I really like the Idea of a 4+1 change from the current setup. It feels like the 3 person party they have when there isn't a guest is weak and doesn't accomplish anything. A baseline 4 person party would make scheduling harder, but you can have a lot more epic moments and less stumbling around with a weakened group.
On a different note, I really like that these episodes prompt so much discussion on the Q&As. It feels like this is a great way to give feedback on the direction of the show.
two things i have a huge problem with as a GM, are fudging the dice (both in favor and against the PCs) and the sort of "you're not really dead, you were just dreaming" stuff you pull to save the characters. I believe the rules ought to be balanced and do their job and that if life is on the line, that's what is at stake.
we've made some exceptions for guests, on the last count, but I don't want to make a habit of undermining the fact that we're playing a game - pulling those sorts of punches, to me, feel like saying to the players "whatever you do, it doesn't matter, the story will go the way I want it to go" and I don't want (nor do I think D&D allows me) that sort of authority. I want the game, as written, to have a say.
we've made some changes to how D&D is structured, mostly in terms of the kinds of encounters that end up in the game - fights always matter, because I think especially at higher levels, little combat encounters eat up lots of time and don't really matter when it's easy to take a short or long rest most of the time. (most) i think mostly the punctuation of the game is Encounter -> Rest -> Encounter -> Rest and while it does get extra deadly when they aren't fully ready for a battle, I wonder about the pacing implications of introducing medium and easy encounters into the game. I've had some experience with these speed bumps in other games and they feel unsatisfying.
I mean, yeah, there are lots of GM tricks we can pull to make a medium or easy encounter either seem like there's a risk, or put other stuff at stake (speed bumps to slow you down on your way to a goal, etc) but while death over and over can be demoralizing, a campaign too bloated with irrelevant combat encounters, especially when our guests have so little time to matter already feels cruel and weird. I would rather the stakes too high than too low, I don't want court of swords to bleed to death slowly, you know?
Some of this is on me to design the campaign (in so much as anyone who doesn't want to railroad their players can "design" a campaign) to give the players room for other stuff - I really want them to think outside the box in terms of avoiding combat sometimes. I wish that felt more like the case, but when you look at your character sheet and all you have are killing implements and the alternative might be a single skill check, it can be hard to see things that way.
still, all this has been and is on my mind - my priorities are playing the game and making that game experience entertaining to watch. we set out to make a game that is bloody and difficult, and played hard by the rules and that's what we've been doing. I'm keeping an eye on whether this is an isolated issue or whether it's just going to get worse.
thanks for all your thoughts, folks - this kind of interaction is infinitely helpful for me.
(part, I think, of all this is me needing to believe that D&D isn't a total balance shipwreck, that we can play by the rules and still have fun and be entertaining without having to totally redesign or ignore the way the game works. I want to believe in D&D.)
I feel this is a D&D problem. Random death in combat because the dice didn't go your way (either you rolled cold or the GM rolled hot) is just a given, and as Adam once said "death is the least interesting thing I can do to a character."
So basically you have a system where the primary form of punishment for failure is the most boring result from a story-telling perspective, to say nothing of the frustration of the players who put some degree of creative effort into making a character that's more than just a pile of stats with a name.
On the other hand, going against a core assumption of the game really breaks it down in other areas. For example if you're not doing the standard 6-8 easy-to-medium encounters or 3-4 hard-to-deadly encounters per adventuring day, with the short rests that those imply, than you're really hurting short rest characters to the advantage of long rest ones. For example, warlocks have far less spell slots than any other spellcaster, but they regain them on short rests. Wizards have far more spell slots, but only regain on long rest. So if you just run 1-2 encounters before the PCs get a long rest, the wizard will outshine the warlock in almost every way.
Hey Adam I totally agree you don't want to use it as a scapegoat. Apologies if my comment offended I was actually thinking more along the lines of you planning them all dying and demoralized only to lift their spirits and surprise them. But I definitely agree doing that has its drawbacks and should never be used as a GM trick. I think you do a wonderful job and are on of the big reasons I got into Rollplay. In fact I often model the game I run after your style and sometimes say to myself: "what would Adam do" to which the answer is almost always: "rust monsters" lol but in all seriousness I think finding that balance is insanely difficult. The shows are paced well, they keep me coming back week after week. And while yes it is unfortunate that sometimes the dice just fuck you, it doesn't take away from the fact you and JP both, along with the rest of the cast, deliver an entertaining and quality production to us every time.
You're a huge inspiration to many, and part of that is your humility and always striving to make things better.
I don't envy balance game you have to play. It's tough, you want Court to be intense and dangerous whenever combat appears, but doing that means PC's can die any time which can hinder the role play aspect of D&D. Sure, you can bounce around the world to learn about the lore elsewhere when TPKS happen, but it becomes very hard to be invested (viewer wise & player wise) in characters when they die all the time.
For me, I enjoyed the hell out of Mirrorshades & Swang Song, and those fights felt like the PC's could die every time combat came out. Yet most of those characters survived the entire show length. Longer the player survives, the more time that player has to develop that character which only enhances the experience for everyone. Story becomes more compelling when the developed characters are around, and more intense knowing all the progress they've gotten is thrown out the window if they die.
Thankfully at the moment we got Berg & Nul Ramus, but it does become hard to enjoy the character, the lore, the world, & the show when the perspective changes every other show. Might as well be a new one shot each new death. The best way to stay invested in the show is with invested players taking the role of interesting characters, but how can that be if all the characters keep dying before they get interesting?
Perhaps making difficulty more random, and not super deadly all the time, or halving the hp of all deadly encounters, or making checkpoints, or considering that Adam rolls like a god half the time, expect the combat to go that way, so don't use super deadly muhhahah encounters?
In the end, I do think balance needs to be homebrew some, or a discussion for the future of this show at least. D&D man....
First of all, I 100% percent agree with you on the topic of fudging rolls! For me, it would take away a ton of fun and suspense from the show if we knew that whatever happens, it might only because you chose to ignore certain dice results. You are indeed playing a game with rules and not just making stuff up. (I also see why for example in the case of Morgan's character's death you acted against that principle)
As I see it, the issue with Court of Swords and your encounter design is that 5e disagrees with you on that topic. The game is supposedly balanced around the "typical adventuring day" (consisting of 6-8 encounters), but even in my homegroups that remains a theoretical idea most of the time. And for the show you are trying to create it just doesn't fit.
I think that was the choice to be made. Either play by the book in that regard to the potential detriment of the entertainment value of the show, or have a show which is more enjoyable to watch for more people (maybe? I don't know, I enjoy both Court of Swords and Roll20 presents: ToA) while fighting the encounter and challenge rating systems. And all of us wouldn't still be enthusiastic about CoS if we didn't mostly agree with your choice.
Something else that just popped into my mind:
In the last episode of Tomb of Annihilation you complimented your players on their ability to basically switch between "roleplaying mode" and "tactical fighting mode". They discuss who is going to take which action and generally communicate well and talk about what the best course of action will be for each person. Of course I don't know if there is an intentional choice for Court of Swords to not do this as much, maybe to not play someone else's character for them. But I feel the less experienced players could benefit from better communication during close fights
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Adam! It's a sound perspective on a potential issue.
I also hate the idea of fudging dice, but with death... If I run a game, I definitely want there to be genuine stakes. The player should "fear" death. I'd just be concerned if my players started feeling bad for even trying if they just suffered a long string of awful luck that completely disengages them from the game. At that point, death either becomes boring or irritating, especially if we're on a schedule. As an extreme hypothetical: it would really suck if I was trying to run a one-shot and one of my players died in the first hour, threw together a second character, then died again fairly quick. At that point, it's like they don't even get to play if they aren't enjoying the creation process, or they feel like they're letting their friends down, etc. I'd personally consider a more compelling consequence than death that still feels real - they came out alive, but suffered notably for it.
Alternatively, I'd probably encourage players to keep "pocket characters" on hand as a safety net. Still disengaging to an extent, but it keeps them at the table and cognizant of their peril.
Anyway! I agree that death-by-the-dice totally enriches the story of D&D for me and keeps the players in that right head-space of exciting tension, I just feel like there's limitations to any system that can overwhelm ultimate intent. It's like a dark mirror to the effect you try to avoid - instead of dismissing a game for a lack of consequences, one might start dismissing a game because the deluge of consequences cease to matter. Maybe. I might be over-thinking it all and rambling.
Still, love what y'all do and can't wait for the live show.
Black Puddings are CR4. A single one is a reasonable fight for four 4th level characters. Two is more than twice as tough as that considering action economy.
We had a party of four level 5 characters.
The players making the mistake of bisecting one a single time sets them against three CR4 Black Puddings with some damage. So now four level 5 characters are fighting 3 creatures that can each fight four level 4 characters. They know not to do that again, but the damage is done.
Thats without being ambushed, weak from the initial fight, blocked in, slowed down and having another character entirely unprepared for battle.
We have heard this kind of horror story of black puddings rampaging from a number of sources. I suspected the worst going into it.
I would have had the first one in the centre of the room animate and fight solo for 2 rounds. If the characters were winning, it could have dropped into the exit any time.
If they were being utterly destroyed after having already doubled their problem, I would have kept the other one in the shadows until after the battle ended and they woke up whomever was down then surprised them but having someone spot the second one.
I always found that having 3 'easy' issues is better physiological warfare than having a single hard issue that needs to be solved. Especially when it grants you more versatility behind the curtain.
I run a lot of 5e D&D, 2-4 sessions a week since release is the norm and Hard-and-Above is the norm in the games I'm part of. My take on some of the issues you've brought up is firstly that 5e is pretty well balanced, much more-so than 3.5, but it's best to keep an eye on anything that jumps off the page. Usually this means things which are taken to extremes. The Pixie is an example everyone loves: They can't take damage, they can barely deal damage, but they're CR 1/8 with Polymorph + Sleep, so 5 Pixie + 5 Wolf can be extremely deadly even against a level 5 party. That jumps right out though, you see a CR 1/8 creature with a 4th level spell and you have to pause.
The second part, the previous example and the opinion I'm seeing from a lot of people notwithstanding, is that CR is pretty solid overall. The main issue I see is people not taking the description of CR seriously and trying to apply a "rule of thumb" as gospel. The biggest issues on the description is not understanding that Deadly doesn't mean "very difficult" but "a PC could easily die" and skipping the warning on using a creature with a CR of a different tier to the average player level. CR's real failing is that the DMG and MM don't detail why a monster is a threat and how different threats can be combined. Even a breakdown as simple as marking monsters as a brawler, ambusher, glass cannon, and support goes a long way toward taking CR from meaningless number to a great reference.
In regards to redesign... oof, 5e is a bit of a knife's edge because it's balanced around trading big blows. I run games with some PC class buffs and that's generally safe territory (if you understand where classes stand power wise), but as soon as you start tweaking things like AC, hit bonuses, how Advantage might be gained, or how HP is recovered, the system is going to fight you really hard unless those tweaks fit in with the rest of the game. A little disclaimer, though, my opinions on 5e also stem from a situation where I heavily coach players on making characters that are mechanically good at D&D which can be a struggle with some players, but is necessary if you want the system to help you make a challenging game without being a meat grinder.
If encounters are always deadly and unforgiving and when the entire setting is that gritty when it comes to how strictly rules and mechanics are enforced, it pretty much makes it a necessity for PC's to power-game where they can and know the mechanics of the game and their chars pretty much in and out. With this not being the case, an imbalance and frustration are inevitable, at least imho.
Personally I quite like the idea of JP having a stack of stock character sheets next to him on the live show. Each time Adam kills him he can shuffle the stack of paper and pull another one out. Get some alignment dice, some Story Cubes for background and you're good to go!
Yeah, embrace it rather than be bummed about it.
They actually split them up one more time. Not all at once but they ended up fighting a total of five black puddings which is far above deadly granted each has less HP.
Which, by the book, those things can't do.
Correct he modified them.
I know. But my point was made specifically to be the minimum.
A character would have to make the mistake once to know not to make it again. Anything past that is fair to say as a mistake on the player's part because then they have seen what the effect is. But even if they make the mistake a single time, it overcaps the offensive scale of the challenge.
*Edit: Even looking at Kobold Fight Club, the site that Adam uses to roughly balance the combat encounters - 2 Black Puddings vs an average 5th level party is rated 3,300xp which falls just over '3,000xp - Hard'. Three of them comes to 6,600xp which is WAY over '4,400xp - Deadly'
And that isnt considering the parties weakened state.
A big thing in my opinion is that they didn't have the resources to fight this. This was a hard encounter for a party with most it's resources. And Yomm being out his wild shape to soak damage having him resort to using a slashing weapon to deal damage, and JP being without his stuff to cast spells or his weapons and armor was the death of them. The hard part of balancing is placing properly made encounters based on the resources a party has left. Usually in this campaign we have hard or deadly encounters repeatedly. When they aren't in a dungeon and have the opportunity to rest between the fights then it isn't bad, but when they have more than one back to back it can get really hard. I think there is a space to put less than hard encounters when the group is already out some resources because it would be harder comparatively to win the encounter without their abilities, which could have been used in the deadly encounter they just won or such.
Here are my two cents. Making the PC's lvl 5 was a terrible mistake.
Because while it gave Adam the means to make combat more interesting, If we sat down to observe a game enduring the natural progression of a 1-5+ adventure they invariably end up with a support structure of NPC's offering their 5 cents to the players with the gm having plenty of narrative leeway to introduce new friends, enemies, and anything in-between seeking them out to either solve their problems or become their problem.
When you introduce a bunch of death cultist mushroom people. Theres no mechanical incentive for Yomm as a character or Cinnamontoast to go "Wait. I know who went to live in this cave when last me and Ekishnugal was around these parts. It was a mother bear and her cubs who may or may not be mine. Adam can I circles up this romantically involved bear and talk to her about whats been going on since last I was here?"
DND has no circles/contacts check to find someone you know. and very little mechanical leeway to get at the meat that's with the potatoes. Because right now the party is just getting served potatoes in brown sauce or evil mushroom men and slime if you want to get specific.
it's just sort of assumed that the GM will provide the additional support structure of NPC's that are less inclined to murder them outright.