Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Essential Repurposing (Part 1)

AKA "Fixing Stuff For Fun And Profit"

I'll cut to the chase: I picked up a copy of the D&D Essentials Kit. Yes, I put money in WotC's pocket ($12 and change), although I do have 90 days to return the thing to Target.

The reason for this? I wanted a copy of the included adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak. I have a bit of a "thing" for white dragons. That may not have been obvious over the years (though the last time I created an adventure with a dragon...nine years ago!...it was a white), but they're probably my second faves, after black dragons. Their Superman-like, liquid nitrogen breath is not only a cool image, and it's a bit easier to justify than a monster that breathes fire...plus, they have the best natural camouflage (IMO) of all the dragons.

I'm rooting for the dragon.
Besides, I dig on snow and ice settings (duh...see Land of Ice for examples); heck, I almost picked up a copy of Frostburn, long after I'd chucked DND3 from my life. Probably would have purchased it, if it'd had a white dragon on the cover.

Anyway, I wanted to see the type of adventure being constructed over at Wizards of the Coast and see if it was anything I might use...or modify...for my own ends. Here's what my $13 bought me:

- An "Essentials Kit Rulebook" that I have zero interest in reading. Really. I've read the 5E books, I've played a session (or two?) of 5E, and I've listened to multiple hours of 5E "actual play" podcasts. I know that the game, as it's currently being produced, is extremely irritating to my psyche and outside the sphere of "things-I-want-to-engage-with." I'd go back to AD&D RAW long before I'd sit down to a 5E game session.

[well, not quite RAW. I will never again play AD&D with character limitations based on sex/gender. Yes, we did this in my youth...even our female players, who generally ran fighter characters...but I'm done with that particular brand of machismo stereotype]

- A nice set of (eleven) dice.

- A DMs' screen that has a lovely illustration on it. If I was crafty at all, I'd find some way to cut it up into some sort of decorative doo-dad. Unfortunately, I'm not.

- Some 5E tools (cards for initiative, conditions, magic items) that I probably won't be able to use. Actually, the "sidekick cards" might work fine as a stack of random NPCs.

- A map of the Sword Coast portion of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

- The 64 page adventure book that was my impetus for buying the box.

Let's see, anything else? Some blank (5E) character sheets. A box for holding cards. Some codes to unlock additional on-line content (not sure if I need to be enrolled in D&D Beyond to use that). Eh. All-in-all, I suppose it's not a bad value for a "starter set"...dice alone would probably cost $5-6. What price would you put on 14 easily re-purposed "dungeon" maps; a quarter a piece? Maybe $.50 to $1, given that they include some possible ideas/inspiration in the text?

Maybe. They aren't great. If you're interested in WHY they're "not great" (or, as some might say, "terrible") I'd direct you to this recent ggnore podcast (episode 175) for the informed opinion of a group of regular 5E users who bothered to play through most of the adventure (their actual play podcasts...about 12 hours worth...comprise four or five of their earlier episodes).

But I already knew that...I mean I did research the thing before I bought it.

Here's the thing, though: I (me) am not quite ready to say the ideas here are "terrible." Many of the quests presented here (the term used to describe the dozen plus micro adventures that make up the whole of this mini-campaign) aren't anything worse than what I'd come up with for a single session or two at the table. Maybe that says more about me (and my lack of creativity), but not every adventure need be a giant, six level dungeon filled with world-destroying threats nor does every event occurring in a campaign require some sort of clever inter-woven story/plot construction. Sometimes a simple kernel of an encounter can yield hours of entertainment.

The real problem, in my opinion, is more one of execution...that is to say, I'm not the fan of how these quests/adventures are supposed to unfold. And that is mainly a 5E issue rather than a lack of imagination on the part of the author. The Essentials Kit wants to provide an introductory adventure (rid this region of its dragon problem), that's a bit too steep in challenge for a a band of newbie adventurers. So it provides a bunch of "warm-up" adventures that the player characters will need to grind in order to achieve the requisite power level to face the ultimate encounter (the eponymous dragon).

Grind is the operative word here...there is little reward offered in any of the adventures, save for the promised leveling that comes with the completion of the "quests." Players need to seek out and check off every notice on the town's job board in order to achieve the necessary milestones (i.e. "auto-level ups") that will eventually (around 6th level) allow them to face down the dragon. Since treasure means little to the 5E character (most of their best upgrades come from levels not equipment...and gold doesn't earn XP) there's nothing to really motivate characters except what "meta" story you want to give your party.

Hell, even the dragon has bupkis in the way of treasure (whoops! SPOILER). One would imagine that the main incentive for fighting a dragon would be, you know, claiming its hoard or getting showered with gold by a grateful community. Not here! The dragon of Icespire Peak is broke as a joke...it lairs on the roof of a ruined castle, eating the occasional mountain orc that it manages to catch, and has exactly zero as far as a hoard. The grateful villagers? Well, the townmaster "might plan a feast in the heroes honor" (emphasis added by yours truly).

So there's very little reason I can think of for a group of adventurers to hang around an area being threatened by a dragon, let alone take the time to grind a bunch of step-and-fetch/kill adventures for little reward beside the leveling. It reminds me quite a bit of a video game script...but if I wanted to play a video game I'd be doing that. Video games do video games better than tabletop RPGs do.

And just in case anyone's wondering, this isn't a rant...it's just weary observation.

Back to the point: Dragon of Icespire Peak isn't a great adventure, but that's mainly due to 5E not being a great system. Oh, I know folks love 5E and all that (or are resigned to playing it or whatever) but for my money (and I did spend actual money on this thing) you really start to see the warts on the thing when you look at this kind of product. The ggnore boyz say it's the best WotC adventure since Phandelver...but based on some reviews I've read, that may be damning with faint praise.

Still, I do love white dragons. I love them as a feature monster, not just some knightly mount or frost giant pet. I think they do make a good antagonist for a party of low level adventurers: a sizable (though not insurmountable) risk to balance against a presumably rich reward. That IS what Dungeons & Dragons is supposed to be about after all, right? You defeat the dragon, you divvy up the spoils.

What I'd like to do...now...is rewrite the adventure. Make it a little more "old school friendly;" something with a B/X (or even AD&D) sensibility. File off the serial numbers, prune the edges, maybe slap an OGL on it and sell the PDF for a couple bucks. Try my best to make the thing a bit more useable as a campaign jumpstart.

Would anyone have any objections to me giving it a go?


My favorite white dragon pic.

35 comments:

  1. Don't do it.
    No matter how much time and effort you spend polishing a turd, in the end, you still have a turd.

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    1. See, that sounds like a challenge.
      ; )

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    2. I spent a great deal of time and effort re-writing the mini-campaign from the Starter Set with the goal of giving the setting a single unifying history and driving plot instead of the disjointed "playing the hits" feel of the book as-written.
      First level characters need to fight goblins, so we got goblins. Drow are cool, so we got Drow. Got a bad-guy wizard? He better be from Thay. Why are the goblins, Drow, and Red Wizard working together? No one knows.
      I'd be happy to bore you *ahem* SHARE my re-write if you'd like, but I'd much rather join you at the Baranof and spitball ideas for a Doctor Strange campaign using Heroes Unlimited.

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    3. @ SovE:

      The very idea makes my mouth (and brain and liver) water. Wish I had the spare time...maybe in November.
      : )

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  2. Great idea! Do it! I will play it (run it for my players).

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    1. 5th Edition is the most popular and I think would be the easiest work (only changes to the plot etc.), but really what you prefer. Maybe B/X?

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  3. I also love the white dragons! Although greens have always been my favorite. And really, since all BX dragons have the same treasure type, white dragons are the best risk/reward option! A 6HD white dragon is a much easier challenge than a 10HD red! Not that it's easy, but those 4 extra hit dice make a big difference.

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    1. I recently formalized the stats for smaller and bigger B/X dragons and was thinking on the fact that they all have the same treasure type. After some consideration, I decided that I like it better that way.

      Of course, exceptional dragons are likely to have exceptional treasure, but the DM places that specifically. When rolling random treasure for random dragons, a dragons's treasure is a dragon's treasure no matter the color and I will let the dice decide.

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  4. The adventure sounds... as mediocre as 5E. Railroady and pointless. Why do they insist on copying video games when the best part of the tabletop experience is the ability to go off on tangents? This just sounds like a chore.

    Of all the things you would mod from 1E, the top of the list is differences in sex? That’s really the top of your list? (I’ve never considered playing that way but it’s not something that springs to mind as particularly important one way or another.)

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    1. Yep. Top of the list. I can (and have) played RAW AD&D in the past, and while I'd prefer to mod a couple things I *could* live with everything in the rules...except that.

      The adventure seems to try hard to NOT be a railroad. While it is divided up into a list of "quests" (each consisting of a mini-dungeon/site base encounters), there is no presumptive order of approach or requirement to handle any of them aside from the overall "arc" of defeating the white dragon. The problem is, they are the most expedient method of leveling up which is the only real "incentive" on display for the characters (I mean, unless your players are just super fond of bloodletting and can't wait to draw swords against "evil" sentient beings).

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    2. Other than max strength (which I also fully advocate dropping/ignoring) are there any other sex/gender-based restrictions in the AD&D rules? Are you okay with leaving stuff like female elves being the only ones able to ride unicorns, or nymphs only being attracted to high charisma males? I consider stuff like that more flavor than restriction and am fine with keeping them in place.

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    3. @ Trent:

      I prefer to treat unicorns as presented in Steven Boyett's book Ariel: any virgin may touch one (though they generally shy away from humans), and they are disinclined to allow riders of ANY type, except in extreme circumstance.

      Nymphs and dryads I tend to view more as a type of asexual nature spirit. Do they reproduce by mating with humans? I'd generally guess "no." That doesn't mean the villagers don't have their folklore and ideas about how such a creature interacts with humans (male or female), but I think the MM bears some adjustment on this basis; compare the B/X dryad with the MM version.

      Etc.

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    4. I think recognizing differences in the sexes is a good thing in life (and gaming). Women are largely not as strong as men. The fact that there are some exceptions simply means those are outliers, nor norms. There are ways to recognize that possibility and still acknowledge realistic differences (if you wish to do so).

      Then again, I also play with race limits, which are essentially the same thing (even if only applied to fantasy races).

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    5. @ pugbud:

      Adventurers ARE the outliers.

      I also use racial limits (when I play AD&D) for both ability scores and class levels. But demihumans are not humans. Also, I don't distinguish between males and females of a species: they all share the same limits of their species.

      [the possible exception would be the Drow with regard to class and level. However, I wouldn't normally allow a player character to use a Drow. I suppose, if pressed, I'd say that MY campaign world recognizes no distinction between male and female Dark elves, but I'd be unlikely to create a (male) Drow high priest or a (female) Drow wizard as an NPC. Still...outliers, right?]

      There are plenty of positive differences between human men and women. They just don't factor into my game systems.

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    6. Limits and modifiers to ability scores based on sex may be realistic (well, for Str, at least) but I decided to leave them out of my game as well for two reasons:

      1. If you give a penalty to female characters, your players will just create all, or mostly, dudes. Nobody likes a sausagefest. If you give out balanced modifiers you'd still end up with nearly-as-monotonous arrangements whereby, say, all the fighters are male and the thieves all female or some such.
      2. It's fantasy! Part of the appeal of the game is playing a character with abilities or skills above and beyond the real world. If Hollywood can give us endless movies of 90 lb supermodels kicking 300 lb thugs across the room, why can't my players be a buttkicking babe? What kind of fantasy world has no place for Amazons, a Red Sonya, or a Brienne of Tarth? None worth it's salt if you ask me.

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    7. "Adventurers ARE the outliers."

      Exactly!

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    8. @ Unknown:

      Those are certainly valid points. However, I feel it's important to point out:

      - In the past, I had multiple female players who made no complaint putting up with ability score maximums, even when playing female fighter characters (who were limited By The Book). The STR thresholds are fairly high anyway, and gauntlets of ogre power don't care about sex. That being said, I wouldn't play that way again.
      - Despite being "fantasy" I'm inclined to think of strength MAINLY as a measure of "natural fighting ability" rather than muscle mass (see my *many* posts on the subject of strength). As such, I'm inclined to allow the stat to model the same for both men and women, regardless of relative mass or musculature.

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    9. "Adventurers ARE the outliers" is the usual response to this. And it completely misses the point (aside from, generally speaking, being completely false). Women and Men are not the same; they are different. They are not interchangeable (I find it comical when a man wants to play a woman PC or a woman play a male PC; they are usually so shallow in their role-play as to make it ridiculous).

      I mentioned Racial Differences because difference in the sexes is essentially the same: Elves are better at some things than Dwarves or Hobbits and visa versa. It's (at least one big reason) why we choose different races. The same things apply to woman and men; they are quite different from one another and a player should play them for that reason. Most player I've ever known won't NOT play a woman because she isn't as strong as a man. When rolling stats, that possibility so rarely comes into play anyway!

      Which brings us back to the comment about "Adventurers are outliers!". They aren't. In most campaigns, they are the norm. Cities, villages, EVERY civilized area of most worlds is made up of almost nothing other than Fighters, Thieves, Magic Users, etc. Magic is often so ridiculously prevalent that everyone worth his salt is carrying a magic dagger or sword or there are magic SHOPS sitting on the corner of the local city. Top that off with character scores: most of them are in the average range, with one (maybe two) above (or maybe below) average. It's not the stats that make adventurers "outliers"; it's the fact that they tend to travel more than anyone else (and sometimes not even that!).

      Now granted, there ARE outliers among adventurers. I once rolled up a dwarf with two 17s and four 16s for stats. THAT'S a statistical outlier. But the real outliers for adventurers are simply the ones that survive. Most adventurers die, often quickly.

      JB's option of redefining what things mean is another way to approach it.

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    10. One last thing to my too-long post. There is always plenty of room for "Amazons, a Red Sonya, or a Brienne of Tarth". But Amazons aren't crazy outliers; they are simply women who are martial in their society. And if you actually read Howard's "The Shadow of the Vulture", where Red Sonya (Sonja) shows up, there's very little about her that is exceptional. She can fight and hates her sister is about it. No great strength (she isn't running around using a Bastard Sword or anything of the sort) at all. It's only in the comics that she was considered "strong"--but then again she also wears a chain mail bikini. Make of that what you will.

      As I mentioned above, there are ways to address oddities. In the 1e PHB, the max strength for a human female is 18/50. That's not exactly a pushover anyway! But one can always allow the percentile roll to be higher if so desired.

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    11. @ pugbuddy:

      Huh.

      The campaigns you cite sound very different from my own experiences. Worlds in my B/X games have been full of "normal humans;" my old AD&D games featured a majority of "0-level characters." It amounted to the same thing: non-adventurers.

      In my own campaigns, I've mainly seen men play female characters because A) it was a pre-gen (as I did at the Dragonflight Con), or B) they wanted to play a female Drow in 1e AD&D. I've not known many female players to play male characters, but I've known plenty of female DMs/GMs who had no problem role-playing male NPCs.

      But this discussion does seem to be straying a bit far from the topic.

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    12. In Polyhedron #22 in 1984, Gygax published the Amazon "monster" NPC-type (a la Bandits, Berserkers, etc.) that he claimed was inadvertently omitted from the Monster Manual II. They're female barbarian warriors and are specifically noted as having strength scores up to 18/00. If Gary was willing to toss aside the sex-based strength limit for these NPCs, there's no reason anyone should feel bound to enforce it on PCs.

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    13. JB, no real argument. There are plenty of different "worlds". My main point is that men and women are different and restrictions to reflect that make sense.

      Trent, I have said a couple of times that one can easily allow female PCs greater strength if they want. No actual justification is needed. As for Gary, we all make exceptions for "Monsters". To allow one group to exceed (realistic) limitations in no way justifies allowing all groups to do so. They are not equal because they are not the same (even if they are the same sex). Mix and match your "world" as you see fit.

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  5. I agree the adventure is a dud. The job board is in my opinion the worst eay to introduce new players to D&D. It has some sandbox elements you dont see in a lot of 5e adventures just poorly implemented. I particularly like the encounter locations that are just rumours not plot points. I think it would be possible to rewrite and be good, but not sure its worth it. Good luck if you try.

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    1. @ 7bastard:

      It sounds like you've picked up your own copy of Essentials. Have you checked out any of the "additional on-line content" for the adventure? And if so, can you clue me in to its consistency?

      I *could* look it up myself, of course, but I'm kind of lazy about that sort of thing.
      ; )

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    2. I didnt even see that it had addtional online content so thanks for the heads up. I'm with Friar Dave, it should have included more info on how to combine with Lost Mines. Combined they would make a fun fraction filled sandbox.

      I'll check out the addtional content and report back.

      More importantly where is you Hawks are 2 and 0 blog post?

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    3. Just another standard Seahawks season: heart attack games every week. I'll be at the Saints game Sunday; depending on the result, I might have some sort of NFL post up next week.
      ; )

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  6. From a very cursory glance at some of Icespire it seems more open ended and player choice accepting then most WotC stuff. Still relentlessly encounter based (how can it not be when short rests abound and there's no timekeeping etc?) but more free of the adventure path mindset then most WotC. I don't know if that's Kiel Chenier's influence or something else but I can't hate it.

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  7. I would love to see your take on this. For my part, I'm not a fan of the adventure by itself, but it occupies the same map as the adventure included in the Starter Set. As a bonus, no two encounter areas from either set overlap. Therefore, the two together offer a rather detailed sandbox that can support a whole lot of background noise of various plots and factions. Using both, there is no need to have the dragon as the focal point of the adventure. Rather, the dragon can arrive later on in the campaign and be used as a serious and dramatic complication to the goals of the party. There is a lot of potential here. In the right hands, it could be a really fun little campaign.

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    1. Indeed. Indeed.

      Of course, Phandelver also includes a dragon...how would these two beasts interact? An interesting thought experiment for sure...
      ; )

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  9. I hear no objections. You may proceed. My group had a lot of fun playing Phandelver...using 2e rules. If you could convert the Essentials adventure to something old school, I’d be all in.

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