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We’re taking a brief break from the campaign journal this week. The past twelve weeks have seen the party go from level one to level five. They’ve fled prison, traversed the upper levels of the Underdark, and finally emerged back on the surface after slaying a white dragon. Now they’re planning to head north to the desert, where they hope they can find riches and adventure, and put the mess they left in Tarnswood well behind them.
The dragon fight took place on Boxing Day last year, and I knew that we would have a couple of weeks off from playing. I deliberately designed that encounter – and the subsequent emergence out of the darkness to the surface, after weeks of adventuring underground – to feel like something of a season finale (as I said last week). Fifth level – which they reached at the climax of this fight – is the longest level in the game, and the first in 5th Edition’s Heroic Tier of play, so it’s a natural place to insert a break like this.
So, if there’s no campaign journal this week, what are we doing here? Well read on, Macduff, and you’ll find out.
As I’ve been posting these journals I’ve had a few questions on Twitter about the balance of my game and the relative power levels of individual characters. I’ve touched upon those ‘issues’ a little as the weeks have gone by, but this week I’m going to take some time to discuss things in a bit more detail.
This is, essentially, a post about the way I like to play D&D, and the way my players – as far as I can tell – have liked playing it so far. There’s lots of ‘big picture’ stuff, and a lot of things about the future of the campaign (or the potential future, at least. You never know what players are going to do next, after all). If you’re in my group or otherwise don’t want to be spoiled, I’d stop reading now.
Two things have come up again and again on Twitter. The first is Nanook, and the second is to do with the magic items I’ve given the group. And since I wrote them down here in that order, that’s the order in which I’ll talk about them.
Let’s get Nanook out of the way first, because that’s an easy one that doesn’t require thousands of words talking about the (semi) organised chaos that is my mind, and my larger goals for the campaign.
If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you’ll already know the origins of Nanook. Manbearpig made what I thought was a really interesting roleplaying decision based on his background, in his first ever game of D&D, and chose to try and calm the wolf threatening the party rather than fight it. A nat 20 on his Wisdom (Animal Handling) check was enough to make the beast back down, and then as he followed through with playing out his actions over the next few sessions and aced every roll I asked him to make, he eventually won Nanook’s trust.
I never intended for Nanook to stay with the party, and in fact he ran away a few times, but each time that happened Manbearpig stepped up. It reached a point where it honestly felt wrong to deny him the wolf as a companion, and a genuine relationship very quickly developed between Manbearpig and my rubbish attempts at pretending to be a wolf.
This was in my old game. When Manbearpig’s player joined the group, it was only going to be for one session. It didn’t make sense for him to roll a new character when we were playing in the same world and Manbearpig was the right level for the game, so he played Manbearpig.
Evidently, Manbearpig and Nanook stuck around for more than one session.
Over the course of the game we’ve revised Nanook’s stats and the way Manbearpig can use him quite a few times, but this is what we’ve been using without any issues for the past few months:
Nanook uses the MM stats for a Dire Wolf
Nanook gains Manbearpig’s Proficiency Bonus when making Attack Rolls and Saving Throws (he shares the same Saving Throw Proficiencies as Manbearpig). In addition, Nanook is proficient in the following skills:
Perception +3 (Wis + Manbearpig’s proficiency bonus)
Stealth +4 (Dex + Manbearpig’s proficiency bonus)
Keen Hearing and Smell: Nanook has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or smell.
Pack Tactics: Nanook has advantage on attack rolls against a creature if at least one of his allies is within 5 feet of the creature and the ally isn’t incapacitated.
Nanook shares your initiative. You can order him to move without using an action. On your turn you may use a bonus action to command Nanook to do one of the following actions (you only get one bonus action per turn):
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack. +5 to hit (Str + Proficiency), reach 5ft., one target. 2d6+3 piercing damage.
If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 13 (8 + Strength + Proficiency) Strength saving throw or be knocked prone.
Defend. Nanook guards and protects a creature you choose. If that creature suffers damage, reduce the damage received by 1d4. If this does not reduce the total damage dealt to 0, you may choose whether the remaining damage is dealt to Nanook or the creature he is protecting.
Scare. You gain a +1d4 bonus on your next Charisma (Intimidation) or Strength (Intimidation) check.
Sniff. You gain a +1d4 bonus on your next Wisdom (Insight) check to judge the intentions of a creature.
The Scare and Sniff abilities are freely usable without having to command Nanook when you are not in combat; for example, if you attempt to Intimidate somebody and Nanook is present, you will automatically be able to add the 1d4 bonus to the check. In combat situations, however, you must specifically command Nanook to aid you with these checks.
The 1d4 bonus dice used for these abilities scales as you grow in power. At level 7 it becomes a 1d6, and at level 15 it becomes 1d8.
Nanook currently has 5 Hit Dice (1d10) which determine his Hit Points. Once Manbearpig reaches 6th level, and for each level you gain above that, Nanook will gain an additional Hit Die in the same way that you gain Hit Dice each level.
You can choose for Nanook to use Hit Dice during a short rest to regain Hit Points.
In short; Nanook can move on Manbearpig’s initiative, and there is a small set of commands that Manbearpig can give him as a bonus action.
Now, it’s easy to look at that and see a second level (at the time) character getting too many attacks, or to see it as stepping on the Ranger’s toes. And, well, you’re not wrong. If that was all there was to it, I’d say yes – it’s unbalanced.
That’s not all there is to it, though.
Firstly, we haven’t got a Ranger in the group, and we aren’t planning to add any more players, so for all intents and purposes – in this game – it doesn’t matter if Manbearpig’s abilities cross over with abilities a Ranger would have. Literally, does not matter.
Secondly – it’s one extra attack, as a bonus action, assuming Manbearpig – as a fifth level Battle Master Fight – chooses not to do anything else with his bonus action. If he used two weapons, he’d get that second attack. The miniscule amount of extra damage he can put out each round through using a two-handed weapon for his main attacks is, well, miniscule, and it’s mitigated by the fact that Nanook’s attack bonus is lower than Manbearpig’s.
The main reason it isn’t an issue, though, is simply because Nanook doesn’t come into play very often. Yes, Manbearpig and Nanook can potentially put out more attacks and damage per round than other characters, but it’s at the expense of using the other unique features of his class.
The plus side? Manbearpig’s player gets rewarded for some really excellent roleplaying, and the combats – when Nanook does get involved – suddenly become much more tactical, with people trying to move enemies around the battlefield to take advantage of pack tactics, or waiting to act in the hope that Nanook can drag an enemy to the ground first. And, well, it’s nice to have a pet.
One thing I see a lot of when people ask about the balance of the game (or flat out tell me I’m breaking things) is that they seem to think the characters exist in a vacuum – that once they’re “overpowered”, they’ll run all over combat and make designing challenging encounters impossible.
That simply isn’t true. As a DM, you’re in complete control of what equipment players have, what foes they face, and how they face them. If you’ve given your players something you can’t account for when building adventures, you’re not doing your job properly. Sometimes they will run over an encounter as a result of something you did – see the earth elemental and the kobolds in last week’s Friday Fight Night, for example – but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Stomping enemies is a great feeling for players – and it makes it suck even harder when they get stomped on in the next fight.
So, how do I deal with Nanook? Well, it’s actually really easy, and really lazy of me. When I’m building encounters, I simply treat him as another member of the party. So rather than building an encounter for five fifth level characters, I build it for six. This is a difference in XP budgets for medium encounters of 500xp (2500 for five players vs. 3000 for six) and a difference of 750xp for hard encounters (3750xp vs 4500xp). That makes a big diffeence – and, because Nanook very rarely attacks each round, and only gets one attack when he does, it actually makes fights more dangerous for the group.
If I wanted to, I could figure out Nanook’s effective character level based on his damage output and hit dice, and calculate encounters using that modified encounter value. But he still wouldn’t attack each turn, and it’s extra work for not much extra payoff, so I haven’t yet bothered to do it. The main reason I haven’t done it, though, is because that increased difficulty hasn’t made the game any less fun – because, as I’ve said, balance is a myth when one player (the DM) is always able to pull at the strings and ‘rebalance’ on the fly.
This also plays into my preference for milestones over tracking XP. If I build an encounter designed for six characters but only five actually benefit from gaining XP (Nanook’s HP etc. increase as Manbearpig levels up), how do I award XP? Do I split the total awarded into five and dish it out? That makes the group level up faster, because they’re fighting harder enemies. Or, instead, do I split it into six, award it as normal, and ignore Nanook’s sixth portion? That would be the obvious answer, but it feels like punishing the party by making them fight things and then discarding a portion of their reward. Either way, it doesn’t feel right. Plus, it adds more maths to the game – and I’m all about excuses to do less maths. Milestones give me control over this mess that I’ve made with very little effort. Problem solved.
So, with all this in mind, let’s move on to the issue of magic items – and, in particular, that ludicrous dwarven settlement with the crazy exchange rate between copper and gold.
Actually? No. We’re not going to talk about those things. Because if you understood the things I just said about balancing Nanook, you also understand what I was intending to say about balancing magic items. There’s no need to say it again.
So instead, we’re going to talk about the kind of D&D I like to play.
It should come as no surprise that my first experiences of the game in the ’90s – when I was seven or eight years old, playing with brothers who were (and still are, or so I’m told) younger than me – involved ludicrous amounts of loot and massively out-of-control characters. We all played munchkins, and every campaign was the Monty-est Haul-iest affair imaginable. Now, I’ve obviously dialled that down as I’ve grown up and, well, actually learned the rules properly, and learned what makes for a fun game. But that love of treasure and magic and feeling like a hero never left me. Hell, this site is called “loot the room” – a direct reference to the Munchkin boardgame, which in itself is a reference to the kind of D&D I grew up playing.
I honestly believe that people have the most fun at the table when they get to feel powerful. (Obviously that’s a sweeping generalisation and it might not apply to everyone.) That’s not to say that everything should be easy – if you’ve been reading Friday Fight Night for any amount of time, you’ll have seen that things don’t always go well for my group. It’s also not to say that I don’t enjoy a gritty, everything-in-this-world-will-kill-you kind of game. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m gearing up for.
Remember back in the Temple of Leaves, when I mentioned that one of the reasons I gave them a driftglobe so early was so that I could have fun taking it away later? That’s what’s going on with things like the sunblade and the instant fortress and… well, some things that would be spoilers for you if I talked about them here. Not so much “I’m going to break all your toys”, but more building a false sense of security.
In the old campaign (Manbearpig, Wutang, etc.) I tried to get the group involved in a big, world-shaking story arc far too early. This time around, I wanted to give them a chance to play in a sandbox for a little while. And playing in that sandbox involved giving them fun, possibly-too-powerful toys to play with. But my thirst for a big story never went away, and now it’s about to rear its head.
As this series currently stands, the party have emerged from the Underdark to a point high in the mountains. They’ve been carrying a treasure map ever since the Temple of Leaves that points north to the desert. They can’t go south again, because they’re fugitives – and from high in the mountains, they can see the first glimpse of the desert, beckoning to them.
Unknown to them, that copper-crazy mining town where they traded all their shitty little copper pieces for gold and Manbearpig bought the sunblade – along with the giant copper army deep beneath the earth – are part of a larger plot being hatched by the ruler of a vast desert empire. I won’t go into too many details, but it’s going to be good. Trust me.
Also unknown to them? Their map is going to lead them straight into the heart of it all.
But first they have to cross the desert. If you follow me on Twitter you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I have a long-standing love affair with Dark Sun. Those are two words my players aren’t familiar with, but I’m about to indulge myself in that affair.
Right now, at the end of what we’ll call Season 1, the party feel good about themselves. They’re bristling with magic items and mountains of gold, they’ve survived the Underdark, and they just killed a dragon. They feel invincible.
All this is going to change. First they have to get out of the mountains – but once they do that, they’re going to be in the desert. Chances are that they’re not going to be stumbling upon rare, powerful magics as they cross the sands. They’re going to be fighting tooth and nail to survive – and they’re going to be very, very thankful for the toys I gave them.