Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting the Most From Backstories: for the DM

This is more of those advanced DM challenges that are almost certainly not for beginners. The challenge itself is pretty simple to explain: make the PC’s background more important than the PC’s class.

If you’re playing 5e RAW, your players are picking a background. They get the proficiency pips for the skills that come with that background and then, all too likely, are completely forgetting about it. Don’t let them!

There’s a ton of cool stuff you can do with the PCs backgrounds. Some practically hand you adventure hooks, like the sage’s “letter from a dead colleague posing a question you have not yet been able to answer.” Others imply connections, both good and bad, like the noble, acolyte, criminal, and guild artisan who are members of larger communities. The urchin might be an orphan, but they probably know everybody in the seedy part of town, and the sailor and soldier were part teams whose members are probably still out there somewhere.

Adventure hooks, especially at the opening of the campaign, are wonderfully nice to have, but we’re looking for deeper engagement. Time to put on your Mephistopheles hat. Get the players to start thinking about their backgrounds by making it clear that backgrounds are a good way to solve problems. You might need to prod a bit at the beginning; mention to a player that they might be able to get reliable information by asking this person they know. Need to find the Thieves’ Guild? The urchin knows a fence who used to work for them and probably still does. Need to find out more about the ruin they’re planning to loot? The sage knows a local specialist on the historic period when the ruin was built. Need a guide through the swamp? The locals might open up to a folk hero and divulge which smugglers and poachers are trustworthy.

Keep a list of the PCs’ background handy and consult it often. Whenever a player asks, “Do I know anyone in this town/tavern/jail/etc.?” check the backgrounds first and look for an excuse to say, “Yes!”

The goal is to get the players to bring up their backgrounds whenever they’re faced with a conundrum. If you allow the players to go to that well often and profitably, with solutions, good hints, and timely warnings, they’ll start to rely on it. The goal here is to have one player say to another, “Hey, surely your guild merchant knows somebody who…”

And then you can start to rope them more tightly with conflicts. The local entertainers support the Queen’s faction over the Cardinal’s. The sailors want a more aggressive foreign policy that will sweep the pirates from the Inner Isles. The local community of the learned is riven with internal politics and back-stabbing. Let the PCs get involved and make a difference, especially as success leads to greater prestige.

But if you really want to hook them, give them a big, juicy mystery. The secret leader of the warlock-bandits is really an old chum from the university; the urchin’s childhood buddies from the street are being murdered; a ship the sailor crewed sails in with all hands missing and a hold full of barrels of salt water; the soldier’s old unit is disgraced and cashiered for an offense they couldn’t possibly have committed. Of course tie that in with the larger plots of your campaign. Weave the backgrounds of the PCs into the ongoing conflicts of the setting and the larger mysteries they’ve expressed an interest in.

Old School DMs, you’re not off the hook here, though I suspect most of you already do this to some extent. You just wait later to get started. Building relationships, callbacks to earlier adventures, enemies made and allies won, start to dominate the campaign. It’s a natural progression when the first three or four levels is the PCs’ backstory. Since they build it together, it’s less about this character or that character and more about all of them together. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on you and your group.

Art by Rembrandt.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Critique of Xanathar's Guide to Everything

I think I want to like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything more than I do.

This is not to say it’s a bad book, and I suspect it will become the de facto PHB-part-two everyone thinks it is. But it also is certainly not a replacement for the PHB, nor do I think the options in it will eclipse those in the PHB. (Having said that, I’m not a min-maxer and my last dedicated min-maxer left my games months ago. So there may be opportunities/abuses I’m missing in my blissful ignorance. Still, I doubt there’s anything here that’s going to topple the Druid from its top spot.)

What you, DM or player, will get this book for are the evocative sub-classes. That said, the format shockingly reveals just how paltry a sub-class is. Shorn of the rest of the class info, each sub-class fills about a page, art and descriptive fluff included. You get four or five “features” every handful of levels. Exactly how much that’s going to impact your game depends on how you play. The Rogue, for instance, doesn’t get another sub-class feature after 3rd level until 9th. If most of your play takes place in the traditional sweet spot of 4th through 12th level, those features you get at 3rd pretty much define your archetype for the duration of the campaign. Exactly how useful those are completely depends on the sort of campaign you’re playing in. For instance, the Swashbuckler gets to use their sneak attack bonus damage if “you are within 5 feet of [your target], no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll.” In my games, having nobody else within 5 feet isn’t going to happen all that often.

Some of the features are even more situational. Also for Rogues is the Inquisitive, an option probably not worth pursuing unless you were able to give yourself a very good Wisdom score (and you’ll probably want a high Intelligence as well). Insight and Investigation checks are central to a lot of what the Inquisitive can do (even dictating when the Inquisitive can get their sneak-attack bonus damage, a la the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes), but the Inquisitive doesn’t get any bonuses to those checks until 9th level.

The Monk’s Drunken Master sub-class is likely to prove divisive. How useful is it to you to wed a Disengage and an extra 10 feet of movement to your Flurry of Blows? At 6th level, the Drunken Master can redirect missed attacks at another attacker within 5 feet; clearly, the Drunken Master and Swashbuckler do not belong in the same campaign.

I love the flavor of these things. Hitting your foe’s friends with their own attacks is fun and not mechanically cumbersome. The idea of a non-magical detective skilled at penetrating lies is appealing. But even more than the options in the PHB, the sub-classes in Xanathar’s are more matters of setting and DM style than preference. Since I do combat via theater-of-the-mind, little adjustments to positioning are less likely to be useful to you. On the other hand, the new Grave Domain for Clerics is something my campaigns have needed for a while now. You’re going to want to talk to your DM about the sort of campaign they’re running before you pick most of these. As a DM, you’ll want to get out ahead of your players by stating the sort of campaign you have in mind and which sub-classes are not suitable for it.

There are some fun build-a-background life-path tables. These include things like tables for why you became whatever class your PC is. The results are purely cosmetic and I’m more likely to come up with this sort of stuff on my own, but for those who love tables, you get lots!

After that is a grab-bag of stuff in a chapter titled “Dungeon Master’s Tools.” Much is the sort of thing you could easily handle with a ruling: sleeping in armor, how to wake someone, tying knots, how to tell if someone is casting a spell, that sort of thing. There’s a long section on tool use that tries to rescue tool proficiencies from obscurity and disuse; I’m not sure how effective it will be, but it’s an interesting read and I think players would do well to peruse it if they have a character with a tool proficiency.

For those who’ve been busting their brains trying to build encounters with the guidelines in the DMG and the CR scores, there’s some handy cheat-sheets for using multiple monsters and mixed-CR monsters. Helpful, if that’s your bag; otherwise, I think six months experience as a DM will take you farther in terms of building “fair” encounters.

“Traps Revisited” is a huge improvement on the outlines for traps in the DMG. It puts a bit too much focus on skill checks for overcoming them, but does (if a bit dismissively) at least nod towards disabling traps with clever thinking. If you’ve been treating traps like Old School puzzles, this won’t convince you to do otherwise. For everyone else, this will make traps a lot more entertaining at the table.

The downtime section is nice. It includes carousing tables! Not nearly as fun as Jeff’s, and the only benefit is making social connections. Still, social connections are damned useful in some campaigns. The downtime section also includes rules for buying and selling magic items. The assumption is still that you can’t just go down to the local shop to buy them off-the-shelf (unless you’re talking healing potions or scrolls, both of which have rules for manufacture in the downtime section). Buying and selling magic items is a long, drawn-out process that involves spending 100 gp per week in your search. The time and money spent improve the roll you get on a random table to see what’s actually available. PCs can seek specific items, but that just raises the difficulty of finding anything. PCs could potentially spend thousands of gold and months of time only to come up with nothing, or, if the DM uses the complications table, something that’s cursed or draws the wrong sort of attention. It’s a system that’s both flavorful and easily handled via email between sessions.

Downtime can also involve rivals, people who live to make the lives of the PCs more difficult. The idea appears to be to create a sense of a living world by putting a face to the problems the PCs might encounter during their downtime activities. The idea has some potential but it’s not the sort of thing you want to toss in the path of murder-hobos.

There’s a collection of “common” magic items, most of which have only cosmetic abilities. I think the designers sold unbreakable arrows short; using them to block doors and the like seems like a pretty potent ability. Otherwise, most of the entries are cute (a cloak that billows on command, armor that smokes ominously) but hard to take seriously.

Then we get the spells. There’s a fair number of them, but most fall into the does-damage-and-something-else category. Damage-plus-potential-blindness has a few entries, there’s one damage-plus-heals-the-caster, and lots of damage-plus-move-the-target-around spells. There are some deliciously atmospheric ones, like a spell that does damage plus kills all non-magical and non-creature plants in a 30-foot cube, a spell that allows you to give your hit points to others (or, more appropriately, take their damage onto yourself), a darkness-plus-gibbering-that-causes-psychic damage, and both water and acid versions of fireball. Some old favorites also return, like mud-to-stone/stone-to-mud and homunculus. There are also a handful of spells for summoning devils and demons that villains will get great use out of and require material components that could potentially tip off PCs before the spells are cast.

We also get the just odd and disappointing. For instance, apparently couples who get a real cleric to perform the ceremony get an AC bonus for their first week of married life. I can understand the type of thinking that went into insisting that something like a wedding needed to include a mechanically significant combat component, and that sort of thinking makes me cringe. Even then, a +2 to AC feels kinda lame, especially when you compare it to the wedding magic from Krull. Weddings are once-in-a-lifetime affairs (especially fantasy versions of them). If you’re going to give them a magical effect, make it truly momentous!

Finally, we get the appendices. These start with suggestions on how to organize a campaign in which the DM duties are shared, whether that’s just friends taking turns in a private campaign or a wide-flung thing like Flailsnails.

After that comes 17 pages of names, arranged in tables you can roll on. First we get one for each of the PC races listed in the PHB (but not from the Volo’s book). Then we get numerous real-world cultures, ranging from ancient Egypt and the Celts to a mix of modern and medieval German and French and English. The range is incredible, including Polynesian, Hindu, Norse, and Mesoamerican.

I would have given my eyeteeth for lists like these back in the ‘90s. Today, however, I have the internet, with resources like that not only gives me more cultures to pick from but also tells me the meaning of the names. Add in the quality random generators available online as well and these tables really only become useful when I’m trying to game on a campout or the like.

The stuff I like, I really like: some of the spells, some of the subclasses, mostly. Most of the rest is forgettable. If 5e is your first RPG, you’ll find a lot here to expand and improve your game. Otherwise, you’ll find some nice tidbits. I will get use of the expanded spell lists. I think I’ll get use from the additional subclasses. All in all, I give Xanathar’s Guide a prospective B- and that’s contingent on the sub-classes proving as useful and popular as I think they will. If it turns out I’m only using a dozen or so of the spells, that grade could drop into the C range.

UPDATE: a very different take can be found here:
To put that another way, the first six subclasses seem determined to explode pre-conceived notions of what D&D is about, and that is all I can really want from a book that is pointedly not titled Player’s Handbook II.