Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Way of the Wicked: Knot of Thorns" in D&D 5E

In this month's post, I'd like to try something a little bit different. Usually I talk about D&D Fifth Edition material, but this time I'm going to discuss a set of adventures for the Pathfinder roleplaying game - the Way of the Wicked adventure path. In this article, I'll explain why you might want to consider running those adventures in Fifth Edition. I'll include a full set of conversion notes for the first adventure in the path, Knot of Thorns, as well as my thoughts on how to best present that adventure to your players.

A quick note before we begin: I have no connection with the creators of this adventure path. It's just that Way of the Wicked is really awesome, and I want to let you all know about it. I just finished running the first adventure in the path, Knot of Thorns, and it was the most fun I've ever had with a prewritten adventure - and I've run a lot of them.

So what is Way of the Wicked?
In Knot of Thorns, the PCs are lawfully convicted criminals
sentenced to death. In three days' time, they must escape from
the maximum-security Branderscar Prison with nothing but
their wits and a few items from a mysterious benefactor.
All Artwork: Michael Clark
Way of the Wicked is a series of adventures for evil player characters. That doesn't just mean morally ambiguous characters - if you run this adventure, your PCs will, necessarily, be evil. In fact, they will be the villains. They will have opportunities aplenty for betrayal, vengeance, conspiracies, ritual sacrifices, warmongering, backstabbing allies, conquering a kingdom, and ruling it with an iron fist.

So is it good? Absolutely!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Which Adventure To Play: January 2017 Edition

In late 2015, I published an article that considered and compared each "official" D&D Fifth Edition adventure released at the time. As my fifth most popular article of all time, and with two new adventures released by Wizards in 2016, this seems like an opportune time to update it. If you're a Dungeon Master trying to decide what adventure to run in the new year, this article is for you!

In this article, I'll walk through each hardcover adventure that Wizards of the Coast has released at the time of this writing (plus Lost Mine of Phandelver, which comes in the introductory Starter Set). I'll discuss the selling points of each one, as well as some pitfalls you might expect while running them.

Why listen to me? While I haven't played through each of these adventures to completion, I've spent a lot of time reading each of them along with internet reviews and actual play reports. In addition, I've been a dungeon master for all but Out of the Abyss, and played a character in the Tyranny of Dragons adventures as well as Out of the Abyss and Storm King's Thunder.

Before we start, I'll point out that these descriptions are, by their nature, likely to spoil the content of the adventures discussed. I’ll try not to be too specific about plot points, but if you want to play through any of these adventures blind, don’t read ahead. In other words, SPOILER ALERT!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd, Abridged

Strahd is easily in the running for D&D's
most iconic villain.
Several of the Fifth Edition adventures released so far are based on adventures from earlier editions of D&D, and Curse of Strahd is no exception. In 1983, Tracy and Laura Hickman released Ravenloft for the first edition of "Advanced" D&D and the adventure became an instant classic. Ravenloft introduced the iconic villain Strahd von Zarovich - a vampire lord with a tragic background - and his domain, the cursed castle of Ravenloft.

Curse of Strahd is a compelling adventure. It's completely different from the hack-and-slash heroic fantasy of Tyranny of Dragons or the madcap adventure of Out of the Abyss. Instead, players must confront the depressed land of Barovia and a tragic yet irredeemably evil villain. However, the adventure also spans ten levels and likely months of play for a regular group.

As a DM, you might wish to run just the original Ravenloft adventure, getting a taste of the unique horror of Barovia without dedicating an entire campaign to it. The good news is that all the elements you need to run Castle Ravenloft as a one-shot are contained within Curse of Strahd. In this article, I'll walk through the changes you'll need to make in order to run just the "classic" portion of the adventure. Depending on your group's play speed, this might take from six to twelve hours - perfect fodder for a long day or a few sessions of adventuring. In this article I'll be referencing the Curse of Strahd book, as well as map locations on page 35.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Dungeon Master Techniques: Making Experience Work for You

Hello, and welcome back to Pact of the Tome! Today, I'd like to spend some time talking about the experience point system in Fifth Edition D&D. While the options in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide may work well for some games, for others they leave something to be desired.

This article breaks down the way Fifth Edition awards XP, then suggests an alternative method that Dungeon Masters can customize to their taste. Hopefully, by the end of reading this you'll have a richer understanding of experience in D&D 5E better and have some ideas for making it work better in your game.

Goals of an Experience System
Why have experience points? I see a few reasons:
"Come on... if we take that thing down, think
of how much XP we'll get!"
  • As a player, it's helpful to be able to see your progress as you advance. Knowing you're close to the next level can be really exciting!
  • Earning experience from certain actions gives weight and meaning to the characters' choice. If they gain extra XP from finding a secret door or defeating a powerful monster, they can feel good about their choices that led them to do so.
  • Players are motivated by experience. If they know they'll be able to gain lots of XP by accomplishing story goals, then they're more likely to try and do just that! The desire to gain XP is one factor that keeps players adventuring, as opposed to just sitting around.
Overall, XP is a motivating factor for players that can enhance their enjoyment of the game. While it's tempting to simply award levels as needed, putting some work into the way you handle XP can make a difference in your campaign.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 4: Wave Echo Cave

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the sixth and last in a series written for new Dungeon Masters who have picked up the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set and are planning to run a game with it for the first time. The first two articles cover the process of bringing a gaming group together and building characters, and each article after that covers one "part" of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. I will not assume any prior knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons aside from information in the Starter Set rulebook.

In this article, I'll cover the fourth and last part of Lost Mine of Phandelver, "Wave Echo Cave." This large, abandoned cave complex in the Sword Mountains is the site of the legendary Lost Mine itself, and has been the object of the Black Spider's search for some time. In the final dungeon of this adventure, your players will face fearsome undead guardians, uncover the wonders of the Forge of Spells, and confront the Black Spider in an epic battle. This is the end of the adventure, but it could be just the beginning of your journey as a Dungeon Master.

Preparing the Dungeon
Mike Schely's cartographic skill is on full
display in Lost Mine of Phandelver. As a
reminder, you can purchase high-resolution
copies of the maps (with DM annotations
removed) at his website.
Despite its expansive nature, Wave Echo Cave is actually fairly easy to prepare as a Dungeon Master. The dungeon's inhabitants aren't working together for the most part, so you won't need to keep their responses as a group in mind like in Cragmaw Castle. Furthermore, the dungeon is large enough that your group probably won't be able to explore it in one session, so if you're short on time you can focus on preparing areas closer to the entrance.

With the time you've saved, think about how you can make the adventure location come to life in your players' minds. As the ruin of a mine created by the collaboration of dwarves, gnomes, and humans, Wave Echo Cave is a location filled with history. The booming sound of waves from the northeast is a good starting point to develop atmosphere, but spend some time thinking about other ways you can emphasize the adventure and mystery of this place in your descriptions.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dungeon Master Techniques: The Flashback Adventure

Hello, Dungeon Masters, and welcome to Pact of the Tome! Today, I'd like to discuss a technique that helps your players get more invested in the game. This technique, the flashback adventure, is especially appropriate for longer campaigns where you need to convey a lot of information to your players all at once.

To start off, imagine this situation:

It's game night. You've spent hours concocting the perfect backstory to tonight's adventure, and your players have just fought through an orc warband to rescue the sage who will tell them all about it. As the sage, you begin the tale of the secret history of the fall of the Golden Kingdom five hundred years ago.

Halfway through, you look around. One of your players covers his mouth in a deep yawn. Another is playing Temple Run on her phone. The rest are stacking dice towers, doodling on their character sheets, and generally acting like they're bored out of their minds. Where did you go wrong?

If you've been a Dungeon Master for a while, you've probably been in a situation like this one before. It's a lot of fun to create your own world and story, but getting your players to care about it can be a huge challenge.

Instead, picture this:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Getting Started with the Starter Set, Part 3: The Spider's Web

Hello, and welcome to Pact of the Tome. This article is the fifth in a series written for new Dungeon Masters who have picked up the Dungeons & Dragons 5E Starter Set and are planning to run a game with it for the first time. The first two articles cover the process of bringing a gaming group together and building characters, and each article after that will cover one "part" of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure. I will not assume any prior knowledge about Dungeons & Dragons aside from information in the Starter Set rulebook.

In this article, I'll cover the third part of the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, "The Spider's Web." When your group reaches this part of the adventure, they'll have some goals in mind - most prominently, finding and rescuing their kidnapped patron - but they won't have a clear method to achieve them. Instead, they'll follow up on several leads that they've gathered, exploring various locations near Phandelver to work their way toward Cragmaw Castle. By the end of this chapter, they'll have explored several of the locations around Phandalin, found and stormed Cragmaw Castle, and uncovered the location of the Lost Mine of Phandelver itself - and you'll have brought them there!

Part 3: The Spider's Web

Where to go?
In the last part of Lost Mine, your group most likely explored the Cragmaw Hideout, got to know the town of Phandalin, and delved into the dungeons underneath Tresendar Manor. Unless things went differently than the adventure expects, they likely did these things in a predictable order. In this chapter, your players will get to choose what leads they pursue and what parts of the adventure they'll tackle first.

What does this mean for you? You'll have to be more prepared and willing to improvise than previously. There's a list of information the characters may have gathered on page 27, and it'll be worthwhile spending some time reading up on each of the different locations mentioned - Agatha's Lair, Old Owl Well, the Ruins of Thundertree, and Wyvern Tor. Except for the Ruins of Thundertree, each of these locations is fairly straightforward to run so long as you're prepared.