Posts Tagged With: Ranty McRanty Pants

About those Points of Darkness

So, three years ago I wrote about Points of Light and Points of Darkness as campaign styles. In running Lost Mine of Phandelver I’ve realized just how present I find the issue in the Starter Set as written (and, by assumption, within the 5E Forgotten Realms setting).

Many people have made the observation of how LMoP is set up like a Western – frontier mining town, bullying bandits, lost treasure mines, hostile natives, people to rescue from said hostile natives, etc. But there are problems in translating a “wild west” setting to both a somewhat generic fantasy Europe as well as the Forgotten Realms.

For one, just as simple size comparison, think about “Ye Merry Old England” and the time and trouble it took to travel around, as well as the concept of distance in that setting. Now understand that England is about the size of Illinois. On a standard hexmap sheet with each hex set at 30 miles (ala the old Greyhawk scale), it covers less than a quarter of a page.

The issues of scale between Europe and the societies that developed there and America simply cannot be understated. To this day I have had friends come visit from Europe who simply don’t get the sheer size and scope of the United States/North America until they get here. They fly into NYC and then talk about catching a train out to Chicago while they are in the States to have dinner (like you reasonably could, and do, in Great Britain)  and having to explain to them that that would be like taking the train to Berlin for dinner (from London). That the driving distance from New York to Chicago is roughly the longest distance between two points in the whole of the United Kingdom…

But I digress.

In LMOP I am supposed to believe that Thundertree is a day’s journey from Neverwinter (vying with Waterdeep for the status of the “New York” of the Forgotten Realms), maybe two if we want to be a stickler on terrain difficulty, and is still in the shape that it is. Similarly, that Phandalin, clearly three days from Neverwinter but is a hardscabble frontier town, and that this wonderful Forge of Spells was utterly and completely lost after the goblins trashed the countryside.

This makes no sense.

Just to support the population of Neverwinter (be it 20,000 or 5,000 inhabitants) the whole area would have to be cultivated – certainly based on the setting map provided. It’s the only non-forested areas around. A decent rule of thumb for modern agriculture in the United States is to assume 1 acre of land can feed one person for a year. There are 640 acres per square mile, so figure… lets say 8 square miles if it’s 5000 people in Neverwinter or 32 square miles of solid crops if it is 20,000 inhabitants.

Except of course that this doesn’t cover the food needed for all the people growing the food itself (same, 1 acre per person), nor does it cover space needed for grazing livestock (a very complicated question but, again, modern systems could safely call it 4 acres per cow, or 6ish sheep), nor does it cover the amount of land needed for proper crop rotation (either double it or increase it by a third), or…

About now is where I plug Pendragon for having the absolutely best domain level game out there in my opinion. Detailed where it is fun, abstracted where you need it to be. In that system (which is essentially supported in spirit if not the exact numbers by all my other research on this over the years) every town (or city) will have three, yes three, people living in small villages and hamlets around it for every one person living in that town (and manor). It’s also worth noting that a “small town” is between 120-360 people in size. A large town taps out at 1440 people, after which you are talking about small cities (which are no larger than 2400 people at most) and in a days travel you’d probably pass through a handful of these towns, plus their associated villages – and all of the knights and men-at-arms protecting them!

For another take on this, with equally as “that’s not what the Forgotten Realms looks like” numbers there is Medieval Demographics Made Easy by S. John Ross as well (and free!). In either case, there are still large amounts of “wasted space” simply because, well, that is what population density looked like.

The problem with making this a “Points of Light” setting is that the “wasted land” is “wasted” for a reason – it simply won’t support more people (that means goblins too!). Yes, it dangerous because of wolves and bears (and some level of fantasy analogues), even the odd bandit gang (or humanoid band) – but it’s mostly dangerous because of the lack of food, medical care if injured, and foul weather. Not to mention the risk of simply getting lost -it’s not romantic, or particularly heroic, but it has a fair sight  more verisimilitude.

I am kind of lost in my rant. I guess that I’m saying that if you want “Points of Light” then you really have to question your base assumptions on how urban populations are supported. Similarly, the “Sea of Darkness” isn’t there because of hordes of monsters it’s because it pretty much won’t support a population. Alternately, if it can for some reason support all those monsters, then civilization needs to be capable of protecting itself (certainly not the case in Phandalin).

Oh well, it’s late and I should get to bed.



Categories: Campaign Development, Game Design | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Run you clever boys…

So, via Trollsmyth I made my way to Strange Magic where I am once again convinced that something went seriously, seriously wrong with 3.0+ D&D, including the current 5E with it’s clearly misbegotten CR tables and encounter construction rules…

So, as might be imagined, yes – I used those tables (and might be again for that matter) and nobody complained. I never found there to be a problem with the characters know that there were “things out there” that were more powerful than they were. I should really post an old encounter table or two, simply to explain my style of DMing.

They found out by role-playing – looking for the well-worn sword hilt, or the stance that betrayed an experienced warrior, or a mage with a powerful aura, or the beggar with a couple too-many daggers on their person. Of course I have a game world where “politeness matters” and being seen or known as a dishonorable sort has significant social ramifications.

The game-play benefit of this is actually somewhat paradoxical, as is the whole of the 1E style of encounters. When encounters are built on a budget, it places the DM and the players in an actively adversarial stance towards each other. The DM is specifically matching things to combat the players at whatever level of deadliness that they have chosen. The players know this, and all negative results are either “bad rolls” or “the DM’s fault” because “they made the encounter too hard.” Plus there is the conscious or unconscious expectation that all encounters are “beatable” because they are all constructed using a scale that makes this implicit.

In a random encounter world, the players know that what they meet is a matter of luck. They also know that things “in the wild” are also likely to be in the same boat. In the Gygaxian Naturalism of 1E when you roll “goblins” you don’t meet a goblin, you meet large number of them – because they might be running into a dragon as well and would like to be prepared!

All in all, this also demanded DM’s and players that thrived on more than a diet of pabulum. You could simply have the PC’s encounter a dragon out in the wilderness (I’ve certainly done it), or you could have them run across signs of dragon, or have the dragon merely fly over head and give them the chance to hide. In the city, have the thieves flashing gang sign back and forth, or the mages noting the sigils on the auras of other spellcasters, the fighters can be aware of the local mercenary companies and their devices, or the names of the local duelists and bravos.

Again, this is dependent upon both the DM and the players being willing to role-play. The DM has to do something other than plop opponents down in front of the characters to kill, and the players have to be willing to do something other than killing everything that they interact with. It means that DM’s need to run NPC’s and monsters like something other than Daleks, and the players will have to make like the Doctor and learn how to “run like clever boys” and not simply stand and fight everything to the death because that death could easily be theirs!

I am very glad to see that 5E wants people to do this – but they are going to have a devil of a time weaning people off the CR nonsense that has invaded the game.




Categories: Campaign Development, Game Design | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

Is it just me..? (Wish in 5e)

So, in my quest to figure out how high-level characters can engage in wholesale carnage and slaughter (and yes, 40d6 from a Meteor Swarm is quite decent) I happened to look at the Wish spell.


  1. Duplicate any 8th level or lower spell – check.
  2. List of clearly spelled out non-spell duplicating effects – no problem.
  3. Obligatory, the DM can let you do anything you want if they want to, but it might screw you if you try it – duh.

And then we get down to the last paragraph.

The stress of casting this spell to produce any effect other than duplicating another spell weakens you. After enduring that stress, each time you cast a spell until you finish a long rest, you take 1d10 Necrotic damage per level of the spell. This damage can’t be reduced or prevented in any way.

Ok, seems kind of harsh for the ability to “downgrade” a 9th level spell into an 8th or lower spell (even if it is potentially a non-Wizard spell) in the 5e spell slot mechanic, but, well, ok. I guess. But let’s continue.

 In addition, your Strength drops to 3, if it isn’t 3 or lower already, for 2d4 days. For each of those days that you spend resting and doing nothing more than light activity, your remaining recovery time decreases by 2 days.

Ok, so in addition to being useless as a spellcaster for the “rest of the day” you are also essentially useless physically. Sure, I can run with this, even if it seems like insult on top of injury. But wait, there’s more…

Finally, there is a 33 percent chance that you are unable to cast wish ever again in you suffer this stress.

Let’s just write that again so we are clear:

There is a 33 percent chance that you are unable to cast wish ever again in you suffer this stress.


So, in a game where I can pretty much memorize anything thing I might want to cast, unless I use what is theoretically my gamechanger, my single most powerful spell, the single most powerful spell in the game, to do something that I already innately do (unlike every other edition) there is a One-in-Three chance that I will never be able to cast this spell again? That’s in addition to being all but useless until I can get a full night’s sleep.

I am kind of hoping that there is a missing sentence in there somewhere. A Saving Throw to make, a clarification that “Category 2” Wish‘s (see above) count as “spell duplication”, something… Because otherwise the opportunity risk/cost of using a Wish is far too high, and it moves from the category of “super-utility” spell and into a some other netherworld of arcane magic that is great, as long as you never count on doing it again – so make sure it’s worth it!

Teleport the entire party in flash to escape the dragon? 1/3 chance to never cast another Wish.

Cast a “Tempest Cloud” instead of a “Incendiary Cloud” because the monster is vulnerable to Lightning and immune to Fire? 1/3 chance to never cast another Wish.

Especially when compared to the new Divine Intervention rules for Clerics, this seems so out of whack.

Please tell me they are going to Errrata this…




Categories: Game Design, Magic Spell | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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