Monthly Archives: September 2021

Ravenloft’s House of Lament Aims for Tough Goals and Hits Them

To start a weekend of D&D, my friend Tom Christy touted House of Lament, the level 1-3 adventure from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. He had already run it twice and rated it as outstanding. DMs shape the experience of an adventure, so just playing House of Lament tells me nothing about running it, but I loved playing it. It succeeded at two things that D&D makes difficult.

In D&D games, players sit at well-lit tables among friends. Most often, players become fearless heroes capable of winning against almost any threat they face. Long-time players see all the monsters revealed in the game books, eliminating any fear of the unknown. All this makes creating a fearsome or even unsettling adventure nearly impossible. But House of Lament succeeds on both counts.

As much as adventure designers enjoy inventing a backstory for their adventures, often making the party’s arrival the last chapter of a long tale, 80% of the time, none of that story reaches the players. And for most of the rest of the 20%, the players don’t care. Just tell me what to kill. House of Lament succeeded at developing a fascinating history and motivating players to uncover it. Plus, the adventure mixes in variety by offering a choice of potential villains and allies.

Rethinking Potions as a Bonus Action

A popular house rule in Dungeons & Dragons lets characters drink a potion as a bonus action rather than as an action. (See Scrutinizing the 9 Most Popular House Rules for D&D.) When a typical round takes several minutes of real time to play, this rule spares the players from having to wait for their turn only to spend it adding 2d4+2. That turn feels like a letdown.

Nonetheless, I favored playing by the book and making drinking a healing potion an action. Until we welcome CamelBak hydration backpacks into our D&D worlds, I estimate that getting and opening a vial, and then downing the contents would take the better part of 6 seconds. Also, characters tend to need healing potions late in a fight, and I enjoy the difficult choice between pressing an attack despite dangerously low hit points or healing. Choices make games engaging.

My opinion changed after I played countless battles while eyeing unused potions of giant strength, fire breathing, and heroism in my characters’ inventories. Near the end of a battle, I still like the dilemma that healing potions can bring, but those other potions work best as a boost at the start a tough fight—the sort of fight you never want to begin by wasting a turn sipping a potion. The typical D&D battle only lasts three rounds!

Can I start fights with a timeout? “Before we roll initiative, my character tells the dragon, ‘Wait one second,’ holds up a finger, and then drinks a potion of fire resistance.” Until that works, I will continue to retire characters with stockpiles of unused potions. I would have enjoyed using those potions, so I suppose I’m ready to invent a device that rigs one of those gag cup-holder hats with more tubes than a pan flute.

The Tournament Adventure That Tested My Limits as a DM

For tier 2 of my Dungeons & Dragons weekend, I ran Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, billed as a “punishing one-session tournament dungeon designed for four 8th‑level 5th Edition characters.” My group relishes punishing tournament D&D games and once made the annual D&D open championships the center of our gaming year, so the Necropolis seemed tailor made. See Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.

Necropolis author Sersa Victory specializes in tournament-style deathtraps flavored like the concentrated essence of every graveyard-and-murder-themed heavy metal album cover. The Necropolis delivers. In the first room, one character had his eyes torn out. The adventure includes a creature called a constellation of living spheres of annihilation. For the right audience it works brilliantly, and I ran it for the right crowd.

That said, because every room includes a page or two of connected puzzles, traps, and monsters, I often found running the adventure taxing. As I flipped pages, I sometimes worried that I failed to keep the fast pace needed for maximum engagement. Confession time: I love encounters with more in play than monsters to kill, but this adventure layers so much into every scene that I wished for a bit less. I feel so ashamed. A more measured approach to heaping punishment would have limited the simultaneous moving parts that demand a DM’s attention.

Later in the weekend, when I ran a tier 4 adventure of my own making, I took the lesson to heart and eliminated some complicating elements from an encounter that hardly seemed to need the filigree.

Why Does Rime of the Frostmaiden Have Just One Magic Weapon?

Spoilers for magic items in Rime of the Frostmaiden.

As written, Rime of the Frostmaiden includes a typical number of magic items, but only one useful magic weapon, a +2 trident. That count excludes the Berserker Axe, which attaches a harsh curse, and 6 laser rifles, which I don’t count as magic. Some players will relish letting their rogues and rangers become raygun-blasting snipers, but many players, including those with greatsword-wielding barbarians, may not fancy where a laser rifle steers their character.

Dunegon masters can change the adventure’s loot to fit their players, and you, I, and the designers all know it. Surely though, the lack of magic weapons comes by design, from a choice the authors made because they felt it enhanced the adventure.

What motivated this choice?

The stinginess reinforces the scarcity and struggle that sets the adventure’s early tone. ThinkDM writes, “It’s meant to convey desolation at the surface level of Icewind Dale, literally and figuratively. This sets a contrast to the high magic stuff happening later in the adventure.”

The adventure mainly avoids granting magic items that only suit a particular class or character, favoring wondrous items, protective items, and even a wand of magic missiles that any character can use. This avoids the awkward moment when the party finds a +2 longsword even though everyone wants a rapier. (DM hint: When you announce the find to that party, pronounce “longsword” as “rapier.”)

D&D’s fifth edition design aims to play fine without magic items, but a lack of magic weapons weakens fighters, rangers, and rogues against creatures resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from non-magical attacks. Every character suffers moments like when the fireball-blasting sorcerer enters the forge of salamanders. However, the game makes creatures resistant to non-magic weapons common enough to lead the designers to give monks and druids fist and claw attacks that count as magic. The D&D Adventurers League gives out magic weapons to any fifth-level character who wants one. This avoids both penalizing the classes that need them and the awkward moments when a group finds the wrong type of magic sword.

In Frostmaiden, a certain infestation of vampires could overwhelm a party without magic weapons. At best, that barbarian spends a night feeling ineffective. Hope you found a laser rifle.

Dungeons Are Contrived for Fun Games

The ancient Egyptians used canopic jars to store the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver of corpses embalmed as mummies. I’m surprised that as a longtime D&D fan, I learned that fun fact only recently. Credit Jen Kretchmer, the author of The Canopic Being from Candlekeep Mysteries. The group for my D&D weekend started our tier 3 games with this standout adventure that built mummy lore into an ingenious villain.

After playing the adventure, I remembered that the dungeon’s lack of stairs caused a silly controversy. A preview by James Haeck reveals the feature. “It’s filled with fantasy elevators, and ledges are accessible by ramps rather than by stairs. If you have a player in your gaming group who wants to play a wheelchair-using character, this is a great adventure to borrow dungeon design ideas from. After all, it is a fantasy world. If it’s a player’s fantasy to kick ass in a wheelchair, why not?”

Some D&D fans grumbled that such a dungeon defied history or D&D tradition. In D&D, any closed environment meant to be explored, infiltrated, or raided qualifies as a dungeon, and those places almost always include substantial allowances to make play more fun, most often including oversized spaces with plenty of room for fights. D&D dungeons owe as much to history as fire-breathing dragons do. As for D&D tradition, the original 1974 D&D books recommend sloping passages and sinking rooms as tricky dungeon features. Dungeons can make such allowances and still murder characters.

James asks, “If we didn’t mention that the dungeon was fully accessible here, would you have even noticed that there were ramps instead of stairs?” True. Nobody noticed.

Without Encumbrance, Strength Is a Roleplaying Choice for Sub-Optimal Characters

Of the 6 players gathered for my weekend of D&D, nobody showed up with a character with a strength higher than 8. Fifth edition D&D makes Strength a common dump stat because the game lacks an encumbrance system that players use. I’ve never played fifth edition with the option, mainly because I’ve never played this edition in a style that encourages the bookkeeping. Encumbrance fits with a gritty style of dungeon crawl that focuses on counting torches, rations, and perhaps abandoning copper pieces in favor of more portable loot.

When encumbrance feels like an accounting exercise that players ignore, Dexterity becomes king. By selecting ranged or finesse weapons, a Dexterity-based character can approach the damage of a similar character based on Strength—more with optimal feats. Plus, a high Dexterity enables an AC nearly as stout as the heaviest armor, wins initiative, and improves common Dexterity saves rather than rare Strength saves.

With encumbrance justifiably relegated to a seldom-used optional rule, a more evolved D&D design would boost the value of Strength with some advantages over Dexterity. After all, mighty warriors swinging great big swords form a deeply resonant part of fantasy and the game. I want to play those characters without feeling like I made a sacrifice for the sake of roleplaying.

For more, see A Game Design History of the Dump Stat.

Next on Thursday: Dungeons are contrived for fun games.

Upcoming on DM David

A month back, I gathered with five other gamers for a weekend of non-stop Dungeons & Dragons, an event that I overheard my mom saying sounded like “just an awful time.” She comes from a generation that recognized golf and fishing as the only leisure activities grown men could admit to enjoying, but she would not have rated those as a pleasant either. Her assessment of a fun weekend amuses me because we both understand that people like different things, and I like D&D. My group of enthusiasts started with new characters and jumped levels after each adventure until we capped the weekend at level 20.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

For 9 years, I’ve written here about D&D. When I started, I figured I might run out of topics after a few months and stop. The ideas kept coming, and part of the fuel came from gaming conventions where I spoke with other gamers. For March 2020, I had a trip to GaryCon scheduled, but the pandemic pulled the plug. So a lack of such fan gatherings left me feeling short on inspiration.

The 6-person convention brought D&D thoughts, discussion, and a fresh surge of ideas. Our high-level play led to three posts on tier 4 games. Some of the thoughts lead to a variety of shorter posts that I plan to deliver twice a week until I run out.

Also today: Without encumbrance, Strength is a roleplaying choice for sub-optimal characters