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D&D: Difficulty Deskewed

The current scenario in my Silver Coast game, as initially written and run for the first two sessions, was a study in the limits of 5E encounter design. And it taught me some very interesting things– not the least of which is that 5E can be just as painfully grindy as 3.x and 4E, when the difficulty is skewed way up and the tactical setup is the focus of the adventure design.

Pursuant to the issues I discussed in an earlier post, I wanted to see how tough a "hard" or a "deadly" encounter was, and so I tossed the group into a very linear adventure with a clear "This is the hook!" focus and their choice of which type of dangerous path they wanted to take to get there.

Long story short, sirfox's warrior cleric Gimlet was formerly a member of a mercenary company tasked with keeping the peace in the largest nearby campaign city, and his pre-game background was that he left that group in disgust at corruption within it. I built on this background by saying that his former captain had been hanged for treason on the strength of Gimlet's testimony. But what Gimlet had not known at the time is that while dangling from the gallows, his former captain had been offered the opportunity to sell his soul to Orcus in exchange for revenge etc., etc., and had taken it. Thus, Gimlet's former boss returned as a vampire who is granted "seven years of continued existence" for each soul he sends to Orcus. Naturally wanting to front-load this a bit, said boss decides to start by murdering just about everyone he knew and turning them into undead minions. The party, happening to pass through the city on their way to another mission, happens into this situation when the boss spots Gimlet on the streets and sends his minions to attack.

The first act of the scenario, which I'd envisioned being something like a Call of Cthulhu-esque investigation tracking down the various people involved in the boss's trial, didn't really go as I'd hoped. I gave Sirfie a list of the various people involved in the trial, as Gimlet would have known who they were, but it was probably too big of an infodump [1] and the party just sorta vagued around the city a while until they finally latched on to one and waited for him to get attacked. Once the attack actually happened, tho, they did a good piece of detective work to track the boss's minions back to his lair.

The second and third acts are the assault on the vampire's lair, i.e., the former captain's house in the city and the catacombs underneath it. This is where the tactical focus/difficult combat aspect came into play. The ground level of the house had three different "encounter" areas of varying difficulty, but given their proximity, the nature of the encounters, and the villain's underlying ability to pretty much see everything going on at once and command his minions accordingly, it became one big furball, with the monsters coming in waves one or two turns apart. The six ghouls, probably would not have been a problem. Six ghouls plus two hellhounds, a bit more of a problem but a self-correcting one as the hellhounds' fire breath hits the ghouls as much as the party. Six ghouls, two hellhounds, and two helm horrors? Yeah, that's a bit much for five 4th-level characters.

Not quite a fifteen minute workday, but enough that the party wanted a long rest, and I couldn't blame them. Then down into the catacombs... where they fought six more ghouls and a ghast scrunched up in a tight corridor... then another six more ghouls and a ghast who were all praying around a statue of Orcus that enabled them to regenerate at the beginning of their turn.

Oh, ye gods. So. Grindy. -.- That was a seriously bad encounter design, Gneech. And of course, they wanted another long rest at the end of it, and it would have been foolish of them not to take it. Definitely a 15-minute workday that time.

So, yeah, lesson learned. I didn't care for it. I much prefer the freewheeling sandbox to the grindy, grindy railroad, and so I have refactored the rest of the scenario to be closer to 5E standard guidelines (although the vampire at the end will probably still be pretty tough 'cos, y'know, vampire boss fight). Once we are through with it, I'll be going back to the "smaller, lighter adventure hooks but more of them" mode we were in leading up to it.

On a related note, at AnthroCon sirfox let me know in rambliness inversely proportional to the amount of rum and cola involved ;) that he is all about the phat l00tz. If I understood him correctly, anyhow, he'd like to get some cool "signature gear" that does things beyond the numerical +x bonus, which I must admit is how I prefer magic items myself. Ironically, there have been some items like that floating around (such as the ones guarded by the spectator in the Lesser Spellforge), but the party has tended to turn around just as they got close to 'em.

Last session Gimlet yoinked a pair of magic hammers and shields from the defeated helm horrors, but unfortunately they were (by design) of the generic +x variety, merely being components of the helm horror manufacturing process. On the other hand, the party is in the big city, maybe they can find a purveyor of fine weaponry who would be willing to trade for something more interesting, once they've climbed back up out of the catacombs.

Sirfie also told me a while back that I had been described to him as a GM who was stingy with magic items, which I have to admit came as a surprise. My general goal has been to operate more-or-less within the parameters set by whatever game system I'm using, tending to randomly generate and then tweak-to-personalize loot when the players come upon it. However, having cut my teeth on 1E, I do also believe that treasure, particularly magic items, must be earned (or at the very least searched for). That means that choice items are often down side-passages, hidden in secret chambers, or being used by the baddies against the players first. For players used to CRPG- or MMO-style treasure "drops," this might seem stingy I suppose, but in those settings any given piece of treasure rarely matters anyhow compared to the item it's replacing. A +0.15 sword doesn't actually change anything regardless of how prettily it shines!

But the biggest factor has probably been that we tend to play low-level games, and low-level games tend to have low-level gear. I think the longest contiguous game I've run was Red Hand of Doom, which went from 3rd level to 9th level if I remember correctly, with a short-lived 10th - 12th sequel game. Certainly the players had some pretty nifty gear by the end of that (red dragonscale armor is a particular standout I recall). The characters in the Silver Coast game will almost certainly hit 5th level by the end of the next session (*sobs* TOO SOON!), so magic items will probably start showing up more often as their adventures scale up to match.

-The Gneech

[1] NOTE TO MYSELF: Two clues is too few, and four clues is too many.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 22nd, 2015 07:14 am (UTC)
*Grin* I tend to have magic items in the hands of critters who can - and will - use them. This is often a bit frustrating for players... a tribe of goblins with a couple of suits of powered armor (for example) are going to be tougher than standard, but the loot in question (the armor) is going to useless for medium-sized characters. Don't have any gnomes or halflings in the party? You're gonna need to sell that stuff. And consumables are about as annoying, sometimes - the goblin shaman with a wand of curse was fairly devastating (this was 3.5). An earlier version was even worse: the magic item involved was a scroll of monster summoning - something along the level of V, I believe.

The really evil thing you can do as a DM is to play the monsters as intelligently as their stats indicate, with whatever additional quirks make sense. Kobolds? Think Viet Cong "tunnel rats" - a dozen of 'em can, if run with normal intelligence on their home turf, can delay and torment a party of fifth-level characters. ("Um, a fireball? Inside a tunnel three feet in diameter? Are you sure you want to do that?") This can give the rest of the kobolds time to get set up for a truly vicious set-piece battle... or evacuate, if they're smart, probably taking the bulk of their loot with them. This can put a ticking clock up against the party - the longer they take to deal with the rear guard, the less loot there is to be recovered... and the more of it might be used against the party.
Jul. 23rd, 2015 04:58 pm (UTC)
My theory on clues is "give about 3-4 times as many to PCs as you would to a character in a story". I have only once had the experience of giving too many clues. (The PCs started to wonder if the perpetrator was being framed.) 'Course, "clues" and "leads" are not exactly the same thing. c_c
Jul. 24th, 2015 02:22 am (UTC)
FWIW, as a player, I am terrible at deciphering clues. I always draw the wrong conclusion early and then get stuck in confirmation bias.

So, it's a good thing I'm not a detective. ¬.¬

Oddly, however, I often do a good job of guessing out whodunit in a mystery story, if the writer "plays fair" about it. But that's probably a matter of having studied the form.

Jul. 24th, 2015 08:07 am (UTC)
I've been trying to articulate further my thoughts on loot/magic items in general. The former is generally just a means to the latter.

It's not that it's a blind rush to... in WOW terms, gear myself out in purples. In previous editions, when we'd start a character a few levels up, it was a lot of fun to look for the best numerical advantages for my GP, but once a few bases were covered, I'd lean more for flashy things like an elemental damage bonus. Going straight-up min-maxy, the plain old +2 enchant would be a better deal, since you'd hit things more often, but I liked the image and feel of a weapon that bursts into flames, or crackles and sparks, or dripping with acid.

To me, the zap and sizzle of magical effects adds a lot of fun to things in a fantasy setting. Properly handled, it can add a lot to a story. Sting glowing blue while everything else *Seemed* quiet around the hobbit and dwarves added one honkload of suspense.

The 5e rework of magic items and prices is taking some getting used to.

+1 is Uncommon, 500g, a +2 is rare (lvl5+) and 5000g, and a +3 is very rare (11th level or higher) and continues by factors of 10 to 50Killogold

Looking through the DMG, a bit of what i'm looking for is on pg 141-143, in the personalizing items category. Some of the Minor Property options could be a lot of fun. Beacon is the on-off glowing effect, functionally halfway between candle and torch in power. Strange Material could be a lot of fun; staff or hammers made of water, goldfish optional, a shield or cloak made of smoke, glass-staff's glass staff, bamboo swords as hard and sharp as steel. the Sting glowing when X is near effect is now the "sentinel" minor property. I could imagine others... a good or evil weapon might make illusionary halo or horns on the wielder when used.

I was a little taken aback that Bane went from "big bonuses vs [goblins]" to a history detail meaning that "If a goblin saw you with it, they'd probably want to murder you slightly harder."

The alphabetical loot tables have a number of special magic weapons and armor with lots of big flashy effects, and often pretty rare with high bonuses/ costs/etc.

What i've had my eye out for, and what has seemed sadly lacking is something a bit lower than Holy Avengers and Maces of Smiting and Frostbrands and flame tongues, but with a little more functional contributions than flavor options in the dmg pages mentioned above. A few have been dropped in the original supplement, like an axe that does max damage against plants.

Oddly specific, only useful rarely, but the "it does something different" factor is there. I've been trying to think up what else might fill this gap, item-wise. Basically a +1, but with something else to give it flavor. a +1d4 Fill-in-the-blank-type (radiant, fire, sound) damage only vs. certain types of enemies (pairs nicely with sentinel) seems more fun than just max damage versus X, or an assassin's knife that can re-poison itself a few times a day to do extra damage on sneak attacks. There are a bunch of level 1 spell options where a 1 per day effect could be cool and useful without making the item overpowering. A lens that changes one cantrip attack (sacred flame, frost ray) into another (acid splash, eldrich blast)

I guess we'll see more of these as supplements come out, it just seems like a largely underserved and very fertile ground for some very neat things.

Jul. 24th, 2015 01:06 pm (UTC)
"Bane" as it was is rolled into the "slayer" category now, I'd imagine... of which the only examples listed in the DMG are the Dragon Slayer sword and the Giant Slayer axe, but they could easily act as a template for more. What was Glamdring if not a Goblin Slayer?

But yes, I get what you're saying. :) The Lesser Spellforge can actually enable some of these things... but you have to have access to it (and proficiency with weaponsmithing tools) first.

-The Gneech
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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