s not 200 points dumped into one power, but it is a set of alternate abilities. But by and large, it’s a collection of 50-70-points-or-lower powers that give him a DR-granting force field, enhanced ST, catfall, and some attack powers – notably his kinetic blast(s), both of which are double knockback to the tune of 5d.

His wildcard skills have some overlap in places – and this is where I really missed out. 


You see, when talking to +Christopher R. Rice about why the character was not playing out “on screen” in a more satisfactory manner, the thing that really stuck is that his niche was command, but he was not being terribly effective in the role. We kept walking into terrible tactical situations, getting ambushed, and generally making like the Keystone cops. Not “Call it, Captain.” 

We swapped out his power set a bit, but also spent some points on some Pyramid-based options – particularly Foresight, from Pyr #3/53. That gave him the ability to narratively alter the environment a bit, which proved critical in S1E11, as we were able to retroactively deal with an incoming air strike. That wasn’t even unfair – we’d explicitly discussed “having to deal with the air support,” and in the moment, we were able to say “oh, sure, we’d figured out a way to fox the bomber’s targeting computers.”

Boom, done.

But the real trick was that part of The Commander’s legend was that he’d fought a powerful super – the Combustible Man – in a series of battles where The Commander and his SEAL team defeated The Combustible Man. More than once.

I just couldn’t figure out how. I mean, sure, he’s strong . . . but at ST 28 (Basic Lift about 155 lbs) he can probably lift a motorcycle over his head – like Captain America in The First Avenger. But while that’s strong, it’s not “lifting tanks” strong. His forcefield and DR will bounce a .50-caliber bullet, but not anything much more than that, and in the last few adventures, he was threatened by armor piercing explosive grenades and demon-needles, both with an armor divisor.

And the raw skill numbers deliberately topped out at mostly less than 18. 

But then we started looking hard at Wildcard skills, as I noted earlier. In particular, Stealth. And some Tactics. In combat situations, he beats down with

  • Armoury (Small Arms) – 21
  • Camouflage, Explosives, Forward Observer, Gesture, Interrogation, Hiking, and Tactics – 22
  • Parachuting – 24
  • Stealth (DX+11) – 27

Ah ha. Ah HA!

The thing about skill levels of 20+ is that you use them. They allow you to have a fighting chance of taking “instant use” or “impossible odds” penalties. At Skill-24, you can do it at a -10 and still succeed 90% of the time. 

So, how was I playing The Commander wrong? He was too much Captain America, and not enough Batman. And as they saying goes, be yourself. Unless you can be Batman.

In the last fight, S1E11, he went full Batman. He had the right amount of terrain to vanish into. He’d move from behind this HVAC unit to behind that skylight. And by and large, no one would see him. He ran rings around a dangerous foe – General Cortez – and eventually wound up taking off one of his legs in a sneak-by stealthing. One lucky goon critically succeeded on his Perception roll, saw The Commander move, and was promptly killed by rifle fire.

The key bit here is that with as many points – synergistic points – scattered in many different abilities, I lost track of what he was good at, and in this case, playing him as the from-the-front guy in terms of standing visibly in the fray.

That’s not him. He makes the plan, and leads it, but he’s the sneaky recon guy who’s providing up-to-the-minute information originating a foot from the bad guy’s pancreas. He strikes from concealment, doing 5d+14 crush or cut as needed (that’s like 9d crush, or the equivalent of a .338 Lapua in terms of piercing damage). His hand-to-hand damage with his sword is second only to his ridiculously powerful technomagical super-bullets, which seem to have a large explosive radius, an armor divisor, and no real fall-off within the explosive’s distance. Three rounds took out eight guys in formation in S1E11. At once.

Once I started playing the synergy? The Commander became a force to be reckoned with. Before that?

Not so much.

Thursday is GURPSDay, and it’s time to think ahead.

We had a fun situation in this past Monday’s Aeon supers game.

We decided to use the 4-As framework to make a plan. We gathered intel, we actually guessed at what was going to happen, and we were even right.

Then we completely biffed it by exposing ourselves, which drew fire and brought down the wrath of at least a dozen, if not more, grenade-armed guards. Had it not been for a “flesh wound” Karma point, The Commander would have been killed when a limpet grendade with 20d(2) damage blew up on his back.

But we saw that coming, and I was frustrated that all of our gathering and recon did basically nothing.

This needs to be automated and mechanized – but here’s an idea that I think has been treated before in Pyramid, but maybe not like this.

Retroactive Planning

” . . . this is battle! And battle is a highly fluid situation. You . . . you plan on your contingencies, and I have. You keep your initiative, and I will. But what you don’t do is share command! It’s Never. A Good. Idea.”  – Vic Deacons, Broken Arrow

If you’ve done your homework in advance, you can engage in a bit of a “we thought of that!” retcon.

But that requires homework in advance. Planning for contingencies, as it were.


Assess, Analyze

During the Assess and Analyze phases of the mission, after you make your skill rolls to gather data and complimentary skill rolls as appropriate, you may end the session by making an Intelligence Analysis roll.

Look up the margin of success on the size (and speed range) table, with a minimum of zero. Yes, you can walk out of the planning session with nada . . . but the number you get is how many “foreseen contingencies” you can declare.

So if you make the Intel Analysis roll by 7, you get 3 foreseen contingencies. A “foreseen contingency” can be converted to a single “bonus roll” that acts just like a Tactics roll, or it can be a legit contingency as below. This choice is made during the planning phase, and is binding. No matter what, cap the number of contingencies at 3 – more is unwieldly. So if you make your roll by 10, you get up to three foreseen contingencies, plus one reroll in addition to whatever happens with the on-site Tactics roll.

Contingency Plans

Each “contingency” is a combination of people, places, and things/actions, and must be phrased that way, in the same way that a Wait is fairly well defined, but there’s wiggle room here.

People: This can be as broad as “the bad guys,” but if there’s more than one bad guy faction present, you’ll need to be specific. So “the Red team of bad guys” would be legit, as would “any one not obviously on our side.” But for the Aeon S1E9 eventuality, if we didn’t anticipate that two factions would show up (but we did!) that would not be an actionable contingency. 

Places: Where’s the thing going down. This needs to be recognizeable, but can be somewhat vague (because player/character knowledge can be fuzzy). “The ambush site” might be good enough if you’re expecting an ambush. “The black ops warehouse” from Aeon S1E9 would certainly qualify. “New York City?” Nuh-uh.

Things/Actions: This is the trigger that tells you that you’re falling into a contingency. You see the macguffin (and if you know there’s going to be a macguffin, but not precisely what it is, that’s probably good enough). Again, in S1E9 it was when the two black ops teams started fighting.

These combinations of people, places, and things must be defined in advance, and they are limited in number to the number of foreseen contingencies above – that is, one to three of them.

Saw that one coming . . . 


If one of your triggering incidents occurs, immediately make and resolve an appropriate contest of Tactics, and bank your rerolls as usual. 

You may spend them to retroactively get the following benefits, assuming you haven’t been able to explicitly get such intel already. 

If the GM wants to request an appropriate skill roll (modified by BAD if you’re using it!) that’s fair – but remember this entire concept is based around the characters having had time to develop good plans, enough that the players were able to come up with people, places, and a triggering event.

  • Local geography: Burn a reroll and you pulled searches for blueprints, got satellite data, or otherwise were able to determine what the map looks like. This needn’t be perfect information, but what there is, you have. This is one of those that will often be obtained in advance, but if the team didn’t, this lets you do it retroactively.
  • Enemy placement: Any foes not actively hiding are either located on the map, or at least given “there’s probably one or more bad guys here” markers several hexes om area. This allows some measure of avoidance to be done with careful movement.
  • Positioning: Make a new tactics roll, and again get margin of success from the size and speed/range table (size column). Minimum one, but that number is the number of unique positioning moves you can make. So if you made your roll by 5, you can locate two elements. That certainly might be “an infantry platoon at location X, and a special forces fire team at location Y” just as easly as “The Commander is here by those boxes, while Eamon is on the roof.” This does not imply that you’re undetectable in any way – just that you can “jump” your guys to an appropriate accessible location as if you’d planned it all along.
  • Stealth: With advance knowledge and planning you can force a failed Perception roll where you’re contesting it with Stealth or Camouflage. Each forced failure costs a roll (so wandering through a target zone loaded with bad guys and security cameras will deplete your re-rolls very fast). A forced failure is obvious to the person who’s bestowing or consuming the tactics reroll – you know that, save for excellent intel and tactics, you would have been spotted. This does not preclude future Perception checks by the bad guys, either . . . you get a moment’s reprieve, that’s all. You can use that to make a new Camouflage or Stealth roll to achieve a better hiding spot, or you can burst into action. Go, Leroy, go.
  • Gear: A reroll can be burned to request – with GM’s permission – a single item or group of items (a sniper rifle, or a handful of magazines of armor piercing ammo, or an electronic lockpick kit) that would help. Both the players and GM should be reasonable here. If there’s no gear to be had, you don’t consume the roll.
  • Backup: If it would be available, and reasonable, reinforcements should be allowed. These NPCs will be of an appropriate level given the quality of the requesting group. Assistance rolls or Reaction rolls are good mechanics to invoke here. Failure would mean that none are available; if that’s the case you don’t lose the tactics roll.
  • Normal Use: You don’t have to burn the tactics rolls based on foreseen contingencies. You can save them for dynamic eventualities (and you probably will want to do that).
Parting Shot

This sort of thing wouldn’t have completely saved us yesterday. We did hit on the #1 option, though – two factions would duke it out in front of us, and I had seven re-rolls that we wound up not using, or maybe we used one – but none in the furious and almost-lethal battle on the first floor.

We did, actually, do some of the above – The Commander was allowed to retroactively put suppressors on his own weapons for some initial combat volleys that came and went. 

The biggest opportunity for us was instead of being forced into action with the first failed Stealth roll (or first successful Perception check), we might have been able to choose the time and place of action

The re-roll concept for Tactics is a good one. But they very frequently go unused, either due to heat-of-the-moment, or resource hoarding. Having some things like the above to explicitly spend rerolls on – provided some contingency planning is done – is a good way to bridge the gap between player and character expertise.

Mostly, when I do RPG play, instead of design work, I am doing it very specifically for the social interactions. While system can (and does) matter, what I really want out of gaming isn’t usually to play GURPS, or D&D, or whatever.[1]

The ConTessa Blog Logo

Over at the Contessa blog+Sarah Richardson interviews four players about how to be a good player. 

The following discussion is nearly all about the social aspects of the game, with a few nods to mechanics, because a playdate isn’t a playdate (in my daughter’s lingo) unless all parties are actually playing and having fun.

As much as I get into system and mechanics and design on this blog, and while sometimes I will shake my head and even chafe against system issues, the reasons, I think, that I and others will walk away from a table – figuratively and literally – is because expectations are not being met.

This might be game expectations – I wanted to play a game about killing owlbears and taking their stuff, and this isn’t it. But it can also be about social expectations and in-character goals. I had issues with a Gumshoe/Trail of Cthulhu campaign in the past for two reasons – I didn’t understand the system as well as I’d have liked, but the biggest was a total miss in what the campaign segment was about. I assumed the prequel we were playing was how each of us got interested in looking for conspiracies and finding out threats to sanity and the world. The actual campaign assumed we already cared about that stuff and were deeply invested. I was quickly disinvited to play, since my actions were not synchronized with the group mission. 

Expectations management and clear communication? Not achieved. 

The discussion led by Sarah shows that this responsibility is multi-directional. Rather than keep executing actions that irked the crap out of our GM (and I could tell) in character, I should have spoken up the first time, saying “am I supposed to do X here, because my character is acting on Y assumption.”

No, he would have likely replied. You need to be interested in taking the initiative and pursuing Z, because your assumption Y is inverted.”

Railroading! Fie! A pox on your first born, thou wart on a salamander’s tongue!

Not railroading. If I describe a game where everyone’s supposed to be an ass-kickin, gun-totin’, warrior for hire, and someone comes in wanting to play (say) a sociologist that simply wants to study things passively, that’s expectations mismatch. It’s not the game I want to run, nor the game the other players want to play. That way either lies total failure, or total awesome – but the second one is reserved for groups that either self-assemble or purposefully decide how everyone’s going to have fun with such a misfit in their midst.

Original image from “How to be a good player”

Anyway, read it, and heed the advice. RPGing – at least for me – represents three to five hours of fairly scarce time with my friends – often on video cameras because the odds of putting many people in my house with two small children in it, late at night when I can spare the moment(s), is basically zero. So it’s all about the social interaction first, and the mechanics or system second.

Sarah’s interview/round-table is chock full of advice in this situation, and worth reading.

[1] This isn’t always true. I very much want to play in a short-lived mini-campaign using each of Night’s Black Agents, Fate, and Savage Worlds – ideally with an existing, enthusiastic, and experienced group willing to put up with me for 3-5 sessions – to get a better feel for how these games play at the table.

On December 28, 2012, I made my first post to this blog. My first year seemed to go pretty well.  Looking back, over GB’s second year, how did I do? Was it worth it, and is it still?

Content

Well, start with my own content. Including this one, I’ll have made 474 posts total, or an additional 224 posts. Slightly off pace, but averaging 1.6 days between posts, or 4.3 posts per week. That still exceeds my goal of about a post every other day, so that’s fine.

I tried to to continue my posting of one or two actual play reports, and a couple of gaming articles, and some entertainment/inspiration pieces. The birth of my second daughter in June threw me off my pace for a bit; as well, work heated up and I have not had as much time in the evenings to sit down and really focus on content creation. Still, my posting velocity seems good, so it’s really been other things that have suffered. A project that should have been completed a long time ago needs to be polished off, and I’ve got a few articles and books I’d like to write that are still in the “when I have time” stage.


The Melee Academy joint blog posts still occur, as do GURPS 101-type posts. I’ve thrown down a few “opinion” pieces (but not many), which generated a lot of response/discussion/argument. All well and good. 

I’ve also started some commentary and reporting on D&D-flavored games, both S&W as well as D&D 5th edition. Given the overall size of the D&D and derived segment relative to GURPS, it’s no surprise that they are among the favorite posts of all time. In my Top 10 since the blog’s inception, five are Firing Squad interviews, one is my Walther PPQ range report post, one is Technical Natasha, and the remaining three are two posts on D&D5 and one on the S&W B-team – an actual play writeup that hit over 800 views.

That’s not to say my GURPS content is unappreciated, but it’s clear that the market is dominated by D&D.

The big add, and dominating my Top 10 list, has been fourteen additional interviews on Gaming Ballistic’s Firing Squad. These are tremendous fun to do, and get very good response when I do them. They aren’t going away any time soon, though I can always use suggestions – or volunteers, for that matter – for people to interview. I’m hoping that they’re popular enough that I can score a few more big names. I did get Ken Hite and Steve Jackson in the last year, and that was great.

Response

I increased my readership over the prior year. While in my first year, Blogger put me at 125,000 pageviews, this year I increased that to about 318,000, which at 193,000 more is more than a 50% increase in pageviews using their algorithm. 

Google Analytics clocks in lower. It puts me at about 101,000 pageviews in the prior year, compared to just shy of 70,000 for my first year. And from 14,000 to 43,000 “users,” which is a 200% increase. That’s good growth for any business. 

Using the number of “sessions” launched, I increased that from 108 to 175 per day. Great growth, but still a modest total. My best week ever was when I threw down some numbers and thoughts on DnD5’s Basic Set, which earned me something like 300 sessions per day for a week. Again: market matters.

I about doubled the number of comments received, but that doesn’t count people who only comment on Google+. The comments made there are good stuff, but not captured in my records. A brief flirtation with all G+ commentary using that feature on the blog proved unsatisfactory to me.

The big news for the year was that I got some recognition. +Charles Akins pegged mine as one of the Top 10 blogs everyone should be reading in a guest column over on ENWorld, This says something given that a lot of my content is GURPS. +Jeffro Johnson also did me the honor of naming mine the Best Gaming Blog of 2014, thanks in largest part due to the Firing Squad interviews in general, and my interview with +Steve Jackson in particular. I’ll note that his #2 was +Peter V. Dell’Orto, who’s content probably beats mine, but Jeffro’s interest is captured by the “journalism” that I do.

The Future

Once again, I’d like to get back to both running and playing games in 2015. I had a brief campaign going, Alien Menace, which spawned some really good ideas and fun play reports. Also got me involved with VTTs as a GM rather than as a player. I remain convinced that sanctioned VTT support in some or all of the major programs would do a ton to bring people into using GURPS. You don’t need it, but having played some really cool D&D style games on Roll20, it can really help. Even if you’re +Tim Shorts and are a strange attractor for quantum 1’s.

My interview pace was good this year, clocking in more than one per month on the average. They do tend to be “bursty,” and I’ll land a few, and release them pretty much close together, and then pause to catch my breath. I’ve gotten the form and format down better, but the transcribing, even with +Christopher R. Rice‘s able help, takes a long time. Plus, I’ve started adding more “post-production” work to the video itself, as seen in my interviews with +Steve Jackson and +Hans-Christian Vortisch . I like the look of that very much, and will continue to do it – though it makes for several-to-many late nights, plus taking nearly overnight to spool to the final MP4.

I’ll try and get back to a couple play reports per week. I’ve joined +Ken H‘s DnD5 group, and they seem to not hate me. I jumped in at 5th level with a Fighter, so my character is simple but it gives me a good feel for the basics, which is what I wanted. I’ll also continue to play, in all likelihood, in a weekly GURPS game. 

I still wish to join someone’s FATE game, as well as Night’s Black Agents, for enough time to get used to the system. I want to take a look at the most popular games over the last few years and get familiar with them, because if I’m going to continue gaming journalism, I want to be more broad than GURPS and D&D. Though I have played Pathfinder in the past, and participated in a brief Trail of Cthulhu game, both with +Jeromy French at the helm. But there are other games/systems I should probably be more familiar with.

In terms of my other writing projects, non-blog related, I continue to collaborate usefully with +Peter V. Dell’Orto, and will continue to do so, I hope. There are a few other things in the works, and I’ve got, oh, maybe four to six Pyramid articles already in to Steven, if not yet with any sort of idea as to when they’ll be published. Three of them I really can’t wait to get into print; they represent some really good tinkering. A few more are just fun. One big one needs to figure out what it wants to be.

There’s one honest-to-goodness book I’d like to write or help with, as well, that I think would be a hoot. Plus, there’s a short article for another game system that I think could really be a thing

Oh, and one more: I got invited to contribute a freakin’ column somewhere. I have a title/concept, and I’m working some thoughts on topics. I’ll build up a head of steam, a buffer or slushpile, as it were, and then start releasing them. Look for that in 3 months or so, ’cause you know I’ll be talking it up when it comes out.

Parting Shot

Thanks to all those who read (and share!) this blog with me. I’m certain had I not gotten such good feedback from everyone, I’d have just stopped doing it. I hope to grow and grow the blog’s scope and content, and I’m always looking for a line on fun interviews.

I love hearing from people, and even criticism is quite useful, as are suggestions of what to look at next. I’m always itching for more topics! Thanks for coming by, and here’s to another great blog year!