The 50000 Foot View, Part 1

Welcome back to the Front.

Last week in Framing the Picture, I discussed different options that a GM can use to get the players up to speed on the same page. So let’s look at the last fantasy world I shared with various players. For this exercise, I haven’t decided which area is going to be my real starting point for the campaign, so I’ll first start with the big picture.

meditmapI’ll start by naming my world influences: Avalon, the decline of the Roman Empire, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: the Legion of Light and the corruption of magic, Arabian Nights, Universal Brotherhood (Shadowrun), Vikings, Free Cities (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, A Song of Ice and Fire – also kept in mind the Wall), Egyptian Empire, Blood War (D&D), Old World of Darkness Transylvania and Far East. (In one of the campaigns that I did run in this world, it turned out that Glen Cook’s Black Company also became an influence.) There are probably even a few more, but that is a good starting point.

Looking at that list, I want to cherry pick themes and moods. Gothic, corruption, and intrigue seem to be at the forefront. The players will be heroes (or not so heroic) but will have to stare down the fact that world is a free-falling hand-basket and decide what will they do about it. To make it work, the players will have to be invested in the world. They will need to care.

Since I still haven’t settled on a place to call home for the campaign, let’s take a walk about in broad brush strokes: The map for this is going to be Northern Africa (and the Sahara desert), Europe and Asia.

As an initial starting point, let’s work with these broad strokes:

  •  The Avalon influence. The area that would be the British Isles is in chaos. The declining “Roman” empire is losing its grasp of the area, but the distinct racial tribes of the area are anything than united. (In this world, there is no Arthur. Perhaps the players will be that inspiring force to unify the tribes.)
  • In North Africa, the “Egyptian” empire has held on. They are caught between the Roman Empire and the Arabian Empire constantly trying to expand into the territory, while they watch for things coming out of the desert desolation to the South.
  • The “Arabian” Empire … Home to the wondrous and one of the world’s dominate religions (Church of Illuminating Scales). The empire fights wars with the Roman Empire that it split out of, The “Egyptian” Empire, and what would be “Transylvania” due to the Church’s perception that its undying ruler is a slayer of a dragon.
  • The Church mythos is that a benevolent Dragon led humanity and the other races to become civilized and helps shape the policy of the empire. Does the Dragon still lead the Empire or is that one of the populated myths to keep the people in line?
  • The “Roman” Empire. No longer able to expand as easily, the Empire keeps its citizens well distracted as it tries to hold onto its glory. Lots of political maneuvering to get ahead.
  • Northern Europe and Russia area are largely populated by Barbarians and Free Cities. Summers bring raiding to the civilized world.

That’s just a handful. Next week we’ll keep going…

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Framing the Picture

Welcome back to the Front. In a one-shot adventure, the GM has a relatively self-contained story idea to explore — maybe the gaming group wants to try out a new system or maybe they want to just run through a module. The players don’t have a whole lot to go on other than some general comments about what they might expect. Often when I was a player it was “We are going to play {system X} today, roll up a character.” Given such a broad canvas to draw on, the players don’t really come up with backgrounds as much just generate a character and their personality.

In a campaign, the stakes are different. The GM and the players are in it for the long-haul. At this point, the GM wants the characters to fit the campaign’s narrative to help immersion and also make it easier to come up with various story threads. The players want to feel like their characters fit the story and that they are part of the world.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull Player's Guide (PFRPG) - PaizoBut how does a GM achieve that without tipping their hand as to the twists and turns that are lurking in a campaign? Various RPG-settings have included a “reference”, “inspired by”, and/or “recommended reading/viewing” sections. Fitz mentioned to me the other day, that this goes all the way back to AD&D 1st edition.  I recall it being in various White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness books, Paizo’s Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and Eclipse Phase rulebook (among others).

Paizo takes it a step further though … they are using free Player’s Guides for their Adventure Paths (module-driven campaigns) that introduce the players to some of the concepts and region that they will be adventuring in. They also offer some suggested custom character traits that give minor bonuses to the PCs and help tie their characters into what is going on in the area that the adventure takes place. The more important part to the trait is that it provides players a starting point for their character background that will make sense in the larger campaign.

Of course, none of that alone solves the problem for a home-brew campaign. So what’s a GM to do if they don’t want to tackle writing 10-20 pages of background material for the players?  My recommendation is, just do it in a few paragraphs. Describe the sort of the theme/mood you are going for in the setting. Summarize the world at large (in large brush-strokes so you don’t have to sweat the details) and the region you are focusing on. You want to include just enough information that if you are doing a dark fantasy (like Dragon Age or A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying that Green Ronin has put out) that someone doesn’t create a character that is going for light humor without thinking through what it is going to do to the tone of the campaign. Creating a character that doesn’t fit the campaign tone risks the player being unhappy when that very tone of the campaign/world pushes back and forces the character to make hard decisions between the lesser of two evils.

In the end the goal is the same as it always is, the GM wants to create a world to share with his players, and the players want to create characters that inspire the GM to tell stories around their characters. The better both sides set the stage, the easier it becomes to accomplish this. Hit the sweet spot and campaigns are effortless to keep on rolling along.

Until the next time, may you grab a group of your friends and get to the gaming goodness that we all enjoy.

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The Gassy Gnoll: The Smell of Magic in 5e

Even as this Gassy Gnoll gets excited about diving headlong into the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, I struggle mightily with the balance between low level wizards and damage capability that I’ve seen even with the Starter Set and online PDF of the 5e rules. And I’m not a system guy, so bear with me.

DnD 5e Players Handbook coverIf I am playing a 1st level wizard and get a collection of three cantrips and six 1st level spells of my choice. There are 10 cantrips and 12 1st level spells to choose from. But I can cast as many of my cantrips as I want, but I can only cast 2 of my selected 1st level spells per day.

If I’m going to be a combat wizard, I will choose all the damaging spells I can get. Acid Splash, Fire Bolt, and Ray of Frost work well for cantrips and Burning Hands and Magic Missile works well for my first level selections to have something for up close and personal battles as well as at a distance.

Let’s look at the relative capabilities of these spells:

  • Acid Splash – 60 foot range. One or two targets within range (if multiple targets, they have to be close together). Targets must succeed on a Dexterity save or take 1d6 acid damage.
  • Burning Hands – 15 foot cone with the point centered on the caster. Any creature in that cone must make a Dexterity save or take 3d6 fire damage. Take half the damage on a successful save. And anything flammable in the spell area (not worn or carried) catches on fire.
  • Fire Bolt – 120 foot range. One target. Caster makes a ranged spell attack and on a hit, the target takes 1d10 fire damage. And anything flammable hit by the spell (if not worn or carried) ignites.
  • Magic Missile – 120 foot range. Three “glowing darts” hit a visible target of the caster’s choice. Each dart does 1d4 + 1 force damage. Unerring hit.
  • Ray of Frost – 60 foot range. A frozen beam streaks at a target. Caster makes a ranged spell attack. If hit, the target takes 1d8 cold damage and its speed is reduced by 10 feet until the start of the caster’s next turn.

Beyond the fact that 1st level wizards now seem to be killing machines and I think these spells are way overpowered for first level… If I’m using the sample character from the Starter Set (an Elf with an Arcana proficiency at 5), each of my damage-causing spells requiring an attack roll is at a +5. And the character’s DC for spell effects is a 13.

If I’m attacking a Cultist (looking at the Hoard of the Dragon King free supplement, which includes some 5e monster descriptions), it has an AC of 12 and a Dex of 12 (+1 to Dex checks). It has 9 HP and one melee attack doing 2-7 (average 4) points of damage.

The following possibilities exist:

  • Acid Splash – Wizard casts. Cultist rolls a d20+1. So the GM has to roll a 12 or better to not get hit. That’s better than even odds that the Cultist is going to take 1-6 points of damage.
  • Burning Hands – In this case, the wizard has to be pretty close to the target. Wizard casts. Cultist rolls a d20+1. A 12 or better succeeds. Again, that’s better than even odds that the Cultist is going to take full damage. Cultist is going to take anywhere from 1-9 or 3-18 points of damage. Ouch.
  • Fire Bolt – Wizard casts and has to make a ranged attack vs. the AC of the Cultist. d20+5 and the caster needs a 12 or better to hit. That requires a roll of 7 or higher. The Wizard has a 65% chance of hitting the target for 1-10 points of damage.
  • Magic Missile – If the Cultist is in range and visible, he’s going to be hit for 6-15 points of damage.
  • Ray of Frost – Like with Fire Bolt, the wizard has to make a ranged attack vs. AC. 65% or better to hit and do 1-8 damage and slow them for a round.

Honestly if I’m a 1st level wizard, I’m betting on rolling a 7 or better. Fire Bolt and Ray of Frost are my friends. Each cultist only has 9 hit points. One Fire Bolt can take the evildoer down. Keep out of melee range and cast cantrips every battle. 2/3 of the time, the wizard is going to hit the target.

The wizard is balanced out a little by the fact that he only has 8 hit points to start (which is twice as much as a 1st edition wizard had!), but how can they fail? If the party is balanced at all, the wizard will tilt things to the PCs favor quickly.

Is anybody else upset by this unbalanced approach? Cantrips are great and all, but maybe we should tone them down a bit power-wise?

Acid Splash seems about right – so I’d drop Fire Bolt and Ray of Frost to d6 right off the bat. I don’t mind them being at-will powers, but as a GM I would have each goblin horde have one or two wizards to even the odds. Strategy then shifts to protecting the spellcaster at all costs, making the use of cover and defense that much more important.

Beginning characters need to struggle to survive. Without the initial struggle these characters become super heroes off the bat, which is bogus in my worlds.

Gassy out.

This Means War…

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Welcome back to the Front. Have you ever notice that when open up a history book or browse a multitude of news media sources odds are that it tends to be filled with wars and conflicts? The reasons for war (or “conflicts”) are very diverse. A few that come to mind are 1) that they . . . → Read More: This Means War…

My Name Is … (Finale)

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So the online game that I came up with my name was Mechwarrior 2. For whatever reason, my internet connection made it such that the easiest mech to fight in was a heavily armored Missile boat. I teamed up with a few friends locally and we became Clan Soulreaper.

As my handle, I chose Forged.

. . . → Read More: My Name Is … (Finale)

My Name Is… (Part Deux)

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As you well know, Fitz loves random generators. For some things I’m ok with them, for others, I don’t really care for them. Honestly, they are great if you are absolutely stuck … as long as the result doesn’t continue your being stuck on how two put together seemingly random words to describe something.

However, . . . → Read More: My Name Is… (Part Deux)

My Name Is …

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So Fitz has been hounding me for years about doing something more with gaming than just watch the world go by. Given that you read Fitz’s blog (here or over at Moebius Adventures), you probably already have seen a comment or few dozen by me over the last few years.

My name is Forged. I come . . . → Read More: My Name Is …

Some News!


Hi all,

It’s been a while since anything has been written at Game Knight Reviews and I apologize for that. I’ve been very focused on developing products and content for Moebius Adventures, so this site has languished a bit.

However, my good friend Forged (aka Mike) is going to help out with some posts starting . . . → Read More: Some News!

The Gassy Gnoll: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball!

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Why do I feel like the Most Interesting Man in the World this week? (Thank you Dos Equis.) Might it be that I started playing a new wizard in 4e D&D last weekend and the first spell I selected was Fireball?

What is it about Fireball that makes it the “must have” spell in D&D? . . . → Read More: The Gassy Gnoll: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball!

The Gassy Gnoll: When Did It Become Us vs. Them?

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Recently I was introduced to the idea of a “DM Kill Board” where DMs or GMs could jot down the particulars surrounding the death of a PC. Level and class details are intermixed along with the circumstances of the death. And I can’t help but be a little weirded out by this trend.

When did . . . → Read More: The Gassy Gnoll: When Did It Become Us vs. Them?

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