Hexcrawl High: The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake

Fuck how I hate that clear blue mountain lake. I cannot figure out what to do with it. The worst thing is that every time I try to brainstorm something about it it ends up going all Innsmouth on me. Look, I love Lovecraftian pastiche as much as the next person. But I think I go to that well too often. It’s a spice goddammit. Anyhow, this was supposed to be about my plan for the campaign’s first session, not the problems of populating fantasy lakes.

Sadly however XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen got in the way of me writing anything other than that initial paragraph and so I’ll be writing the rest of this after already running the first session of the game. Honestly a week or so later I can’t quite remember what I’d intended to talk about here. My basic setup for the game wasn’t particularly cunning. I had the PC’s start in prison in Damara. Placed there for basically no reason by the corrupt guards of King Yarin Frostmantle. Three weeks after they’re incarcerated he gets assassinated and the new queen pardon’s the PC’s and offers them a job. To map out a portion of northern Vaasa and deal with some bandits there, with the understanding that Damara intended to expand into Vaasa. Once the PC’s got there the plan was to use the bandit plotline to introduce them to the area and as they travelled around they’d get dragged into plot lines that interested them or that they ran across.

Now the first session was enjoyable, everyone had a few laughs and we had a nice mix of exploration, role-playing and adventure. Sadly the session was a bit rough and ready because I left all my fucking notes for at home. But there was nothing major lost. I think I could probably have sold the map part of the game a bit more, I don’t think the players either got the intent of it or just weren’t particularly interested in it. I also think a one A4 page map is a little small. So my plan for next week is to “blow up” the map. Either by getting someone with an A3 printer to print it out for me or by enlarging it, printing it out on multiple A4 pages and sticking them to a big piece of cardboard. If the player’s aren’t interested in mapping that’s fine, but if they want the map updated they’ll either need to dedicate time to it for their characters or do it themselves. To help with that I’m going to print out a “log” where they can record notes on each hex and maybe grab a cheap set of coloured pencils so they can fill in the big map.

While the map may not have worked particularly well (though we did draw on it for travel which I liked). I think the encounter tables worked pretty well. As I didn’t have stats for some of the monsters and NPC’s that showed up I had to fudge a little but having to mesh the results into a coherent narrative on the fly was fun and I think it worked well. Leading to an interesting “emergent” event towards the end of the session. It should be fun to develop that in this weeks game.

What I found interesting was that after the first session I actually discovered I’d a lot of stuff to do. It’s been a while since I’ve run an entirely unscripted game of D&D so there was a major element I hadn’t really had to deal with; treasure. Both magical and mundane. The DMG has guidelines on how many rolls on which treasure tables PC’s can expect to get but they’re fairly rough and didn’t really breakdown into the kind of “Wealth per level” or “Expected magic items” that the last few editions have led me to expect. Now thankfully part of this is because 5th edition is magic item agnostic in terms of how its balanced. So you could leave them out entirely if you want. But magic items are cool and I think they’re a fun part of both most fantasy fiction and of D&D in particular. So off to google I went and the results I found were many. Slaine probably wouldn’t have thought it too many but I certainly did. Anyhow after winnowing away the chaff I found some very useful pages. Such as What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?, treasure acquisition rates in the 5e DMG,Campaign Treasure – OSR vs 5E and Magic Item Math of 5e. So after poring over these links and a few others I had a relatively solid idea of how much treasure and how many magic items I should be doling out to the PC’s. Now a lot of the sources weren’t clear or disagreed on when this stuff should be handed out but with a handy table from the DMG I had a rough idea of the level ranges appropriate to each tier of magic item.

Of course then I discovered that I really didn’t know a lot about the magic items themselves, there were a few fan written summaries (e.g. D&D 5E – MAGIC ITEM GUIDE ). But honestly their conclusions didnt entirely jibe with my own feelings on the items in question. Still they were a good place to start and while reading through such articles and threads I ended up looking up and reading a good chunk of the magic items. In theory magic items should be random. But that’s fairly boring as you could end up with a pile of shite that’s of limited use to the party. On the other hand, I do like rolling on tables. So in the end I went with an enlightened compromise, I’d pick some key magical items for each PC, suited to their character background and class, and I’d roll up the rest (or pick ones that seemed cool). Around the time I decided on this I came across perhaps the most useful article on treasure distribution to me, Analysis of “Typical” Magic Item Distribution, because it just spelt out in clear and hard numbers what magic stuff PC’s should have.

When it came to picking what magic items each PC should get things got a bit harder. Not least because I have a terrible urge when I DM to just players the zanier magic items in the hopes they will hilariously fuck themselves. But no, the Deck of Many Things was out. Some classes have better options than others, similarly some archetypes are very poorly served. I almost instantly decided on an item for one of the PC’s. I also quickly came up with a cool little sidequest that tied into the area and his background. After that it seemed a little unfair to give the other PC’s relatively boring stuff. I wanted everyone to have one key magic item that was cool (well that at least I think is cool). I’d also decided that the first PC’s magic item would “level up” when appropriate, adding in some more sidequests at higher levels and also avoiding the weird “Oh well yeah, the sword of my forefathers is sweet and all, but into the bin it goes now that I got this +3 Holy Avenger!” Again not doing this for the other PC’s seemed unfair, and honestly I do like scaling magic items. So I had to homebrew another two magic items, along with how they would scale up as the campaign went on. It was actually pretty fun, the “flavour” tables in the DMG for magic items are great both for inspiration and for putting some finishing touches on items. So I have all three items ready to go, though how exactly their individual powers will change will have to be knocked into mechanics rather than prose at some point. Still not an issue for another three or four levels so plenty of time to worry about that.

Along with homebrewing magic items and “treasure parcels” I also had come up with stats for some important NPC’s that the party might engage in fisticuffs with. This proved to be a bit of a pain in the arse, while 5th edition has lots of monster stats it doesn’t have nearly as many NPC or Humanoid stats, and there’s no easy way to “level up” lower level NPC’s. Now one of the good things about 5th edition is that I could take a similar monster and fudge him around a bit. But for one NPC in particular I wanted something a bit more robust, especially as he was a spellcaster. So I decided to stat him up as a PC and convert him. The process is relatively handy to be honest. I made the PC on D&D Beyond and levelled him up there as well. Then you can just use the “Quick monster creation” table in the DMG to get a rough idea of his CR and that was where the trouble started. Because his CR was ludicrously low, it’s obvious that a 7th level caster isn’t a fucking CR 1 challenge. Well, no worries, after all the full monster creation guidelines have CR modifiers for special traits. Which they do. But not for spellcasting, they just have a paragraph telling you to check the Monster Manual and to account for spells upping a creatures HP and damage per round (which I’d already done). The paragraph in the Monster Manual just tells you what spellcasting is. I have to say it was pretty fucking annoying. So back to google I went and no satisfactory answer was found. However I did see someone mention that if you convert a PC to an NPC a good rule of thumb is to estimate their CR as ~2/3 of their PC levels. Which is what I ended up doing and it seems to be roughly in line with similar monsters.

My google search also lead me to the D&D Monster Maker. Which is a cool little program that lets you stat up monsters and then output their profile in a variety of styles similar to the official Monster Manual file. Which is what I did, and I was happy to copy and paste that into my OneNote campaign journal. It was only after that I realised what I had done was create a nice fancy and properly formatted statblock that only I would ever see. But you can’t think things like that. Game prep is game prep! Also it’s not that often that I fully stat up new monsters. Generally I just find a vaguely similar monster of appropriate CR and change its stats a big, and that’s how a Giant Scorpion becomes a Giant two-headed snake and so on. So I suppose “spoiling myself” now and then with nicely formatted stat blocks isn’t the end of the world.

Oh I meant to talk about variant rules. As with the last campaign I’ll be replacing Inspiration with the Hero Points option. Though I just now realised that I was about to fall into the trap of ignoring the character elements Inspiration highlights so I need to work on that. I’m also using the variant rules for short and long rests. As there’s a lot of travel and I want to avoid the PC’s “alpha striking” every encounter. So for the moment a short rest is overnight and a long rest is seven days. Which I also just realised means I really should be keeping a count of days. Which is no problem as I had decided on a starting date and the PC’s have travelled two days. I’m also going to be using the variant rule that makes magic items harder to identify. This won’t matter for the custom items mentioned above as they all need attunement which still works the same under this variant.

So I suppose in theory this covers the last step in the slightly facetious campaign creation plan I outlined earlier:

“Pick a region of the world. Make a hexmap of it. Populate the hexmap. Give a blank or partially complete map to the players and give them a reason to fill it. Have the world react. Boom.”

I’m not sure if I’ve really hooked the players on the “give them a reason to fill it” part. obviously they’ve accepted the adventure hook i.e. the writ to map and police the region. But most reasonable players will accept an obvious hook. I suppose emergent events, which is what I’m hoping the hexmap creates, should give them some buy in. Not using xp, oh yes, I’m not using xp I’m using the session levelling up system from the DMG, means I can’t use the usual exploration carrot. Then again, there is the old GP carrot and what player can ever resist that?

…still haven’t figured out what to put in that fucking lake. Was thinking a Marid last night, but the Arabian Nights themeing is a bit too strong.

Vent your spleen