Behind the Screen

For the last 9 months or so I’ve been running a 5E campaign using the Tomb of Annihilation.

game books, notebook, dice, pen, pencil, and Hive game pieces

Behind the Screen

What you see is my typical behind the screen setup for each session. I have:

  • Bag of dice and two jumbo d20 dice out for rolling
  • Pencil and pen
  • An A4 dot notebook for recording campaign elements
  • Two Hive sets – one travel size and one normal size; I use these for monster tokens or terrain
  • D&D Books for monster reference – Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes
  • Tomb of Annihilation – the actual adventure I’m running
  • A print out of some of the likely encounters or monsters
  • The Tomb of Annihilation campaign screen

I cannot emphasize enough how much I hate the 5E WotC adventure format:

  1. Referencing monsters instead of inline stat blocks sucks. It is up to you to look them up from disparate sources. So you’ll need several books open while running, or to pre-compile the information.
  2. Overloaded with words. Try scanning these adventures as you are running; the adventure scatters information throughout in a baroque economy of words.
  3. They try to play zone appeasement. Is Tomb of Annihilation of hex crawl? If so, the map is shit and the area is mostly empty–except for the random encounters that at best add flavor. Is it a site-based adventure? Is it a time-based adventure? The scale of the map ensures any intertwining stories are lost. Why am I wasting 45 minutes on a random combat encounter in which there will be only one between long rests?

What I like, however, is that 5E is a great player facing game. Player characters have lots of options – there are plenty of bells and whistles with which they can engage into a robust-enough rules system.

The math is almost to my liking; Though truth be told I like clever solutions never require rolls and phoned-in solutions are more likely to fail than succeed (e.g. “I check for traps, roll dice” or “I bluff the guard, roll dice”).

I like that save or die (or incapacitated) effects are mostly nerfed. The original design principle and assumption that by the time a character is rolling a saving throw, they’ve already bungled something. However, with 5E, there is an assumption you’ll be charging into threats; After all XP is now combat based instead of gold piece based.

An Anecdote

Two sessions ago, the characters began the session under attack from assassin vines. They rolled initiative and as part of the count, some skeletons rounded a far away corner (along with some veterans and a mage). The resulting combat was intense and near deadly. After 7 rounds of combat, they dug it out, and scraped away a partial victory; The assassin vines were dead, a veteran and the mage had fled. This combat took 2 hours, and I believe most everyone enjoyed the ebb and flow.

Last session, they tracked down the mage, laid an ambush, and got the jump on him…with surprise. The combat was over in less than 5 minutes.

The big combat was great and felt very “modern” D&D. The ambush was great and felt very OSR; They planned, they pushed themselves, and the reward was capturing someone without an expenditure of resources.

Ultimately, I want more of the second. Reward clever play. Of which, WotC adventures appear to instead introduce set pieces that focus on multi-round combats and execution of character builds.

Which begs the question, in a role-playing game, am I engaging as my character? Or am I telling my character what actions to take?

From a GM stand-point, I much preferred the ambush. The characters had an agenda, laid out a plan, and executed that plan. From this they gained information to further take meaningful action. The combat was decisive and quick, and it resulted in a substantive fictional state change.

We’re about half-way through Tomb of Annihilation and I’d love to wrap things up. Soon we’ll move from hex crawl into dungeon delve. I’m already longing for quick decisive combats.

Polymorph, Wild Shape and the Barbarian Rage

TL;DR A barbarian suspends any active rage and may not enter a rage while polymorphed via a polymorph spell.

The other evening, in running the D&D 5E adventure Tomb of Annihilation, the players brought forth a raging King Kong. The warlock polymorphed the raging barbarian into a giant ape. We went with the rage continuing for the barbarian; after all we allowed the druid/barbarian to rage in wild shape. But that polymorph ruling festered as I thought through the long-term ramifications – a huge pile of hit points that burn at a far slower rate.

Before we get too far, let’s look at rules:

Rage In battle, you fight with primal ferocity. On your turn, you can enter a rage as a bonus action… Your rage lasts for 1 minute. It ends early if you are knocked unconscious or if your turn ends and you haven’t attacked a hostile creature since your last turn or taken damage since then. You can also end your rage on your turn as a bonus action.

 

Polymorph The creature is limited in the actions it can perform by the nature of its new form, and it can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

That’s a little murky. Rage requires a bonus action to activate, so while polymorphed a character could not start nor deliberately end a Rage. But what about polymorphing someone already raging? Is it important that Enraged is not a game condition, akin to poisoned, restrained, etc?

Let’s look D&D team responses on Twitter.

From Jeremy Crawford, lead rules designer:

Polymorph replaces your game statistics, including class features, with those of the beast. If you’re a barbarian, you lose Rage.https://twitter.com/JeremyECrawford/status/905513072898531330

Mike Mearls, co-creator of 5e responded Yes to the following question:

Barbarian rages, get Polymorphed into Giant Ape. Does the character keep the rage on them as a Giant Ape? https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/899824708027154432

Conflicting answers from two reliable sources. Jeremy Crawford’s response provides deeper transparency into the reasoning, so I’m inclined to lean towards that answer.

I also want to look towards why barbarian/druids can rage and wild shape. For reference, here is the relevant druid wild shape ability.

Druid Wild Shape You retain the benefit of any features from your class, race, or other source and can use them if the new form is physically capable of doing so. However, you can’t use any of your special senses, such as darkvision, unless your new form also has that sense.

Where druid wild shape grants explicit permission to keep the benefit of any features, polymorph does not. Polymorph instead limits the actions you can perform.

My refinement to polymorph is:

The creature loses the benefits of any features from class, race, or other sources and instead can perform actions according to the nature of its new form. It can’t speak, cast spells, or take any other action that requires hands or speech.

Tomb of Annihilation – a quick update

Contrary to my latest posts about Stars without Number, I continue to run a mostly once a week session of Tomb of Annihilation. Originally, I was running two different groups, but getting high schoolers together to game is a real challenge. So I’m down to one.

Some of the Highlights

  • Agreed to play a concert at the lobster people’s breeding grounds, instead of backtracking and losing a few days
  • Had a shin-dig with lizardfolk as they shared some food
  • Befriended an Allasaurus, after it chomped dead a halfling
  • Fled a fort after they refused conscription
  • Watched several party members plummet to their death
  • Fought off a swarm of small poison wielding frogmen
  • Fought a quartet of clay gladiators that vanquished much of the party (on my birthday the dice were hot for the opposition and cold for the players)

The group has entered the second phase of the adventure; They’ve made it through the jungles of Chult and are exploring the ruins of Omu. They know they are not alone – they have evidence of Red Wizard activity, Yuan-ti, and the occasional roar of something truly ferocious.

And in last session, when the first party member fell, I called for a DC 14 Death save. A few months ago (in real time), the DC was 12. And now, the failed death saves don’t clear after healing. The meat grinder is a grinding, and they continue forward. Thus far, we’ve had 6 character deaths.

Randomizing My Way Through Tomb of Annihilation

The past month, I’ve been running Tomb of Annihilation, in 5E D&D, for two different groups. The first group includes my daughter, step-daughter, and their friends. The second group includes friends from high school and college. I also have a 3rd campaign in the mix as well; A Labyrinth Lord game for my step-daughter and her 6 to 9 other theater friends (and not Tomb of Annihilation).

Tonight, my daughter and step-daughter’s group left Port Nyanzaru. This coming Thursday, I assume the other group will also leave Port Nyanzaru.

With my daughter and step-daughter’s group, I used the recommended hooks for character backgrounds to steer them to Chult. For my friend’s group, they all decided that they were a musical band benefiting from the patronage of Syndra Silvane.

While in Port Nyanzaru, each group learned different information (via a rumor table). They received guidance from different people (via random side quests). They have three things in common:

  1. They both went to Watangu and got the same quest (one gets a spellbook the other a bag of holding). Oddly, they both attempted to persuade him and each group rolled a 1.
  2. They both opted to stay at the Thunderous Lizard, each getting a free night stay (one through a swindle, the other through a rocking performance).
  3. Chaos is the predominate alignment; The high school group is all chaotic, the other group is all chaotic except the roadie and the band manager.

As they journey into the jungle, I’m sure the random encounters will push further divergence. Already the high school group encountered two formative random encounters; a tabaxi hunter and a red wizardess. In the book, these encounters are rather sparse. However, with some role-playing and an odd bargain, the tabaxi joined the group to help them navigate the jungle.

The odd bargain emerged from rolling a random Tabaxi Quirks and Motivations from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. String of Yarn, the tabaxi hunter, sought to find lost civilizations. And never wore the same clothing more than once. With a bit of back and forth, String of Yarn will wear the characters clothes (and costumes) as they travel. In return, he’ll help them navigate through the jungle.

And the party wouldn’t have learned about the tabaxi hunter had they not had a random encounter with flying monkeys. The party did not escalate to violence and instead the bard cast speak with animals learning that they were being followed.

Random encounters are the lifeblood of any and all adventures that I now run. In Tomb of Annihilation, each group will experience a similar game, but the details will vary. And in that variation, we’ll find surprises to which we must all react.