Thursday D&D is now my oldest campaign. Running since my inception into the Questers' Way model, they've been fighting cultists, talking to dragons, crushing beholders, and squaring off against Ancient Ones riding gargantuan titans for nearly 3 years now. And last Thursday marked the close of the final arc of the story.
We'll have one last dungeon crawl at level 20, 5 years later, as our epilogue next week. After that, 150 years pass into the fourth age of Io, and we start anew at Level 2. It's been quite a journey, and they're not the easiest group to run ;), but the lessons are real with this crew and I've changed a lot since we started.
Here's what I picked up.
When I started the Thursday game, I was coming off a blend of 10 years running and teaching Pathfinder, and though I fell in love quickly with 5E, I had made some assumptions regarding its player options.
The system is deceptively simple and highly accessible, but I had listened to the cry-babies online declaring it "D&D Basic," and decided to create specific Prestige Classes based around lore and player discovery. It created a very special and unique option inside my custom world, where "secret" classes actually existed that could augment player builds, and could only upgrade through experimentation, player exploration, and discovery into the deep layers of the world's history. I still think it was a great decision. It adds a lot of rewards for players that invest of themselves in the history and machinations of this fantasy you've spent so much time on.
But after two years of deep-diving mechanics, game mastering, game design, player-master interaction, social development, and the study of flow... I realize I made a boo-boo. Not a mistake in flavor, nor in reward, but in mechanics.
It's a little thing, and the more you do the more you realize that "it's the little things" that matter most. In this case, my Prestige Class of the Aegis - a powerhouse of a Cleric that wields the souls of the dead to unleash fury upon her enemies - and the final form of a Ranger with a Legacy Bow - a weapon that levels up with you; semi-sentient and created by a god - created an issue with Action Economy and TMRPA (Too Much Rolling Per Action), respectively.
The Aegis's main mechanic involves gaining Furies - souls of dead warriors unwilling to pass on - and spending them like Ki Points to unleash powerful attacks, augment healing spells, and create more options. Unfortunately, as long as you have Furies to burn, there's no limit to their use, and at high level in any class, you're already managing so much... It eats up time easy when you're able to summon an Action Surge every turn AND cast AND fight. On the other side of the table, the crazy-bow-now-living-winged-armor attached to the Ranger added an extra attack, but the main time suck is derived from two main extra elements in play: the bow requires a Con save when it hits or the target takes extra necrotic damage. It's also got a crazy bonus (with a high level character with max Dex), so hitting is often, mean more rolls for me. On top of this, IF she rolls a natural 20 on the bow, she rolls Constitution damage on the target, on top of everything else. Moving forward, leveled up weapons will deal static numbers, instead of rolling more... And in terms of time, it always feels more effective in flow and execution to have a power spike (the awesome power of rolling 8d6 for a Fireball) than many small spikes of damage, so if I can eliminate the parceled rolls where I can, everyone still feels effective, but turns take less time.
In the fourth age, Io-Shar, though it is a more industrial time period of naval exploration (after the world flooded), home-brew materials are much tighter and more balanced; action economy manipulations have higher costs, and there's less compounded rolling. The bonuses are also much more subtle; there isn't a need to add a whole new system to track when it could be as simple as a palette swap in damage type. New age, new prestige classes and custom feats open up (hello, Knife Expert), but this play test has heavily informed what special elements are extended to the player. A little goes a long way - there is an elegance in that design, and it keeps the playing field even across the table.
I look forward to the interesting things I can give them this time around. :)
Self Actualization / Player Agency
NPC's can be tricky business.
Introduce them as careful lore drops, powerful relationships, killer resources...but never have them solve a problem for the players. Good gods. Holy cows on toast with mayonnaise. Don't do it.
NPC ex machina is not the way to go if it comes out of nowhere.
Well-established order of guards and officers? Sure thing. Sudden mass teleport wizard is sudden. If it feels like a puzzle to the players and they're enjoying solving it, don't help them with an NPC. Hints are fine, solutions can hurt the party.
...Unless they're utterly lost and confused. Help them along, but don't do it for them. EVER. If you do, you run the risk of insulting them and equally "playing without them." And that's just rude. ;)
Clear Intention Of Background
Some players want their background conflicts resolved in the grand arc of the story, while others use their backgrounds predominantly to inform their play style from session 1 and need it no longer.
Now, this group in particular was one where I didn't get that feel easy from most of them. With a high mix reactive players with a few proactive ones, some offering extensive background information while others offered a few sentences explained away, the hindsight of the matter is obvious but the player execution and my observations were misunderstood often. When you give a hook that to you is obvious, but the player misses completely, and therefore doesn't pursue it, one might assume that the view of their background fits into the former category.
Compounding confusion, still, are those that feed very little into the overall narrative, but then wonder when "their story" will be featured, but say nothing - instead assuming they were forgotten. Please talk to your DM; I won't be offended - it's much worse if you don't approach the issue until the end of the campaign and I wonder why NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. :)
Like many GMs out there, I'm not a *dick*, but I can't read minds. There are so many stories of a player misinterpreting a DM's intention, or of the GM making an assumption about a scenario that ended up being incorrect, or seeming to ignore obvious intentions. In the same vein of: "if I knew it was a problem, I would have fixed it right away," though we can intuit quite a bit the longer we're at the table, our human nature begs us to err. We miss things, we get caught up in the narrative, and we lose sight of players. I am imperfect, as are we all, so open communication helps everyone. Also, GMs, CHECK IN WITH YOUR PLAYERS MORE. I picked this up as a requirement when I started Gray Owls and OH MY GOODNESS is it an essential element at every table. I don't know how it took me that long to put in my workflow OMG.
Moving forward, with each new campaign, I've started to put together a few questions for character creation; some fulfill the essential detail of world building, while others touch on player intentions - what do they want to get out of this experience?
1. Where was your character born? Describe it as best you can; do you reflect on this place positively or negatively? Would you ever want to return? Why? Do you have a family there? How did they treat you? Were there any important people in your life growing up? Why did you leave?
2. What is your character's goal in life; what do you seek? When did you "grow up" and start taking care of yourself?
3. What emotion best describes your character? What emotion do you bring out in others?
4. How do you carry yourself? What are your means/dress/attitude as you move through life? What do find valuable?
5. What is your comfort zone? What is your greatest fear? Personal tastes, quirks, and opinions?
6. Player: What kind of story do you see your character fitting into? What role do you see them filling?
7. Player: Please weigh (3 being most important to you, 1 being least important) the Three Pillars - Combat/Social/Exploration
8. Player: How do you interpret your play style? What are your pet peeves? What do you respond well to?
9. Player: How do you want your character to die? (this is more important than you think; it strikes at the heart of our own values - your story could end abruptly, and if it did, how would they meet that end do you think?)
10. Player: Do you want your background details to be referenced or hooked into the story? You can always change your mind - just let me know.
Now, especially number 10 I can see a few of my fellow GMs hemming and hawing over. "You mean we have to bend over backwards to make this character's weird backstory fit into OUR GRAND NARRATIVE??? How dare they assume they'd be so important - they should be happy just to be playing!" ...Hmm.
This is a group game, and it's really important that everyone understands the type of experience they're getting into. Clear expectations are a good thing; Trust and Empathy are two main factors to building a great table of play. Now, do I have to make that character's stuff the most important element all the time? No. Absolutely not. But I can give them sprinkles of content more directly spun into the story. It won't happen all the time, and sometimes it might not even come up, but IF I KNOW going into this that there is a clear desire to wrap up a specific story thread, I can find more ORGANIC ways to weave and tie these disparate threads together. It might even be a limiter of location; hints of the conflict in the north (echoes of another character's story), but we don't need to go there now. It's just a sprinkle.
Everyone's connected to something. Everyone's from somewhere. We don't know everything going in; the mystery is the fun part, and some players want their mystery. Others don't care for it; I need to know which one you are.
Players Learn Too, And Comfort Tells Stories
And when they do, their real play styles come out. It's amazing what comfort will do for the table, and how much it reveals what a comfortable player actually WANTS to play, and if that concept doesn't jive with how their current class works, there will undoubtedly be a desire to play something different.
The more this group learned about how the game works, the more effective they became, but also the more some of them drifted toward other builds, concepts, and ideas. This type of momentum is helpful to notice; in a way, it reveals a player's true nature. Like the first campaign was our test run. The next one is where we're going to really shine; players and DM alike. We take what we learned about the game, ourselves, our styles, and how to advocate for the experience we want...and finally, just PLAY.
See you at the table.
Writing this blog each week takes time, energy, and focus. If you enjoy reading it, maybe consider taking a look at my Patreon, and helping support its creation.
Every Game Master has their fair share of custom content and home-brew incorporation. We add a mundane item here, a magic item there, pull from previous editions, or adapt from other mediums. Hell, maybe we'll change the setting altogether; flip the script and play in the whimsical alternate dimension of: Milwaukee.
Whatever the case, each Game Master has their own house rules and a whole bevy of alternative items, mechanics, and elements ready to be created, discovered, and reinforced by their players...
So I thought I'd talk about mine.
The Timeline Of Io's Seven Ages
My setting of Io enjoys seven distinct settings, or Ages, in its interwoven timeline. I did this originally to be able to offer an abundant mix of games inside the same system but with a progressive timeline. What this created was a beast of internal consistency, where the actions of a party of adventurers on Tuesday could potentially affect the world experienced on Wednesdays, and the actions of the Knight Owls could have echoes in the Gray Owls campaign. I was careful to allow a large enough passage of time to avoid any weirdness, but the extra-meta knowledge of players in multiple campaigns has been pretty cool.
What it's also done is allowed me to create a literal progression of industry from age to age, unlocking special race, class, and item options setting to setting - all of which have lore and reasoning implications. ...Like how the heck Illithids (literal Mind Flayers) became a playable race in the 6th age of Io-Firma (the Gray Owls setting). So here's a quick overview of how each Age functions and what type of setting it offers.
The NEXUS: where all creation began - the world and its gods came into being in the Nexus, where the raw energy found in its core flowed through the planet and forged the elemental forces. Many believe it still exists to this day, somewhere far beyond the planar circle yet intimately close - like a door waiting to be opened. The details of its location have been lost to antiquity, a single remnant referred to only as The Song Of The Ancients.
Io-Temm: The Worldshaping - The first age of Io, where the Seven Wings birthed the now known pantheon and their inevitable war that shaped the main continent of Erena, the disparate islands of Abaddon, and the kingdoms beyond the Aether.
Io-Sooth: Mortal's Edge - Classic D&D fantasy setting; the second age entertains the birth of the mortal races, created by the first known pantheon. Tiamat and Bahamut - Dragonborn; Pelor - Humans; Morahdin - Dwarves; Corellon - Elves; you get the idea...
Io-Ren: Balance and Ruin - The flames of industry have begun to burn and the mortal races try to harness the power of the gods, ushering in an age of demigods, exploration, and tempting fate. Campaigns: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Knight Owls Season 1
Io-Shar: The Broken Seas - After a cataclysmic event involving an ancient being ripping a hole in the plane of Water, the world has flooded and expanded into an age of naval piracy, massive sea creatures, and temporal storms. Campaigns: Wednesdays, Knight Owls Season 2, Knight Owls Season 3.
Io-Empyr: Cloudsinger - After a sky pirate and his merry band pierced the Veil Of Heaven, cities rose into the sky, forming Clusters of new nations and expanding the world further. Steampunk airships, sky pirates, and tears in the threads of the Feywild and Shadowfell summon a whole new caste of creatures and entities that threaten to take the sky for their own. Campaigns: Cloudsinger (YouTube)
Io-Firma: The Reclamation - Magic is broken. A Prime God is dead. The world is dark and deadly and cold. Shattered psions, enlightened gnolls, ancient detectives, hired guns, and mature themes, this is not an age of heroes. No, this world is just a tad...gray. Campaigns: Gray Owls (21+)
Io-Nixx: The Sundering - Not much is known of this age, as only one adventuring party has caught a glimpse of it. It is a battle; constant and enormous, where literal gods clash in the skies. It may even mark the end of the world as we know it.
So, depending on the age, we can assume that certain gear is available as industry increases. Sooth and Ren are pretty similar, but Ren's adventurers begin to discover the powerful Legacy Weapons from Temm (the first age), tapping into the power of the gods before the turn of the age. Cataclysm changes things in Shar, and the world adapts; ships, naval warfare, cannons, spell cannons, automated ships, subs - Outlaw Star style ship combat. Empire allows more steampunk gunslinging, taking the naval concepts to the air at the peak of an industrial revolution. Then Firma comes along and everything breaks, and it breaks hard; whole classes are gone, or changed dramatically; races disappear, others resurface with new abilities, and no one truly knows how the world works anymore - with magic mostly illegal for the lower class, now we've got to find other ways to get it (drugs, I'm talking about magic drugs).
So without going into too much detail with the various Ages, the following are *mostly* available in all of my games.
I like to employ all that the Player's Handbook has to offer for 5E, but sometimes I draw some extra inspiration from my Pathfinder days (extensive weapon lists), and add on a little extra blades for good measure. None of these are Masterwork (so no +1's, or cutting through resistances), but there might be some other cool perks. I've always been a fan of incorporating more martial arts weaponry (given my own background), and like utilizing die steps to help illustrate a power increase. Also-also, not everything is available at every shop. These custom mundane items, along with other items, might fluctuate depending on supply, demand, harvest, and other such factors age to age. Again, lore and reasoning for the world. The mass production of Duskweave in the third age led to a near extinction of the Displacer Beast packs, and no one's heard of a Pack Lord in eons. Whoops.
Claymore - adapted greatsword; 2d8 Slashing - Two-Handed, Heavy
Katana - adapted longsword; 1d8/1d10 Slashing - Versatile, Finesse, Monk
Wakizashi - reskinned Scimiar; 1d6 Slashing - Finesse, Monk, Light
Chain Maul - 2d6 bludgeoning - reach, thrown, grapple from 10 feet
Chakram - 1d6 slashing - thrown (10/30)
Gauntlet Blade, Retractable - 1d8 slashing - 4 lbs. - concealed, retractable (Shar+)
Monolith - 1d12/2d6 slashing - Versatile
Naginata - 1d8 slashing - reach, heavy, two-handed, brace
Tonfa - 1d6 bludgeoning - AC +1, Light, Monk
Sai - 1d4 bludgeoning - Light, Monk, Disarm on critical
Nunchaku - 1d6 bludgeoning - Light, Monk, x3 on critical
Plated Robes (not armor) - AC = 11 + Dex Modifier
Duskweave Leather - AC = 13 + Dex Modifier, Light Armor
Ironwood Scale Mail - AC = 14 + Dex Modifier (max 2) - Disadvantage Stealth - 35 lbs.
Elderwood Scale Mail - AC = 15 + Dex Modifier (max 2), Medium Armor
Ballistic Duskweave Doublet - AC = 14 + Dex Modifier, Medium Armor
Dragon Plate (specific materials required - AC = 18 w/resistance to the element associated with the dragon scales used
SHIELDS (I treat shields as weapons. Direct reference to my Pathfinder sword and boarding, so there you go)
Buckler - 5 gp - AC +1 - 3 lbs.
Constructivist Shield - 65 gp - AC +1 - 4 lbs. - Can be used as a reaction to raise your AC. Does not occupy a hand.
Round Shield, Light - 15 gp - AC +2 - 6 lbs. - Bash 1d4
Round Shield, Heavy - 30 gp - AC +2 - 10 lbs. - Bash 1d6
Tower Shield - 100 gp - AC +3 - STR 17 required - Disadvantage Stealth - 20 lbs. - Bash 1d8
Duskweave = made from Displacer Beast pelts, and thus has a smoky dispersal that shifts and moves as the armor moves.
Magic Items and Ammunition
Now, many of these additions are lifted from my Knight Owls Armory, but if you don't normally venture over there, you'd never see them. So here they are anyway for your consideration.
Charged Arrow - 150 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals 1d6 lightning damage and is consumed upon impact.
Boltslinger Arrow - 650 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow creates a 5 foot wide lightning bolt in its path to the target. All creatures caught in the bolt's path must make a DC 10 Dexterity save for half damage, or take 6d6 lightning damage. The arrow is consumed upon impact.
Bonebreaker Arrows (bundle of 10) - 50 gp - deals bludgeoning damage in place of piercing.
Burst Arrow - 500 gp - when fired, this arrow splits into 4 separate arrows; the user must make an attack roll for each arrow. These arrows crumble to dust after impact.
Divine Arrow - 150 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals 1d6 radiant damage and is consumed upon impact.
Flesh-Hunter Arrow - 200 gp - adds +4 to the attack roll. (when you REALLY need to hit that dragon)
Frost Fling - 500 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d10 cold damage and is shattered upon impact.
Green Gremlin - 400 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 3d6 poison damage and crumbles shortly after impact.
The Sapphire Chakram - 250 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d6 thunder damage and is consumed upon impact.
Immolation Arrow - 600 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow's impact creates a 5-foot radius fireball with the target at its center. All creatures caught in the blast must make a DC 13 Dexterity save for half damage, or take 6d6 fire damage. This arrow is consumed upon impact.
Soothsayer - 2000 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this ancient arrow deals 2d6 force damage and allows you to see through it until it impacts an object or creature.
Topaz Burst - 250 gp - in addition to the damage of the bow, this arrow deals an additional 2d6 lightning damage and is consumed upon impact.
A good many of the magic items in Io are remnants of the past, but as time marches on, more and more wondrous things become available to the standard market, such as:
Cloak of Shadows - 1000 pp - an adapted Cloak of Elvenkind that grants the wearer advantage on Stealth checks and imposes disadvantage on creatures trying to perceive you. Also, when moving after sunset, roll a set of percentile dice. On a 75 or higher, the shadows wrap around you, granting you Invisibility until you make an attack, cast a spell, or meet direct sunlight.
Ring of Animal Influence - 5100 gp - this ring has 3 charges, and it regains 1d3 expended charges daily at dawn. While wearing this ring, you can use an action to expend 1 of its charges to cast one of the following spells: Animal Friendship (save DC 13); Fear (save DC 13), targeting only beasts that have an intelligence of 3 or lower; Speak with Animals.
Ring of Bravery (Attunement) - 2000 gp - wearing this ring grants you Advantage when saving against becoming Frightened.
Ring of Enlargement (Attunement) - 5500 gp - by turning the tiny, clicking inner track of this ring, you increase your size category by 1 for 1 minute. This ring can only be used once per Long Rest.
Ring of Protection (Attunement) - 6000 gp - You gain a +1 bonus to AC and Saving Throws while wearing this ring.
Ring of Spell Storing, Minor (Attunement) - 3750 gp - this ring stores spells cast into it, holding them until the wearer uses them. This ring, when delivered to you, arrives empty. It can fit 3 levels of spell power at once.
Alchemy and Herbalism
Alchemy and Herbalism, especially as it pertains to potion making as a pursuit, has really come to fruition in Io-Shar, where my industry-heavy players reside. They crave that personal control of their universe, and I LOVE IT.
So, potion-making in Io borrows from Skyrim, The Witcher, and my own head, as well as a blend of other home-brew resources dotting the landscape of Reddit, DM's Guild, and the Open-Gaming License. All that being said, let's run it down a bit.
Quick Brewing Overview
In Io, there are a large number of known ingredients that create specific effects in the brewing process, while others might augment or dilute others. Bloodgrass, for example, can be used to add an additional 1d4 to the healing amount for a healing potion you are brewing, but Rubygrass (grown in the Feywild), will actually REMOVE a d4 from the healing (the taste is sharp and difficult to swallow). So we use Herbalism to "enhance" the potion. We call them Enhancements. Some can cancel each other out, while others augment the effects.
Then, there are ingredients that we actually derive the Enchantment from. We treat them as our Core. The intended potion effect. Like using Void Root to brew a Potion of Flying.
Finally, we need a Base. The liquid that we'll be using. Some potions can be brewed in water, while others require Holy Water as their Base, or Salt Water, or Liquor. Specific liquids may also imbue the potion with specific properties.
So, if I want to brew a Healing Potion, I need at least a Base and a Core.
Base: Water. Core: Cherrymoss Extract. Then 3 hours.
If we want, we can mix in some Ground Ephedrana to increase the die step of the healing potion from 2d4 to 2d6. Finish the brew and you've got a "boosted" healing potion that heals 2d6+2 hit points.
And that's one potion. Booyah.
....Experimenting with all of this is going to be A LOT of FUN.
So there's a lot going on, and I haven't even talked about the Prestige Classes or the Legacy Weapons (they're coming, don't worry), but this post has gone on long enough, and hopefully it clears up any confusion from looking at the lists from the Knight Owls armory moving forward. :)
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.