The Isle of Dread -- Playtest!

I began Isle of Dread last night using MapTool and Skype with a fresh party of 3rd-level adventurers. Each used 27-pt buy, used average HP values, and only received 175gp for starting equipment. No house rules. Nearly everything was gridded, including battles and the overland map.

The party:
Dwarf barbarian: relatively new to D&D
Halfling wizard (illusionist): experienced 4e player
Elf cleric (trickster): experienced 3e/4e player
Human monkexperienced 3e/4e player (made a character but couldn't arrive until the last battle)

Character creation
No big problems. Nobody thoroughly read "How to Play" (at best, they skimmed it, or so I want to believe!) before making a character, so I answered questions the best I could while everyone muddled through. There was an issue with starting gold (is it 150gp or 175gp?) and lack of rules for starting at higher levels. However, I didn't want to give out any free magic items or special armor, so we just went with that.

The barbarian was slightly overwhelmed by the amount of options, but backgrounds/specialties pointed her in a decent direction.

The wizard wanted to focus on illusions/enchantments and leave damage to everyone else. His strength and dexterity were ~10 each, so a backup sling wouldn't do much damage either.

The cleric enjoyed that deity choice played a huge role and ended up grabbing a katana for his finesse cleric. He liked feats from 3e that were powered by Turn Undead charges, and so Channel Divinity seemed great. He had no idea if a trickster cleric would suck or not, but decided to roll with it. He ended up having about 9 skills total (elf 2, trickster 2, cleric 1, background 4).

The monk was initially put off that there were no feat trees, and very few feats seemed useful to monks. He also believed there were too many skills and wished the whole thing was streamlined.

Taking a cue from the Isle of Dread adventure, I decided to start off with the characters waking up on the beach after a shipwreck:

A mouthful of sand and a bad headache. The sun blazes through your eye sockets and pierces your brain. You don't remember much: a weird mist, the turbulent waves, and the captain pinned beneath a shattered mast. Now here you are, on an endless beach that stretches on for miles, near a dense jungle that hoots with the howls of strange beasts. Shipwreck debris and dead bodies pollute the otherwise pristine sands around you.
I like that multiple hooks are provided,  but I wish more meat was provided other than "the characters start at a point you choose." Quick-starting in the town didn't seem like a fun option. Anyway, so I borrowed a bit from each of the hooks to make my own introduction.

The party spent a little while figuring out how to scavenge the ship for supplies. I took the opportunity to teach them how to make ability checks: intelligence for searching, strength for manual labor. The barbarian tried to crack open a barrel with her bare hands and rolled under a 5. Amusingly enough, the wimpy wizard tried to help her out and rolled a 19. Salted pork rolled out onto the sand, and the hungry barbarian went fist-first into the mound. The monk player had some real-life business to attend to, so he wasn't present yet.

Little did they know, the bodies of the dead crew were soon to reanimate as zombies. Eventually, the players moved into the ship to scavenge. I asked the first one in--the cleric--to roll a Dexterity saving throw. He failed. As he lifted up a crate, a formerly pinned zombie arm made a free attack on him, which hit and did the full 6 damage. Basically, I treated it like a trap. Then I asked for initiative rolls.

The zombie fight
The party of three were soon waylayed by six zombies, emerging from the sand and ship. I liked that zombies only rolled a d6 for initiative, so they went last.

Barbarian asked, "Are any of them going for the barrel of pork outside?" I said yes, one had risen from under the sand and wrapped its arms around the barrel. She did what any good barbarian would do: fly into a rage, abandon her friends, and go rescue the pork barrel. On her very first attack, she rolled a natural twenty: 12 max maul + 2 STR + 2 rage bonus + 12 max MDD + 2d6 maul crit damage = ~35 damage against a 9-hp zombie.

The barbarian had advantage on every attack, the Cleave feat, and a mountain of martial damage dice (MDD). Generally, she could kill a zombie and cleave into the next one but not fully kill the second one. Even though she only had 13 AC, the zombie attacks barely phased her resistance and massive hit point total. Zombies were made for barbarians to kill.

However, the other two players were left alone with about 3 zombies. Neither could kill a zombie the first turn, so the zombies got to go. I believe two had to Hustle to get up to the wizard, while the other one flailed away.

During the cleric's turn, he made an attack and reduced the zombie to negative HP. However, zombies have a special power: if they can make a CON save vs. the killing blow's damage, they survive with 1 hp. Generally, the cleric did only about 7-8 damage per hit (even with a katana), which gave the zombie nearly a 60-70% chance of surviving the killing blow. I totally agreed with the player here: "That's bullshit."

The wizard cast color spray and magic missile during the fight. Based on past editions, I assumed color spray wouldn't work on the undead, but I couldn't find any rule here to the contrary. Besides, they were hurting and needed something to happen. He used a red color spray, which forced a few zombies to randomly attack each other for a round. That saved his butt for the time being. On the other hand, magic missile was nearly worthless: 2d4+4 damage was easily resisted by the zombie's CON save. I believe this is when he learned how to use the Disengage action to great effect.

Eventually, the barbarian soaked up a (missed) opportunity attack to go rescue her friends and finish off the remaining zombies.

In the end, the barbarian had a lot of fun while the other two players despised zombies. We all agreed that the "zombie fortitude" feature was too good. Against a character with MDD, the zombie rarely made the save, but other sources of damage (a katana's 1d10+3 or a magic missile's 2d4+4) the zombie more-often-than-not would survive.

I think making the DC higher might help, but the others thought the ability should just be removed. It was un-fun, because they had no way to increase their damage, other than wait for the barbarian to show up. Personally, I would prefer vulnerability (slashing) and resistance (bludgeoning), much like the skeleton.

The pirate ship
The PCs were so exhausted from the fight that they decided to take a long rest to replenish spells and HPs. I made sure to prod them about their sleeping arrangements, and they decided to set up tents on the beach. The barbarian climbed a palm tree and slept up there.

I rolled for a random encounter, and sure enough: pirates. I decided that they would be approaching on a ship from a couple hundred feet away, sailing down the coast. I rolled randomly to see who was taking the watch shift, and the wizard fortunately made a Wisdom check to spot the pirates. He woke everyone up and they hid in the tree-line.

Of course, the shipwreck and tents were sitting out visible, clear as day. The wizard decided to cast an illusion spell to mask the shipwreck and tents. Minor illusion only altered a 10-ft cube, while phantasmal force (2nd level spell) was much larger. We read through the description and noticed a number of problems.

The fluff description reads "A phantasm is visible only to those creatures affected by it" while the effect clearly states only one living creature is affected. This was obviously a problem against a ship full of pirates, but I had him roll some kind of check (can't remember) to expand the effects of the spell to cover more targets. I had the pirate crew roll a single check against the DC, and they failed. The wizard successfully disguised the campsite as a giant boulder, and the pirates sailed off, none-the-wiser.

Obviously this wasn't the intention of the spell's design, but there aren't many other illusion spells now, and I wanted to reward clever play. As long as it's not game-breaking and easily repeatable, why not?

The wight and the skeletons
After some scouting with the wizard's familiar (a hawk), I told the players about the terrain of nearby hexes. As of then, they lacked a map, but that was about to change. They also discovered another shipwreck a mile down the shore, so they headed off to go see it.

Thanks to a good Dex + Sneak roll, the cleric helped everyone sneak close to the ship. Inside, they could see skeletons and hear the mutterings of a crazed wight: something about a black pearl and cannibals. The barbarian wanted to go talk and see what they could learn about the island (she thought he was pitiful in a Gollum-like way), but the rest wanted to ambush the wight. The wizard cast minor illusion (ghost sound) to simulate the sound of meat cooking. The wight failed his save pretty dramatically and went out to investigate, diving prone to the ground to dig through the sand, looking for the meat.

The barbarian charged, rolled a natural 1, and face-planted right next to the wight and his cadre of animated skeletons. (Not in the rules, but seemed appropriate!). I believe the cleric blessed the party, got advantage from his Ambush feat, and charged the wight. The wizard used a blue color spray to grant disadvantage to the skeletons, which cancelled out the advantage they received from attacking the prone barbarian. A few rounds passed, and the fight ended without too much damage to the players. I also have to mention that the barbarian crit a skeleton with her maul, dealing a total of 54 damage in one hit, due to the skeleton's bludgeoning vulnerability. Jaws dropped. (Get it?)

From the wight, they recovered JB's journal and a map of the island, as well as a kopru idol. The wizard (who took literally 5 knowledge skills) ended up knowing quite a bit about the evil, cultish artifact and the history of the kopru race.

Overland travel
Afterwards, they had a few choices: explore the surrounding wilderness, head to town, or seek out the "lost city of the gods." In fact, the players chose none of the above. Instead, they wanted to go hunt dinosaurs, since dinosaurs were promised (by me) when I recruited them to play. The best place to hunt dinosaurs, it stood to reason (because somebody saw Jurassic Park I think), was on the central plateau, so they found a river heading inland and decided to follow it.

Rolling all the checks and keeping track of time was difficult at first, but as soon as I got the hang of it, it became easier. In the future I will have to roll this out before the game to save time. We have a very stealthy party, so they completely avoided the next random encounter (a group of tribal spearmen hauling a sabre-toothed tiger carcass), because they were worried the spearmen might be cannibals. One player cleverly tried to analyze their bone jewelry from a distance, but failed his check to figure out whether the bones were human or animal.

During the next encounter (I kept rolling 6s), they ambushed a group of ghouls feasting on a paralyzed roc.

During this fight, the monk joined the group during the surprise round. While the barbarian tossed a javelin and the cleric maneuvered to fire his shortbow from cover, the monk darted out of the trees and Hurricane Kick'd a ghoul halfway across the map. We forgot it was opposed by a Strength check.

The wizard cast another phantasmal force spell against one of the ghouls, this time creating a giant kopru fish-god illusion. However, the spell does specify you must target a "living" creature, but once again I overruled that.  I don't know if I will change my mind in the future, but for the time being the wizard needed something interesting to do, so I let him do it. It was my fault that all three encounters so far had been against undead creatures, so I wanted to make sure he could be a proper illusionist before the end of the night.

After the surprise round, the ghouls rolled so poorly that they went last in the order, so the players got another round of actions. They managed to kill all but one of the ghouls, which was too pre-occupied with the illusion. In the last turn, they killed it too.

The cleric healed the paralyzed roc. He succeeded on a Charisma check to calm the giant bird. The roc beat its wings and flew off back towards its nest. Everyone was quite happy that they made a new friend. That's when the session ended.

Everyone enjoyed the game a lot. One player even said, "Wow. That felt like the D&D I remember." I feared that the lousy zombie encounter would have ruined it, but afterwards things picked up quickly. In total, the game took about 4.5 hours, but before the game they each worked on characters and read the rules for 1-2 hours.

Combat was brisk and entertaining, but we did use a grid for each encounter. Unfortunately, a few of us missed shifting, flanking, terrain features, and additional complexity from previous editions. On the other hand, being free to move within a creature's reach was quite a nice change. It's difficult to avoid opportunity attacks short of killing the enemy, and I like that. I plan to house-rule flanking (+1 bonus or something), but shifting needs more thought.

Everyone, even the player, agreed the barbarian was completely overpowered. We would probably say a similar thing about the monk, but we didn't have a chance to play with him too much. Martial damage dice (MDD) need adjusting, and I hope that happens soon. I have no idea how to house-rule MDD without breaking other parts of the system.

The katana cleric seemed to play well. His main concern is that he didn't have a chance to cast Hold Person, and that was understandable. His damage was quite a step down from the barbarian, and I hope that gap shrinks in the future.

My main concern is the wizard illusionist: there aren't enough illusion spells to really gauge how strong he can be. Once again, compared to the martial classes, he didn't seem as effective in combat. He still had a great time, though.

Everyone is eager to play next week, and then we might have a new player!
Veggie-sama, that was a nice read!  I enjoyed it.  As you mention barbarians are too powerful.  I think they will be taming all the martials a bit (MDD becomes too good).   I also agree about the zombies.   Perhaps the DC to keep on fighting should be DC depending on damage done but no less than DC 10.  That would give non martials at least a 50% chance to keep one down.

Keep playing and reporting.  Cheers.  

A Brave Knight of WTF - "Wielder of the Sword of Balance"


Rhenny's Blog:



Have you been ruling the MDD max out on a crit or did the barbarian actually roll max MDD?  The rules aren't clear on this and I ruled in my session (my group finally started) that only the weapon die would be max and the MDD still had to be rolled.

I agree the barb's too powerful and needs to be toned down.  From the article this week, it sounds like the devs got the point on that already. 
As the packet reads, "take the highest results that all those dice could produce," so we maximized MDD too. Critical hits need to be toned down (without simply maximizing; extra dice somehow need to be included because rolling more dice is fun!). Combat as a whole is just too quick. No time for buffs or strategy, just damage damage damage.

Had a game session earlier tonight and I toned down MDD to simply 1d3s and removed the barbarian's raging damage bonus. However, now I'm worried about the monk for just being a crazy badass who can fly, kick people 30 feet and doesn't afraid of anything. Will have a report tomorrow probably.
"The barbarian had advantage on every attack"

The Barbarian only gets advantage if they are
1. Not raging
2. Offer advantage to anyone who attacks them on the turn that they used the reckless attack. 

That might not necessarily make them less powerful, but these 2 points are worth noting. 

The Procurator. A web-based character sheet builder for any game.

raging grants advantage on everything str related. So unles its a finesse barbarian they have advantage while raging as well.
Ahh, that was a change since the winter fantasy documentation. Or was just left off the sheet. The wording of the Reckless Attack is a little weird because it seems to read that you don't normally get advantage when you are raging. Which, I think it should be. You should NOT have advantage when raging IMO.

Level 1: Reckless Attack
Even when you aren’t raging, you can draw on your inner fury to hurl yourself at an opponent, heedless of the danger to yourself. Benefit: When you aren’t raging, you can use your action to make a melee attack with advantage. Doing so grants advantage to attack rolls against you until your next turn.

The Procurator. A web-based character sheet builder for any game.

Session 2

After some between-game chat with a few of the players, I learned that they would rather head toward the town in the SE corner of the map rather than follow the river toward the Central Plateau. Great, I thought. I'll prep a few jungle encounters and figure out some hooks for when they reach the town.

As the game began, I asked where they wanted to head, and of course they all changed their minds and decided to proceed along the river as originally planned. All my elaborate preparation gone to waste! (Or at least some of it.) Such is the price of avoiding the railroad.

Unfortunately, the wizard player couldn't join us, so his character wandered into the jungle before the rest of the group awoke. Without a hawk familiar to scout for them, the group pushed onward.

The party: Dwarf barbarian, Elf cleric (trickster), Human monk

House rules
After the absurd amounts of damage the barbarian did last game, I reduced MDD to from d6s to d3s and removed the barbarian rage's +2 damage bonus. The barbarian still made some massive hits this game, though I do wish the damage gap between the cleric and others wasn't quite so wide.

For MapTool (the online VTT we used), I wrote up a very lightweight framework that handled HPs, states, and initiative. If anyone's interested, I can share it. It's small, but helped speed up combat tremendously.


When the party finally reached the Central Plateau, they asked whether it would be possible to climb up the cliff. I misread the adventure notes and stated the cliff was 3000 feet tall, so any fall would surely be fatal. The correct height is located in Area 15 (Pteranodon Terror), which is more like 100 feet. I wish the text at the beginning of the section was more clear, because it seemed odd that a 100-ft climb would take 4 hours and kill a player if he or she fell.

While they were thinking about how to climb the 3000-ft cliff, a pair of deinonychus (deinonycha? deinonychi?) had been stalking the group. The cleric and monk made their Wisdom + Spot checks against the raptors' Dexterity check, which negated a surprise round.

I used Great Cat: Saber-Toothed Tiger stats for the dinosaurs , except I reduced them both to Medium size. (I wanted a dinosaur encounter but wasn't ready to throw an allosaurus against them.) Both dinosaurs won initiative and Pounced at the cleric and monk, but neither dinosaur hit twice to gain bonus bite attacks.

The monk flurried, the barbarian whiffed, and the cleric cast a spell. One of the dinosaurs died, the other one disengaged, and the barbarian chased it while hurling javelins. With 40 move speed compared to the cleric's 30 and the dwarf barbarian's 35, surely it seemed like the deinonychus could escape.

That's when the monk came in. With Fast Movement from his class and the Fast Movement feat, he was moving at a base 50 feet per round. (Nothing except the naming coincidence says both sources shouldn't stack, but should it be allowed?) On top of that, he spent a martial damage die to perform Step of the Wind, rolling a 5. His movement speed had become 75 feet. He sprinted across the small map I prepared, from literally one side to the other, and performed a Flurry of Blows. The dinosaur died after two attacks.

EDIT: Possibly I misread. Monk doesn't get bonus move-speed, just Step of the Wind. Still, 65 feet movement, wow.

Climbing the cliffs

The party decided to circle the plateau, looking for a way up. Within a few hexes, they located a rope bridge a hundred feet above them. (This is when the issue about the 3000 ft vs. 100 ft cliff started not making any sense). We spent some time arguing about whether to use Intelligence or Wisdom for finding the way up, but in the process they noticed nests resting up on the cliff faces.

(I have read the Intelligence vs. Wisdom pages at least twice, and I'm still not sure when each is appropriate. If you have passively spotted the nests with Wisdom + Spot and now you're actively looking for the inhabitants, should you even get another roll? Should it be Intelligence + Spot? Intelligence + Track? Wisdom? None of the players liked using Intelligence--especially the bounty hunter cleric--since each had assumed Intelligence was a useless dump stat when making their characters. Traditionally, rangers and barbarians are supposed to be good at tracking, but neither are very high Intelligence heroes.)

Running low on rations, the group decided to fetch some eggs out of those 5-ft wide nests, heedless of danger. I decided this would be a good time to borrow 4E's group checks with some slight modifications. I asked how everyone wanted to get up the cliff: both the barbarian and monk wanted to climb (both had the skill), while the cleric wanted to handle the ropework (yep, he picked up Use Rope). If two out of three could make the DC, then they would make it up unharmed.

I forget the exact numbers, but the monk rolled a natural 1 so bad stuff had to happen. About halfway up the cliff face, he fell. The barbarian failed a Dexterity check to catch him, but because the group as a whole made the check, I ruled that he wouldn't fall the whole way. Still attached to the barbarian by the cleric's expertly-prepared rope safety harness, he fell only a few feet and took 1d6 damage when he slammed into the side of the cliff face. The monk seemed relieved, but I did not know why (until later). We started getting bogged down in skill check minutia, so I sped it up, and eventually the three of them were standing in the nest.

As the barbarian leaned down to pick up the eggs, one of them hatched. The monk's first words were "Kill it." The barbarian protested, and they argued the merits of keeping it. Eventually, the baby wandered over to the edge and raised its wings, but the barbarian grabbed it in time to save it. Reluctantly, the group allowed her to keep it. The monk urged haste, and the group ascended the rest of the cliff face. Since this side of the mountain was not on the Central Plateau side, the group had to cross the bridge to reach the plateau. Of course, that's when the pteranodon flock got a whiff of the baby-snatchers and attacked.

Flying dinosaurs!

I wanted to make this encounter simple while avoiding the silliness that came with the monk having a 50+ ft move speed, so I divided a bridge into 4 sections and stated that the party began on section 1. Each move action would bring a character to the next section. Since most fights are over after 3-4 turns, I figured this would make the fight dramatic and keep them moving without allowing them to sprint across in a single turn. It would also keep them more-or-less adjacent in case one fell off the bridge.

I loved the pteranodon's Flyby trait. Simple and short, it allowed the flying dinosaurs to more-or-less spring attack while preventing the players from making opportunity attacks. No complex rules about turn radii or multiple classes of flying are necessary, great!

The PCs were forced to whip out crossbows and javelins. I would have liked to see the party try out Readied actions or Dodge actions, but thanks to MDD, the ranged attacks were still very effective. Looking back, I should have tried to make the pteranodons try Grapple and Push actions, but maybe that would have been too evil.

About 7 pteranodons swarmed the party, and a lucky crit (17 damage, ouch!) nearly took down the cleric. Every time a character was hit, he/she was forced to roll a Dexterity save (DC 11) or fall prone. Failing by 5 or more equaled a fall from the bridge. I let the monk add his Balance skill dice to the save, and after the first round of hits, the players all succeeded. By the second round, however, the barbarian rolled a 3 and went plummeting off the side. I said that she would hit the water at the beginning of her next turn, but anyone could spend an action to catch her before she fell out of reach.

That's when the monk had his chance to shine. Remember how worried he was earlier when he fell off the cliff, but didn't fall too far? Well, now he showed what he had up his sleeve, and I learned about the Warrior's Gale ki power. In place of movement, this 3rd-level monk could magically fly up to 40 feet. I let him try to catch the barbarian without spending an action (the ki power usage was enough). He even jump-kicked a pteranodon on the way down, kicking off it on the way back up. This dude was an otaku's dream come true.

The cleric healed himself and belted off another arrow. The monk and barbarian could easily take down the dinosaurs in one shot thanks to MDD, but the cleric's ~1d8+2 damage shortbow kept coming up short. I treated the dinosaurs like 4e minions, though, and allowed a successful hit to take the pteranodon out of the fight. When it was clear the party was going to make it, this made it easier to finish the fight faster. It was a tough and frantic fight, but everyone had fun.

(I am happy shortbows are simple weapons and longbows are martial, so there's none of that "shortbows are good on horseback, while longbows are good everywhere else" realism that prevented players from ever picking up shortbows.)

(Pet peeve from a dinosaur lover: pteranodons and plesiosaur are not dinosaurs. They belong to different groups of prehistoric reptiles. It is a popular misconception to label them dinosaurs, but at least it's forgiveable here.)

The Town of Mantru

Without spoiling the silliness that is page 25 of the Isle of Dread adventure packet, the players decide to approach the plateau town peacefully and were slightly alarmed by the villagers' reception. They offered dinosaur meat to appease the natives, but no one could understand the language.

(Oh yeah, I forgot to mention how vigorously they debated over whether to cook the deinonychus meat and how poorly they rolled when they tried. I debated whether to give them all some form of food poisoning but decided spoiled dinosaur meat was its own penalty.)

Fortunately, the cleric rolled a great Charisma + Persuade check, and nobody took aggressive action, so the party passed the "test." They were carried into the village on shoulder-back, given sleeping huts and food, and asked to join the festivities later that night. Partly due to technical issues, we decided to call it there for the night after maybe 2.5 hours of actual play.


Everyone seemed to really like the dinosaur fights, especially the bridge scene. The barbarian especially liked getting her own pet pteranodon and wants to train it how to fly her around one day. The monk's supernatural fast and flying movement was maybe... a little too much. Flurry of blows was also maybe a little too good (given that I reduced MDD from d6 to d3), but not so good that it deserves the nerf-stick.

The cleric shined during the negotiation scene, but during combat his spells seemed a little on the "meh" side. He complained that Channel Deception (self-invisibility) was worthless because it consumed his entire action and ended at the start of his next turn. Channel Trickery also consumed an entire action. Since combat is so short, buffs aren't worth the effort when you can just make attacks to kill the enemy. Since most of the other Channels are reactions or free actions, I might just rule these Channels to be "words of power" next game.

Since the players are taking on a maximum of two random encounters a day, they end up going into each one with nearly all their resources. This is not a problem, since fights are quick and very lethal, but each fight consumes a lot of their HP resources without impacting much of their other resources (spells, ki uses, rage uses). We'll see how they manage things next game.

That session report was a terrific read.   I like how cinematic your game seems.   Do the rules help you and your players make it more cinematic and fluid?  

As DM, I always feel like every encounter I give my players doesn't really challenge them too much.   On the other hand, when I play, I always feel like I'm being challenged even if my PC doesn't take any damage.   How do you feel while DMing D&DNext?  

A Brave Knight of WTF - "Wielder of the Sword of Balance"


Rhenny's Blog:



Thanks, I do think the lightness of the rules lets us be more cinematic without getting bogged down. I try my best to encourage improv in combat but it's hard when you are stuck thinking "My flurry of blows always lets me do 3 attacks, never deviating" or "Rage is the only way I can get advantage on my attacks" or whatever. Once the combat switch is turned off, players seem to open up and get more creative.

The adventure itself gives a lot of great prompts. It is vague enough to do whatever you want with it. Honestly, I think it's too vague--I wouldn't mind more elaboration and more ideas for relationships, quests, and random encounters. Not a fault of the system, though.

It also helps that I borrow stuff from other systems. Any kind of chase scene improves when you take away a 1-for-1 grid, but having some kind of "stages" makes it helpful to know where everyone is. It's a compromise between battlegrids and theater of the mind. I borrowed the idea from Shadowrun 4e, which uses stages for vehicle chase scenes (near, medium, far stages; roll a check to move up/down a stage; stay in far range for 3 consecutive turns to evade pursuers, etc. stuff like that). I like narrative but I also like a layer of game-y-ness to make it fun.

I do that because I do think D&D Next is lacking in a lot of ways. I would appreciate a more complex skill system. But then if it gets too complex, players/DMs suddenly forget they can improvise additional uses for skills. Two steps forward, one step back.

As for challenges, I always assume they can handle more than I think. If they can't... well... sometimes it's necessary to fudge! Maybe the NPCs start playing a little dumber, maybe a 3rd party NPC / obstacle wanders onto the scene mid-fight, maybe hidden dice get nudged after they roll, just a little bit... If it's too *easy* and I cheat to make the NPC harder, then I just feel like I'm being unfair.
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