I’ve talked on social media about the game I’m running for D&D 5th edition. The Monday after the Players Handbook was released, we fired up a new campaign using the 3rd Edition adventure path Shackled City, which we ended up playing for over a year. On December 21, 2015, we finished that game. Having had a bit of time to think about the experience, I’d like to present a Campaign Post Mortem. Basically a review of 5th Edition, and the Shackled City experience.
If your interested in more talk about high level D&D, check out Episode 4 of the Forgot My Dice podcast!
Shackled City was the first Adventure Path released by Paizo. It began back when they were producing Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. If memory serves, it started when they published a trilogy of adventures set in Eberron that was widely received. Fans requested a full campaign, and Paizo readily agreed. A few months later, the first adventure in the adventure path, “Life’s Bazaar” was released. The deluxe book has 12 adventures in it, and it’s designed to get the players from level 1 to level 20. When I ran it, I used the milestones system and we actually went to “level 22.” For the last two levels, I handed out two epic boons, just to give them a try.
Current trends and Paizo’s later adventure paths stop following this pattern and cap out their adventure levels to the mid-teens instead of level 20. This turns out to be a good thing, which I will get into later. Since the release of Shackled City, it looks like Paizo has learned a lot and improved and iterated on their later campaigns. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to flip through many of them. Kingmaker looked interesting based on the first adventure, but I never got a chance to run it. Rise of the Runelords seemed a little too random for my tastes. I almost picked up the Carrion Crown series numerous times, but with the Curse of Strahd, I probably won’t now. But they have published a lot of adventure paths since Shackled City in a lot of different styles and flavors.
Paizo have also gained a better control over their narratives. A big complaint I had about Shacked City was that major story line of the campaign ended in adventure 10, and the next two adventures felt kinda tacked on. The third act starts off wonderfully but then runs out of steam quickly. If you decide to run this campaign, I recommend running adventure 11 before adventure 9, followed by adventure 10, with12 as the finale. This will change the story a bit, but I think it’s an easy transition.
Also there is a big damn dragon named Hookface at the end of Act 2 that the party never really gets a chance to fight. Since my campaign wrapped up ahead of schedule, we did one last bonus session where they hunted down Hookface. At this point I had given my players two epic boons, so they were “level 22.” To give you the scale of how hard this encounter was for five level 22 players, they fought Hookface, his mate (both Ancient Red Dragons), and 30 Whelplings! It was a hard fight, but the players managed to defeat the encounter. This was after two encounters with four CR 13 guards, and after I gave the two dragons 100 extra hit points each.
All in all, however, Shackled City was a very fun campaign and a nice change of pace. Ever since I read Ptolus, I’ve wanted to run a city based campaign. Shackled City gives you a ton of NPCs and not all of them are going to be important to the players. So once your players glom onto specific NPCs, you can just focus building their relationships with them, which I think is the fun part. There are a lot of surprises and goofy villains early on, which my players loved. This book has long been out-of-print, but if you can get your hands on a copy and feel up to the task converting it, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Ease of Converting to 5th
Shackled City was a 3.0 edition adventure, though that didn’t really matter for my conversion. Early on, Frog God Games’ Fifth Edition Foes would have been really, really handy. Unfortunately, by the time I got my hands on it, it was the week after I really could have used it. I found the conversion to 5th edition to be a pretty easy once I made a few key decisions. First, I decided to use the milestone leveling system so I didn’t have to balance adventures around 3rd Edition vs 5th Edition XP values. Not only would it be a lot of work, a lot of the encounters would have ended up being worth absurd amounts of XP. I suggest using this leveling system for any adventure series you plan on converting. Plus, if players are rewarded for completing adventures and not just killing everything in sight, they might choose to talk their way through conflicts. Sure, my group didn’t, but yours might!
As for magic items and gold, I just gave them straight 3rd edition values. I also made them pay for lifestyle expenses using the 5th edition rules. That left the two players who were nobles broke most of the time, as keeping up their lifestyle ate up the massive amounts of treasure they looted. During one adventure, the villainous mayor raised everyone’s taxes, so I just raised lifestyle expenses by 50%. Boy, did that piss my players off.
The most challenging part in the later adventures were converting the high level human opponents. I found Appendix 3 to be a life saver as a lot of my NPCs came directly from that chapter, with some twists or new spells. The problem was that there aren’t many high CR NPCs in that appendix. Often times, I got around this by just raising the Proficiency bonus and giving them some extra HP as an easy shorthand. However, all the named NPC villains (and there are a lot of them) got a new full conversion. Typically, I would start by finding an NPC that most closely fits the concept, give them the stats of the 3rd edition character (caping most stats at 20), add some hit dice, and then finally equip them with the magic items the book indicates they have.
When my players hit level 10 was when I noticed 5th Edition starting to break. Player damage had gotten to the point that they could kill most monsters in a turn and a half. That, combined with my horrible initiative rolls, meant that most bosses only got a chance to activate once. Typically I would aim for a CR that was +3 or +4 party level for the bosses, but with five fairly well-optimized characters, they took them down very quickly. It was also became very clear that the Champion fighter is a vastly inferior spec to the Battlemaster. This spec, combined with the duel wielding fighting style, made for an inefficient damage dealer in the later levels. The Archer Battlemaster was found to be the superior fighting spec. There was a lot of talk about how to fix this, but we never house ruled anything in. Mainly because we couldn’t agree on how to do it.
At level 17, it felt like my players’ power level doubled. 9th level spells, high level abilities… it was very much a thing. By this point, whenever I wanted them to fight a “solo” boss, I started giving them an extra 300 hit points or more. The alternative was to run a metric ton of smaller combats to drain their resources so that later fights would be more challenging. I tried it once (Adventure 10), but went with the idea that running out of resources isn’t fun whereas using them a lot is.
At this point, the power level felt like it doubled again. Level 20 D&D is its own animal. We were mostly off the rails of the campaign since high level abilities give players a lot of options on approaching problems. Saying stuff like “I’m gonna go get some griffons” or “we are going to crash the party in a chariot of fire” can just happen. Character death was also becomes an annoying but not permanent inconvenience by this point. It was fun getting to this point, the players were really feeling their own power, and it’s so rare to play D&D at level 20, much less have a character organically get there.
I let my players have two of these, effectively making them level 22. They are fun to use, it lets the characters progress, but they don’t feel broken. If your campaign isn’t quite done yet but you want to reward adventuring, granting some epic boons is a good way to go. I suggest following the “with DM approval” guideline, just to make sure the chosen boons fits in the storyline. Though that’s mostly because I’m a fluff guy.
Shackled City was fun, though I don’t know if I will ever get the chance to run it again since there are so many other adventure paths out there. But if for some crazy reason I wanted to try it again, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.
D&D starts to break under its own rules and math north of level 10, and the problems get more and more crazy as you level up. Capping D&D stories at level 15 is probably a good idea and Wizards seems to agree. After two years, I was ready to DM something else, but I’m still up for playing more Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. For all its warts, 5th edition is an amazing game, and a high level campaign was an amazing experience.