Our heroes have killed the changing of the guard, and now they descend into the Redbrand lair. From the ruined manor a flight of stairs leads down to a heavy wooden door, which they pushed aside to reveal a dim cellar. They descended the stairs into a large stone chamber dominated by a huge cistern, filled with cold pure water. The room was large, their lantern light barely reaching to the walls, which were lined with barrels. As Mouser dug around in the barrels looking for signs of traps or treasure a door in the northwest wall opened and a trio of redbrand thugs came charging out to attack them. They dealt with them in short order, beating them down into the flagstones in the doorway of their room. They searched the rooms further, finding a few trinkets and what looked like a package of emergency supplies hidden in the waters of the cistern. Whoever had secreted this escape package in the cistern was going to get an unpleasant surprise if they tried to flee and found their secret stash already looted; but the PCs doubted that anyone was going to escape from here.

They searched some more, and found a secret door in the southern wall of the room. From here they walked carefully through to a large, natural cave cold and smelling vaguely of rot. They immediately guessed that this must be where the strange eye-beast lived. A tunnel from the south they guessed connected the large cave to the secret entrance the halfling child had reported finding on the edge of the village – a useful escape, if that were their plan. A narrow chasm split the tunnel in two, and a bridge linked the two sides of the cave. Mouser crept into the room and headed north on the near side of the chasm, seeing nothing interesting. As he returned to the group he was struck by a strange series of visions, of falling into the chasm and rotting suddenly away, and an intense sense of hunger. Disgusted and confused, he crept back to the group. They moved to the edge of the cave and Mouser and Imoto chan headed back into the cave, Imoto chan tying a rope to the bridge and dropping it into the chasm as Mouser crept north to explore some more.

As Imoto chan finished tying the rope to the bridge she was suddenly struck by some strange magic that caused her body to rot and well up in stench and disgusting, noisome ruin. Somewhere over the chasm, the eye-beast was attacking them. Tyge rushed across the bridge, which collapsed under weight and dumped her into the chasm. Imoto chan leapt across the chasm to find the eye-beast, while Mouser took cover behind a pillar, firing arrows, and Mostly Smithson charged north to cross a bridge on the northern end of the cave, and Raymond deCantrus let loose spells across the chasm. The eye-beast was well hidden but they were able to drive it out of cover and cut it down without suffering too much damage.

In the chasm they found the body of Thel Dendrar, the woodcarver who had gone missing after he confronted the redbrands, and a chest containing some small trinkets and some potions. The chasm was haunted by a strange, weak magic that froze both space and time, rendering it chilly and making all movement in the chasm difficult and slow. As a result Thel’s corpse was still fresh, and strangely lifelike even though it had been ripped open by the Nothic and half eaten. Disgusted, Tyge climbed out and they resumed their quest.

From the cave a tunnel headed west and back into the more regular hallways of the cellar. A set of steps led down to a hallway, with a door at the base of the steps. Mouser opened the doorway, and was attacked by three bugbears who had been waiting quietly for them in the room. Pushed back mostly by disgust at the stench of their foul dog-like bodies, Mouser was shocked to see one hurl a spear straight into Mostly Smithson so hard that it went clean through his chest, knocking him down. The battle that followed was fast and brutal, and for pressed moments they thought they were all going to die before Tyge was able to cut a bloody, vicious path through the bugbear leader and start scattering bugbear hair and flesh like confetti in some horrid underdark wedding. Mouser took the chance to revive Mostly Smithson, and ultimately they prevailed through steel, lightning and hard, nasty work.

Standing in the stench of bloody dog-hair, shivering in rage and reaction, they looked around the dimly lit hallway, back at the room of half-eaten stored corpses and scattered vitreous nothic goo, and decided it might be best if they took a rest. Shuddering at the stench and iniquity, they pushed the door of the bugbear lair closed, and settled down to sleep.

Which was when they saw the goblin. With a sigh, and a shared sideways look of tired resignation, deCantrus asked it, “What is your name, little wretch?”

“Droop,” he replied, and so his fate was sealed …

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He has a glass staff

Having destroyed the goblin nest and learnt some disturbing facts our heroes traveled onward to Phandalin, where fame, glory – and ale – awaited them. In addition to delivering the supplies they were contractually obliged to deliver, they had also rescued a cargo from the goblins, which they hoped to gain a reward for delivering to Phandalin, and they also had to escort Sildar Hallwinter to the town. He had not only been escorting Grundar Rockseeker to the town, but had been seeking a wizard called Iarno who seemed to have gone missing after arriving at the town. Once he had recovered and set himself up in Phandalin the PCs expected to have more opportunities to work for him and whatever shady cause he truly represented, so they wanted to get to the town fast and settle in.

Phandalin is a new town, a small number of houses built on the ruins of a much older town. The older town was ringed by a strong defensive wall that must have been destroyed in an earlier battle, that also razed the old town. The now town stood defenseless inside the ring of those old walls, crumbled and cast down, its houses built of poorly slung-together naked wood cast up on the foundations of older, grander buildings. The roads through town were a mixture of mud paths and scattered cobblestones, last remnants of the old town. It hunched against the drizzle of the fag end of the Storm Season, its inhabitants and the buildings themselves taking the last breath in earnest before the winter set in and froze their bones. It had a ramshackle, desperate air to it, as if the whole community had been slung together in the hope that none of the marauding orc tribes of the mountains would notice it, and its residents might have a few seasons in which to profit from trapping and mining before the whole shoddy enterprise fell apart in an orgy of blood and slaughter.

Sadly, it hadn’t lasted that long. The PCs soon discovered that a gang of bandits had set up in town, camped in an old manor on a rise on the edge of town, and were terrorizing all the residents. The script was the same they had seen before in their travels: terrified locals, a blacksmith who used to be a great warrior but had taken up a pacifist religion and refused to fight back, a terrified and collaborationist mayor. The usual. Raymond deCantrus was able to cite several sociological studies familiar with the various psychological and socio-cultural issues underlying such phenomena, until a grim glance from Tyge shut him up. As always in these scripts they planned to ignore the issue and get on with their business, but they were ambushed in the street and forced to kill three of the stupid bandits in quick succession. The fourth rendered up the information they needed before they dragged him to the townmaster, cast him into the town hall’s one cell, threatened a tiny payment out of the townmaster, and set off to destroy the entire stupid band.

First they traveled to the Sleeping Giant, a seedy taproom on the eastern edge of town. Their informant amongst the dead guards had, upon witnessing Tyge’s savagery, told them the entire workings of the redcloaks’ guard operations, which were quite straightforward: at any one time four guards (now dead) were patrolling town, four were on call at the Sleeping Giant, and four were resting in the manor. Besides a few on guard duty with prisoners, this was their whole complement. In about four hours the guard would change at the Sleeping Giant, so the PCs decided to go there, kill the redcloaks in the bar, wait, kill the four who came, and then march into the manor unopposed. A few small details made this plan slightly less workable than it sounded – in particular the gang of bugbears who had been sent by the Black Widow to help the bandits, and the weird monster with one eye that stood guard in the basement of the manor.

Whatever. Killing the four guards in the Sleeping Giant proved remarkably easy. They just walked in and set to work with a grim and brutal disregard for the furniture. As they stood cleaning their weapons the barman tried to run out the back but Mouse easily caught him, and with a minimal amount of threats he admitted he had been running away to warn the redcloaks of the trap. Satisfied, the PCs made sure he stayed in the bar and set up their trap. Sure enough a few hours later the next four guards walked in and died, and their pathway had been cleared out. They tossed the barman a few coins to repair his shoddy furniture and set off for the manor.

The entire aboveground structure of the manor was ruined, obviously destroyed by raiders a long time ago and abandoned. In amongst its vine-tangled and rainswept ruins they found a door leading down to the cellars, where they knew the remnants of the redcloaks (and the Bugbears, and the weird eye-beast) lived. They marched down into a large square room with a huge cistern in the middle, full of pure water. They were checking the cistern and arguing about the correct door to take when three redcloaks burst out of one of those doors to attack them. Perhaps their informant hadn’t been entirely honest with them – but he would pay. They slaughtered their three attackers and cleaned their weapons, while Mouse dragged a small bag of treasures out of the cistern, obviously someone’s escape kit, containing clean clothes and a potion of invisibility.

Well, whoever had hidden that there wasn’t going to escape now. They braced themselves, and headed in …

 

They looked like this! Honestly!

They looked like this! Honestly!

In our first D&D session we began investigating the dungeon from the Basic Rules set, somehow managing to avoid a TPK in the first battle but retreating to the village after our two followers were killed. In the second session our elf, Aengus, went on a date with the town cleric, learning nothing of interest, and after a day of rest we hired two new followers – a completely useless fighter called Abel Artone and a halfling called Begol Burrowell, who is famous for some situation involving an enraged badger – and set off to finish plundering the dungeon.

We arrived at a deserted outer courtyard, finding no sign of enemies or of our charmed kobold companion Dogface. Not really stopping to consider the possibility that his absence might be a warning, we plunged back into the dungeon (behind Abel, of course). Entering through the main door and finding nothing disturbed since our previous journey, we decided to head to the room of our fateful encounter with the zombies from the other direction, rather than retracing our footsteps. We passed through the open doorway on the east side of the entrance chamber and into a small room empty but for rubbish. We searched the room and found nothing, but Eric of Melbourne was nearly decapitated by falling beams in the ceiling, which dislodged a loose brick. Behind that he found a silver dagger, potentially useful when we decide to slay a werewolf, so we took that and moved into the next room. Here were more boxes, only these could be opened and investigated. We searched the room until our search was interrupted by a zombie in a box, which emerged moaning and dragging a rusted sword. Once again, Eric of Melbourne’s stalwart faith proved useless against basic undead, and we had to beat the thing to death with blade and stick.

Of course it had no treasure.

We passed this room into the closet where our last followers met their unfortunate end, and back into the area we had already explored. From here, heading northeast, we found stairs leading down into the lower level of the dungeons beneath the castle, where the kobold gang was hiding. Rather than risk such heavy opposition, we decided to clean out this level first, and headed north to the final rooms in the castle. The next room was occupied by 5 kobolds, who tried to do battle with us but were no match for our valiant swords and ferocious spirit. We killed them quickly, and found nothing of value on their bodies.

Good thing we made a deal with our followers to split treasure only after we had recuperated the cost of their equipment!!

From this room there was only one other exit, heading east into a small room. In the middle of this room was a statue of a kobold, pointing its sword at the door we entered from; the far wall beyond the kobold had a solid wooden door, the first door we had seen since we entered. We ventured forth, but were attacked by a giant lizard that emerged from hiding behind the statue, attacking our useless fighter Abel (who goes first, of course) with surprise and killing him in one savage bite.

Good thing we clarified marching order! We beat the thing to death while it was trying to swallow the fighter. Of course it had no treasure.

The door on the far side of the room was locked. Aengus used his super elven sight to look through the keyhole, and saw a bit of ruined wall with some sunlight on it. No one poked him in the eye. We retreated.

We circumnavigated that room, moving back through rooms we had navigated a few days before and passing right around the west wing of the building, only to come to another room with exactly the same statue pointing its silly, hopeless little shortsword away from exactly the same kind of door. Perhaps the shortsword wasn’t so hopeless; as we searched the room Barus the Magic-user touched the statue and it spun viciously in a 360 degree arc, cutting his head off.

We took his spellbook and retreated to consider our options. This door must be locked for good reasons – no doubt, having vanquished those five kobolds we stood at the threshold of their treasure chamber, piles of gold glinting in the sunlight Aengus had seen through the keyhole (was it even sunlight, or just the gleam of untold riches!?) Clearly the kobolds had bound the doors fast and secured the entryways with fiendish statue-traps to keep us away from their hoard, a hoard no doubt stolen from innocent villagers over years of violent raiding and despoiling. We were honourbound to somehow breach their inner sanctum, and carry away the money, though no doubt finding its original owners would be all but impossible and we would likely have to keep it for now.

How to get in? It was Aengus’ low elven-cunning that found the way – we would burn the door down. We set some of Barus’s oil on the door and set it alight, then piled broken chests around it. Soon we had a good fire going, and we retreated and waited for it to burn itself out. Once the fire had burnt down we strode forward and kicked the charred remains of the door down, marching in to reclaim our birthright in a swirl of sparks and smoke!

We found a large, 30′ x 60′ room with a huge table in the middle[1]. There were chairs set around the table, and skeletons sitting in some of the chairs. Eric of Melbourne stepped forward to quell the skeletal monstrosities, but they weren’t moving; and anyway before he could a beautiful music washed over him and Begol, and they gave up all thoughts of violence. They walked calmly into the room, ready to meet the beautiful source of that fine music.

Aengus saw his two colleagues entranced with the horrible screeching emerging from the fireplace. He charged forward, hurdled the table, and looked into the fireplace. There he found two horrible, hideous old women with wings and goats legs, keening away like their cats had just died. He went to strike one but they attacked with their cloven feet and knives they pulled from the ashes, stabbing him to death immediately.

His last, blurry vision was of his friends sitting down at the table as the harpies swooped down on them, blades ready, and cut their throats. He took a while to die, and the last minutes of his life were a vista of horrific feasting.

Then the harpies turned to look at him …

 


fn1: Actually the table on the map was so big it didn’t fit through any of the doors of the room. Some fiendish magic at work here!

 

Last  week I had the opportunity to play an extended session of D&D 5th Edition, using the pre-generated characters and adventure from the starter kit. We had three players so I played two PCs: an elven wizard called Althiel Moonwhisper (Chaotic Good, indeterminate gender, overly elegant in speech and manner but completely lacking in empathy or social skills); and a human fighter called Xander (Lawful Neutral, fancies himself a noble, but turns into a savage, violent bastard when fighting with his great axe). This post gives a few of my first thoughts about the newest version of our old and faithful system. I didn’t have the rules myself, nor did I read them, so what I report here is based on my experience of the rules as played and as dictated to us by the GM, who assured us he wasn’t house-ruling anything – but we’re a fairly rules-light gaming group so we didn’t kill ourselves trying to answer questions about rules. The rules can be downloaded from here.

First of all, it’s good; and secondly, it’s not really very new. It is essentially a backward step into 2nd edition in feel, using a stripped-down version of the 3rd edition rules and keeping almost nothing from 4th edition. It retains the d20-and-skills structure, ascending armour class and base attack bonus of 3rd edition, but with major simplifications and reorientations to rebalance power. Skills and weapons work on the basis of a d20 roll vs. target DC, modified by an attribute plus proficiency bonus. Proficiencies can exist in weapons and skills, so my wizard had about four skill proficiencies (from memory) and a range of weapon proficiencies (from being an elf). The proficiency bonus at first level for all of us was +2, so depending on attribute bonuses we got total modifiers ranging from +1 to +7 in our core skills, and -2 to +5 outside of them. Proficiency bonuses increase by +1 per 4 or 5 levels, so it’s no longer the case that you’ll have a fighter at 9th level with a +9 Base attack bonus. Essentially attack bonuses scale more slowly than they used to, which keeps them more in line with armour classes. Fighters are the only class that get extra attacks, and I think they also get other attack bonuses and damage bonuses, so the reduced increase in attack bonus is made up for (we thought). Thieves also have less advantage at first level (recall in 3rd edition the skill system meant thieves could get up to a +4 base bonus in a range of skills if they had good intelligence). The skill system has also been stripped down so there is a smaller and more manageable number of skills (only a few more than Warhammer 3, by way of comparison). The reduced importance of the proficiency bonus means that if you need to do something directly covered by these skills, a simple attribute test will do the job. So that makes the GM’s job easier (though maybe this will become more problematic at later levels).

Most of the ideas from 4th edition have been dumped. Things like daily/at will/encounter powers are gone, and the idea of short/long rests introduced. There are no “recoveries” but fighters can recover d10+lvl HPs once between short rests, and once a day a wizard can recover some spell slots in a short rest.  The short rest is a really good idea, enabling parties to partially regroup once in a day, which seems consistent with how I can imagine adventuring groups actually working (and, incidentally, we really needed this short rest). This short rest/single recovery approach keeps the basic idea from 4th edition of being able to regroup and recover some of your damage, without making it so flexible and powerful that the challenge drops out of the game, and does open the possibility of a group of PCs taking on a fairly lethal adventuring task without a cleric, and having some options other than skulking around and running away, since if a brave assault goes pear-shaped they have something to fall back on.

The biggest system change I could see was in the way magic works. In overall style it is a flexible mix of 3rd and 4th edition, but consistent with the feeling of 2nd. Wizards have spell slots, arranged by level, and they are quite restrictive (my first level wizard had 2). They can memorize something like their lvl+Intelligence bonus in spells per day, and these can be of any level they know. They can then shuffle these between slots as they like. For example, my wizard had 6 spells in his/her book, but could memorize 4; he/she could use 2 slots a day, taken from any of these 4 spells at will. This gives flexibility without borking the idea of spell slots, and without quite going all the way into power points. Any spell can be cast out of combat as a ritual without using a slot, so Althiel didn’t bother memorizing detect magic. This gives wizards flexibility as utility casters, but doesn’t suddenly give them the ability to do anything in combat. The best improvement, though, was to give wizards cantrips at will, and to make the combat cantrips more powerful. This essentially means that a wizard has a basic attacking power that does 1d8 damage and hits on an intelligence check vs. AC, but which doesn’t scale with level. It was also cute to see that the Sleep spell and been reset to 2nd edition power: it affected 5d8 hps of enemies, which was just great when we entered the goblin caves, and really brought back that feeling of the wizard as once-per-day artillery. These change meant my wizard could participate in every combat effectively, but without the destructive power of rogues or fighters, so he/she could deploy bigger spells without fear of being completely useless once they were used. The short rest recovery option got him/her back one slot, which meant that Althiel could be useful three times in the day. This makes playing a wizard fun from first level, without making them indestructible artillery. There is no sense of controller/striker/tank as was often complained about in 4th edition: wizards and clerics have gone back to their utility roles, and although the rogue’s backstab is more frequent than in 2nd edition (it works whenever an enemy is engaged with someone else), it is not a multiplier, just a +d6 per couple of levels, and the rogue is very much a glass cannon – ours died in the third combat. In fact our rogue wasn’t so useful – trying to explore a goblin cave complex with a halfling rogue who can’t see in the dark is pretty challenging, and we couldn’t find any evidence that the rogue was particularly good at finding or disarming traps (there is no disarm traps skill!) I think the rogue would be more useful at higher levels, and for scouting in a more suitable environment (the rogue’s stealth skill was quite awesome).

The system has also responded to the way people actually play in some minor but polite ways: any PC can sense that an item is magic by touch, we could check the use of potions by sipping them, and in general the rules on actions and movement were a little looser than in the horrors of 4th edition. Battlemaps are no longer essential, though the rules are still structured around them. Movement rates were relevant in our battle map, but we didn’t spend long periods of time fiddling around with the details of movement. Combats were over relatively quickly, without huge amounts of fiddling, though this will likely change at later levels. This edition of D&D also seems to have dropped the hideous complexity of feats, one of 3rd edition’s clunkiest and most unbalancing aspects. Each class gets a few bonus powers and special abilities, but feats don’t really enter into the development of the class. As I understand it you get a feat at 4th, 8th etc. level but you have to forego an ability score modifier to get it. That enables players to avoid a huge set of complex and frustrating decisions that can really unbalance the game (though at the cost, I guess, of some degree of character diversity at low levels), and makes character creation faster. Also I think when feats do arise they’re going to be big game-changer moves. D&D and AD&D both had relative conformity within character classes (all members of the same class were very similar at first level) and this version of D&D has returned to that, but with a little bit more diversity through skills and unique starting abilities based on package choice – the core rules we used specify only one domain for clerics, but each cleric domain will have slightly different spell choices and some difference in abilities, which was most noticable in the fighter (which had five different starting types available, each with its own skill – Xander was a defender, meaning he gained +1 to AC when wearing armour). I think this idea of broad brushes with small changes in detail that are primarily fluff – due to small differences in skill, and background character descriptions – is more consistent with older brands of D&D, but doesn’t make characters as completely cookie-cutter as they were in those older systems. So, again, a nice balance between the complexity and chaos of 3.5, and the wargaminess of 2.

This edition of D&D has also introduced the dice mechanism of advantage and disadvantage, which replace +2 bonuses/-2 situational modifiers. This system requires the player to roll two twenty sided dice and take the larger or the smaller of the rolls, respectively. Andrew Gelman’s blog has a discussion of how much difference this makes to outcomes – suffice to say it’s huge – but it is a nice way to enhance attacks and I think will retain its power across levels (as opposed to a +2 bonus, which loses value at later levels in 3rd edition, especially for fighters). There are other small changes too, but overall it feels like a fast-flowing, relaxed and less finicky version of 3rd edition, dialed back perhaps to the freewheeling feeling of 2nd edition, without the deep nerdy clunkiness of that old-fashioned game. It has still kept a few of the basic problems that i think make all versions of D&D look a bit dated:

  • Uniform distributions for skill and damage resolution make long chains of bad results and good results inevitable, and make it hard for players to make plans on the assumption that PCs will be able to do well what they are meant to be good at on average
  • The step from 1st to 2nd level still contains that huge power leap as your hit points double
  • It still has that strange incongruity between the combat mechanics and the explanation of how hit points are supposed to work – e.g. at 4th level the fighter gets an extra attack rather than just rolling once and doing more damage, even though combat is supposedly abstracted, so that the d20 roll doesn’t reflect a single discrete attack
  • It has still stuck to the general principle of spell slots, which I still find restrictive and dumb – a system that keeps the richness and diversity of 2nd edition spells, but makes wizards fully functional as spell-users would be much better, in my opinion

Overall though the system is broadly functional again, retaining the best aspects of 3rd edition/d20 but stepping away from the depths of complexity that were beginning to make that system a fractal nightmare (and which have, in my opinion, turned Pathfinder into a form of intellectual interpretive dance rather than a RPG). It has gone back to the simpler days of basic D&D, with the adult feel of 2nd edition but the sense and practicality of 3rd edition. Fortunately, 4th edition has basically been dropped: we can all breath a sigh of relief and put “that little unpleasantness” out of our minds for good.

A word on the introductory adventure too: it is a rich and detailed little gem, starting off with a goblin ambush and opening up slowly into a whole sandbox built around a town undergoing something of a renaissance, but under threat from complex and apparently inter-related forces of human and demi-human evil. It has side adventures, a cast of characters that the PCs need to interact with as more than just purveyors of level-appropriate treasure, and enough detail to form a mini-campaign by itself. It is also linked to the process of learning the rules, so that as you step through stages of the campaign you are introduced to more complex and detailed aspects of the game (e.g., random monsters don’t occur at the beginning of the adventure, so the GM has time to get used to the system before having to handle that most irritating of distractions).

Overall I think this system is a good forward step in the D&D oeuvre, though hardly a radical advance in game design. It’s a return to the solid and respectable traditions we all know and understand, recognizably D&D again but with enough sense to revise some of the old-school version’s weakest points, and enough wisdom to realize that game design really has advanced since the 1970s. I will certainly be trying to play it again, because it rekindles some of the enjoyment I felt when I first returned to D&D through 3rd edition, before its complexity blew into orbit. It will be interesting to see how Pathfinder and the Old-School rip-off world respond to this system – it could be the death knell for both of them …