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.