Sunday, September 25, 2016

D&D 5e: Meet Arkan Kupriveryx (Execution)

Here’s another post to close out the story of Arkan Kupriveryx, my current D&D 5e character.  You should at least have read last week’s post to know what I’m on about.  In that post, I explained why I have a “PC” despite being the GM, and what the basic mechanics of his character would be (race and classes).  This week I want to show you how I turned that into an interesting backstory (or at least I think it’s interesting).

This sort of backstory-building is what I want from my players, and the amount of work it takes is why I don’t kill characters.1  It’s okay if you don’t have a really cool concept to start off with.  (Of course, it’s lovely if you do, as well.  Just not a big deal if you don’t.)  But, with a modicum of effort, you can come up with a pretty decent backstory.  I already gave an abbreviated version of something like this when talking about my younger son’s character; here’s a slightly longer example.

So what we know from last week is that I needed to come up with a concept for a paladin character, but a paladin of vengeance.  He would also have a bit of arcane knowledge via one level of sorcerer.  So the most sensible thing would be if he were a sorcerer first, then something happened which caused him to swear revenge on someone or something.  Since the adventure we’d be playing was Hoard of the Dragon Queen,2 and since part of the advantage of having an NPC PC is to have a way to tie directly into the storyline, this one was a no-brainer: my character would swear vengeance against the evil dragons, and/or the dragon cult, which are the main antagonists of the adventure.  Not sure why he needs vengeance at this point, but we’ll circle back to it.

So we’re set on one level of sorcerer, then two of paladin.  Sorcerer is one of the few classes where you get to pick your subclass at first level, so we’ll have to make a choice there as well.  Happily, this is a no-brainer: the draconic bloodline is easily the best choice, even counting some of the other options to be found on the Internet.  And someone with some good dragon’s blood in their family tree would be particularly incensed by evil dragons, so that all works out.  Now let’s look at race.  Sticking to what we have in the core rules, I started thinking seriously about a dragonborn.  It’s not the best option for my particular build (a dragonborn gets +2 strength and +1 charisma, whereas this character would be better off if those were reversed), but I’m not here to min-max.  The advantages are sufficient, and the storytelling possibilities just got really interesting: not only a dragon sorcerer, but a dragonborn dragon sorcerer ... way to double-down on the tie-in to good dragons and hatred of evil dragons.  Next I start reading a bit on the Forgotten Realms wiki (since that’s the setting our adventure takes place in) about what dragonborn are like in Faerûn.  I don’t have to conform to this info, of course, but, if I’m going to build a character who’s completely out-of-place in the setting, I want to do that consciously, not out of ignorance.  So I read, and I discover that dragonborn hate dragons (check), that they’re generally very honorable (works for a paladin), and that they have a strong connection to their family and clan (so perhaps it was his clan that was wiped out by evil dragons).  So far so good.

Then I hit this little gem:

The scales a dragonborn wore were scarlet, gold, rust, ocher, bronze, or brown in hue, though they in fact bore little correlation to a dragonborn’s breath weapon and the scale colors of true dragons.

Now, if you know anything about dragons in D&D, you already know that the evil dragons are the “chromatic” ones, and are red, white, green, and so forth, generally matching their breath weapon (red for fire, white for ice, etc).  And the good dragons are “metallic” (gold, silver, and so forth).  But here’s something saying I could be a red-scaled dragonborn with an ice breath weapon, or a bronze-scaled individual with fire breath ... how intriguing.  Anyone who knew anything about dragonborn wouldn’t find this unusual of course, but, then, not many people know very much about dragonborn, as they’re not very common.  So some people might expect one thing from my character and then be surprised when that didn’t turn out to be true.  In fact ... what if I deliberately screwed around with this expectation?  What if I was a black-scaled dragonborn with acid breath (which is in fact the traditional breath weapon of a black dragon)?  Except that I (and my whole clan, for that matter) believed that we were actually descended from copper dragons, who also have an acid breath weapon.  Now we’re really starting to see some nifty ideas taking shape.  I named my character Arkan, after getting a feel for the sound of the sample names in the book, and I invented a clan name of “Kupriveryx,” which vaguely sounds like the Latin for “true copper.”  Then I decided that my magical dragon scales (a feature of the dragon sorcerer) would be a translucent, mystical image covering my natural scales, and that, viewed in just the right light, they would have a coppery glow.

Next I have the problem of needing both an arcane focus (for my sorcerer spells) and a divine focus (for my paladin spells).  And I still need to swing a longsword, plus be able to make somatic gestures for arcane spells—it’s like I need 4 hands over here.  I solve this by saying I use a crystal (arcane focus) which is set into a copper chain which is wound around my left hand, and that’s what I use to cast with.  Looking for a god who would suit my theme of vengeance, I settle on Torm.  And, oh look: his symbol is a right-hand gauntlet.  So I get one special, white gauntlet (made of some hard, enamel-like subtance) for my right hand.  I have some extra starting gold because we started at 3rd level,3 so I just charge myself 2-3 times as much for a crystal and a gauntlet (since they’re custom-made), and now I have my foci covered, plus I have two more cool character details.

Next, I want to have just a few rogue-like touches, so I concoct a background by combining the spy from D&D Wiki with the faction agent from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, saying I was initially set to be a spy for the Harpers, but then I dropped out to pursue my oath of vengeance, but I still have a few contacts.  Give myself a long black cloak, proficiency in stealth and investigation, and add in some goggles of night4although mine don’t look like the picture in the DMG; they’re all black and give me an unsettling, bug-eyed appearance—and my character is complete.  He fulfills all the roles that our party needs, but he’s still interesting.  He’s effective—even optimized in a few ways—but not min-maxed.  He hasn’t hit his paladin subclass yet, which makes him noticeably lag behind his other two compatriots, but then he gets a few perks from the sorcerer side.  For instance, he gets to do ray of frost and fire bolt as often as he likes, as they’re cantrips, on top of his acid line breath weapon (from being a dragonborn) once per short rest, so he’s got quite a few of the energy types covered.  Plus he can do witch bolt as a 1st-level spell ... or at least he could, if he ever gets to use a 1st-level spell on anything other than cure wounds.  Being the front-line healer has its downsides, and Lay on Hands only gets you so far.

But I can’t complain, really.  I took a set of required features—including a class I really didn’t want to play—and turned it into an interesting character with an intriguing backstory.  I’ve intentionally left a few of the details vague (such as who were his contacts in the Harpers, what—if any—missions did he go on for them, etc) so that I could adapt them to whatever situations come up during the course of the campaign.  But he’s firmly tied into the main plotline of the adventure, and he knows information that can be useful for the party to have.  So I’m pretty pleased with him, overall.  Hopefully his example will spark some creativity for your next RPG character as well.


1 I only maim them a little.  Sometimes.

2 By the way, many people consider this to be a subpar adventure, partially because you have to work hard to find all the pieces (some of which are in supplemental PDFs on the Wizards of the Coast site), but probably primarily because it’s very “railroady.”  By which we mean that it doesn’t give you a lot of options: you just need to keep agreeing to do the next thing on the list or else the whole thing derails.  But I don’t mind any of that, particularly—while it’s true that I prefer open-world campaigns when I build my own, for a quick-start campaign that includes a brand new player, a strong sense of direction isn’t so bad.  And the having to hunt down all the bits is annoying, but not a deal-breaker.

3 I cooked up some figures for this based on some Internet sources.  Maybe I’ll do another article about that someday.

4 Because I told everyone they could have one minor magic item, presumably gained from their previous adventuring.  And goggles of night are a pretty minor magical item, and I always hate being the only guy in the party who can’t see in the dark.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

D&D 5e: Meet Arkan Kupriveryx (Concept)

Since my last two posts put together are longer than 3 of my “normal” posts combined, I figured I better do a shorter post this time.  It’s still on gaming, but this is more illustrative than explanatory.  I want to demonstrate some of the principles I like to stick to as a GM by talking about my character in the 5e game I’m running for my boys: Arkan Kupriveryx.

So first let’s start out with why I have a PC.  I’m the GM; techincally speaking, I can’t have a PC, as I am not a P.  All characters run by the GM are NPCs, by definition.  But this is a tradition that my old gaming group started many moons ago.  The basic reasoning behind it goes like this:  Say the current GM gets tired of being in charge and wants to hand over the reigns to someone else.  If the GM doesn’t run a “PC,” then the former GM has to roll up a new character, and we have to find an in-story way to integrate with the group.  And what happens to the former PC of the new GM?  So much easier if there’s an NPC who is a real part of the party—treated like a PC in every way—no matter who the GM is.  So when GM #1 steps down, their NPC becomes a PC, and GM #2’s PC becomes an NPC.  Except we still treat them like PCs.  See?  It sounds more confusing than it actually is, in practice.

Also, having an extra PC around can be way useful if your group is small.  Without Arkan, our party would be two PCs, and that’s just not enough to survive in a typical D&D world.  Especially when one of them is brand new to the game.  Plus, having an “NPC PC” allows you (the GM) to funnel information directly into the party when you want to, without having to invent clumsy expository devices.  So that’s nice.

Anyhow, I knew I wanted to create a PC, and my typical modus operandi when starting a new campaign is to let everyone else come up with their concepts first, then I fill in the gaps.  I consider it a really interesting challenge to take a character whose abilities and features are mostly predetermined by party need and then find a way to turn that into a cool character concept.  In this case, we had a druid, and a rogue with some arcane abilities.1  So what we really needed was a bruiser—a tank.  I balked a bit at this.

“But I hate playing fighters!” I whined to my eldest.  This is true: in all my years of playing D&D, I’ve only ever played a straight-up fighter twice, and I hated it both times.2

“Play a paladin,” he replied.  “We could use the extra healing anyway.”  Druids can heal, true, but not when in their animal forms.  And obviously the Smaller Animal was interested in running around as a dinosaur most of the time.

“But I hate paladins even more than fighters!!” I double whined.  This is also true: I dislike rangers and paladins3 because I think they shouldn’t have spellcasting abilities.  But I hate paladins even more than rangers4 because paladins are goody-goodies.  I don’t like Superman, I don’t like Captain America, I don’t like Galad from Wheel of Time, I don’t like Miko from Order of the Stick ... I don’t like paladins.  I even find Lancelot a bit annoying, if I’m honest.5

But I could see that he was right.  A paladin was exactly what the party needed: excellent melee skills and reliable healing powers.  So I took a look at the paladin subclasses, and I discovered something really interesting: there are 3 paladin subclasses, and only 1 of them is actually a paladin.  The “Oath of Devotion” subclass represents the traditional D&D paladin.  Then there’s the “Oath of the Ancients,” which is more of a green knight, which is interesting, but then there’s the “Oath of Vengeance,” which is ... well, frankly, it’s just friggin’ awesome.  Oh, it’s not that powerful—many folks online claim it’s the weakest of the paladin subclasses—but, flavor-wise, it’s easily the best thing to happen to paladins since ... well, ever.  Because it’s about as far from a goody-goody as you can get.  I like to call them “avengers.”  Not like Avengers like superheroes, just avengers, like a character granted supernatural powers of vengeance.  Sweet.

So I decided I wanted to punch up my avenger a bit with some arcane power, to supplement my eldest’s arcane rogue a bit (and to keep myself from getting too bored with the character).  I kind of wanted to go warlock, because I really love that class.  But in the end I decided that warlock doesn’t really lend itself to multiclassing very well, so sorcerer was a better way to go.  So right now Arkan is a dragonborn dragon sorcerer6 1 / avenger paladin 2 (although paladins don’t actually hit their subclass until 3rd level, so he’s not really an “avenger” yet—but, you know, that’s the plan).  Sorcerer and paladin actually synergize pretty well: they’re both charisma-based casters, so that’s nice, and sorcerers are the only class that gets the constitution save proficiency, which is what you need to make when you take damage while trying to concentate on a spell.7  So it’s fairly workable.  My current plan is to leave it at just a single level of sorcerer until I get to avenger 4, because of the mildly weird multiclassing restrictions we talked about last week: if I don’t go all the way to level 4 in paladin, I delay my ability score boost8 by even more than the 1 level I’ve already delayed it.  And I don’t think I can reasonably afford that.  So I’ll stick with avenger until 4th, then take another level of sorcerer for my 6th level, then we’ll have to just see what makes good sense in-story after that.

That’s fairly long for a “short” post, so I think I’ll wait until next week to tell you all about Arkan’s backstory and describe his general look.


1 Although not an arcane trickster, for those of you familiar with the D&D subclass system.  It’s a 3rd party archetype called a shadow warrior.  Pretty cool, actually.

2 To satisfy my craving for the unusual and non-traditional, I played a non-standard race both times: once a half-ogre, and once an alaghi.

3 As I mentioned last week in one of the footnotes.

4 Even though I actually like the paladin’s signature ability (lay on hands) much more than the ranger’s signature ability (favored enemy).  Mainly because every version of favored enemy I’ve ever seen is worthless, either at low levels or at high levels, and occasionally both.

5 And, as I’ve stated before, I believe Lancelot to be the ur-paladin.

6 By which I mean a sorcerer with the draconic bloodline: more on that next week.

7 I’m pretty sure I’m going to be accused of min-maxing for taking sorcerer first, because people will think I specifically did that in order to get the Con save.  Honestly, I didn’t even think about it until afterwards: I specifically started out with sorcerer for backstory reasons, which we shall see next week.

8 Or feat acquisition, assuming my GM allows it.  Oh, wait: I am the GM.  I think I’ll allow it.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

D&D 5e: The Starting Level Dilemma

I briefly alluded to several things last week specifically related to the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D 5e for short).  I will attempt to expand on those in a few blog posts, of which this is the first.  These posts will mostly assume that you know (or at least care) about the rules of D&D, so you may want to give this week a pass if that’s not your thing (although I’ll try to make it understandable even if you’re a newbie).  As always, refer to the masthead for some really swell advice.

The thing that I’m interested in today is the question of what level to use for starting characters.  Now, even if you’re not much of a pen-and-paper (PnP) roleplayer, you’ll probably recognize the basic concepts of level and class from many RPG video games:1 when you build your character, you pick a class (fighter, wizard, etc), then you start at level 1.  As you play, you gain more and more levels in your chosen class.

Well, assuming a single-class system, of course, which is how most video game RPGs work.  That is, once you pick your class, you’re stuck with that class forever.  Or until you change to a different character, at least.  In the first versions of D&D, that was how it worked as well.  Then they added something they called multiclassing (but that was an awfully generous term for it), and something called dual-classing, which was even less so.  Neither one was much use if your goal was to be able to trade power and specialization for versatility and generalization.

By the time D&D hit third edition, someone on the design team had cottoned on to the idea that making multiclassing stupidly difficult was annoying everybody.  Unfortunately, their solution was to make it stupidly easy instead.  You would think this wouldn’t be a bad thing.  And, indeed: when I first read the multiclassing rules in 3e, I was over the moon.  I thought that was amazing: very simple mechanically, very flexible, and it radically increased your chances of being able to build the character you wanted, no matter how wacky a combinaton it was.  But the problem is, when you make things too easy, they’re easy to abuse.  And the ease of multiclassing in 3e led to a practice called “single-dipping” (or, occasionally, “double-dipping”), where you build a character who has one (or two) levels in a bunch of different classes, just to get the cool features that those classes get at lower levels.  This became a favorite technique of “min-maxers,” or, as we like to call them, “munchkins.”2  Which in turn gave multiclassing a bad name, which in turn led to a lot of backlash.

Take 4e.3  In 4e, it was actually impossible to multiclass at all.  Oh, sure: you could simulate it somewhat, vaguely and crappily.  But not really.  This was one of the big reasons—probably the biggest, honestly—that I never actually played 4e.  It was such a massive step backwards to the bad-old-days that I wasn’t even interested in trying it.  You see, for me, D&D has always been about building interesting characters.  I like the weird classes, the unusual classes.  Thus, I’ve played many a bard, many a druid, and one monk, who was probably the longest-running character in my decades-long RPG career.  I’ve only ever played a fighter twice, and hated it both times, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never played a wizard at all.  I like options, the wackier the better, and I like creating convoluted backstories, and I like making characters who leave an impression.  For years, the mechanics of D&D frustrated me when I was trying to push the boundaries of character creation, and finally 3e came along and fixed it, and then everyone decided that multiclassing was for munchkins only and I got screwed.  Many GMs in online forums will tell you they don’t allow multiclassing in their games at all, and while of course I would never play with anyone so close-minded, here comes 4e and the option has been removed completely.  No wonder I went over so enthusiastically to Pathfinder.

Pathfinder’s “answer” to multiclassing, by the way, was to stop trying to discourage people from mulitclassing with penalties and whatnot, and start trying to encourage people to single-class, using bonuses and a “capstone” feature at 20th level.  (For the uninitiated, 20th level is—usuallythe highest level a D&D character can achieve.  So, if you multiclass at all, you can never get to 20th level in any class, because your 20th level muticlassed character has, by definition, more than one class.  The problem with this technique as a carrot is that it’s beyond rare for most people to play one character long enough to hit 20th level.  Unless you don’t start at level 1, which gives you a tiny peek at how the topic of multiclassing relates to the starting level dilemma.)  I like this better, obviously, but it doesn’t really do anything to alleviate the concerns with multiclassing: it’s still a tool that can be easily abused by powergamers.

So now we get to the meat of how the whole multiclassing debate has influenced the starting level level for characters in new games I run.  Because I’m running 5e now, and 5e has taken yet another approach to multiclassing.  It’s a two-pronged approach, and the first prong consists of finally figuring out a middle ground for multiclassing.  Here’s the basic problems with 3e-style multiclassing and how they’re addressed in 5e:

  • Classes often get very cool/useful features at early levels.  This is called “front-loading” a class’ features, or sometimes just a “front-loaded” class.  Front-loading seriously encourages single- or double-dipping, because you can take one or two levels and get “the good stuff” and then move on to a different class.  This is the most obvious problem with multiclassing—so obvious that D&D began addressing it in 3.5e,4 and Pathfinder had already made major strides toward correcting it as well.  5e just took it even further.
  • Saving throws get out of control very quickly.  In 3e, there weren’t but 3 saving throws in the first place (down from 5 in 2e), and nearly every class got 1 “good” save and 2 “bad” saves.  So you only had to multiclass twice (at most) to get all 3 good saves, and the fact that everyone’s saves at first level were a bit high to start off (in order to keep you from dying instantaneously the first time you had to make a save), taking 1 level in every class meant you’d end up with ridiculous saves.  5e fixed this by expanding yet simplifying the whole saving throw system: there are now 6 saves, but they correspond exactly to the 6 ability scores, and, instead of having a bonus that goes up every level (and is different for different classes), you’re either proficient in the save or you’re not.  How this impacts multiclassing is that you only get saving throw proficiciencies as a 1st-level character.  If you take the first level of a different class at some later level, you just don’t get any additional saving throw proficiencies.  And, because you’re either proficient or not, you don’t have to worry about stacking anyway.
  • Spellcasters get hosed by multiclassing.  In 3e multiclassing, you keep your spells from different classes entirely separate.  So while an 8th-level wizard is casting 4th-level spells, an 8th-level character with 4 levels of wizard and 4 levels of cleric5 can only cast 2nd-level wizard spells, and 2nd-level cleric spells.  That’s a huge disadvantage to multiclassing as a spellcaster.  5e fixes this by allowing spell progression to “stack” between classes, sort of.  So if you’re a wizard 4/cleric 4 in 5e, you only know 2nd-level wizard spells and 2nd-level cleric spells, but you can cast them as 4th-level spells, which increases their power so you’re not quite as useless as you would be in 3e.
  • The argument against multiclassing is too weak (or so ridiculous/complex that no one will enforce it).  In 2e, only certain races could multiclass (or dual-class, for that matter).  That was so silly that most people ignored it.  In 3e, you get a complicated reduction in XP6 for every extra class you take.  That one is so math-intensive that most people ignored it.  In Pathfinder, they’ve replaced the stick with the carrot, but the every-level bonuses (1 extra hit point or skill rank for sticking to your original class) are trivial enough to ignore, and the capstone, as I said, is mostly a theoretical carrot, as opposed to something you could actually eat.  In 5e, they fixed this by tying ability score increases (and feats, if you use them) to your class level instead of your character level.  Which means that multiclassing forces you to delay your ability score increases, which can be a serious but simple to enforce downside.7
  • The argument for multiclassing is too strong.  Basically, there just isn’t enough variation in the existing classes to allow many character concepts to be built.  So multiclassing is often the only way to play that sneaky, semi-mystical shadowcaster,8 or that ever-elusive “gish” (the prototypical fighter/mage).  Multiclassing often wasn’t perfect for these characters either, but it was a damn sight better than the alternative, which was nothing.  Strangely enough, 3e also led to the explosion of “non-core” classes (both official and third-party, not to mention homebrew), so multiclassing obviously wasn’t the best way in many people’s eyes.  But, in the core rules, it was what you had, so you dealt with it.  Pathfiner eventually introduced “hybrid” classes (still non-core) in an attempt to alleviate this somewhat.9  5e deals with this issue using their second prong—subclasses—which we’ll delve into in more detail in just a moment.

So multiclassing in 5e is better, for the most part.  But it is harder, which means that it can be more difficult to make that perfect character.  I’ve said (a few times, to a few different people now) that, while I’d much rather play 5e, I’d still much rather build a character in Pathfinder.  I’m not a munchkin, nor a powergamer, nor a min-maxer.  I just love having loads of options.  Anything that increases my options gets a thumbs-up, and of course anything that decreases them gets the thumbs-down.

But let’s talk about that second prong for a bit.  “Subclasses” (also called archetypes, paths, or any number of different terms) are actually quite a brilliant concept.  There’s always been a bit of a chance for specialization in certain classes: many versions of the wizard could choose to specialize in a “school of magic” (such as illusion or divination), and many versions of the cleric had to choose a “domain” (or two) representing the particular areas of interest of their chosen god.  But Pathfinder took that to a whole new level, letting barbarians choose different rage powers, allowing wizards to either have a familiar, or a special wizards’ staff, giving rogues a set of “talents” that they could choose from at various levels, etc.  Suddenly every class had lots of little choices to make, and the end result was that it was now much more unlikely that two characters of the same class would end up being just copies of one another, making at least one redundant.  5e doubled down on this, giving the character one big choice instead of lots of smaller ones.  That choice is the subclass.  So, no longer are you “just” a fighter: you’re either a champion, or a battle master, or an eldritch knight.  The three subclasses play quite differently, yet they all use the basic chassis of a fighter.  This makes adding new “classes” much easier, and much easier to balance.  You merely add a new subclass instead, giving you a much smaller set of features to delineate, and the majority of the class features are already balanced by virtue of being core, thoroughly playtested classes.  From the perspective of multiclassing, it simply removes a lot of the need.  The eldritch knight neatly fills that desire for a gish, and my shadowcaster can either be a rogue archetype (for which there already is one: the arcane trickster), or a wizard tradition (such as a school of shadow; there’s no official version of this, but a quick Internet search will turn up several potential options10).

The solution isn’t perfect though.  If we imagine that 5e’s eldritch knight is analogous to Pathfinder’s magus, and perhaps that the battle master is a bit like 4e’s warlord (and, yes, I know: neither analogy is without its problems), then you could imagine, at least if the magus and warlock were in the same system, that, with multiclassing, you could play a sort of warmage that was a combination of the two classes.  Maybe two levels of magus followed by a level of warlord, then repeat as needed.  But you can’t do that sort of thing in 5e, even with its disadvantageous multiclassing, because they’re both fighters, and you can’t multiclass with one class.  This is not the real problem though.

The real problem is that you don’t actually choose your fighter subclass until 3rd level.  Now, not all classes are like this: two (cleric and sorcerer) have you choose at 1st level, two (druid and wizard) have you choose at 2nd level, and one (warlock) is totally weird and has you choose one thing at 1st and another at 3rd.  But the majority (7 out of 1211) don’t have you make a very significant choice about what sort of role your character is going to fulfill—in some cases, even down to whether you can use magic or not12until 3rd level.  That’s very late, in my eyes.  That means that, for 10 out of 12 classes, a first level character of that class isn’t yet who they will be, eventually.  They haven’t yet fleshed out their concept.  And I understand why 5e does this—it helps eliminate dipping by de-front-loading the classes—and I’m not even saying I think it’s a bad idea ... but it has a pretty big downside.

And, because of that, I’ve decided that it makes a lot of sense to start 5e characters at 3rd level.  Looking back on it, I sort of hated playing 1st-level characters anyway.  Nearly everything you try to do you nearly kills you (and often actually kills you), so it’s just a stressful survival slog to 2nd or 3rd anyway.  I think most of us just started at 1st level because that’s what you were “supposed to” do.13  But it’s not required.  And maybe it’s even a good thing.  I’ve only had the opportunity to carry out this plan once so far—my current game with my two boys—but I really like how it worked out.  The characters didn’t have the chance to play through those early levels, true, but now they’re coming into the story with a richer history and more options.  It feels pretty right so far.


1 Who in turn derived said concepts from PnP RPGs in the first place.

2 Wikipedia has more info on what constitutes munchkinism, as well as a few guesses at to the origin of the term.  But, again: if you’re already a PnP RPGer, you know the term, and, even if you’ve only played video RPGs, you’ve likely run across it before.

3 Please.

4 The “minor” update to third edition that was released between 3e and 4e, if you’re not familiar.

5 This combo is usually called a “mystic theurge,” and 3e offers a “prestige class” which helps address part of this problem.  But it doesn’t fix it completely.

6 Experience points.

7 Alternately, you can just only multiclass in groups of 4 levels per class.  But that has its own issues.

8 Attempting to combine wizard and thief/rogue was the focus for many of my homebrew classes, as well as two of my major PCs (both using the 2e Skills and Powers rules, which many call “2.5e”).

9 I’m not even going to mention 3e’s “gestalt” classes, which were so over-the-top as to be difficult to take seriously.

10 Although, honestly, I think I might be better off trying to realize this concept via warlock instead.  A warlock with any of the three core patrons—depending on what sort of flavor you’re going for—and maybe a homebrew pact boon (I just don’t feel like blade, chain, or tome works here ... not sure what the right answer is though) would probably end up feeling more right than anything I could do with either arcane trickster or a school of shadow.  But that’s starting to drift pretty far afield of the original topic.

11 Eight out of 12 if you include warlock, but that’s a tough call.  Your patron (1st-level choice) gives you more features to differentiate, numerically, but your pact (3rd-level choice) probably makes the most difference in your playstyle.  So it’s a bit of a toss-up.

12 If you’re a particularly big D&D nerd, you will be tempted to bring up 3e’s (and Pathfinder’s, for that matter) “half-casters,” the paladin and ranger, here.  But I’m ignoring those, for a very good reason: they’re stupid.  The prototypical ranger is Aragorn, and the prototypical paladin is Lancelot; did either of them cast spells?  No, of course not.  I say adding spellcasting—especially delayed spellcasting—to paladins and rangers was lazy design, plain and simple, and I’ll stand by that statement.

13 Unless you were playing Dark Sun.  Theoretically, everyone’s Dark Sun character started at 2nd level because it was just too damn hard for 1st level characters.  But I’ve often wondered if the Dark Sun designers were just tired of killing off fragile first level characters, mostly by accident.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why I Play D&D

Although most of my gaming posts have been about Heroscape, I have mentioned my love of roleplaying: primarily when I talked about playing post-apocalyptic RPGs and my extended discussion of the evolution of Pathfinder.  I even went into a bit of details of why I like teaching my kids to play them.1  But I never actually talked much about why I enjoy playing such games.

You know, every copy of D&D rulebooks I’ve ever owned started with a “what is a roleplaying game?” section.  This is because roleplaying games are quite different from other games.  Games are competitive, almost by definition—the word “competitive” is right there in meaning #3 in the defintion, which I think is the meaning most people have in mind when they say “let’s play a game.”  The “object” of a game is how you win the game—what would even be the point of a game that you couldn’t win?  Yet that’s exactly what D&D—or any PnP RPGis: a game where no one ever wins.  So what then is the object?

As it turns out, the answer to that is different for different people, and it can be quite disconcerting (and occasionally disruptive) to be playing a game where some or all of the players are aiming at different targets.  For some people, it’s simple escapism: everyone should be having fun stepping outside their own lives for a bit.  For others, each adventure or campaign has a stated goal—collect the most loot, kill the most monsters, outmaneuver the tyrannical despot, defeat the evil necromancer, save the kingdom, what-have-you—and the object is simply to achieve that goal.  Some people can’t help but inject the element of competition into it, and the game becomes a showdown between players and GM: the latter is trying to kill everyone, while the former are trying to survive whatever is thrown at them.  Or some players will try to compete with each other: my character has the best numbers on her sheet, can do the most amount of damange in one round, has the most powerful magic items.  For still others, it’s all about performance: D&D is theater, albeit to a very small audience, and the goal is similar to that of community dinner theater—impress your friends with your acting skills.

I take a different approach from all these.  Perhaps it’s my aspirations to be a writer, but, for me, a PnP RPG is a collaborative story.  A bunch of us are getting together and we’re going to concoct an awesome piece of fiction, which, if it could be written down and sold to the masses, would undoubtedly be a best-seller.  It’s just like we were all getting together to make a movie.  We all provide different skills, but we all pitch in and help each other out and what we produce at the end is sheer entertainment.  It’s going to have sympathetic characters and an amazing setting and a brilliant plot.  And, just like when you go to see a classic movie and then you come home afterwards and want to tell your friends all about it, so a well-played game of D&D gives you stories that you are just bursting to share with other people.  Now, generally speaking, only your other friends who also do tabletop gaming are actually going to appreciate those stories, but it’s still magical to me.  You can meet anyone, from any walk of life, from any country, regardless of race, religion, gender, or anything else, and if you happen to find out that that person roleplays as well, you will be telling each other your favorite gaming stories within about 15 minutes flat.  And you will each be impressed at the other’s ingenuity and marvel at their luck (good or bad) and be jealous of the experiences they’ve had.  Remember the scene in Jaws where Quint and Hooper trade stories about their scars?2  This is just like that: you get a backlog of war stories you can trade with everyone you meet, without ever having to do anything dangerous to earn them.  It’s not much compared to those folks who’ve actually been to war, granted, but then some of those folks enjoy swapping stories about their RPG characters too.

Now, given my feelings about roleplaying, it should be no surprise that my major focus as a GM3 is character.  If I have an overriding philosophy as a GM, it’s a two-part one:  As a player, I demand that you provide me an interesting, fully-fleshed character, complete with motivations, backstory, flaws ... the whole package.  And, as your GM, I promise I won’t kill your character without your permission.4  Now, both of those things come with loads of caveats which could probably fill its own blog post, but for now I think that gives you enough background on my style to appreciate the story I really want to tell you.

See, my eldest child came to me and asked me to GM for him again.  Which is so rare as to be unheard of these days: he’s a teenager with his own friends now, and typically he’s the GM for them.5  So we haven’t really roleplayed in a long time.  But he wanted to try the latest edition of D&D6 and he knew I did as well.  And we felt it was time to get my middle child into the game.

The boy that I’ve often referred to here as the Smaller Animal is currently 10 years old.  Two years ago,7 we tried a game of Dungeon World, which is sort of like D&D Lite™.8  We did all right, but it was obvious that, at 8, he wasn’t quite ready.  But my eldest figured now was the perfect time to get him hooked.

So we went to him and asked him what sort of character he might enjoy playing.  It’s a fantasy game, we explained, and he knew perfectly well what that meant.  Anything you want: wizard, knight ... what would you want to be?  He said he wanted to be a character who turned into animals.  My eldest and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously: “Druid.”

Now, the gold standard for beast transformation in fantasy fiction is generally held to be the wizards’ battle in The Sword in the Stone.9  And, indeed, D&D wizards can be quite good at transforming into animals ... at higher levels.  But, if you want to start turning into cool things pretty early on, you really want a druid.  In first and second edition, shapeshifting was a thing druids could do.  In 3e, it was the main thing they could do.  In 5e, you have a choice between two types of druids: you can be more of a magicky treehugger sort of druid, or you can be a full-on, constantly-being-an-animal sort of druid.  So obviously that’s what my kid was looking for.  Almost as an afterthought, he tossed out one last idea: “Can I turn into a dinosaur?”

You know, some folks don’t like to mix dinosaurs into their high fantasy.  But D&D has a long tradition of doing weird genre-blender things such as that.10  We were going to play a pre-made adventure set in the Forgotten Realms, which is not my favorite setting, but it does have certain advantages.  For instance, by virtue of having been around nearly as long as I’ve been alive, it has accumulated nearly everything imaginable—it’s a true kitchen sink fantasy setting.  It took me about 10 seconds of searching the Forgotten Realms Wiki to find a jungle with dinosaurs in it where my son’s druid might hail from.  So logical sense was not a barrier.  Would the rules really allow him to turn into an actual dinosaur though?  Well, in a word: yes.  A druid can turn into any “beast,” which not only includes all actual animals,11 but also dinosaurs, and even a few fantastic (but non-magical) animals such as the axe beak or the stirge.12  In 3e, you were limited by the size of the animal; in 5e, all you care about is how tough it is (its “challenge rating,” or CR, to use the technical term).  Now, the 5e Monster Manual only lists a few dinosaurs, and none of them are eligible for druids to turn into until 6th level or so.  But there are plenty of smaller dinosaurs that are less tough than an allosaurus: a velociraptor, for example.  By which I mean less an actual velociraptor and more a Jurasic-Park-style velociraptor, which is probably closer to a deinonychus.  Lots of people online have suggested that the stats for a velociraptor would be identical to that of a lion, so why not just use those stats and call it a velociraptor?  (This is called “reskinning” in RPG parlance, and we desperate GMs do it quite a lot).

So I said, sure, why not?  You can turn into a CR 1 beast at level 2, we’re starting our characters at level 3,13 a velociraptor is a lion is a CR 1 beast which can neither fly nor swim, you are a druid from a jungle where dinosaurs roam freely and you are very familiar with them, so, absolutely: you can turn into a velociraptor.  In about 20 minutes’ worth of conversation (and a bit of research on the Forgotten Realms wiki), we fleshed out a fairly complex backstory for him: Elmond Xilofeyr (his last name means “fairypetal,” which is a type of flower native to his homeland) is a wood elf from the Wealdath (which is elvish for “unspoiled woods”) who became obsessed with animal transformation, so he apprenticed himself to a dragonborn arcane scholar (part wizard, part druid, part who-knows-what) who lived in the Starspire Mountains, just south of where Elmond grew up, originally thinking he would become a wizard, until he figured out that druidry was the real way forward for an aspiring shapeshifter; after becoming an official druid, he traveled south, searching for the best place to settle, until a short ship ride from Calimport brought him to the Jungles of Chult, where he became fascinated with the local fauna and lived for several years, until one day he decided to take a journey to visit his old teacher and share whatever knowledge they’d both accumulated in the interim, only to find his master’s mountain hideaway in ruins, apparently the work of evil dragons, but, with no body apparent, it was possible that the scholar had escaped, or been captured, so Elmond traveled north, looking for signs of his mentor until, after traveling up through Amn all the way to Nashkel, a clue brought him down the Uldoon Trail as part of a merchant’s caravan that also included two other mysterious characters ...

And that’s how my ten-year-old developed a backstory with as much depth as any 20-year-old I’ve ever played with.  Cool character concept, we wrestled the rules into submission to make it work, used the Internet to add a little flavor and specificity, then just brainstormed until we had some cool ideas that your friendly neighborhood GM can use to help shape the campaign: for instance, I’ve no doubt that we’ll run into Arjhan Kerrhylon, Elmond’s lost teacher, at some point in the future.

But I mainly gave you all this background so I could tell you this story.

Even for third level characters, first level adventures can be deadly.14  And of course this is the Smaller Animal’s first time playing proper D&D, so he can be forgiven for not playing his character in a strictly optimized fashion.  So this is the story of how I managed to kill my kid’s character in the first hour of play.

Well, he was only dead for a little while.  You know those stories of people that wake up in the hospital and are like, what happened? and then their friends tell them that they were actually dead for 4 minutes or whatever?  Like that, only not even a whole minute.  As I said above, I don’t actually kill characters.  And, anyhow: with modern-day D&D it takes a while for your character to die really dead: you make death saving throws over and over until you either make 3 or fail 3, and he never even had time to make one of those.15  But he was at zero hit points, sure enough.  Here’s how it went down.

We’re fighting a bunch of kobolds.  Now, if you don’t know what kobolds are, they’re little lizardy-looking things, smaller than a hafling, even, but vicious.  We’ve been fighting them all night, and for the most part kicking their reptilian asses.  They’re not much of a threat for 3rd-level characters such as us, but of course they have numbers on their side, and we’re not getting a lot of time in between skirmishes for resting up.  In this particular battle, we run up against a group of two humans and eight kobolds: the biggest group we’ve faced thus far.  My elder son’s shadow warrior and my dragon sorcerer/avenger16 jumped in and took out the two humans first, figuring they were the most dangerous, while Elmond hung back and picked off kobolds with his longbow.  Finally deciding it was time to stride in, my son made the mistake of attacking first, then charging into the melee.  He took down another kobold, but ended his turn right in the thick of the battle.  With the inevitable result that, on their next turn, three kobolds decided it was time to jump on him and take him down.  So he strides up, ready for serious battle, and immediately 3 scaly little buggers leap on him, stabbing him with their wicked knives.  And, due to some unfortunate rolling on my part, they all wounded him, and he went down hard.  “How many hit points do I have left?” he asked.  “Let’s not worry about that right now,” I said diplomatically, looking at the dice.  “Let’s just say you’re too wounded to be able to attack this round.”

Next round my character strides over, jams his arm into the pile of squirming kobolds, and jolts 6 hit points into Elmond’s unconcious body.  Then it’s Elmond’s turn.  And suddenly a velociraptor bursts up out of the pile, and kobolds go flying.

Now, honestly, he missed all his attacks as a velociraptor, but that’s not even the point.  That imagery was so iconic and dramatic that it was easily the highlight of the night.  Our characters were taken aback at seeing their new companion arise from near-death as a terrifying (if no bigger than man-sized) dinosaur, and the kobolds were shitting their pants in fear.  They were quickly dispatched, some of them while attempting to flee, and our characters became a little more comfortable with their now-reptilian compatriot.  My eldest, playing a young dwarven maiden, wondered if the size ratio was right, and, once again, I saw no reason to rain on anyone’s parade.  So she lept on the back of the velociraptor, who let out a blood-curdling roar, and we charged off into the night, looking for more foes to slay.

This is a story which I, my middle child, and probably his big brother too, will all tell with great joy and enthusiasm for years and years to come.  Anyone who’s played D&D, or any fantasy RPG, will hear this story and practically wet their pants over how cool it is.  This is, hands down and without question, a great story.  And that’s why I play D&D.  Because there just isn’t any other way for my ten-year-old to turn into a dinosaur and burst up out of a pile of small lizardlings and have everyone around him go “oooohh!”  And I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.


1 To review: they’re educational, particularly in a mathy sense.

2 Happily, in the Internet age, you needn’t actually remember it: you can just go watch it online.

3 For the uninitiated, that’s “Game Master”—i.e., the person who is in charge of moving the plot along and deciding how the world reacts to the players’ characters.

4 You might imagine that no one would ever give their permission for you to kill their character.  But, you know: in a good story, it’s sometimes dramatically appropriate for a main character to die, and if your goal is to tell the best story ...  Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen people offer to sacrifice their characters just to make the story better.

5 I’d like to think that’s because he has the most experience as a player, since I started him so young, but I may just be flattering myself.

6 5e, that is—my coming back to D&D from Pathfinder is another topic that could fill its own blog post.  Perhaps I’ll essay that topic at some future date.

7 Nearly exactly: it began during our Vegas trip.

8 Although, to be fair, the latest version of D&D has borrowed liberally from Dungeon World and its work-alikes, including the very cool concept of “bonds.”

9 Again, if you haven’t seen it, the Internet is your friend.

10 Such as having wuxia-style monks as a class, and sci-fi-type psionic powers.  And don’t even get me started on the giant space hamsters.

11 In 5e.  Note that, in 3e, certain animals, like rats, centipedes, spiders, and so forth are technically “vermin,” and druids can’t turn into them.  Which is a bit weird, but then D&D rules can often be a bit weird.

12 Yes, that page I linked you to says the stirge is a magical beast.  But that’s just because it hasn’t been updated to 5e yet.

13 The main reason for this has to do with one of the few things I dislike about 5e, which perhaps I’ll go into in another post.  But this one is getting too long as it is.

14 Yet another reason I like to give my characters a bit of leg-up when starting fresh.  Also, adventures are typically designed for a party of four, and we are only a party of three.  So a couple of extra levels can really make a difference.

15 Well, technically speaking, he should have had to make one.  But I didn’t want to freak him out by telling him he had to make a “death save.”

16 By which I mean I started out as a sorcerer with the draconic bloodline, then switched to a paladin aiming for the oath of vengeance.  In case you happen to be versed in 5e and wanted more details about that.