Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Less Blog, D&D 5E and Nerath

Howdy! If it seems that this tower has been vacant of late, you’re not wrong. As I babbled a few times, I’ve been studying for a job in the government in the last 2 years and now there’s a big public exam on my radar. Because of that I’m not having much time for blogging (unfortunately). However, I don’t plan to leave this tower to the wilderness. If things go as planned (too much to ask for, I know) I intent to update this blog at least three times a month.

Now, to more relevant stuff.

I’m reading Ed Greenwood’s new “systemless” book about the Realms and I’m loving it. I want to write more about Elminster’s Forgotten Realms – maybe even a full review. Until then all I have to say is that if you liked the Forgotten Realms 3rd Edition chapter about 'Life in Faerun' (which detailed everydaily life and general cultures in the Realms), then you’ll probably love this new book. It basically shows us how the Realms are from the common people’s point of view (commoners, merchants, nobles etc., instead of adventurers). However, the true selling point for me is that it shed some light on how Ed Greenwood sees and runs the Realms.

Something completely different: D&D 5E.

Some weeks ago (actually, at the beginning of the month) I managed to run another D&D 5E playtest, using the last released packet (just before the release of “Monk Packet”). I know now that I’m a minority in regard to rules. I preferred the first take on Skill Mastery for the Thief and I actually enjoyed a lot more the inherent simplicity and strong concepts of Themes (now Specialties). While I can understand that by linking Specialties with Feat you get bigger granularity – besides an excuse for more and more Feats –, the whole thing brings back character optimization obsession of 3E and 4E. I also hated the Skill lists – for me you either leave it open or go for extremely minimal and generic lists (almost like the one in 4E). The Expertise Dice mechanic is great, but its implementation left me cold (for the same reasons as the Skill List). Worst, by making Expertise Dice the new universal mechanic the Fighter is again left without “his own cool thing”.

Anyway… I’m getting “ranty”. There’re a lot of good things (to steal) in D&D 5E so far. The basic idea behind Expertise Dice (a fluctuating dice to be used on a roundly basis) is awesome and I’m thinking on using it in my OD&D one-shots. Backgrounds are awesome and a perfect substitute for Skill/Proficiencies etc. The differences between Cleric and Wizard spellcasting are also excellent. Finally, the new Sorcerer – while probably overpowered and unfortunately ditched from the latest Packets – is one of the most funny and original classes for D&D that I’ve ever seen.

D&D 5E has lots of food for thought – for fans of all editions. Sometimes I wished we got a “Director’s Books” of D&D, showing the inner aspects of the playtests, the curiosities, idea and rules that never reached daylight. Like Kaminski’s the Secret History of Star Wars.

Well, I was talking about my last D&D 5E one-shot. This time I attempted something different. In truth I didn’t wished to run 5E (as I said, many of the changes were not to my liking). I wished to run a crazy idea of mine: most traditional fantasy settings are post-apocalyptic in the sense that the Past is full of high magic civilizations.

In my late 5E game I attempted to run the Fall of those civilizations.

The entire game was about the player characters trying to survive Doomsday, watching their entire empire crumbling around them. I used lots of 4E names and concepts for this one-shot.

Basically, the empire was called Nerath and covered almost all of the Known World (and a few parallel planes). It was ruled by the Emperor, with the assistance of the Archmage – both ideas shameless stolen from 13th Age.

The Empire’s might came from its magic and its dragons. The dragons obeyed the Emperor, who commanded the Five Orbs of Dragonkind. A powerful and continent-wide complex magic circle linked the main cities and fueled the power of lesser magic items (like armors, wands and such) without the requirement of power investment from casters.

Nerath defended its borders and inner dissensions with the dragons and the legions. Legions were originally composed by the various human races. However, with the empire’s growth (besides decadence and arrogance), the humans left the grisly task for the Orcs. Considered natural warriors, the Orcs are from beyond the empire’s borders (see below). They’re conquered at great cost and slaved through powerful geas marked in their flesh through tyranny rods wielded by the Legion Commanders (all humans).

Nerath used extensive slave labor for all menial and architectural tasks. Elementals keep aqueducts running, forges burning and harsh climes at bay. Those punished by capital crimes or human barbarians captured beyond the borders were cursed to a hideous but immortal life polymorphed as goblinoids (the slave race).

Dwarves were the first rulers of Creation and are now reduced to a few millennial old holds ruled by immortal kings – Moradin was the most famous monarch and the first to sign peace and alliance with Nerath. 

Elves are actually divided in two groups. The “normal” elves, also called Unfettered Elves, live beyond Nerath. They’re the old chaotic gods of mankind that rules vast hordes of ignorant and subjugated barbarians. Each elf is sort of unique and has vast powers – usually shapechanging, sorcery and various immunities. The second type are the Bound Elves and represent those that were forced to “Taste the Iron”. Bound Elves works by the D&D rules and are fey that were captured and bound in iron by the magic of the Archmage. If they ever come back to their people they would be slaughtered, so they accept their burden and help imperial forces in various demands (and “insider” information).

The world itself is young, with fluctuating borders, surrounded by the forces of Chaos, represented here by ever encroaching glaciers at the edge of Creation (and the formless things and giants that live there). The ice and chaos are kept at bay by the “borders” of the world-wide magic circle – marked by colossal obelisks watched by dragons, potent magic and legions.

The game started when the capital of Nerath literally blew up, forming a magical mushroom-like cloud that could be seen hundreds of miles away (the main bet was that the Emperor and the Archmage had finally decided to face each other to determine who would rule Mankind). Instantly all the portals failed, with the orc legions, elementals and goblin slaves going free. The players were imperial wardens, who have just returned to a local city with a dwarven prisoner. With all the chaos going on, the dwarven prisoner offered refuge at Moradin’s Hold if the party would free him and escort him back home. As the dwarf pointed: “We already survived a Cataclism. We’re good at it, but you Humans are a mess”.

The whole session was devoted to fleeing the city, battling goblinoid slaves, dodging elementals and trying to stay out of sight of rampaging dragons. The funniest part of the game for me was when the party found a crater with a piece of wild magic, flung from the capital. The party’s elf decided that he had good chances of going Unfettered if he immersed himself in the chaotic magic (and about 90% of dying horribly). The party, however, didn’t accept the risk – after all, none wanted to lose the elf (a valuable sorcerer), but also none wanted a crazy chaotic demigod unleashed.

The game ended when the party met a crucified orc legionnaire; apparently, the orc tried to kill and replace his orc commander but failed. If freed and healed, the soldier offered to escort the party to the dwarven Hold through the recently-formed orc horde. Would they trust the orc to keep his word? More importantly, would they help him kill his master? We closed the session around these questions. While I never managed to answer them, maybe this entire mad exercise can provide ideas for your games.