Tag Archives: D&D 5E

Into the Borderlands review

Into the Borderlands is a hardcover compilation of the training modules B1 and B2, both originally published in 1979, along with conversions for fifth edition D&D. There are several intro essays reminiscing about experiences with these foundational modules, including one by Mike Mearls, currently manager of research and design for D&D. The early modules are scans rather than newly typeset and there are two printings of each original module, showing some minor textual and presentation differences. The conversion for fifth edition includes new black and white accompanying art and some expanded encounters. The original modules are classics for a number of reasons that I will avoid discussing much, but if you are curious some good places to start are the reviews over at Dungeon of Signs (B1 and B2). Also, check out this essay related to B2 on how limitation can help foster creativity.

Physically, the book has a stitched binding and, though on the large side in terms of width, feels solid and pleasant to hold. Though I can see this being only a collector’s item for many people, it would be usable as an actual game tool also. Apart from players only familiar with 5E, most potential customers probably already have copies of B1 and B2, if not physically then in PDF (drivethru links: B1 and B2). Because of this, the value that this product should add, for anyone other than a pure collector, must be over and above the simple information content of the original modules. The high-quality form factor definitely delivers on part of this.

Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses too. First, I noticed several typos, even just limited to the first few pages1. Second, the original module scans are a bit grainy compared to my older printing of B2. Third, while it is hard for me to really evaluate how useful the 5E conversion would be to a referee only familiar with that edition, from my vantage it does seem to waste some space. For example, who needs to be told in a stat block that siege weapons are immune to psychic damage? Fourth, this is a matter of taste, but I find the new art to be somewhat uninspired. The book also feels repetitive, given the multiple versions of the same module, and the 5E conversion further recycles a lot of text. This is somewhat baked into the product concept though, so take it more as a comment and less as a criticism.

There is so much potential in representing classic modules such as B1 and B2. However, the book for the most part ignores this low-hanging fruit. The three stocked examples of B1 dungeons are a step in the right direction, but there are many other unexplored possibilities. Goodman could have included alternative maps of Quasqueton, such as these beautiful examples from Dyson (one, two). Or, what about some creative play aids, such as maps annotated with content or player handouts? There could be essays about how to creatively flip some conventional assumptions, such as considering the keep as the target of heists. A discussion of adapting modules to local campaign worlds, along with possibly an example reskin, would have felt right at home and maybe even made the book a touchstone for thinking about integrating modules. For an example of creatively using the framework provided by B2, consider this idea about replacing the caves ravine with the Stonehell mega-dungeon ravine.

Overall, I am glad the book was made, and am continually impressed by the physical quality of Goodman volumes, but I wish that the compilers took more care with the finishing details for the text. I hope that Goodman continues the Original Adventures Reincarnated series with other classic TSR modules. That said, the product could have been so much more.

Purchase info

  • Date: 2018-01-29
  • Price: $49.99 + $9 (shipping) = $58.99 USD
  • Details: Goodman Games Store pre-order

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

1. On the copyright page: 5E Edition (note redundancy). In Mearls’ essay: “It was the first D&D adventure I read, thought it would be years before I ran it” (thought should be though).

B2 room 12 fan art by Evlyn

Concise 5E DMG review

On Google Plus, Paolo asked if the 5E DMG is worth buying.

I can only speak for myself, but (paging through it again right now) this is what I got out of it.

  • Campaign events section is good (can’t think right now if I have seen anything better anywhere else along these lines).
  • Cosmology is okay (but about the same as every other D&D cosmology summary). The 4E DMG might actually be the strongest in this area.
  • Adventure generator is okay (but Matt’s Tome of Adventure Design is better).
  • NPC generator is okay (but Courtney’s On the NPC is better).
  • Villain generator is good.
  • 10 pages of alternative rules is good.
  • The monster creation guidelines is a wasted opportunity for a generator.
  • Random dungeon generator looks approximately equivalent to the one in the AD&D DMG (which you can download for free from WotC’s web site). I haven’t used the 5E one yet.
  • Placing all the writing, story, and plot oriented books in the inspirational reading was a strange choice. For me, such are irrelevant to tabletop roleplaying. Get a copy of Apocalypse World and read the principles there (play to find out what happens, etc).
  • The actual directions regarding what a referee does in prep and in play seem somewhat muddled and poorly organized.
5E DMG page 215

5E DMG page 215

The wizards cabinet picture on page 215 is maybe one of my favorite RPG book illustrations and manages to both have super slick production values and be amazingly atmospheric. I wish the whole book looked this way. Page 262 is notably good also and feels a bit like a slightly more polished relative of Poag’s stuff. There are a few other good illustrations, but in general I find the art disappointing.

I consider the emphasis on rulings to be a good thing for a new referee, but if you are already somewhat experienced that does not matter so much.

I think it’s probably worth buying for the historical value alone, to see where the mainstream game is going and has gone. Also if you are playing anything approaching official 5E (which I am still interested in trying), especially for things like the magic items.

Oh, also the binding is glued rather than stitched, which is unacceptable for a book with a $50 sticker price, especially one that might be used heavily. This is what happens to books with glued bindings (image credit to Gloomtrain‘s Majordomo, Mateo). WotC, if you are reading, I would replace my current set of 5E core books with premium editions were they to have real bindings.

B/X 5E

Is this not just the new Basic D&D? Not quite.

(If you like this mashup, here’s a one page PDF version.)

BX 5E mashup smallAbility scores: 3d6 down the line. Rearrange as desired. Bonuses from B/X (page B7), because the bell curve distribution of +1, +2, +3, with max 18, makes bonuses more special than the 5E linear increase. Ability checks: roll 1d20 <= score (lower better). Skill checks: roll 1d20 +bonus & +proficiency if proficient (higher better; vs. DC 10 most of the time).

Recovery and dying: re-roll HP during each downtime. Save or die when reduced to zero HP.

Classes are the fighter (HD d8), magic-user (HD d4), and thief (HD d6) from B/X but interpreted as makes most sense in light of the below referenced 5E rules. Use fighter XP progression for all classes (page X6).

Turn undead is a first level spell; use B/X rules (page X5). Successful turns, or turn results that are doubles, do not expend the spell. Concentration required. If you want to play a demon hunter or cleric, make a fighter and take the turn undead spell as your first level feat. (Necromancers: substitute command undead.)

Fighters begin with proficiency in all weapons and medium armor. (Yes, medium. If you want to use heavy armor without penalty, you need to spend a feat.)

Magic-users begin with proficiency in daggers and no armor. Spell progression is from B/X (page X6). Roll three starting spells randomly from B/X or some other spell list. You can pick a spell too if that’s what you spend your first feat on. Spell casting in armor without proficiency is impossible.

Thieves begin with proficiency in club, dagger, staff, short sword, sword, short bow, light crossbow and light armor. They also start with proficiency in dexterity (stealth), strength (climb), intelligence (search), backstab (or sniper), and thieves’ tools.

Backstab is only for surprise melee attacks and deals +1d6 damage per point of proficiency. (But see also the sniper feat.) Distraction + successful stealth check = hidden. Attack from hiding = surprise.

Situational modifiers: Use 5E advantage and disadvantage.

Armor: Ascending AC and armors from 5E (PHB page 145). If you do not meet the heavy armor strength requirements, you take disadvantage on most physical tasks (rather than the speed modifier suggested by the 5E rules, because that does not really come into play unless you are counting squares). Shields: proficiency with medium armor grants the ability to use shields passively. Otherwise, a shield is just a weapon and you need to spend an action to get any defensive benefit.

Weapons: From B/X (damage on page B27). Attack bonus: apply your proficiency bonus to attacks with weapons for which you have proficiency. Finesse weapons: (dagger, stiletto, rapier, etc) use the dex bonus rather than the strength bonus for attack and damage. Initiative: group d6, highest wins.

Feats: Characters gain a feat at levels 1, 4, 7, 10, & 13. Yes, first level too. So go crazy with a spell-casting fighter or a swording magic-user. Who needs multi-classing? Or just go fighter/cleave. Choose from the following options whenever you get a feat. (Or roll if feeling oracular.)

  1. +1 to the ability score of your choice (max 18)
  2. Never surprised
  3. +2 HP
  4. Cleave (taking down an enemy in melee grants a free adjacent attack)
  5. Spell and bonus spell slot
  6. Backstab or sniper (ranged backstab) +1d6 damage
  7. Armor proficiency increases one step (none, light, medium, heavy)
  8. Weapon proficiency (or specialization: +1 damage with a particular weapon)
  9. Skill proficiency (5E PHB page 174)
  10. Tool proficiency (5E PHB page 154)

Bonus spell slots can be used to prepare spells of first level or any level that you can otherwise cast.

References: B/X (Basic/Expert) rules & the 5E PHB


Unsolicited aesthetic opinions on the 5E Monster Manual

1. In general, the art is even better than the PHB. There is an almost biologic sensibility, like what might be recorded in the notebook of a 19th century naturalist. The influence from real animals on the illustrations is more pronounced than in past versions. Not in terms of direct realism, but just in that you can recognize features, poses, and behaviors that make the creatures seem more anatomically resonant.

2014-12-10 16.22.32 copy

2. Other than the green dragon, which I like, the dragon shoulders are pronounced in a way that looks somewhat ridiculous (this is worst in the red and silver dragon illustrations). I don’t care how much muscle a “real” dragon would need, it does not look good.

2014-12-11 08.55.16 silver dragon

3. The small landscapes scattered throughout might be one of my favorite features, especially the one right prior to the demon entries. They evoke exploration and weird expanses.

2014-12-10 16.17.36 landscape

4. The best and most creative art seems to be for the monstrosities. See the aboleth below, for example. The worst is for the humanoids. I like the gnoll and ogre. The bullywug is okay but then it’s also really hard to mess up a frog person. Which leads me to…

5. Most unimpressive new visual identity: goblin. Successful goblins I have seen are cute (Gremlins and Pathfinder), Tolkienesque (Alan Lee and Angus McBride), or faerie tale (Arthur Rackham and Ian Miller). This one is just boring.

2014-12-10 16.21.36 goblin

6. Most impressive new visual identity: aboleth, probably. It no longer looks like a big fish with funny eyes and tentacles, but something truly alien and new. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that looks like it before. (And if you have the book, check out the smaller picture on the following page of an aboleth seemingly pulling itself over land with its tentacles.) There were a lot of other good candidates here though. See also the mind flayer (the Darth Vader style makes it really feel like an extradimensional invader) and the manticore (that mouth!).

2014-12-11 09.06.43 aboleth

7. Most unsuccessful illustration: tarrasque. Makes it seem about the size of a goat. Seriously, look at that thing and tell me it’s bigger than a large dog.

2014-12-10 16.27.35 tarrasque

8. Most successful illustration: I don’t know that I can pick just one. Green dragon, pit fiend, succubus & incubus, lich, medusa, wraith, pseudodragon, mind flayer, shadow, drow, darkmantle.

9. I like this succubus and incubus picture and appreciate that the incubus was made attractive too. Likewise with the angels (particularly the deva) and the yuan-ti (which also remind me of the snake men Masters of the Universe toys).

2014-12-10 16.27.08 incubus succubus

10. The demons and undead are effective except the marilith, which just looks awkward. Zombie is kind of weak, but lich, mummy, and wraith are awesome. Mummy approaches legit scary (something about the unnatural but yet still natural head shape) and that’s pretty rare in RPG illustrations.

2014-12-10 16.24.26 mummy

Setting traps in 5E

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Paul S. asked (private circle share) about 5E rules for setting traps. Some traps, like setting a bucket of paint on a door that is ajar or scattering marbles, do not require any special rules. You set them, and they trigger if situationally appropriate. They can be handled entirely by description and ruling. Setting more sophisticated traps, such as a concealed snare, present an opportunity for leveraging existing mechanics to support character abilities that are not explicitly handled.

5E already has rules for crafting using tool proficiencies. Thus, setting a trap requires trap-maker’s tools, which can be improvised. Simple traps can be set in one dungeon turn, but more complex devices may require more time. If the crafting is possible but uncertain in some way (such as under time pressure), require a crafting check (probably DC 10, but adjust as necessary).

A set of trap-maker’s tools is a small kit containing cords, wires, springs, and so forth that functions similarly to a healer’s kit. It counts as one significant item (if using simple encumbrance), and is exhausted using whatever rules are in effect for healer’s kits (in the 5E PHB, this is 10 uses, but I might use an ammo die).

Tools can be improvised from local detritus, standard, or masterwork. The referee must rule whether tools can be improvised in a given situation. If tools are improvised, saving throws versus trap effects are made with advantage. If masterwork, they are made with disadvantage.

Trap DC works like spell DC: 8 + ability bonus + proficiency bonus.

Crude mechanical traps (such as rigging a swinging log) use dexterity. More sophisticated traps based on specialized knowledge (such as crafting a poison needle mechanism) use intelligence.

Example 1: first level character without proficiency, using improvised tools, with dexterity of 12 (+1). Trap DC is 9 (8+1), victims make saves with advantage (due to improvised tools).

Example 2: first level character with proficiency (+2), with dexterity of 15 (+2), using standard trap-maker’s tools. Trap DC is 12 (8+2+2), saves are unmodified (since standard tools were used).

5E preliminary notes

I’m running the play test Caves of Chaos tomorrow for my group, so I thought I’d put down my pre-play thoughts beforehand and then compare them to how it goes. My group is pretty diverse (a few very casual players, some who are primarily video gamers, some 4E fans, and one player with mostly 3E experience; none of them are very active in the online tabletop RPG community), so it will be interesting to see what they think.

I’ve mentioned previously that I like the idea of backgrounds and themes, and I still like the idea after seeing a few actual examples on the pregen character sheets. I’m not crazy about all of the abilities, but the underlying concept is solid, and a huge improvement over the raw skills and feats available in Third and Fourth. Backgrounds as presented are a slightly more elaborated version of the original “secondary skill” systems present in 1E and 2E. The backgrounds are a nice way to add some detail to a character without wasting time on extensive backstory that (let’s face it) rarely gets read by anyone other than the writer. Put the list of backgrounds on a random table and that would make a pretty good character creation tool (compare to the recent Before First Level posts over at The Dungeon Dozen). The backgrounds as given by the pregens are knight, priest, soldier, commoner, and sage.

First Edition Secondary Skills (AKA “backgrounds”)

Themes I see as select class features factored out of classes. For example, the backstab/sneak attack ability is not associated with the rogue class, but rather the lurker theme. So you can create a fighter with the lurker theme and that is a pretty good assassin. The magic-user theme grants the use of several cantrips, so a rogue character with the magic-user theme is a pretty good approximation of The Gray Mouser, who knew a few spells from his time as a wizard’s apprentice. Conan? A fighter with some sort of barbaric background and a theme like slayer or lurker. This is better than multi-classing, in my opinion. I would much rather see a limited number of classes with more themes than a huge number of classes. Unfortunately, many of the non-core classes are sacred cows (ranger, paladin, barbarian, etc) and so are likely to be full classes despite just being slight variations on the fighter. The themes as given are magic-user, lurker, slayer, healer, and guardian.

One of the problems I noticed is the lack of support for games that focus on resource management. The at-will light cantrip is the biggest offender, but there are several other problematic abilities. Detect magic is also an at-will cantrip, and dwarves have a racial ability called stonecunning which allows them to unerringly retrace their steps while underground; this makes mapping less critical. These features are fine, but should be available modularly, not as defaults within the core races and classes. To paraphrase Jeff Rients from a G+ conversation, I respect the right of anyone to play Omega Level asskickers, but I don’t see why there can’t be room for low rent bastardry at first level, and such play relies on resource management. Also, if you want the game to be about anything other than killing monsters, combat can’t be the first resort (in other words, the game has to be more deadly, at least optionally).

From a high level design point of view, a shift to a lower power curve is by far the most promising aspect of the new system. This might even have advantages for old school play over some early editions of D&D. Consider the escalating power levels of classes in AD&D, for example. A high-level AD&D fighter can pretty much hit anything that does not have an absurd AC. It is hard to get a full picture of how this might look from the play test materials, since they only go up to third level, but it is notable that not a single class gets any increase in base attack bonus over that period of time. There are a couple bonuses to damage here and there (presumably to compensate), but I think that will have much less of an effect on the way the game plays. Even the advantage and disadvantage mechanics are designed around avoiding bonus inflation by using a d20 version of 2DTH (roll two dice, take highest or lowest). For an example of how this is used, consider penalties for wearing armor. Armor causes disadvantage to several kinds of rolls (stealth, saving throws when not proficient, etc). I love this mechanic, so this makes me happy.

Gone will hopefully be the nonsense of 4E scaled defenses. Such scaling results in absurdities like a first level pixie having a 15 reflex and a 20th level ogre having a reflex of 30 (I made those numbers up, but they are representative). Some people have described these play test materials as “3E lite,” but I just don’t see it. Pretty much the only point of comparison is the listing of task DCs, and as far as I can tell the whole point of flattening the power curve is diametrically opposed to the reality of Third Edition, which is by far the edition with the steepest power curve (4E starts out more powerful, but advances less steeply).

I love the idea of ability scores as saving throws, despite the fact that it might fight against 3d6 in order (because ability scores will be so potent that players will always want them to be high). That said, the benefits are many, and include avoiding some of the skill tax problems of perception and allowing the simplicity of 3E saving throws without needing separate numbers on the character sheet. This also means, however, that saving throws will not get better as levels increase (one of the few aspects of level-based inflation that I like, because it allows players to earn survivability through smart play rather than optimization). Does this mean that ability scores themselves will inflate as levels progress? Or maybe there will be separate saving throw bonuses? We will have to wait for more details before that will be clear. Also, this means no evocative saving throw types like the save versus death ray.

The Caves of Chaos adventure is almost a primer to old school gaming. Specifically, it gives the following advice:

  • No single storyline
  • PC motivations are not assumed
  • There are no plot points and encounters are not ordered
  • Dynamic dungeons; PCs not just expected to clear the site
  • No balanced encounters
  • PCs may go where they want and pick their battles
  • Monsters are supposed to be played strategically
  • Make up monster ability scores if desired
In other words, this is pretty much the Caves of Chaos as imagined by Gary Gygax. There are several suggestions about how to avoid killing PCs if they are in over their heads, but even Gary had suggestions in the original about ransoming PCs. The only significant modification from the original is that DCs are given for avoiding hazards and finding things like secret doors. However, there is also language about how a player must indicate, for example, the correct place to search in order to have any chance at all, and that the referee can always award success based on good description with dice rolls. In other words, player skill. This might seem like schizophrenia, but one might also read it as a license to make the game your own.

There are still lots of important things missing. XP award guidelines, for example. From the materials, it seems like you only get XP for defeating monsters, and that will not encourage the kind of careful play that the original module expected. There are no mentions of retainers. There is not variable monster reaction system, which will probably lead referees to assume hostility. Given that this is not supposed to be a complete game, I am willing to withhold judgment about those omissions for now. Also, the solutions they propose to fill those gaps need not necessarily be clones of OD&D or B/X to be successful. But the function of those original systems needs to be understood.

Starting above first level

In a recent Rule-of-Three article (via Erik Tenkar via Keith Davies), Rodney Thompson wrote about varying character generation complexity by starting above first level. As the mechanical complexity of building a 3E or 4E character is one of my biggest complaints about post-TSR D&D, this is of great interest to me. To quote:

Additionally, we’re looking at having the classes gradually layer in more capabilities over the first two or three levels, rather than providing a large number of class features at level 1, so that players new to the class have a short period of time to learn the basics of their class through play. Experienced players could simply start at 3rd level if they want to leap right into a more advanced starting experience.

I think this is an excellent approach, and one that I have been advocating for some time. I have observed before that in terms of both power and complexity a first level Fourth Edition character is approximately equivalent to a 4th – 6th level traditional D&D character. So why not let every group start at the place that they want to?

The important principle here is to expose complexity slowly through play rather than all at once at the beginning. That also makes the game more social, as other players will experience your character’s progression. The magic-user, for example, is a very complicated class, even if you restrict available spells to the core rules of whatever edition you are playing. The only reason that this complexity is tractable (and why the class remains playable by people not interested in system mastery) is because the spells are introduced gradually during level progression (see also this post by Jeffro for the apotheosis of this insight).

I would also like to see more advancement options tied to events within the game world. Thus, a fighter who wants to learn a special whirlwind attack ability might need to seek out a master to learn from, or discover an ancient manual of techniques. Then, they could use their next advancement point (or whatever) to learn that ability (maybe in place of a base attack bonus increase). This increases the uniqueness of individual characters and combats bonus inflation while not adding any complexity. Positive effects all around.

The framing here is critical though. It’s important that players not see the first three levels as training wheels that experienced player should want to bypass. Rather than capabilities layered in over levels 1 through 3, I think capabilities should be layered in slowly over the entire level range.

I also think there is an inverse relationship between potential setting deadliness and work required to build a new character. If you want save or die with teeth you can’t have character generation as complex as 3E or 4E. Players simply won’t stand for their special snowflake PC (which took an hour or more to build) being killed in the first ten minutes of play because they did something stupid. To be honest, I really can’t see any other way that you can get both players who are interested in quick character creation and players who are interested in complex character builds to play the same game.