Well, now I feel guilty.
I bought the books for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and put together a homebrew for a family game. I was excited. The artwork on the new system is gorgeous and the streamlined combat rules seemed like a welcome break from Pathfinder. The books are masterwork artifacts that look snappy lined up on my shelf.
Homebrewing is a passion. It gives me a chance to write and then hold people hostage to interact with what I’ve written. It’s customary to thank a DM for running a game and it always seems paradoxical to have people thank me for that experience.
A listing of real-life gods and pantheons in the back of the Players Handbook captivated me, so I decided to create a world based on Ancient Greece using “real” gods like Athena, Ares, and Apollo. They even get domains suggested for their clerics, which is a fun read. I drew up a world in which two city-states had been warring for centuries. As part of their most recent peace agreement, they sent citizens from each polis to found a new colony in the middle of the territory they had been warring over. Unfortunately, the settlers of the new town of Ghilani forgot to honor Ares. This angered the war god enough that he came down to Geos in the form of a great red dragon. Now the town needed to find champions strong enough to face the dragon and prove to Ares that it deserved to exist.
That was my campaign idea, and the first adventure centered around bringing together a group of adventurers at first level to confront a pack of kobolds (red dragon branded of course) that were terrorizing the farmers of Ghilani. My ten-year-old played a dwarf fighter named Chainsaw (props for a cool if anachronistic name). My brother created an elven thief and local hobo. My oldest daughter was a tiefling sorcerer and my youngest was a dragonborn cleric named Dragonina (she’s five).
The five-year-old ducked out early in our first game, that’s just too little for rules and imagination within bounds, but the rest of us played a series of five short games. The characters saved a few homesteads from burning, cleared a few areas of winged kobolds, and fought a pack of the little creatures at an abandoned temple to Athena.
Then they made the fateful decision to descend into the home warren of the kobolds. Traditionally, kobolds aren’t great fighters. They survive by digging subterranean homes and then filling those homes with nefarious traps. My players delved in and fought off several packs of kobolds. This is where I began to notice a difference in the new (to me) edition. Lots of damage gets dealt. Lots of damage can be healed too, but it takes some adjustment to get used to this altered ebb and flow of the action. In past editions, only magical means could heal in a significant way. Now, short and long rests can be used to keep a party in the field for much longer spells. Unfortunately, death is much closer in fifth edition, especially at low levels. Once a character reaches a negative number equal to their hit points, that is it. Even when you reach negative hit points at all, you begin making death saves, which is an exciting, if terrifying mechanic.
But in a dungeon, it is hard to rest. Every time my party attempted it, I rolled up a kobold encounter during the night. Somehow, my poor first level characters survived these waves to the point where they had nearly cleared the dungeon. They rested and were back at full health when tragedy struck. The thief decided he just had to disable a trap that he had spotted. He botched the roll, bringing a cavern roof down on him (on the bright side, the other players had thought to move out of range of the collapse). This did so much damage it killed him outright. I felt terrible, but my brother was able to take over the cleric, so we played on.
Now the game was even more deadly with three players. I should have let them level up. They were close. Instead, they crawled (kobold dungeons are not people-sized) right into a boss fight at first level. Immediately, the kobold opened up with arrows, getting advantage on the shots on crouching enemies. The tiefling was reduced to one hit point before she knew what was happening. The cleric got in a lightning breath weapon attack, but all three targets took half damage when they made their reflex saves. Chainsaw heroically took out a kobold and the sorcerer, despite being at death’s door, got another one with a shocking grasp. But kobolds get advantage when working together, and they did so. First Dragonina went down, then the tiefling sorcerer. Poor Chainsaw fought alone, also at one hit point, and struck a mighty blow at the human fighter helping the kobolds.
But it wasn’t enough. The next volley dropped him. I couldn’t imagine these evil characters keeping anyone alive, and certainly not healing them, but we went through the mechanic of death saves anyway. No one succeeded, and my poor son rolled multiple ones for an instant death. It was a bitter defeat. In dork vernacular, a TPK (Total Party Kill). I’ve seen it happen only once or twice in my decades of gaming.
My debriefing is that out of inexperience I overpowered the trap. When the thief died, things just spiraled out of control. There is also the fact that I am used to a seasoned group of gamers (other forty-year veterans of roleplaying) and I innately expect their level of tactical expertise. That is a mistake with new players. Basically, this was all my fault.
I confess. I killed my family.