Friday, July 4, 2014

The Friday Grab Bag - My D&D 5E Starter Set Quest

It's no secret that I snagged a copy of the D&D 5E Starter Set yesterday from my old FLGS (Formerly-Local Game Store) game store, Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL.  GP is a WotC premiere store and received numerous sets in on July 3rd from multiple vendors, 12 days before the online folk can sell it, as a way for WotC to help their organized play partners get a jump on the inevitability of Internet discounting.  My regular group decided to take a short hiatus from our ongoing 1E AD&D campaign to give 5E D&D a whirl, so we'll put this ruleset through it's paces through Gen Con Indy in Mid-August.

Our group of six, myself as GM and five players, have a great number of years of experience, myself the full forty possible since 1974 and most having begun playing D&D during the 1E AD&D era.  Make no mistake, though, that we are not merely the D&D Faithful (new Cleric sub-class?) who just follow along with the latest from whoever owns the brand, nor that we might have an axe (proper spelling) to grind against the new and shiny from any quarter.  We are longtime gamers who enjoy a good evening around the table with friends, rolling some dice and forgetting NPC names.  This group plays the spectrum of RPGs (and games in general) and its members could collectively list dozens and dozens of RPGs played and enjoyed, perhaps a few not-so-much enjoyed, over the years.

We had a game scheduled for yesterday evening and the new rules weren't going to be available until earlier in the same morning, so I planned to take a trip down into Illinois from Lake Geneva.  I had some other errands that warranted the trip anyway, plus I added a few stops to break up the day as described below.  The trip began with filling up the gas tank.  Prices are not as high as I have seen them in my short one-year residency but they are higher than they've been.  C'est l'avidité!

Nevertheless, it was southbound and down, tanked up and chuckling, cause the weather was cooperating after a week of quickly arriving Storms of Great Violence (new spell or magic item idea?).  All day was marked by a cool breeze with high-60s/low-70s temperatures.  It truly could not have been nicer.  The drive went smoothly, unlike a trip south I took approximately one year ago where the shiny and rubber sides of my vehicle exchanged relative positions repeatedly in a very short time span.  Don't plan to do THAT again any time soon (or ever!).  So, I cranked up Cosmic Thing by The B-52s, a classic 80s driving disc, and set the cruise control for adventure.

I arrived in Mount Prospect, IL, late in the morning and finally got a view of the aftermath of a fire that took out a number of downtown buildings.  I lived in MP just blocks from Games Plus for nearly a decade before moving north to Lake Geneva at the beginning of last summer, so it saddens me to see the loss.  It has caused the local bakery to temporarily take up digs just a few doors from the game store, much to the delight of gamers and strain to their belt and suspenders collections.  I personally take no small pleasure in its tempting proximity.  Upon arrival, I snapped a quick pic of myself in front of the store wearing my newly acquired Nexus Game Fair hat, generously provided by Chris Hoffner, a Nexus co-founder.  It seemed fitting, in part because it is a fitted cap, but even more so since I had received a free convention pass from the GP folk (Thanks, Mister Wesel and Curt Duval!) when I attended a gameday at GP last month.

The store was bustling with early activity.  They close on July 4th, for the holiday and because the street out front is blocked by the local parade, but many were there to snag the new rules as I was.  Curt "thalmin" Duval, my longtime friend, and Pete were pricing up the new Starter Sets, and spirits were high.

I checked out a few other items but stayed only briefly so I might head back north with a few other stops to make.  The manager of Games Plus, Rich Kurtin, rang me up and I was on my way.

On the way back north, I made two stops.  The first was at the Entenmann's Bakery Outlet, what my father likes to call "The Used Bread Store," for some Independence Day brat buns and some coffee cake for the game this evening.  If you have one near you, you know what a great savings it can be on delicious treats and baked staples.  Get a punch card because, as it happens, I had a full one so my costs to stop were minimal and I got a couple bags worth of goods.

I also popped in the Long John Silver's for lunch.  I'm not a big fish eater but love their chicken planks.  It seemed like a good place to take a break from the driving and get started looking over the contents of the D&D 5E Starter Set.  I stayed there for some time to let midday traffic run its course before jumping back on the road.

Spoilers will abound further into this posting, so take a powder if you wish to remain unsullied!

Once home, I cleaned up a bit, packed up some gaming supplies, and printed up some extras.  I wasn't worried about minis and maps, too much, for the evening.  I had some things to handle the evening's needs and figured we'd spend much of the time going over differences in the rules from other editions and RPGs.  I had a few surprises in store for the group and I wanted to get us off on the right footing, so I figured we should have more ammo than just what was contained in the Starter Set.  Fortunately, to that end, WotC uploaded the rules for Basic D&D 5E to their website, as a FREE download, in both regular and a printer-friendly version.

I grabbed those and printed out the rules to make one booklet without the spells and magic section but adding the "Conditions" information at the end.  Then I also made two booklets with the spells and magic section only.  Of the five pregenerated characters that come with the Starter Set, one is a wizard and another a cleric, so I figured having two spell books would be useful.  By keeping those separated, it allows a third person at the table to be checking out other rules while the spell books are in use.  We mainly stuck with the Starter Set rule book but did seek some clarification for a few things in the more expansive Basic Rules.

As a side note, if you haven't yet spotted the "disclaimer" on the credits page of the Basic Rules, it reads -
Disclaimer: Wizards of the Coast is not responsible for the consequences of splitting up the party, sticking appendages in the mouth of a leering green devil face, accepting a dinner invitation from bugbears, storming the feast hall of a hill giant steading, angering a dragon of any variety, or saying yes when the DM asks, “Are you really sure?”
With all my goodies in hand, I went to Lake Geneva Games to meet up with the gang and begin delving into this new game.  The gang was ready.  John (back, right) was familiar with many of the rules, from being a Beta tester, but there were some changes to be clarified.  Norm (front, right) was recounting a humorous tale to the group from games past.  The rest of the group, as said, are all longtime D&Ders, so we focused on changes and newer material while we went over things.

I also had a local print ship make a poster from the high-res image of Phandalin, the focal-point-town in the Starter Set adventure.  It's useful to have a map that players can refer to together and, besides, who doesn't like a big map?  Makes us feel like we're really out on an expedition.  Kurt (front, left) was listening to Norm's tale as Keith (middle, left) sorted his dice to make ready, while Floyd (back, right) caught me snapping the picture.

We even got permission to install the map on the wall, making it a part of the Lake Geneva Games ongoing decor.  It's in a good spot for where we always set up to play.

We did spend a good amount of time going over some rules.  There is enough of a difference that making sure the nuances would be enjoyed was worth the time.  Notably, we spent a good twenty minutes discussing scenarios where Ready Actions, Reactions, Reactions Spells, Concentration, Disengage, and Bonus Actions could all come into play individually and how they might combine in various ways.  We further discussed Being Prone, Difficult Terrain, and Dash, as well as Breaking Up Your Move to a fair extent.  Once through that, we introduced the characters, after naming them, and I read through the background for the adventure.  While the background isn't "boxed text" (there are other places with that), I didn't feel any of the information wasn't something the player characters would know or could know, including the history of the mines (there were survivors), the goals of the patron-dwarf (one of the PCs is a cousin), and even the nom de guerre of the villain (he's been making extensive raids all around the area).  So, the gang took the suggested adventure hook, and we set up a battlemap and put the figures in a marching order.

I used a Paizo Flip-Mat, specifically their "Woodlands" Flip-Mat, for the first encounter area, which worked fine enough, and a couple large six-sided dice for the wagon.  (I'd forgotten I had packed my Paizo Caravans Map Pack!)  The players had their own figures, though they'll likely do some switching out before next game now that they have seen the PC sheets.  I can only blame my hurried prep and glossing over of the reading for adding a horse instead of oxen and also a handful of "settlers/travelers" to join the PCs on the road to Phandalin (fan-duh-lin).  How this affected game, I'll explain below.

I quickly introduced the dead horses on the bend in the trail and the Noble and Wizard (prompted by his "Investigate" Skill Ranks) moved up to check things out.  They reconized the horses, dead and looted, as those of their patron and a companion.  Four Goblin archer waited until a third party member began to move forward before they unleashed their first volley.  The players scrambled to recover from spreading out a bit.  They've been playing in a 1E AD&D game with mid-level characters for a while, so I think they may still feel more resilient than they might feel properly at first level.  5E D&D, however, seems to keep the PCs as fairly heroic even at low-levels.

The fighting didn't hurt them much and, although they took no prisoners, they made short work of the attackers.  They sorted out the spoils and discovered the trail where the former owners of the horses might have been taken.  What then followed was a very healthy discussion regarding the individual PC motivations, and also some discussion of how the players would handle their slightly-divergent Alignments.  This was inadvertently sparked by their having supplies to deliver in the cart but also having some other NPCs they all wondered if they should be protecting.  Their mandate had been to deliver the goods and while that was for someone in town, they had been asked to do so by one of the folks who had gone missing.  I fessed up to the accidental adjustments I had made and hand-waved back to the actual text of the adventure, one cart, some supplies, two oxen, no NPCs in tow, no draft horse, and a decision still to make.  In the end, they hid the wagon, dragged along the oxen with some of the goods, and headed off on the trail to pursue the kidnappers.  They avoided the traps on the trail and we ended the session with them viewing what they believe to be the Hideout of the Cragmaw Goblin tribe.

Personally, I've always used Alignment as a GMing tool; the GM keeps loose track of who starts with what Alignment and if they go consistently off-course, it might evolve.  For me, Alignment is adjusted based on the actions of the PCs, and PCs aren't forced into any course of action because of it (though there can be consequences).The discussion of what the PCs should do after besting the Goblins at the ambush touched on the obligations they might have because of their Alignments but veered, thankfully, more toward their character backgrounds and the assumed relationships they had with their patron who was captured.  In the end, it has reminded me that prep before running a published adventure is always a good thing.  I'll read, and re-read, the full adventure before we dive back in to our 5E D&D Starter Set playthough!

The adventure continues here!

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