Factions in D&D 5E – The Harpers

Last week, I talked about the factions in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, their purpose, and how they might also be used in home campaigns that don’t involve the Adventurer’s League organized play program.

This week, I’m going to focus on the Harpers, an organization that has been around since the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. The Harpers have also been the subject of a series of D&D novels and have been featured in many sourcebooks over the years.

Harper History in Faerun

The original entry had this to say about the Harpers:

The Harpers are a mysterious organization of high-level adventurers, in particular bards and rangers, which operates in the North. The exact aims of this group are unknown, as are their numbers and full identities, though there are several noted members.

The aims and activities of the Harpers remain mysterious, but they are known to work for the causes of good, and to oppose the Zhentarim and the more aggressive trading kingdoms (such as Amn) who cut trade-routes into wilderland areas, and fell trees and mine precious things with little regard for local nonhuman inhabitants. They also work to maintain peace between human kingdoms…and to thwart at every turn the burgeoning goblinkin races in the North.

The Harpers were originally founded as The Harpers at Twilight in 324 DR deep in the Elven Court woods, and the members included human, elf, and half-elf warriors, rangers, druids, thieves and mages. The Harpers founded the Heralds of Faerun in 992 DR to maintain records of lineages and rolls of blazonry as part of their goals of anchoring civilization by maintaining clear communication and having accurate record keeping. In 1116 DR, the Heralds break away from the Harpers and become their own organization.

For various reasons, the Harpers came into conflict with the Nation of Thay and so their operations expand from just focusing on the northern Sword Coast region, to encompass working in opposition to Thay’s many and varied nefarious plots.

During their history, the Harpers focused on working against those who wish to destroy or take control over the population of the northern Sword Coast. They found themselves working to eliminate the threat from Hellgate Keep, to stop the Cult of the Dragon from succeeding in their plans to create dracoliches, and regularly ran up against the Zhentarim.

For much of their history, members of the Harpers acted autonomously and with great leeway in their methods. In 1321 DR, the Harpers were reorganized and the organization became more regimented and hierarchical in nature.

During the Spellplague years, the Harpers essentially disbanded as their individual members were too caught up in facing down local threats and difficulties. Many Harpers died or disappeared during this time.

After the Spellplague, the Harpers of Luruar were founded to counter the threat of the reborn Netheril. This led to many other Harper cells becoming active, each having its own name (e.g. Harpers of Waterdeep, Harpers of Cormyr and the Dales, etc.).

With the return of Mystra, Storm Silverhand worked to revitalize the Harper organization in Cormyr. In 1487 DR, the Harpers once again worked against the Cult of the Dragon when that villainous group tried to bring the goddess Tiamat to the Material Plane. This led to the Harpers becoming an active organization across Faerun once more.

The Harpers in Published Sources

As mentioned, the Harpers appeared in the original Forgotten Realms boxed set. They have been a part of the Realms ever since. More information appeared in the sourcebooks FR1 – Waterdeep & The North, FR5 – The Savage Frontier, FR6 – Dreams of the Red Wizards, FR7 – Hall of Heroes, and FR13 – Anauroch.

The D&D 2nd edition sourcebook The Code of the Harpers by Ed Greenwood explored the organization in great detail. While many elements of the Forgotten Realms have changed over the years, and there are few of the individuals detailed in this book still alive during the 5E era, there is still much of value to found in this sourcebook.

If you want to run a game set near the 1368-1370 DR timeframe, then the sourcebook Cloak and Dagger is an amazing resource. This book details the situation during the Harper Schism, the resignation of Khelben Blackstaff from the Harpers, and other major events in the secret societies that are scattered across the Realms.

The Harpers were also the subject of their own series of novels set in the Forgotten Realms. The series includes 17 novels, beginning with The Parched Sea by Troy Denning and ending with Thornhold by Elaine Cunningham, with the 17th novel unpublished due to TSR being bought by Wizards of the Coast and the Harpers series being cancelled.

Using the Harpers in Your Campaign

The Harpers have the following main beliefs:

  1. One can never have too much information.
  2. Too much power leads to corruption.
  3. No one should be powerless.

Their goals are to “gather information throughout Faerun, discern the political dynamics within each region or realm, and promote fairness and equality by covert means. Act openly as a last resort. Thwart tyrants and any leader, government, or group that grows too powerful, and aid the weak, the poor, and the oppressed.”

As Allies

The Harpers can be a great source of assistance for player characters who are of good alignment or who work towards similar goals as those of the organization. If the characters make contact with the Harpers and are on friendly terms (though not actual members), they may be able to trade information about local rulers or groups, or even gain more tangible help if the PCs are planning to do something that aligns with the goals of the Harpers.

Example Adventure: The PCs run afoul of the ruler of large town who bribes a group of bandits in the nearby forest to raid caravans and act as muscle for him so that he can oppress the citizens. Everyone is afraid of him, and the bandits prevent any of the townspeople (who are noncombatants) from leaving. As the PCs approach the town—on their travels to somewhere else—they are ambushed by the bandits (and either have all their money and equipment stolen, or they kill/drive off the bandits). Either way, when they reach the town, a local Harper agent identifies them as potential allies against the ruler and his thugs. The agent contacts the PCs and helps them with information that will let them recover their stolen equipment, or eliminate the bandit threat.

As Enemies

It’s possible that the PCs may find themselves on an opposing side against the Harpers in certain situations. The most likely is that the players are playing evil—or at least very selfish—characters. In this case, once they begin to make a name for themselves and perform some acts that go against the beliefs or goals of the Harpers, they may be targeted to be taken down a peg or two. Perhaps the Harpers see the PCs gaining temporal or magical power too quickly and decide to relieve them of some of that power. Or maybe the PCs have made alliance with an oppressive ruler or group (such as the Zhentarim), and the Harpers attempt to use the PCs to get to their ally.

Characters as Members

Of course, one or more of the PCs may want to join the Harper organization. In this case, the DM may want to implement the rules for factions from the Adventurer’s League program. The Harpers will occasionally give the PCs missions to complete, and their success on these missions will earn them renown within the organization, granting them benefits as they advance in rank. You can use the specific rewards from the AL program, or you can make your own list of benefits that are tailored to the Harpers and your specific PCs and their adventures.

This is the easiest option to use if you want the Harpers to be a source of adventures. However, it does constrain the PCs a bit, as they will need to operate within the bounds of what the Harpers find acceptable behavior, and may face sanctions (including being kicked out of the faction) if they continually cross the line.

The All-Harper Campaign

One option is to have all the player characters be Harpers from the very beginning. An easy way is to give all the PCs the Faction Agent background for free (thus giving each character two backgrounds). Alternately, the DM may just decide that the PCs gain the Safe Haven feature and the faction-specific equipment and not any of the other benefits of an extra background.

The Harpers are a great organization to use if you want your campaign to be focused on covert adventures, like spying and investigating. The Harpers don’t usually work out in the open, and they don’t march in and engaged in pitched battles with their enemies. Rather, they gather information, identify allies, and set up situations so that their preferred outcome is realized.

Running an espionage campaign set in the Forgotten Realms is a great way to freshen up a D&D game and give the players a chance to do something different than exploring another dungeon. Between Waterdeep and Calimport alone, there is enough going on to provide a nearly endless amount of adventure within an urban environment. As I mentioned last week, a James Bond—or more likely, a Mission:Impossible—game would be perfect with the PCs as members of the Harpers.

Conclusion

Using the Harpers in a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign provides a number of fresh options to keep the game interesting and different. Whether the Harpers are allies, opponents, or the “bosses” of the PCs, a DM can use the Harpers to provide opportunities to engage with espionage-style adventure possibilities.

Have you used the Harpers in your home campaigns? What role did the organization play and how did they interact with the PCs? Tell us about it in the comments.

Factions in D&D 5E Campaigns

One interesting element in the Dungeons & Dragons 5E game that has actually gotten fairly limited attention is the group of factions that are available for player characters to join.

Factions were primarily created for use in the Adventurer’s League, the D&D organized play program run by Wizards of the Coast. But the factions can also play an interesting role in your home campaigns, both as organizations which the PCs can join, and as adversaries to thwart.

In the article “Faction Talk, Part 1,” they explain the factions as follows:

In the Forgotten Realms, five factions have risen to prominence. Seeking to further their respective agendas while opposing destructive forces that threaten the folk of Faerun, each faction has its own motivations, goals, and philosophy. While some are more heroic than others, all band together in times of trouble to thwart major threats.

Here are the five factions (the links take you to a more detailed description on the official D&D website:

  • The Harpers—The Harpers is a scattered network of spellcasters and spies who advocate equality and covertly oppose the abuse of power. The organization is benevolent, knowledgeable, and secretive. Bards and wizards of good alignments are commonly drawn to the Harpers.
  • The Order of the Gauntlet—The Order of the Gauntlet is composed of faithful and vigilant seekers of justice who protect others from the depredations of evildoers. The organization is honorable, vigilant, and zealous. Clerics, monks, and paladins of good (and often lawful good) alignments are commonly drawn to the Order of the Gauntlet.
  • The Emerald Enclave—The Emerald Enclave is a widespread group of wilderness survivalists who preserve the natural order while rooting out unnatural threats. The organization is decentralized, hardy, and reclusive. Barbarians, druids, and rangers of good or neutral alignments are commonly drawn to the Emerald Enclave.
  • The Lords’ Alliance—The Lords’ Alliance is a loose coalition of established political powers concerned with mutual security and prosperity. The organization is aggressive, militant, and political. Fighters and sorcerers of lawful or neutral alignments are commonly drawn to the Lords’ Alliance.
  • The Zhentarim—The Zhentarim is an unscrupulous shadow network that seeks to expand its influence and power throughout Faerûn. The organization is ambitious, opportunistic, and meritocratic. Rogues and warlocks of neutral and/or evil alignments are commonly drawn to the Zhentarim.

Their Purpose

Within the Adventurer’s League program, a character may join a faction in order to earn special in-game benefits. Each adventurer gains renown for playing through an adventure (either a single award at the end of the adventure, or a certain amount per 4 hours of play for hardcover adventures). As the character gains more renown, they increase in rank in their faction. Many adventures include special secret missions for characters who are part of a faction (a different secret mission for each faction).

As a character gains higher ranks in a faction, they can take advantage of special rules during downtime, such as lower costs for training, access to magic items, access to raise dead and resurrection spells, and the granting of inspiration at the beginning of a game session.

Joining a faction is an interesting option in the organized play program, and provides another layer when playing through adventures that provide tangible rewards to the player character.

What About Home Games?

Of course, if you’re not participating in the Adventurer’s League program, then factions have no use, right?

Actually, the factions as such are interesting parts of the Forgotten Realms setting, and provide great opportunities for adventure separate from the AL program. In fact, any of the factions can be a starting point and/or focus for a campaign.

For example, the Harpers can be used as an espionage organization. Imagine James Bond in the Forgotten Realms, investigating and eliminating threats to the people of Faerun. A Harper-focused game wouldn’t be about exploring dungeons and killing monsters. Rather, it could be focused on major urban centers, interacting with NPCs, uncovering dastardly plots, and so forth.

A game using the Order of the Gauntlet, on the other hand, could be focused on roving knights who travel the land bringing order and peace to areas under the threat of marauding goblinoids, or invasions from the underdark, or an evil dragon.

But assuming you’re running a more typical D&D game, with a range of races and classes in the party, the factions can also play a large part in the game. These organizations are all trying to have an impact on the world of Faerun, and it’s likely that they will eventually work at cross-purposes as their goals conflict. Player characters who go exploring an old dungeon based on rumors of fabulous treasure might find themselves at odds with one group or another who know more about the dungeon and what lies in the deepest reaches, and who might want to prevent the PCs from disturbing some ancient creature, or bringing back some powerful cursed item.

Alternately, one of the factions may hire the PCs—or manipulate them with rumors or suggestions—to achieve their goals. The Harpers, the Lords’ Alliance, and the Zhentarim are the most likely to do something like this, and the characters may not even know that they’re working toward a faction’s goals until later in the adventure (or at all).

And then there is the Zhentarim, a faction that should be considered a villainous organization. Certainly, the PCs may find themselves in situations where they can put a stop to Zhent operations to the benefit of local towns or villages. And once they are on the wrong side of this faction, they can expect retaliation to come in some form or another.

RPG-5E-Factions

What’s Next?

Over the next weeks, I’m going to explore the five factions. I’ll delve into their history in the Forgotten Realms, look at their main objectives, discuss their methods, and present ways to use these factions in your game outside of the Adventurer’s League program, including a number of adventure hooks for each.

Hope to see you then!

Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 3

I’ve posted a couple of times about developing a sandbox setting for D&D 5E (Part 1, Part 2), and this week I’m going to expand on the climates, terrain, and monster selection.

Climates

As my sandbox is an island, and it’s not so large as to be a full continent, there is a limit to the different climates that I can realistically include. I’ve decided that this island sits in the northern waters of the world, and so climate reflects this.

The island itself is slightly larger than the Northwest Territories in Canada—the surface area is approximately 916,249 square miles (1,474,560 square kilometers). So this gives me some room to work with.

Using the Köppen climate classification types to describe the island, the southern and middle portions of the island are subarctic climate, the northern portion of the island is polar tundra, and the higher elevations are dry-summer subarctic.

 

RPG-Hexcrawl-ClimatMap

This has a direct influence on both the terrain types I will use and the monsters I plan to include.

Terrain Types

As mentioned previously, the 5E DMG provides lists of the monsters divided by terrain type. The terrain types listed in the DMG are Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hills, Mountains, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, and Urban.

So applying these terrain types to the island based on the climate I’ve chosen, I get the following:

  • Arctic—The mountains in the northeast of the island use the arctic terrain type. This is due to their elevation in addition to their latitude, increasing the sub-arctic climate to arctic as you climb higher into the range.
  • Coastal—As this is an island, the coastal terrain type is definitely applicable.
  • Desert—Even though the mountains provide a rain shadow for the interior of the island, I don’t want it to be too dry. A sandy desert is out, and I don’t feel the island is far enough north to get a dry snow desert. So I’m not going to use this terrain type on the island.
  • Forest—Most of the middle and southern portions of the island are subarctic and therefore forests are very appropriate. The forests are almost exclusively conifers (needles instead of broad leaves) which remain green throughout the cold months. It’s not unknown for the occasional broadleaf forest to be found within a subarctic zone, and so I’ll probably include one in the southern area of the island.
  • Grassland—The northern tundra can be considered a grassland for the purposes of monster selection by terrain type, though the vegetation is very short and is composed mostly of shrubs, mosses, and lichens. The central area of the island is also covered by a grassland.
  • Hills—Each of the three sets of mountain peaks are surrounded by foothills. In addition, one of the sets of hills extends out into the central part of the island (near the grassland noted above).
  • Mountains—As mentioned, there are three distinct sets of mountain peaks. The mountains in the northeast are fairly low and very cold. The mountains in the southeast are essentially a continuation of that same chain, though the ground between them is low enough that they seem as if they are a separate set of peaks. The mountains on the west side are much larger (cover more area) and have a higher elevation.
  • Swamp—The tundra in the north transforms into swampland during the short summers when the temperatures rise enough to thaw the ground frost. The ice melts and creates many bogs and marshes (as well as lakes and streams).
  • Underdark—This is less a “terrain” type than it is a location that can underlie almost any of the other terrains. On this island, the underdark will be mostly found underneath the hills and mountains. As I plan to have this campaign be mostly about exploration of the island itself, I’m not going to make the underdark too extensive.
  • Underwater—Like the underdark, I don’t want to run an extensive underwater campaign. Therefore, I plan to have a large lake with underwater ruins that can be explored if the PCs are interested, but it won’t be a major part of the campaign.
  • Urban—The point of this campaign is a wilderness hexcrawl focused on exploration. So I’m placing a small town that is the PCs starting point, though I don’t plan to put any adventure hooks that lead to purely urban adventures there. I also have ideas for two other small settlements on the island, but they won’t be sizable urban environments. The one possible exception to this is that there are the ruins of a small city on the island that is entirely abandoned by people after some kind of disaster, and only monsters can be found there (as well as some interesting mysteries and cool set pieces).

Monsters

So I have my climate, and this affects the terrain types to include on the island. And now I have to select my monsters.

  • Humanoids—The first choice I need to make is about how many humanoid races I want to include. D&D contains many different options here, such as the goblin races, orcs, drow, bullywugs, derro, duergar, firenewts, gnolls, grimlocks, grungs, kenku, kobolds, kuo-toa, lizardfolk, merfolk, sahuagin, tabaxi, troglodytes, and yuan-ti.

    Obviously, including all of these would be far too much. Some I can eliminate simply by climate and terrain type (such as yuan-ti), and others just don’t really fit into the setting (grungs).

    Still, that leaves me with many options.

    For now, I expect that I’ll include some form of goblinoid race (probably straight goblins and perhaps bugbears, but likely not hobgoblins). I may also include orcs as a tribal race that inhabits the tundra in the north. As far as the bits that take place in the underdark, I will likely include duergar and one other—most likely either grimlocks or troglodytes, whichever I can make the most interesting.

Of the other monster types, these will be selected on a case-by-case basis:

  • Aberrations—I will definitely include a few aberrations with each as the core monster for a larger encounter area. My plan is to create a few new aberrations to provide something new for the PCs to discover.
  • Beasts—Natural animals will certainly populate most of the wilderness areas, and I will also include some of the giant versions and a few of the larger beasts. Dinosaurs will not be found on the island.
  • Celestials—As celestials are native to the Upper Planes, and generally are of the same (or similar) alignments to the PCs, I don’t have plans to include these creatures (unless as a one-off for a particular encounter area).
  • Constructs—I will certainly include a few constructs on the island, mostly as remnants created by those who lived in the ruined city on the island.
  • Dragons—I do have plans to include at least one dragon, as I have a new race of creatures related to dragons that will play a part in the setting.
  • Elementals—These creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only.
  • Fey—Some types of fey will certainly inhabit some of the wild places on the island, though they certainly won’t be common.
  • Fiends—Like elementals, these creatures will appear as appropriate to specific encounter locations only. I do have a couple of ideas already, so there will definitely be a few included.
  • Giants—I do plan for there to be a couple of types of giants on the island. I do not intend to use the Ordning or anything similar to constrain the giants into a hierarchy.
  • Monstrosities—I will certainly include some monstrosities in my list of monsters on the island. They will most often be part of specific encounter locations, but some can be found in the random tables.
  • Oozes—These will be included as appropriate to the climate and terrain type.
  • Plants—I do plan for there to be some plant creatures on the island, and I intend to create a few new ones for PCs to discover.
  • Undead—There will certainly be undead on the island, though they will not be a focus of the campaign.

Island Regions

Now I’m in the process of creating specific regions on the island. A region can be as small as one hex, or as large as I need it to be. A particular forest will usually be a single region, and a region could include an entire mountain range or just a single mountain, depending on its relationship to the surrounding terrain.

From the moment the PCs leave the main town, they will move from one region to another as they explore the island. Each region will usually have a noticeable boundary (such as the edge of a forest into a grassland, or crossing a river into a new area), though some may have large transition areas as regions overlap for some miles.

In some cases, the regions may be defined by the monsters themselves. For example, if I choose to include a colony of ettercaps, they may take over part of a larger forest. While the forest itself could be a single region, it would generally make more sense for the spider-infested area to be a single region, with the regular portion of the forest a neighboring region.

For this reason, the development of regions and the placing of monsters basically goes hand-in-hand.

Random Encounters and Set Pieces

And, of course, once the regions are developed, each one will get its own set of random encounter tables, reflecting the creatures that could be found in that particular region.

Each region will also have at one set piece encounter, and probably a few. These are locations that do not change and are not random. For example, a goblin lair where a particular goblin tribe lives would be a set piece encounter, with a map of the lair and description of the tribe and its members.

Not all set piece encounters will necessarily include monsters, of course. When exploring a hex, there will be interesting things to find that won’t always lead to a fight, or even interaction with living (or undead) creatures.

But this the final, and longest, step in developing the sandbox and will take some time to do.

Conclusion

I’ve been picking away at this setting here and there as I work on other projects, so it’s not moving terribly quickly. I hope, though, that my thoughts here provide some insight into the development of such a sandbox setting.

I’ve already started planning out the regions and marking them on the island map, and I’ve created a couple of the hexes in the first region. The next time I update this project here I will include some of the developed regions and a couple of completed hexes so you can see how I will present the information for use when running the game.

An Acceptable Level of Risk

This week’s post came out of some pondering I was doing after I wrote about introducing a couple of new people to the hobby last week. Specifically, about how one of the players ended up bouncing off the system a few times as the dice didn’t want to cooperate with his idea of how he wanted the game to go.

It got me thinking about systems, and about how I like different systems to provide different experiences, depending on who my players are and the game setting and assumptions that we’ve chosen for a particular campaign.

I’m not going to get into heavy theory here, and I’m not going to bother with the whole GNS categorization that was a major topic of the Forge back when it was a thing. Instead, I’m going to talk about a few specific games, what they do, and how they do it. Hopefully, this will be of some use to those who are searching for the “right” system for them.

Past Examples

One good example that I’ve already written about on this blog involved my search for the right system to use for an action-espionage campaign. There are many different systems that have been used for various espionage RPGs:

And more, not to mention all the generic systems such as GURPS and Hero System that have published espionage supplements or that are often referenced by players of those systems.

But in my search, I eventually settled on the Feng Shui RPG, because I knew it would provide the kind of play experience I wanted.

Media Settings

It can get more muddied when you want to run a game that takes place in the same setting as a known media property. For example, one might want to attempt to run a game that is essentially the RPG version of the Mission: Impossible movies.

But even that requires further definition. The most common confusion that I tend to see that crops up when people discuss playing in a popular setting is whether or not the game is going for emulation of the property itself.

For example, when people talk about running a game in the setting of Conan the Barbarian (using Robert E. Howard’s original stories), there is usually one group that wants to use the setting as it was in the stories, as if it was a real place. Let’s face it, the Conan setting is dangerous, and people die easily and often. So if you’re focused on the setting itself, you’d probably want a game system that is fairly gritty and where combat can easily be lethal to the characters and NPCs. A player might lose multiple player characters over the course of the game, and it’s only when a PC survives does he or she become the “hero” of the campaign.

The other group wants to play the game like Robert E. Howard’s stories. The fundamental difference here is that, while NPCs are fragile and often die easily, the protagonist of Howard’s stories (i.e. Conan) is fated to survive at least until he becomes the King of Aquilonia. A game taking this focus isn’t about whether or not the characters will survive—of course they’ll survive, because they are the protagonists. The question is what adventures will they have and what interesting things will they experience over the course of the game.

Both of the approaches are totally valid, but they really are at odds with each other. And a game system that is perfect for one approach will almost certainly be wholly unsuitable for the other approach.

Just as an example, the excellent Mythras RPG is great for the first approach. The game system can be very deadly for PCs and NPCs alike, combat is fairly involved and provides opportunities to do interesting things during a fight, and it’s grounded in a certain sense of realism.

On the other hand, HeroQuest 2E, Fate Core or the second edition of 7th Sea is more appropriate for the second type of game. These system assume a good level of competence from the PCs, and it’s easy to frame challenges in a way that highlights the PCs’ role as the protagonists.

When the Dice Don’t Cooperate

John Wick (the RPG designer, not the movie assassin), wrote an interesting blog post back in 2015 about dice and how they are used in RPGs. While I don’t agree with everything he says in that post, I do agree that sometimes I have no interest “in exploring the idea of random failure as a dramatic element in an RPG.”

Now, I do run D&D games, and random failure due to dice is a key element of the rule system for that game. And when I decide to run D&D, I’m accepting those rules and what they bring to the table. For one of the games that I’m running with some of my friends (playing Out of the Abyss), that feel of D&D, where I roll out in the open and let the dice fall where they may is a thing that we enjoy. We know that any of the characters might die at any time through a series of bad dice rolls (though there are ways to mitigate that somewhat). We accept it, because that’s the experience we’re looking for.

But that doesn’t work for every game I run. And that’s why I like the Fate Core rules (as an example). In Fate, it’s not generally about whether you succeed or fail. It’s about what success will cost you. Generally, between skill levels, Aspects, and fate points, a player can usually pull of a success when it really matters to them. But when the player spends those fate points, it means that the character’s negative Aspects are going to have to triggered at some point to get those points back into the player’s pool. You can succeed now, but what will it cost you (and when)?

This is not just a thing in a narrative system like Fate Core. The current Conan RPG by Modiphius has a mechanic by which the player can “buy” additional dice for a roll, but those bought dice provide the GM with “Doom”, a resource the GM can spend to make things more difficult for the characters during a scene.

These kinds of mechanics smooth out the random nature of the dice, and allow the players to direct improved odds when they really need a success.

And going back to John Wick, his second edition of the 7th Sea RPG is great for this. The player rolls a handful of dice (based on ability scores and skill ratings), and then “spends” those dice for actions. In 7th Sea, it’s not about success or failure on any given task. Rather, it’s about how much the character can accomplish in a round. Roll well, and you can achieve your objectives, avoid harm, and potentially take advantage of special opportunities provided by the GM. Roll poorly, and you’ll still succeed at what you’re trying to do—but it will mean you’ll miss out on some opportunities, or take some damage while you accomplish your objectives.

Tying It All Together

And this goes back to the introductory D&D game that I ran for the new players. This was a one-shot adventure, with no expectation that the characters were going to continue in a campaign afterward. The adventure itself—Mad God’s Key—is a bit of a mystery, with a dungeon crawl at the end. And the players played well and reached the final encounter in the dungeon with only one character having been injured.

And then the dice decided not to cooperate.

For the new players, who were coming from books and movies that follow a pretty identifiable narrative arc, it was time for them to succeed and overcome the evil at the end of the story. But D&D’s rules are not set up to support that kind of game. The rules are designed around random failure creating difficulties for the characters (including possible death) because those become branching points in a campaign.

So we ended up with a mismatch between the rules and players’ expectations. Because when the player tried to attack the evil high priest, of course his character shouldn’t start whiffing at that point. That would be entirely anticlimactic. Again, not in an ongoing campaign, but definitely in a one-shot adventure.

As I said, I like D&D and I’m perfectly willing to run it as written and let the dice fall where they may. But after the game, I realized that it’s not a great system for a one-shot with new players. As an introductory game, for people who may or may not end up in a campaign later on, the rules can result in a real disconnect between expectations and reality.

Conclusion

Over the last year or so, I’ve introduced a few new people to roleplaying games, some kids and some adults. D&D worked well for the kids, because we launched right into a campaign, and D&D is designed to support that kind of game.

But the more recent experience was a good reminder to me that another approach is probably better for brand new players who aren’t jumping into a full campaign right at the start. A system like the one in 7th Sea would have provided a more appropriate experience.

And so it’s resulted in me reviewing my various campaigns and taking a hard look at the system used in each one, to make sure the rules are appropriate for what we’re trying to accomplish in each of the games I run.

How do you choose the “right” system for a campaign? Do you just go with the default system attached to a particular setting, or do you tinker and modify, or do you replace the system wholesale with one that you feel is a better fit? Tell us about it in the comments.

 

Creating New Gamers

Recently, I got the chance to introduce two new people to Dungeons & Dragons, and the roleplaying hobby in general. I always love doing this, as this is a hobby that has brought me so much enjoyment over the past 30+ years.

I’ve introduced many people to gaming over that time frame, and had the chance to rekindle the gaming spark for many others who had played at one time but didn’t anymore. I say this not to brag, but to put into context what I want to talk about this week.

My personal experience reflects the phrase “it’s easier to turn friends into gamers than it is to turn gamers into friends.” While I have attended various gaming conventions over the years—such as GenCon—and I’ve participated in games with strangers in various settings, I’ve never ended up making connections with people who ended up becoming part of my circle of friends/gamers through that method.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to do so, and I’m not claiming that phrase is any kind of truism for our hobby. I know of others who have met and found great gaming groups made up of people who became good friends. While that is not my personal experience, I’m fully aware that it is the experience of other people in this hobby.

But I’m going to talk from my own perspective, because it’s the one with which I’m most familiar, of course.

How It Began

In this case, there was no need to convince these two new players to give roleplaying games a try. In fact, they approached me because they knew I ran D&D for some mutual friends/acquaintances and were interested in seeing what it was about.

So I set up a game with those two people and two more experienced players (my wife and another close friend).

The Preparation

I knew time was going to be an issue, because we were only going to have about three hours for the game. And considering that this was probably only going to be a one-shot—at least unless/until they decide they want to play again—I wanted to hit some key highlights for the game to show off various elements.

The first order of business was pre-generated characters. Brand new players need an easy way to jump into the game, and providing a selection of characters they can just grab and play helps that. Asking someone completely unfamiliar to D&D to go through the entire character creation process is usually rather time-consuming because they don’t know the value of the various choices they get asked to make.

I decided the pre-gens were going to represent some classic D&D archetypes, and I created five of them to provide some real choice. The characters were a dwarf fighter, an elf wizard, a human cleric, a halfling rogue, and a half-elf ranger. I knew that one of these character types were not going to get played, and so I also knew I would have to be prepared for one of these archetypes to be missing. Ultimately, no one played the wizard.

The Adventure

The second thing I needed was an appropriate adventure. I ended up considering a bunch of different options.

It would have been easy to just grab a simple dungeon crawl, start the characters at the front entrance, and let them explore. And I was tempted to do just that. There’s a great simplicity to this approach, and it provides a great example of what early D&D campaigns were like when I was a kid.

But I had to consider the fact that the world is not the same as when I was kid, especially when it comes to media. Video games and movies provide all kinds of fantasy touch points and I didn’t want to ignore the kinds of things that happen in those other media properties. Because if someone has watched the Lord of the Rings movies and you say that you’re going to play in a fantasy world that is “similar in style” to LotR, then the players are likely to imagine more than just the exploration of the mines of Moria.

In many other cases, I’ve actually not used D&D to introduce people to the hobby. Instead, I’ve used the original d6 version of the Star Wars RPG published by West End Games back in 1987. It’s a great, simple system coupled with a property that everyone knows fairly well. Players get a chance to have their character do the kinds of things they see characters in the original Star Wars trilogy movies to do, and it works really well as an introduction to the hobby.

But in this case, the players had specifically asked to play to D&D, so I needed a good D&D adventure. I wanted to touch on a few different things:

  • Interaction with NPCs. I also wanted more than just “the mysterious old man approaches you in a tavern and gives you a mission” interaction. I wanted to give the players a chance to initiate the contact with the NPCs because they needed something from them (e.g. information, objects, favors, etc.).
  • An action scene that didn’t involve fighting. While such a scene could lead to a fight, I wanted the opportunity for the characters to have some kind of action that was not focused solely on combat. A chase, a climb up a precarious cliff, an escape from a raging fire, and so forth was what I had in mind.
  • A combat. Let’s face it, an introductory D&D adventure needs at least a fight or two, preferably against some kind of monster. While I’m happy to run a game with little or no combat, I think that a battle is a pretty iconic experience for this game.
  • A dungeon to explore. I mean, not having some kind of dungeon in an introductory Dungeons & Dragons game is some kind of crime.
  • A trap. At some point, the characters have to encounter a trap of some kind, that they can either bypass or which can cause damage or difficulty to the party if they don’t detect and disable it.

I considered a few of the published adventures for D&D 5E, such as Lost Mine of Phandelver, Alarums and Excursions (introductory adventure from Princes of the Apocalypse), and A Great Upheaval (introductory adventure from Storm King’s Thunder). But all of those were too long, and didn’t necessarily have everything I wanted to include within a 3-hour playing window.

Luckily, I have an extensive collection of back issues of Dungeon Magazine, and converting adventures to D&D 5E is a breeze. So I went back to issue #114 and looked over a great little adventure named “Mad God’s Key” by Jason Bulmahn.

It had everything I wanted, a chase across a bunch of boats and barges, questioning locals about what is going on, a dungeon to explore, fights with undead, and a trap.

Of course, this adventure is also too long for a 3-hour game, so I had to streamline it quite a bit. I based it in a small town instead of a large city (the gnome locksmith had travelled there on business for a local noble, and was on his way home again when he was waylaid by Irontusk, who knocked him out and stole his key).

  • So the plan was for the players to encounter the gnome on a trail leading toward the town, and get hired to find the half-orc who stole the key.
  • They would head into town and question the locals, which would send them to the docks.
  • The pursuit of Irontusk across the docks would result in them getting the information about the key and the cult that had hired Irontusk. It would also give them the pendant at this point.
  • I got rid of the Green Dagger Gang entirely—it’s an entire “dungeon” that would take too long to play through.
  • Some history rolls would get them information about the cairns and lead them to the one they needed to explore.
  • A battle at the top of the falls against some zombies would set the stage.
  • A trap partway down the tunnels would provide an opportunity to demonstrate that caution is important.
  • Another fight at the bottom of the falls with the high priest, a couple of acolytes, and some skeletons would be the climax of the adventure.

No Plan Survives First Contact…

Overall, it went pretty close to what I had planned. Some things worked out well—they had fun interacting with the gnome locksmith, and the trap worked perfectly. Others didn’t work at all, like the “chase” across the boats ended up with Irontusk mostly waiting for the PCs to catch up with him and then him attacking until he was knocked out.

Due to timing, I also got rid of the first battle against the zombies in the temple, because we needed to wrap it up and I wanted them to reach to the final battle against the priest.

But overall, the adventure still made sense, the players got to experience most of the key elements I wanted to highlight, and I’m pretty sure all the players had fun.

Two interesting observations from the game:

One of the new players, during the battles, didn’t really like the arbitrary nature of the dice, and simply rolled again if he missed (and again, if necessary, until he rolled a hit).

This is one of the things about the system used for D&D, in that the dice rolls are usually simply pass/fail. And if you fail, then your turn is essentially wasted. Some players have no issue with this, but I could see that this player was more interested in moving forward with the game/story and didn’t want to waste time with failure.

If he’s interested in trying other games, I expect a game like Fate—where it’s not about success or failure, but about what success will cost you—would be a better fit.

The other new player struggled a bit with the NPC interaction portion of the game. So I let the other players coach her a bit on what to say and let things be pretty flexible on that score. It’s not reasonable to expect someone brand new to a game to immediately be familiar with (and comfortable with) all the aspects. Talking in character, coming up with bluffs and questions for NPCs, and so forth are things that come with player experience. But she did a great job anyway, and made the final battle a lot easier by bluffing the high priest in order to get close to him before the fight started.

Conclusion

I hope both of these new players give roleplaying games another shot, and I’m more than willing to host another game for them. It seemed that they enjoyed the experience, and I certainly did.

Introducing new people to our hobby in a way that makes it enjoyable and lets them figure out if it’s something they want to continue to do isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been playing for a long time. Experienced players internalize a lot of elements that are completely foreign to someone brand new to the game.

Providing pre-generated characters is a good way to let the players jump right into the game, and selecting the right adventure is key to providing an iconic experience so the game can be judged on its real merits and flaws.

And as DM, flexibility is vitally important. I could have demanded that each failed roll be counted and moved on to the next player, but what would that have accomplished? Instead, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate the bits that might be important to this player, so that I can steer him to a set of rules that will give him an experience he will enjoy even more.

What adventures—or even games—have you used to introduce new people to the roleplaying hobby? How did it go? Tell us about it in the comments.

One Adventure per Campaign?

When I first starting playing D&D a million years ago (give or take), an actual campaign was something that just never happened. I was in sixth grade, and started with the Tom Moldvay red box Basic Set (published in 1981). It was the beginning of a lifelong love of roleplaying games.

But back then, those of us who “discovered” this game didn’t actually know anyone who had been playing it for any length of time. It was a brand new type of gaming for us, and we didn’t have any advice from anyone—we had to rely entirely on what was printed in the rulebooks themselves.

So we fell into a pattern: Someone would start a new campaign at first level and the rest of us would create characters. We’d play 2-3 times (always exploring a particular dungeon), and then it would fall apart. A month later, someone else would start a new campaign at first level and the whole thing would start all over again.

Sometimes, a few characters might make it to 2nd level, but even that was rare.

Forward to high school, and I start gaming with an entirely new set of people. By this time, my Basic/Expert game had been replaced with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and published adventure modules were the order of the day.

But it was even rarer for a “campaign” to be established. Instead, someone would purchase a cool-looking adventure (e.g. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), and the rest of us would create characters of a level appropriate for that adventure. We’d play it through (sometimes even making it all the way to the end), and then we’d take a break. And then someone else would run us through a different adventure, usually for a completely different level, which required us to create all-new characters.

Of course, there were some pretty big adventures (or adventure series over multiple modules), such as the famous T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil super-module, or the A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords series. But we never managed to play all the way through any of those really big ones, with the sole exception of I3-5 Desert of Desolation.

In fact, the first real campaign game I ever played that lasted for more than a couple of levels’ worth of play wasn’t with D&D at all—it was a RuneQuest game, taking place on Griffin Island. And the first one I ever ran that lasted a significant amount of time was the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

But, almost inevitably, I returned to D&D and, using the experience I had gained both as a player of RuneQuest and a GM of WFRP, I ran a lengthy D&D campaign (this time AD&D 2E).

Still, my campaigns generally involved a great many individual, unrelated adventures rather than a single campaign-specific thread. Even when I started my WFRP campaign with The Enemy Within series, I ended up departing from it when the players grabbed onto other adventure hooks that I always sprinkled into my games.

It wasn’t until Vampire: The Masquerade came out that I ran a campaign that focused on a single, ongoing plotline that managed to hold the players’ attention and interest throughout the entire game.

When Paizo took over publishing of the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, the Adventure Path for D&D was born. Originally the adventures were published in the pages of the magazine itself. Later on, when those magazines were pulled from Paizo and returned to being in-house publications, Paizo continued to publish adventure paths for D&D, and then for their own 3.5 copycat game, Pathfinder.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, an adventure path is a series of connected adventures with a core plotline that takes characters from 1st (or thereabouts) level and lasts through a complete campaign, ending anywhere from 13th level (e.g. Council of Thieves) to 20th level (e.g. Wrath of the Righteous).

With the current (5th) edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast has adopted a similar approach to their adventures. Rather than publishing them as a series of 6 or so separate adventures, however, they tend to publish them as a single large adventure in one book (with a couple of exceptions), usually taking characters from 1st to 15th level.

With D&D 5E, campaigns are designed to be played and completed in less than a year. This reflects the reality that many groups find themselves unable to keep a campaign going for longer than that time—external pressures tend to cause the collapse of longer campaigns. So, with this shorter time frame in mind, it makes sense to concentrate on a singular plotline for the campaign.

This relates to my thoughts on the rate of advancement in D&D 5E, as explained in this post from February.

For someone coming from those early AD&D games, however, this is quite a shift in focus. I’m generally pretty happy with the official WotC-published adventures for D&D 5E. I think they’ve managed to produce some fun and interesting adventures—I’m running Out of the Abyss for my adult players, and Princes of the Apocalypse for my younger players—and I have no major complaints.

However, I do miss those older campaigns where the characters were entirely free to explore the world and wander into whatever adventure grabbed their interest. Smaller, self-contained adventures could be really fun, and it allowed a wide variety of experiences within a campaign. One adventure could be a grim and gritty dungeon crawl, followed by an urban investigation adventure, and then a wilderness exploration adventure.

It feels to me that the options were wider.

But, of course, with those wider options you also need longer campaigns, and more time to play them. For some groups, that’s not an issue. For many groups, however, they know they won’t have the time needed to run a long campaign with slow advancement.

Luckily, converting adventures from earlier editions is actually really easy to do in D&D 5E. In fact, in a couple of days I’m going to be introducing roleplaying games to a couple of people who have never tried them before. And I’ve adapted the adventure Mad God’s Key from Dungeon Magazine issue #114 (a D&D 3.5 adventure). I also adapted B2 Keep on the Borderlands as the beginning of my son’s current campaign.

Conclusion

Once again, I’m impressed at how flexible D&D 5E is when it comes to supporting various styles of play. It is very easy to take any of the Paizo Adventure Paths and convert them to D&D 5E. And many of the official WotC adventures, like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, are fantastic.

On other hand, by slowing down the pace of advancement, it is very easy to use many smaller adventures to provide a more varied campaign experience, allowing the characters to wander around a world and get into whatever adventures they want.

What’s your campaign preference? One big adventure or many small, unrelated adventures? Tell us about it in the comments.

Developing an Old School Sandbox for 5E – Part 2

Back in May, I posted an article about developing an old school sandbox setting for 5E. In that post, I described my core objectives for this campaign setting and talked about some elements that I would need to consider.

I’m revisiting that idea again this week, where I’ll talk a bit about monsters.

A Few, Some, or All?

There are a lot of monsters available in D&D 5E, especially if you take into account third-party products. And that’s before you get into converting monsters from older editions.

One of the core assumptions in a sandbox setting is that monsters are not placed based on the level of the adventuring party. If a lair of hill giants is located in the foothills of those mountains over there, then a party of 2nd-level characters who go exploring in those foothills could stumble upon monsters that are too powerful to defeat.

On the other hand, a well-planned sandbox should have many different possibilities for adventure, including monsters of all different challenge levels, so that the characters have something to explore no matter what they level they are.

So how do you balance these two factors?

When designing a sandbox, there should be plenty of opportunities for the characters to gather clues about an area before they dive into the local dungeon.

For example, there might be an ancient battlefield that they stumble across. Perhaps a couple of skeletons animate the first time they cross near the killing ground, and they find scattered pieces of rusted weapons or armor of ancient design. So the characters leave and go back to town to do some research (either asking locals about that battlefield, or researching local history). From that, they find out that some great evil villain once tried to invade the land and was slain in a great battle. But the villain used his dying breath to spout a curse that he would return as an undead spirit and slay every living thing upon the island.

So the players know that, somewhere in the vast battlefield, there is an undead spirit of great power that is probably able to animate the dead. If the characters are of low level, they may decide not to explore the battlefield  and instead skirt around the edges on their way somewhere else—meaning that they will encounter skeletons and maybe zombies but nothing more powerful. Then, once they are of a higher level, they may decide the time is right for them to explore the battlefield (discovering that the undead spirit was unable to leave the confines of the battlefield until someone found his corpse).

Environments

I touched on this in my original post, but one easy way to differentiate regions within a sandbox setting is to use the environments listed in the 5E DMG (Arctic, Coastal, Desert, Forest, Grassland, Hill, Mountain, Swamp, Underdark, Underwater, Urban).

However, there is more to creating an interesting sandbox—and ultimately, the placing of encounters—than just tossing monsters of the appropriate type into a bunch of environments. The setting itself should have interesting locations that make use of, but are more than, the existing environments.

For example, a forest is just a forest, unless you give it some character. But what if you have one forest that is full of large trees and an unbroken canopy overhead, where it is always dim light underneath and explorers can hear a great many birds and other animals moving through the branches above their heads. And then you add another forest where most of the trees are dead or dying, and the wind moans as it passes through strange holes in the tree trunks, and there is always the sense of being watched by something (or somethings).

The players will come to recognize those different forests, and will probably start giving them names of their own (especially if you don’t tell them the “official” names until they have a way to find it out).

There are also specific features that you can use to provide specific interesting locations in the setting. For example, you can drop in a large ravine that runs through a set of hills. Perhaps there are a set of caves at the bottom of the ravine, providing great adventuring opportunities.

Putting It Together

Personally, I find that the selection of monsters and the development of interesting locations go hand-in-hand. If I decide that I want to have a bunch of ettercaps and giant spiders in a particular forest, that goes a long way to giving that forest some character. There will be obvious clues for the players (like old webs hanging from the trees), and I’ll make decisions about what animals live in the forest (since the spiders need to have something to eat), which means it needs to be a living ecosystem that will help me flesh it out and describe it.

Choices

So what monsters do I plan to put into my sandbox?

I’m going to start by saying that I won’t rule anything out at the beginning. Because during development I may decide that something that didn’t seem to fit turns out to be the perfect creature as I flesh things out.

I also need to decide if I want to provide some “common” adventuring possibilities. For example, do I want to include kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and other common humanoids? If so, can I come up with interesting ways to present them so that I don’t have just another typical goblin lair? Can I integrate them with the environment in which I place them in order to ensure that the location is memorable?

And then there are the legendary monsters. Do I want to have a dragon’s lair? Is there a beholder somewhere on the island? Does a lich or vampire reside in some ancient tower? Those are great threats that characters may not encounter or go after until they are high level and the campaign has been going on for some time.

And finally there are all the non-monster locations. What about other towns and villages? Or fortresses? Or lone wizards’ towers? These can be allies or enemies, sources of information or innocents in need of protecting from monsters. They can also present challenges that don’t have to be resolved by a fight.

Randomness

A good sandbox usually includes random encounters, and I plan for this to be no different. Just because there is a goblin lair in a particular forest doesn’t mean they are the only creatures there. Each region should have its own random encounter tables so that characters can have encounters while exploring. Some of these will be with monsters, and some will use other options.

Next Steps

What I’m doing at this point is going through the Monster Manual and other inspirations and selecting some monsters that I feel I definitely want in my sandbox. Then I’m comparing those monsters with my list of interesting environmental locations that I’ve made to see if I can put together some good combinations that will make for memorable regions to explore.

Once I’ve got that list, I’ll place them on my map in appropriate locations, which will help me plan out my terrain a bit more. From that point, I can start developing the areas in between the core locations, figuring out what other monsters might inhabit an area and how they relate to the ones I’ve already placed.

Yes, it’s a fair amount of work, but it’s work that I enjoy and will certainly pay off when I finally run the game.