Thursday, April 11, 2019

Through Ultan's Door in 5E - some observations

I have now had the chance to run two sessions of my 5E campaign using material from Through Ultan's Door Issue 1. However, given our short session length, that only amount to about five hours of playtime.

The experience of running the module has cause me to make some adjustments to my conversion document, and I suspect that there may be more to come.

**There are some mild spoilers for the module below**

The party entered the sewers of Zyan at level two, and the PCs are a human bard, a merfolk wizard (illusionist), ravenfolk rogue and a gearforged druid. Yeah, I like allowing as many races as possible, what of it?

The first session was spent poking around the new location, engaging with traps and trying to communicate with the nonspeaking Guildess. Fortunately CL4U-D1A, the gearforged druid, can talk to beasts and was able to garner some information from the equus hound that accompanied the Guildless.

The players in this campaign are much more familiar with more modern RPGs and more modern play-styles, so it took a fair bit of prompting to get them to think more carefully about what objects within the dungeon might be valuable beyond simple gold and gems. This does, however, run up against a fairly commonly observed problem in 5E: there is almost nothing within the rules to do spend gold on. XP is not based on gold, PCs cannot generally buy magic items and there are no robust stronghold rules.

Ultimately, this means that treasure is basically acquired for its own sake. If I was intending to run this campaign as a very heavily dungeon/hex-crawl based game, I might look to implement XP-for-gold, but I'm planning on mixing and matching various modules and play-styles and I am not using XP for levelling (I don't like tracking XP for encounters, and prefer to just award level ups when it feels appropriate, or when content demands it).

Anyway, anyone else planning to run the module in 5E should give this issue consideration because it definitely shows that it was created with a XP-for-gold play-style in mind. This is not in any way a criticism of the module.

At the end of the first session, the PCs triggered a set-piece combat encounter with some white swine and we picked up session two by rolling for initiative. The combat took up the whole of two-hour+ session, and was instructive in a number of ways.

As is obvious, the combat took a long time, and it ended in a hard-fought victory by the PCs. But I wasn't really happy with how it went.

I used a lot less enemies than the module suggests, six white swine rather than the somewhere in the region of 3d6 demanded by the module. This wasn't an issue per se, as I went into the module knowing that 5E isn't really set up to handle enemies those numbers. In addition, the players in this campaign are not really "combat-as-war" players either (as an aside, I fucking hate the combat-as-war vs combat-as-sport meme, but I guess it gets across the point well enough), so I erred towards the kind of encounters they like and expect.

The major problem was that the white swine were too tough. When I say too tough, I don't mean the encounter was not balanced, I mean that they had too many HP and did too much damage for the role I wanted them to play, and the way I wanted fighting them to feel as an opponent. I have gone back and reduced their damage and HP in the conversion document, so that fighting them in large numbers is less of a drag. I don't see them as complete chaff but I see them attacking more as swarm than as elite combatants.

One of the particular issues, and it is something I alluded to in a previous post, is that fights with six of the same enemy--particularly when you are using a battle map--are not super engaging in 5E. This is exacerbated when the enemies hang around for a long time due to having too much HP.

I tried to make thing interesting by choosing more flavourful actions for the white swine at various points. They didn't go all attacking, instead trying to use darkness to their advantage and standing in defence of their home.

Some tried to grapple and drag a PC away to be consumed by their mother. Another ran over and ate the stone that the wizard had cast 'light' onto before throwing it into the room--snuffing out the party's light source. I played up the white swine wanting to stay out of the light to retain the advantage of their ability to see in the dark, and even had one of the swine move under cover so that the 'faerie fire' affecting him would not shed light on others.

Those aspects were all cool. But there was an awful lot of simple melee attacks being made in between. In old school play, where combat is often over pretty quickly, this is less of an issue, but in a drawn out tactical combat in 5E it starts to become very repetitive.

One solution, which I have employed, is dropping the HP of enemies. I may yet do this with some of the other monsters I have converted. 

Another solution is to create more tactically varied versions of each enemy (in the style of 4E or 13th Age). This would probably be most satisfying, but I'm not sure I want to go to that extent. It also feels a little bit out the spirit of an old school style module, but that's always a possible issue with converting an adventure.

A third thing is to be mindful of the environmental factors that can effect combat, like terrain and other opportunities for interaction with the dungeon itself. There is some very worthwhile advice about this very thing in Silent Titans that I will be re-reading before the next session. I did have the white swine's mother, who was lurking under the floor, thrash about a bit under the floor to cause instability during the fight, but in the circumstances the tactical relevance was limited.

Some of these problems will be alleviated by the players reaching level three, which will give them more tools to end fights quickly and a greater degree of tactical flexibility.

None of these things are problems inherent to the module and should not be understood as criticisms. They are simply the awkward seams between the expectations of the module and the kind of game I am running in 5E.

The atmosphere of the module, and the inventiveness of Ben's Dreamlands setting have been a big hit with the players and have been firing their imaginations. They have been particularly intrigued by the hints are the larger purpose of the dungeon, and the history of the place. As a DM it has been very fun mixing the explicit and implicit lore with my own ideas, and the other setting material I am jamming it together with.

No doubt I will report further when we have completed a few more sessions, but for now my conversion notes are very much a living document.

A quick plug:

Members of my podcast crew and I have published our first adventure as a module for the Zweihander RPG. You can get it here.

Saturday, March 16, 2019


As mentioned in a previous post, I have been converting the monsters and NPCs from the first issue of Through Ultan's Door, by Ben L. The conversions are now (I think) complete.

You can check the completed conversion out here. I may yet lay them out more properly if there is any demand.

I haven't had the chance to test the conversions out, but I should get my first opportunity on Monday when the party takes their first step through Ultan's Door and into the sewers of Zyan.

One thing that doing this project has really drive home to me is just how boring I find monsters in 5E. Ultimately, a lot of the conversions actually have more abilities than their OSR-style counterparts but they feel less interesting in some way. I find that 5E stat blocks sit in an uncomfortable position between Classic D&D stats and 4E stat blocks. 

Classic D&D stat blocks are short, and intended for generally quick and lethal combat. The monsters don't need a ton of stuff to do because they aren't going to be on screen for long enough for it to matter. In addition, the simple stat block feel ripe with opportunities to improvise, because the relatively simplicity (not quite the right word, but HD and highly constrained AC/to-hit maths provide some simple guideposts) of the maths makes adjudicating novel actions relatively easy.

By contrast, 4E stat blocks are much more detailed, but they also provide everything needed to run a monster that has a defined role in an encounter, and at least one or two tricks that will make them memorable and feel different from other monsters.

In 5E stat blocks, you get a large amount of detail but there usually isn't much there in terms of memorable tricks or unique abilities. Usually there's just AC, some HP, an attack or two that does HP damage. Occasionally there is the odd interesting special ability, but not much that changes the tactical situation. 

It feels like the worst of both worlds where the monster is designed with a Classic D&D mentality in terms of how complex its abilities need to be, combined with a very detailed stat block, and the fact that combats lasts longer and the monsters takes up more screen time.

5E's task resolution systems mean that you need all that additional stat block detail to resolve improvised actions, but that extra detail doesn't come with the benefit of more interesting mechanical game play. Whereas, I would argue, 4E's more complex stat blocks do meaningfully add to the tactical combat elements of the game.

I have tried to find some opportunities to add a few unique abilities, but 5E's "natural language" approach and monster design philosophy doesn't give the design language or mechanical tools that I would like for those sorts of things. I also feel a little bit weird assigning gimmicks to Ben L's creations without more input from him because if those unique abilities are properly designed they can imply a lot about monster and its place in the world.

For what it is worth, I think that Kobold Press do a much better job with this kind of monster design in their Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex products.

Anyways, enough waffle from me, here are a couple of the conversions:

The Sweating Maiden
Medium construct, unaligned 

Armor Class 14
Hit points 35
Speed 30ft.
Senses  passive perception 10
Challenge 2
Saves Dex +3, other saves +0

Bladed Parasol. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5ft., one target. 
Hit: 15 (3d6 +5) slashing  damage.

Parry. The Maiden adds 4 to is AC against one ranged attack that would hit it. To do so, the Maiden must see the attacker and be wielding the Bladed Parasol. The first time the Maiden takes this reaction each round, it does not use up its reaction.

The Groomsman
Medium construct, unaligned 

Armor Class 14
Hit points 35
Speed 30ft.
Senses  passive perception 10
Challenge 2
Saves Dex +3, other saves +0

Whirling Dance. The Groomsman may take a bonus action on each of its turns in combat. This action can be used only to take the Dash or Disengage action.

Multiattack. The Groomsman makes two Scissor Stilts attacks.

Scissor Stilts. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10ft., one target. 
Hit: 9 (2d6 +2) piercing  damage.

Shadow Puppet Sorcerer
Medium elemental, chaotic

Armor Class 13
Hit points 1
Speed 30ft.
Damage immunities poison, psychic 
Condition immunities blinded, charmed, deafened, frightened, grappled, poisoned, restrained, stunned, unconscious.
Senses darkvision 120ft., passive perception 13
Languages  - 
Challenge 1
Number 1
Saves Dex +5, other saves +0

  • moving silently, blending into shadow +7.
Shadow Body. If a Shadow Puppet starts its turn in  light shed by the Light or Sunlight spells (or similar magical illumination),  it must succeed on a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or be destroyed.

Innate Spellcasting. The Shadow Puppet's innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 11, +3 to hit with magical attacks). It can cast the following spells, requiring no material components, only by taking the Random Spellcasting action on its turn. 

At will: darkness, magic missile, phantasmal force, stinking cloud

Random Spellcasting. The Shadow Puppet Sorcerer casts one of the following spells (roll a d4):
  1. darkness
  2. magic missile
  3. phantasmal force
  4. stinking cloud

Thursday, March 14, 2019

TARTARUS INCURSION THREATS or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Make Random Tables

If there is one thing that can be said about me it is this: I never do new work when I could just recycle old work.

The Nightmares Underneath provides a number of tables for designing Nightmare Incursions (that game’s equivalent of dungeons). Many of those tables can work for The Long Bright Dark with a little bit of creativity and some judicious reskinning, but I wanted to add a few extra tables for inspiration.

Fortunately for me, I had pretty much already done the hard work when I wrote up a set of threats for creating investigations and arcs in my PbtA game Malleus (with a significant debt owed to Monster of the Week). A little bit of re-jigging, and some re-formatting, later and I had several random tables for inspiring Tartarus Incursions in The Long Bright Dark—how good!

I think that these tables should work reasonably well for any dungeon, particularly ones with some horror theming. Anyways, I have reproduced the table below.

The Crown, as in The Nightmares Underneath, is the spawn of Tartarus that represents the main risk or threat in an Incursion. If you are creating a nightmare from scratch, using the nightmare creation rules in TNU, you can roll a d10 on the table below to determine the nature of the Crown:

to breed, spread and overrun
to torment, murder and butcher
to sow doubt and create instability
to run rampant and destroy
to eat, devour and consume
to dominate, possess and control
to infect, exploit and drain
to hurt, torture and disfigure
to sway and tempt to damnation
to usurp the power of Tartarus

Thralls are lesser nightmares that inhabit an Incursion. In many cases they are beholden or subservient to the Crown; however, some Thralls have their own motivations and may be opposed to the Crown. They may also serve a Location or Tartarus directly in certain circumstances. The following table provides inspiration for creating Thralls:

to kill with skill and cunning
to infest and infect
to track, observe and report
to steal and sabotage
to trick, confuse and betray
to do the Crown’s bidding
to protect a person, place or thing
to terrorise and attack

Locations represent important physical, or meta-physical places, within the incursion. Not every single room or location the PCs might encounter need to be treated as a ‘capital-L’ Location—just the ones where the location will form a notable obstacle or serve as a backdrop for a major conflict. For certain kinds of incursion, a Location might even stand in for the Crown and have its own Thralls if its influence is strong enough. The following table can be used to provide inspiration for Locations:

to provide sanctuary to Tartarus and its children
to be at the centre of things, to bring things together
Breeding Ground
to provide fertile ground for, and birth the seeds of Tartarus
to trap and confuse
to draw worshippers
Charnel House
to bring death and destruction to those within
to harbour the dead and restless souls
to form a place of power
to hide the ancient and the unknown
to inveigle, entrance, and tempt to Tartarus

Tartarus itself, separate from the Crown, may have its own wants and desires that affect the Incursion. Tartarus can be used as a thematic overlay on an incursion, a uniting principle that can operate anywhere in the incursion. There are seven aspects of Tartarus—I think you can guess why! You can pick one, roll a d7 or figure out some other way to make a random choice:

intense longing and desire for a person or living thing
overindulgence and overconsumption, selfishness
desire and greed for the accumulation of power and possessions
indifference to duties and obligations, avoidance of exertion
uncontrolled anger, rage and hatred
insatiable jealousy and covetousness
hubris, narcissism, corrupt selfishness and the perversion of dignity

NPCs represent other people or beings that may be present in or near an incursion. In general, they are not antagonists and some of them may not even really be an obstacle in and of themselves. NPCs such as the Meddler or the Storyteller may get in the way of the PCs and require them to change tack. Allies, Investigators, Victim and Witnesses might be able to aid but are also likely to be endangered by the incursion—the threat they represent is that the PCs might not be able to save them or may end up making them collateral damage:

to provide aid and assistance to the PCs
to provide information
to looks for answers or ancient knowledge
to interfere and pursue their own ends
to pass on rumours and hearsay
to put themselves in the clutches of Tartarus

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


A while back, I wrote up a new class for The Nightmares Underneath that was heavily inspired by the Abomination class from Darkest Dungeon. It was actually a conversion of a class that I initially wrote up for use with For Coin and Blood (a neat Swords and Wizardry derivative that I recommend checking out).

The original For Coin and Blood write-up of the class, along with another class and some house rules, can be found here if you are particularly curious.

The idea behind the class is that it can transform between two states--one a defensive mode, with high AC but less HP and combat power, and the other an aggressive mode, with more combat power but more vulnerability. In many ways, it is really just an alternative take on a barbarian/berserker style class.

I recently cleaned it up, incorporating some feedback from others--including Johnstone--for inclusion in The Long Bright Dark. The revisions to the rules are fairly minor but I have re-conceptualised it as a daemon-host. The full class is presented below:

Imbrued Due to the time that it spent lost in Tartarus, the walls between real-space and the space-between are weakened in many places across Gaea. Most daemons cannot manage more than a liminal manifestation, but there are a small few with the potency to slip into this world and take command of the will of man or beast. Fewer in number still are those victims with the force of will, religious conviction or canny bargaining ability to seize back control of their bodies, and bind the power of the daemon within themselves. Terrifying to behold, but physically and spiritually potent, the so-called Imbrued can make a powerful companion. Hit Die: 1d4 Primary Attributes: Ferocity and Willpower

Restrictions: You may use any weapons and armour, but if you manifest your daemon-form while wearing armour (other than a shield), the armour is destroyed. When you are in your daemon-form, you may only speak in the language of daemons, but most people won’t talk to you anyway. You come from the Daemon-Touched background. Skills: Imbrued come from many walks of life, and may have a variety of skills. Work with your GM to determine one or two areas of skill from your old life. In addition, the daemon bound to you will have certain knowledge, and will manifest certain physical changes. Work with your GM to determine an area of knowledge known to your daemon, and two or so physical changes that take place when you manifest your daemon-form. When you use one of your skills in a risky manner (you must be in your daemon-form to take advantage of its physical manifestations) you must roll equal to or lower than one of your attribute scores on a d20 to successfully perform the task. The GM will tell you which attribute score to use. Special abilities:
  • In order to control your daemon, you are covered in tattoos, amulets or ritual scars, when you are in your normal form and are not wearing armour (other than a shield) you have psychic armour (1d4), treat your armour rating as 15, and may abjure daemons and spirits as a Faithful.
  • At any time, you may relinquish some control to your daemon and manifest your daemon-form (it is up to you to describe what the transformation looks like), or return to human form.
  • You automatically revert to your normal form if you fall asleep or unconscious.
  • When you manifest your daemon-form, you lose all psychic armour, re-roll your disposition with a 1d8 Hit Dice and all of your allies that are present must roll equal to or lower than their willpower or lose disposition equal to your twice your level.
  • When you are in your daemon-form, you attack as a fighter and your Hit Dice becomes 1d8, but when you attack with anything other than the natural weapons of your daemon-form your Hit Dice is treated as 1d4 for dealing damage.
  • When you return to your normal form, if your disposition is higher than it was before you transformed it reverts to the old disposition, and you may re-roll your psychic armour.
The original version for The Nightmares Underneath is below, if you are interested.

Click here for bigger

Tuesday, February 19, 2019


As I mentioned in my post about converting creatures from Though Ultan’s Door to 5E Dungeons & Dragons, it is not my favourite edition of D&D. And its certainly not my favourite game for doing fantasy adventure.

For a bit of fun, I decided to try my hand at converting the Ravens of Perjury to a few other systems. I found the results interesting, and they shed some new light on the differences between the games and the philosophies behind their monster design.

The original stat line, which I won’t share here, is very simple in the classic D&D style. I don’t think the stat line was created with much eye towards mechanical balance, but presumably with the intention that it would be part of an adventure for lower-level characters. It has relatively few HP and doesn’t do a very large amount of damage. Its AC is decent, presumably to reflect that it can evade attacks by flying. It has a fairly basic ranged attack, and one more powerful single-use, single-target, Sleep effect.

One notable consideration about these sort of classic D&D style stats is that the numbers are reasonably straightforward to come up with because HD give a rough guide to how many attacks it takes to kill, and AC is on a fixed scale. As a result, “eye-balling” the strength of a monster is not too hard.

The first conversion I did was to 13th Age:

Ravens of Perjury
2nd level caster [BEAST]
Initiative: +4

R: Murderous Glare +7 vs MD -- 7 psychic damage

C: Sleep Beam +7 vs PD -- 5 psychic damage, and if the target has less than 15 hit points the target falls unconscious (hard save ends, 16+; it also ends if the target takes damage)
Limited use: 1/battle.

AC 19
PD16               HP 28

There are a few things that I think are worth noting. Firstly, I love 13th Age stat blocks—they tell me exactly what I need to know to run a monster in that game; however, they don’t really tell you much about a monster out of combat. That’s not really something I’m looking for in most games, and definitely not something I need in 13th Age.
13th Age’s monster design is based on a fairly strict mathematical formula, which the books reduce to a table, for what kind of HP, defences and attacks a monster of a given level should have. I did this conversion as a level 2 creature, because four level 2 creatures should be a medium challenge for four level PCs, and the stat blocks I made for 5E were also premised on the assumption that four Ravens would be a medium challenge for a party of four  PCs.
Of all of these conversions, 13th Age is definitely the system with clearest and most robust underlying math, so the creation of stats was very straightforward. I reduced the HP a little and boosted the AC to reflect a monster that is not very tough but is hard to hit. That is the same reason I chose to make PD (physical defense) higher than MD (mental defense).
Another thing that I think is interesting as a comparison is the way that 13th Age’s level system effects all of the stats. In 13th Age, pretty much all numbers increase with level—including damage dice for PC’s attacks (monsters do static damage that increases with level). Unlike the classic D&D version of this monster, AC is not bounded within a particular range for either the monster itself or the PCs. That means that the mathematical formula behind the stats is, at least in my view, far more important and necessary for gauging how challenging this monster will be.
The final note that I would make is that if I were to use this in a 13th Age game, I would have to either design a second variation or pair it with a different monster for encounters. Fighting four of the same enemy in 13th Age is quite boring. The combination of fixed damage, fixed HP and repetitive attacks means that an encounter is much more interesting with a combination of different monsters that target different defences and deal different amounts of damage/inflict different conditions. 13th Age also uses the concept of “mooks”, simple monsters with a very small amount of HP that effectively take damage as a group. A simple approach might be to make a mook version of the Raven’s whose Sleep Beam causes a different effect or that attacks physically rather than magically.
The next conversion was to Dungeon World:
Ravens of Perjury                                                     Group, Devious, Small
Murderous Gaze (1d6 damage, ignores armor)                      5 HP, 0 Armor
Close, Near, Far
·         Flit swiftly but erratically.
·         Glare balefully, like cutting knives.
·         Render unconscious with a gaze when threatened.

This was probably the simplest conversion, and—truth be told—if I ran the module in Dungeon World I would probably just convert monsters on the fly. For the purposes of this experiment I have followed the procedure in the rule book. Assigning stats in Dungeon World is extremely straightforward. There is no change in accuracy based on level, and damage, HP and armor only scale very slightly based on how dangerous the monster is. A lot of the power level of a monster resides in the way its moves are described, the fictional positioning and the hardness of moves the GM chooses to make with it.
The Sleep Beam is described only by refence to a monster move, and there is no limit on how often it can be used. How effective it is, and how often is comes into play, will rely a lot GM judgement. Due to the difficulty of a fight being much more in the hands of the GM than in the stats of the monsters in Dungeon World, there isn’t an awful lot to the mechanical design process here. The major task is coming up with right monster moves.; fortunately, Ben’s writeup in the module gives some pretty clear hints about what appropriate moves are.
The final conversion was to Torchbearer:
Ravens of Perjury
Might: 1                                             Nature: 3
Descriptors: Flying, Spying, Rends minds with a glare
Conflict Dispositions
Conflict Weapons
Kill: 7
Kill Weapons
Attack: +1D,  bypasses armor, Murderous Glare
Defend: +1D, Erratic Flight
Maneuver: +1D, +1s, bypasses armor, Sleep Beam
Drive Off: 3
Drive Off Weapons
Attack: +1D, bypasses armor, Murderous Glare
Defend: +1D, Erratic Flight
Flee: 5
Flee Weapons
Attack: +1D, Erratic Flight
Instinct: Turns its violent gaze upon things from an animal curiosity.
Special: Ravens of perjury can see in the dark. Any character knocked out by a raven of perjury in a Kill or Drive Off conflict gains the exhausted condition.

This design was probably the biggest challenge. Firstly, because I haven’t created a monster for Torchbearer before and, secondly, because the rules-object of a monster in Torchbearer is so different from your average D&D style game. The descriptors and instincts are all ripped pretty much from Ben’s description in the module but capturing the Raven’s special abilities and modes of attack was much more of a challenge.
Conflicts, including combat, in Torchbearer use a relatively abstract resolution system that the underlying fiction sometimes hangs on a bit loosely, so representing the key thematic aspects of the Raven mechanically took a bit of thinking about. I decided that since the Sleep Beam is a limited use ability in D&D, in Torchbearer it should be saved for Kill conflicts where the Raven is fighting for its life. I also decided that Ravens should be most difficult to confront in Kill conflicts because that is when they would pull out all the stops. By contrast, I made them be relatively weak in Drive Off conflicts, as I took the view that they probably weren’t interested in a protracted fight if they had the option to leave.
This is probably the stat block I am least satisfied with because Torchbearer is the system I am least familiar with out of these three (I haven’t really got to play Torchbearer—although I have played a bit of Mouse Guard—whereas I have played both 13th Age and Dungeon World quite often). On the other hand, it also the conversion I am most interested in testing the results of, because I would like to know how well it works.
In the end, I found this whole conversion process quite interesting, and I think there is something to be learned by comparing how different systems treat their monsters mechanically and what that means for those games. Hopefully it was at least somewhat interesting to read about too.