Sunday, August 31, 2008

Phat Lewt

I'm not so sure about the treasure "generation" system in 4e. It feels far too easy to either give out solely what your PCs want ("I sure wish my warlock had a Rod of Corruption to amp up his curse.... oh look! A Rod of Corruption in the treasure hoard!") or overcompensate by only placing rewards that don't play to the party ("Oh boy, another orb for the staff wizard and the warlock to not fight over.").

On the other hand, it's not like I build adventures full of randomly generated monsters (well, not entire adventures), so why shouldn't I expect to also place non-random treasure? If the party has no wizard to lay down area effect damage it's probably best to hold back on throwing tons of minions at the party, so why not keep orbs out of the treasure hoards for the same reason?

And really, it wouldn't be that hard to build some tables of level N magic items to place as randomized parcels. That would keep the treasure balanced (at least on paper) and inject some luck of the dice into the proceedings. In fact, for the last adventure I prepped I did almost that. After determining that I needed to place one item each of levels 4 through 7, I simply noted that there were about ten item types of those levels (no rings) that the group could use (no orbs or rods) and rolled four separate d10s. Each d10 pointed me at a table, and I took the item of the appropriate level from each table.

Of course, I gave most of those items to monsters that could also use them....

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Ruff is Tuff!

I discovered yesterday that the makers of Soul Calibur 4 get what I was talking about two weeks ago.
How badass would the iconic male dragonborn paladin look, charging out of the page at you, with his freaking frills flared out past his shoulders?
Apparently, pretty damn badass. Image from here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Lore of the Garden Gnome

I realized I neglected to provide tactics and lore for yesterday's creation. Let's see...

Garden Gnome Tactics
A garden gnome lurks in a well-maintained garden, sometimes in plain sight, disguised as a piece of statuary. They tend to be pranksters and shun combat, though they are fiercely protective of whoever maintains their garden.

Garden Gnome Lore
A character knows the following information about garden gnomes with a successful Arcana check.
DC 15: Garden gnomes dwell in gardens and are especially fond of shrubbery and topiaries. They are easily overlooked by untrained eyes. Wizards sometimes employ garden gnomes to protect their gardens (and by extension, their homes).
DC 20: When they feel threatened, garden gnomes revert to a statuelike state in which they are exceedingly difficult to harm.

Encounter Groups
Garden gnomes are commonly encountered in the gardens of powerful wizards, in the company of other guardians of the wizard's demesne.

Level 3 Encounter (XP 750)
  • 1 human mage (level 4 artillery)
  • 2 garden gnomes (level 3 lurker)
  • 1 iron defender (level 3 soldier)
  • 1 guard drake (level 2 brute)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Feared Garden Gnome

I'm not sure where this came from, but I just got an itch to create a 4e monster. Starting with the gnome skulk but removing some skulkiness, adding a dash of feyborn and a pinch of gargoyle, we get...
Level 2 Lurker
XP 125
Garden Gnome
Small fey humanoid (earth)
Initiative +4 Senses Perception +2; low-light vision
HP 34; Bloodied 17
AC 17; Fortitude 14, Reflex 16, Will 14
Speed 5
mSpade (standard; at-will) * Weapon
+7 vs. AC; 1d6 + 3 damage
Fade Away (immediate reaction, when the gnome takes damage; encounter) * Illusion
The garden gnome turns invisible until it attacks or until the end of its next turn.
Step Through the Mists (move; encounter)
The garden gnome teleports up to 3 squares.
Reactive Stealth
If a gnome has cover or concealment when it makes an initiative check at the start of an encounter, it can make a Stealth check to escape notice.
Stone Form (standard; at-will)
The garden gnome becomes a statue and gains resist 15 to all damage, regeneration 2, and tremorsense 5. It loses all other senses and can take no actions in stone form other than revert to its normal form (as a minor action).
Alignment Unaligned Languages Common, Elven
Skills Arcana +10, Stealth +11, Thievery +9
Str 8 (+0) Dex 17 (+4) Wis 12 (+2)
Con 16 (+4) Int 14 (+3) Cha 13 (+2)
Equipment leather armor, spade

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When Good Encounter Planning Goes Bad

The other day I came across this post and a paragraph in the middle of it caught my eye.
When planning encounters, DMs need to make sure that everyone has something to do. If the Big Bad Demon has super-high spell resistance that is sure to stymie the mages, then provide some mooks that the wizard can blast away with chain lightning bolts. If the lich lord has ungodly damage reduction, make sure the fighter has some skeletons to cleave through. It’s not about throwing the players softballs; it’s about making sure that everyone has something to challenge and engage them.
This is good advice probably 99% of the time. However, I had it backfire on me spectacularly once years ago. It bugs me to this day so I thought I'd share the story.

In college we played a lot of GURPS Supers, and our main campaign seemed infested with paramilitary types carrying big guns instead of zapping bad guys with superpowers. For my first time running the game, I wanted a more four-color feel so I had everyone play students irradiated by a science lab accident on campus. The players came to the table with a big metal guy, a super-lucky guy, a speedster, a matter manipulator, and some others I don't remember. Overall, exactly the kinds of characters I was looking for.

Since the radiation accident smacked of the Fantastic Four and their cosmic rays, I ran with it - the first adventure involved a Mole Man clone leading an underground army up out of the campus quad. The PCs eventually battled his minions back to his underground lair, where I had made sure to follow the advice above. There was a big stone guy for the big metal hero, and morlock-style mooks for everyone else to play with.

There was just one problem: the player of the matter manipulator, who I figured would disarm the mooks by turning their axes into tapioca pudding or something, refused to attack them. Instead he focused on the big stone guy, who was too large for his limited power to affect. After one round of no effect and with mooks surrounding him, I thought he'd get a clue. After three rounds of his character attacking the same target and doing nothing effective, the mooks he could have disarmed with a thought carved him into dog food with their axes.

The thing that bugs me to this day is that the player argued with me for an hour that his character had done the tactically correct thing by focusing on the biggest threat. The evidence of the outcome didn't sway him in the slightest. I guess the moral of the story is that if you have a player with the same mindset, you might have to take that into account when adding mooks around a BBEG. Especially if the mooks are dangerous enough to do lots of damage if ignored.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Shards of the Gate of Darkness, Part 4

After battling the tiefling at the Dragondown Grotto, the group had to return to town to take an extended rest. Fortunately for them, I had already decided that the tieflings would find themselves overmatched at the third location, so they had time to do so. Unfortunately for them, I had made the other encounters they would face pretty tough.

The final location was the Dragon Graveyard map from Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto.
I had decided to use a version of Mike Mearls' skill challenge version of random encounter generation, throwing decrepit skeletons and zombies at them on a roll of 15+(number of successful Stealth checks in the group) or higher whenever they tried to rest. I described the place as misty and foreboding, with shuffling sounds constantly echoing in the distance. I had them make Stealth checks as they approached, and their 3 out of 4 successes meant that they didn't encounter an initial random encounter from my check of 16.

They discovered the tiefling from the grotto, dead from multiple stab and slash wounds. His killers, three boneshard skeletons, immediately set upon them. A chaotic flurry of hacking and slashing followed, and the party took a ton of damage from boneshard bursts. After the first burst it took quite a few rounds and some nudges from me for them to spread out so subsequent bursts wouldn't hit the entire party (except the wizard, who after the first burst cast flaming sphere and hid behind a wall of bones).

Once the skeletons were defeated, they decided not to rest and just raced to the center of the map to try and quickly recover what they came for and get out. There they found another dead tiefling. The ranger looted his body while the warlord and wizard dug frantically for the buried shard he'd been after. Just as they got it unearthed, a wight came out from behind a wall and hissed at them to stop. His allies appeared from behind walls all around them (the photo from my Plexiglass post actually shows the setup for this fight).

This encounter was:
1 deathlock wight (level 4 controller, 175xp)
3 Zombies (level 2 brute, 375xp total)
6 decrepit skeletons (level 1 minion, 150xp total)

The warlord won initiative, followed by the monsters. They decided to try to escape with the shard instead of fighting, so the warlord grabbed it and ran. Unfortunately the wight's grave bolt stopped her in her tracks and his allies closed in around her. On the party's turn the warlord fey stepped to a clear spot where the ranger could run by her and grab the shard, then race away from the undead, using an action point for more movement and getting off the map.

With the shard gone, the undead turned on the rest of the party. The wight kept them from simply withdrawing by continuously using grave bolt and keeping someone immobilized. Finally the paladin charged the wight and kept it in melee long enough for the other two PCs to regain movement. It looked for a moment like she was going to sacrifice herself so the others could escape, but the warlord refused to run and together they killed the wight and ran from the last two zombies. All the healing in the party had been used up and the paladin escaped with one hit point.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Shards of the Gate of Darkness, Part 3

After defeating the hobgoblins at the caves, the dwarf chiseled the shard out of the cave wall. They pressed on immediately to the next location they were told about. They followed their directions to a large crater, created by the impact of a dragon killed in midflight by one of the shards. In it they found a tiefling using undead servants to try to unearth the shard.

The encounter was:
1 tiefling heretic (level 6 artillery, 250 xp)
2 Zombies (level 2 brute, 250xp total)
1 gravehound (level 3 brute, 150xp)
2 decrepit skeletons (level 1 minion, 50xp total)
Map: Dragondown Grotto from Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto

The party and the gravehound spotted each other at the same time. The zombies rushed the group (as fast as zombies can, anyway) while the skeletons fired arrows and the tiefling threw balefire. The party made pretty short work of the zombies and skeletons. The warlord and ranger turned their attention to the tiefling while the paladin and wizard slugged it out with the gravehound in a festival of bad rolls.

The tiefling fell back across the crater, throwing balefire at the warlord. The ranger charged him and he teleported up to the edge of the far slope. At this point he and the wizard hurled some taunts back and forth in Supernal. The heretic and the ranger traded ranged attacks for a round or two until the ranger and warlord retreated out of his range. Realizing he was still in range of the ranger's bow, the tiefling fled.

I probably could have done a better job at making the tiefling memorable with some witty one-liners in Common, but I don't think I was at the top of my game. Plus, I'm pretty sure the ranger was getting in position to race up around the side of the crater and chase him down like a dog, so he needed to get out of there before the encounter devolved into another session of "chase the bamfing tiefling".

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Plexiglass and Battle Maps

While looking over Gen Con photos from Dave The Game over at Critical Hits, I couldn't help but wince at this one.

Oh, the humanity! The horror of trying to play on a crinkled battle map with ridges and furrows at every crease! *ahem* I will now tell a story. Those interested in just the payoff can skip to the last paragraph...

I started playing DDM a few months ago with a buddy who'd been trying to convince me to pick it up for months. He brought his maps over and, during the first game we played, the way the creases threatened to knock over the smaller and more unbalanced minis drove me nuts. Since he wasn't playing DDM anywhere but my house I made him leave his maps at my place. I spread them out on my game table for a week with books on them and then stored them by hanging them on the wall, still unfolded, suspended by Sparco binder clips from a couple of nails.

That helped, and the next time we played the maps laid pretty flat. They still weren't quite as flat as I'd like, though, and I kept looking around for a better solution. My search intensified when 4e came out a couple months later and I wanted to use the battle maps to have nice scenery for monster-killin' and stuff-takin'. Pulling one unfolded map out of clips for a DDM session was bearable, though a bit cumbersome. For a D&D 4e session where we might go through three or four combats in a session on as many maps it was horrible.

It was my wife who hit on the solution. She had a large piece of glass stored away from a frame she didn't need it in any more. We pulled it out, laid down a battle map, put the glass on top, and set minis on the glass. It worked like a charm. The map was visible, but the surface the minis were standing on was perfectly flat.

The only down side was the fragility of the glass, but we soon fixed that by cannibalizing a large piece of Plexiglass out of an old poster frame we weren't using. The Plexiglass is almost as clear as the glass was, just as flat, and much easier to whip out and slap down over the battle map. We've been playing both 4e and DDM on Plexiglass-covered battle maps ever since.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Reasoning vs. RAW in 4e

MikeLemmer's comment here spurred a thought. In D&D 4th edition, how necessary is it to have reasoning for a 4e power? Does flavor text mean anything?

My own answer is typically "no." I have the RAW and the rules run the game. However, my day job is in computer programming, so this attitude should surprise no one. The computer does exactly what software tells it to, no matter how nonsensical, and that's the world I live in.

Still, I was surprised to find out a few days later that the Player's Handbook apparently backs up my answer right on page 54. "You can alter this description as you like" and "When you need to know the exact effect, look at the rules text that follows."

I can't help but think that the intense arguments over Commander's Strike that I referenced in my previous post would never have taken place if the flavor text had been altered or ignored. In fact, let me take a stab at rewriting the flavor so it matches the mechanics more closely. The rule referenced above explicitly says I can do this.
Warlord Attack 1
Commander’s Strike
With a deft feint, you force an enemy off balance, leaving him open to an attack by an ally.
At-Will * Martial, Weapon
Standard ActionMelee weapon
Target: One creature
Attack: An ally of your choice makes a melee basic attack against the target
Hit: Ally’s basic attack damage + your Intelligence modifier.
Done and done. No more arguments about using this power by yelling from across the battlefield. The new flavor makes the RAW usage clear (not that it matters, since page 54 effectively says the flavor text is meaningless as an interpretation or explanation of the RAW anyway). This version simply clearly states in the flavor what the RAW already told us.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Reading Exceptions

The gleemax thread I referenced in the comments here continues to bug me. The memory of it nags at me and threatens to turn me into an xkcd character. This might be the longest post I've written, but I need to get this off my chest.

4th edition D&D uses exception-based design. Earlier editions use... something else, I guess. What the heck is non-exception-based game design called? I've exhausted my patience with Google and not found an answer. Anyway, exception-based game design requires a different way of reading rules. It seems that one of the most important is recognizing what is an exception and what isn't. This would seem to be obvious, but... well, just go read the gleemax thread (note: I only made it to about page 5 before I thought my head would explode, and as I write this the thread is still expanding at a rate of about a post every half hour).

OK, so there seem to be people who can't agree on what's an exception and what isn't. Since Commander's Strike started this, let's walk through it and see what's what. This is going to be similar to the post by MrCelsius on page 4, but I'm going to try to be even clearer and quote page sources to back me up.

Commander’s Strike Warlord Attack 1
With a shout, you command an ally to attack.

The name, class, type, level and flavor. Stock stuff and meaningless fluff. Let's move on.

At-Will * Martial, Weapon
Standard Action Melee weapon
Target: One creature

These lines are nothing but keywords and types that can be found on dozens of other powers, and have definitions clearly laid out in the base rules. These are not exceptions. The key ones for our purposes are:
Weapon - the power's weapon keyword, which means "[the power] can be used only if you’re wielding a weapon" and "A weapon’s reach or range determines the reach or range of a power it’s used with." (PHB pg 56)
Melee weapon - the type and range of the power, clearly defined on PHB pg 56: "A melee power affects a target (or targets) within melee reach" and "[the power] allows you to attack a target within the reach of the weapon you’re wielding."

So the standard keywords tell us, not once but twice, that the Commander's Strike power works at a range of the reach of the warlord's melee weapon. The Target line tells us that one creature is designated by the warlord as a target, just like with dozens of other "Melee weapon" range powers. This will matter in just a moment...

Attack: An ally of your choice makes a melee basic attack against the target

Here we finally reach our first exception. Instead of the standard "Strength vs. AC" that would mean the warlord makes an attack, an ally attacks the target. There's another exception in here , wrapped in a non-exception. The effect of the melee basic attack is spelled out on page 287 of the PHB. We don't have to spell out an attack of Strength vs. AC or a range of Melee weapon for the ally - these are covered in the definition of melee basic attack and no exceptions to them are called out. However, we also know from the standard Target line above that the warlord chooses the target. Even though the standard target of a melee basic attack is one creature (chosen by the attacker), that target is superseded by the "against the target" exception.

Hit: Ally’s basic attack damage + your Intelligence modifier.

We end with another exception. This line could probably be left off if the warlord's Intelligence didn't modify the damage, since the ally's melee basic attack is defined to do melee basic attack damage (1[W] + Strength modifier damage, Increase damage to 2[W] + Strength modifier at 21st level) anyway.

Whew. Now having done all this digging and research, I also have to inform my warlord player that it clearly states on PHB pg 57 that "ally" does not include you, so she can't use Commander's Strike to give herself a damage-boosted basic attack as an at-will power any more...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Director's Vision, Part 4 (The Inspired Improvisation)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In this installment of my series on the director's vision, I'll look at the inspired improvisation - when your players take off and do your job for you. This post actually comes more out of the movie Jen and I made that kicked off my thoughts about this stuff than out of any campaign example. The entire hide and seek sequence was her idea at the last minute, and now it's a favorite scene for both of us.

Letting inspired improvisation take off is more a matter of spotting the signs that it's coming and getting out of the way than actually doing anything. The best moments of improv will leap at you unexpectedly - you just have to be ready.

In yet another example from the same campaign I've been mining, the party had decided that the well in the center of the town they were in was where the treasure was hidden. They arranged with the mayor to "cleanse the well of evil" so they would have an excuse to go down and look for loot. Before they could actually act, though, they discovered that the treasure was really somewhere else and recovered it.

I was ready to call the adventure finished and gloss over them leaving the town, but they wanted to play out what happened. What followed was one of the more hilarious scenes it has ever been my pleasure to DM. The gnome wizard was lowered into the well, where he shouted, carried on, and used illusion spells to convince the watching mayor that something akin to Gandalf's battle with the balrog was going on down there. Meanwhile the party cleric stood by the mayor calmly assuring him that everything would be fine and that he should just stay back until it was over. I would like to say I ingeniously saw what was coming and let them go with it, but really I was probably just too tired to argue with them. Still, that's okay, because all I had to do was sit back and let them cut loose with descriptions of the gnome's pyrotechnic antics and roleplaying of the cleric's deadpan reassurances.

One good way to get ready to capitalize on improv moments is to practice never saying no when you can say yes. When we were filming, I couldn't tell how the hide and seek scene looked - I was behind the tree holding the giant plush bigfoot. I had to trust Jen's instinct and agree to follow her lead all the way through until we got home and watched the footage. Similarly, when GMing you need to look for signs that your players are really jazzed about what they're doing. The group was really gung ho about playing out the well scene, which should have clued me in that it was going to be good.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Director's Vision, Part 3 (The Wow Scene)

Part 1
Part 2

In this installment of my series on the director's vision, I'll look at the wow scene - the kind of thing that gets talked about weeks or years later.

In my experience, the harder you work on a "wow" scene, the less likely it is to have the impact you want. If you work too hard at it, it becomes forced and feels unnatural. Like the pivotal scene, it's best to work with what develops at the table than to try to force the scene you've wanted to see since before the campaign started.

In another example from the same campaign I mentioned last time, there was a semi-cool scene at the end of a premade module I was running. In it, a forgotten deity thanked the party members for saving his temple and blessed them for a month. I turned it up to 11 after noticing that the deity was supposed to favor the most lawful character in the party. For this party that was the goody-goody gnome wizard who was on the verge of taking the Improved Familiar feat to get a pseudodragon.

So when I set up the hook for the adventure, the gnome was the one who had the visions that led them toward the temple. He spent the entire adventure wondering why a voice in his dreams was speaking to him in a forgotten language. Then when the party got blessed in the finale, the grateful lawful deity also bestowed an axiomatic pseudodragon familiar on the wizard. OK, I stacked the deck in my favor by laying an extra-cool templated familiar on him, but there were reactions of "Ooh" and "Nice" from around the table.

There might have been other things the deity could have done to inspire awe, but I doubt many would have had a bigger impact than bringing the wizard's new familiar into the game with such fanfare. The wizard's player definitely had an extra-soft spot in his heart for that pseudodragon for the rest of the campaign. The other PCs even went well beyond the call of duty to save it when it got in trouble once or twice.

Like with the pivotal scene, I don't have a recipe to follow to cook up a wow scene. But, like with the pivotal scene, it's probably best to just go with the flow - riff off what your players come up with or what they care about. Build up gradually - when something works pretty well, look back over it afterwards, turn it over, see if you can polish it up and morph it into something even better the next time. And when all else fails... give the wizard an uber-kewl familiar.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Shards of the Gate of Darkness, Part 2

When the party found their informant beaten up, the paladin quickly healed him and they asked what happened. He said a trio of tieflings had burst in on him and forced him to tell them where they could find the shards of the Gate of Darkness. The librarian told the party he had heard them discussing the ritual of Refni'lak, which Pele translated as "baptism by fire" - a ritual involving burning down a town and summoning a powerful devil out of the ashes.

The librarian told them that he had been forced to reveal the locations of three shards to the tieflings. Two supposedly lay in remote sites marked by the bones of slain dragons. The third was said to be in the same cave where the group had defeated the bugbear, hobgoblin and goblins. Hey, I wanted to get more mileage out of the Caves of Chaos map.

The party elected to tackle the familiar location first. They approached the caves cautiously and got the drop on a group of hobgoblin guards outside. The ranger brought down a couple of grunts while the wizard kept their buddies running through the trees in the wrong direction with ghost sound. Once the guards figured out what was going on, it was too late - the group swooped in and destroyed them with a rapid assault.

The encounter inside was against two separate groups at once- a hobgoblin warcaster and his hobgoblin soldier/guard, and a tiefling heretic with a gravehound zombie who was there trying to bargain for the shard (which was a chunk of black rock sticking out of the cave wall over the warcaster's chair/throne). This was a tough fight mostly because the heretic circled around behind them and starting balefiring everyone from a safe distance. When they finally started focusing attacks on him he was near the cave entrance and made good his escape.

The warcaster just couldn't catch a break. The fight started with the ranger shooting him from outside the room. He tried to yank the wizard into a vulnerable position and instead she unloaded a fire shroud on him and his buddies. Then he unleashed a force pulse that managed to hit one out of three PCs and one out of one unlucky monsters (the gravehound). The PC he hit was knocked right next to the paladin, who immediately healed her. I have this instinctive belief that warcasters should be rocking cool, but they just... keep... sucking for me.

Director's Vision, Part 2.5

Tonight, instead of finishing part 3 of my series on Director's Vision, I went back and expanded on part 2.

More Laser Clerics!

I should probably be working instead of blogging, but I dig this and I wanna play too. Plus I have a laser cleric of the Raven Queen in one campaign who'll probably want to use Chatty's flavor, so I'd better at least do her other at-will...
Cleric Attack 1
Fire of Fate
A shaft of cold, white flame lances down from above, stealing a single enemy's luck and life force while at the same time transferring that luck or life force to an ally.
At-Will * Divine, Implement, Radiant
Standard ActionRanged 5
Target: One creature
Attack: Wisdom vs. Fortitude
Hit: 1d6 + Wisdom modifier radiant damage, and one ally you can see chooses either to gain temporary hit points equal to your Charisma modifier + one-half your level or to make a saving throw.
Increase damage to 2d6 + Wisdom modifier at 21st level.
Go go gadget laser clerics!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Director's Vision, Part 2 (The Pivotal Scene)

Part 1

In this installment of my little series on the director's vision, I'll look at the pivotal scene - a startling revelation that sets off the rest of the adventure/campaign.

An important consideration for the pivotal scene is the setup. It won't have the impact you want if the players don't have some investment in what's been going on. Before you turn their world upside down it helps if they're actually settled in the world.

For example, in the last long term 3e campaign I ran, the party returned from a side quest to find the caravan they'd been traveling with destroyed and one PC's father and brother apparently killed. The rest of the campaign was spent tracking down the evildoers responsible.

I waited a long time to spring this scene. The PCs were 4th or 5th level before it went down and they had been traveling with this caravan since campaign day 1. The father who was killed had also been their benevolent employer all that time. I had worked really hard to make him likable, from handing them bonuses for good work to just looking like a harmless old dude (click the name Niccolaio Torelli on that page to display his portrait).

I don't think, even though one character's family was killed, that the scene would have been as effective if I had gone ahead with it when they were level 1 or 2 (which I thought about doing at the time). No matter how much we want them to, players just don't start out attached to those NPCs in their back stories. It took time and work for them to lose at least some of the metagamey feeling that these guys were going to screw them over at any second*. I introduced an NPC from another PC's back story in the same campaign, and I don't think they ever trusted that guy. When he betrayed them it barely registered, even though he only did it because they took his mount and abandoned him in a plague-riddled town when he got sick.

I wish I had a formula or step by step instructions for how to make your players care about the things in the world you plan to take away, but I don't. Maybe they can just smell it on you when an NPC is going to betray them. The scene with the father dying might have worked because the father would never have betrayed them. He was doomed to die from campaign day one, but he would never have betrayed them. Maybe the best way to go is to just put lots of sympathetic NPCs in your campaigns... see which one they get the most attached to... then kill the hell out of that one.

* They never lost that feeling with the brother, but that's OK... he turned out to be behind the whole thing anyway.

The Shards of the Gate of Darkness, Part 1

I thought the interrogation of the tiefling went really well. The first thing he said when questioned, in "Supernal", was "Speak to me in the language of my revered ancestors or do not speak to me at all." I spoke in made-up-on-the-fly "Supernal" through the entire scene, except for a few in-character comments in English/Common to insult the non-tiefling party members and remind them that he was only speaking a language they didn't understand in order to be an ass. I managed to use a few words I'd memorized beforehand - "ah" was always used for "I" or "me", and "p'tah" was the word for gnomes. I tried to make "Supernal" sound like less forceful klingon with more devilish hissing. For example, I derived "p'tah" from the klingon petaQ for "Useless garbage or incompetent person" - it seemed appropriate for what the tieflings thought of the gnomes.

Anyway, the tiefling revealed that his cabal was seeking to restore the ancient empire of Bael Turath to its former glory. They were also interested in obtaining the book the gnomes had been after back at the library (though it looks like I neglected to mention that bit in the log post). He said he had led the gnomes to the book, figuring he could kill them and take it once they obtained it. He then became uncooperative and burst his bonds with a balefire burst centered on himself. The party swiftly dispatched him, then headed to the library to make sure the book was safe.

When they reached the library, they smelled death and found zombies inside. A tiefling and one librarian were trying to extract information from another, bound, librarian. The eladrin warlord pulled a slick maneuver, fey stepping around the last zombie to get next to the ranged-attack tiefling. The group made short work of the zombies but had some trouble pinning down the teleporting tiefling.

I think they're getting irritated at the tiefling heretic's Cloak of Escape ability, but I don't think I had them fearing for their lives at any point during this fight.

They interrogated both librarians, but didn't learn much. They then sought out the head librarian at his home to let him know what was going on. He told them that the book everyone was after had been hidden away for safekeeping after the gnomes tried to get it. The party related what little information they had gotten from their various prisoners. The librarian said he would consult the book and see if he could figure out what the cabal was up to. When the group returned the next morning to consult with him, they found him tied up, badly burned and beaten...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

World Building Through Interrogation

I tried an interesting experiment earlier this evening. It didn't accomplish everything I had hoped, but it showed promise.

Early last week I tried to get some player input into building my mini-campaign story arc by throwing it open on this blog. That (as my wife predicted) got almost zero response and none of it was really useful. I then tried to get her to contribute by playing the role of the tiefling the party was going to interrogate first thing in our session this evening. She didn't go for that plan, feeling that she should be able to focus on her characters, not my NPC.

So earlier today I hit on an idea that seemed to have promise: I would play the tiefling NPC, but only Jen's tiefling PC would be able to understand him. I had to retcon some minor things about the world and Jen's character (the tieflings of Bael Turath now spoke Supernal instead of Common and so do many of their descendants, including the prisoner and Jen's tiefling wizard). Then I told Jen before the game that the tiefling was going to refuse to speak Common to the party, instead speaking "Supernal" that I would make up on the fly which she would have to "translate".

For some things the prisoner was going to say I prepared translations on post-it notes ahead of time. I handed these to Jen so she would know what he was saying without the rest of the party knowing. I also warned her that if the line of questioning led into areas that
  1. The prisoner would know about and be willing to tell them
  2. I hadn't already fleshed out
  3. I didn't even have an idea off the top of my head for
then I would spout some "Supernal" and hand her a blank post-it and it would be her job to "translate" by creating whatever he said.

In the end, I didn't have to hand out any blank post-its. I had thought out what the prisoner did and didn't know well enough that they didn't go down any tracks I hadn't thought of. I think the interrogation session in "Supernal" went really well anyway, though. I had prepped some insults and innuendo for the prisoner to say to Jen's tiefling privately that really stopped her in her tracks. At one point the other player at the table observed "Boy, it's taking a long time to translate that one" as Jen wrestled with what she should and shouldn't reveal.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Director's Vision, Part 1 (Introduction)

Last week I helped my wife shoot a music video starring our 6-foot plush bigfoot, Claude. I might be biased, but I think it turned out pretty well. I also think one of the reasons it turned out well is that from the start of the project I had a couple of clear ideas in my head for things I wanted to see (those things were the dancing and painting scenes, if you're curious). I've heard actors talk about the "director's vision" when plugging movies on talk shows, and I think this experience gave me some inkling of what they're talking about.

In the days after the video shoot, I did some thinking about the director's vision and how it might apply to campaign building, adventure building and game mastering. There are a few concepts that come to mind:

The Pivotal Scene
The crucial information or startling revelation that sets off the rest of the adventure/campaign.

The Wow Scene
A scene so cool you can play it in your head like a film in your mind's eye.

The Inspired Improvisation
Sometimes your players/actors come up with something so good you just have to get out of their way and let it happen.

In the next few days I'll try to expand on these and think about how to make them happen.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How to Draw Stairs

Longer ago than I care to consider, I was an engineering undergrad at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. At the time (and maybe still for all I know), every student in the engineering school had to take General Engineering 103 - Engineering Drafting. I hated the class, partly because I didn't see the point, but probably mostly because I sucked at it. I managed to pass (barely) and moved on with my life.

Years later, I finally found a use for all the stuff they tried to teach me about straightedges and compasses and parallel lines. I could use their techniques to help me draw old-school-D&D-map stairs like in the image to the right (bonus points to the first grognard to tell us which module this chunk of map is from).

You will need the following tools:
  • Pencil (for construction lines)
  • Pen or marker (for final lines)
  • Good white drafting eraser
  • 2 drafting triangles
  • Drafting compass (optional)
I'll be showing my example on a scrap of 1" square graph paper from the stuff I've been using to make custom battle maps for our 4e sessions. You can click on the images to make them (a lot) larger. Maybe I should have scaled those down a bit. Ah well :)

I'll start with a hallway that I want to put stairs in (just like the one toward the top left of the map above).

Use one of the straightedges to draw two guide lines in light pencil from the top of the stairs to the bottom. At this point, truly particular drafting geeks can use the compass to draw evenly-spaced tick marks down one of the guide lines.

Set up the two triangles as shown. Set the guide triangle (the top one in the image) parallel to the direction your stairs go (I aligned it with a line on the graph paper). Press it against the paper so it doesn't move. Slide the other triangle to a point where its edge crosses both of the guide lines. Line it up with a tick mark if you drew some. Press down to hold it in place, but always keep pressure on the guide triangle as well. If you draw with a light touch you shouldn't need much pressure on the second triangle.

Draw a line in ink along the second triangle's edge from one guide line to the other. Keeping pressure on the guide, slide the second triangle along the stairs (to the next tick mark if you drew them) and repeat.

Finally, erase the guide lines.

I hope this little tutorial is of some use to somebody. It represents an application of pretty much every trick I remember from drafting class. I doubt my professor would be impressed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dragonborn Bewbs

This is an old topic that started some serious flamewars a few months ago, so it's probably best that I'm posting it automagically while I'm out of town. I have no desire to revisit the madness, but I want to offer up a single thought about it.

I suspect that the reason dragonborn females in the 4e core books have breasts is simply because:
  1. The art director told the artist(s) that we had to be able to tell the genders apart.
  2. The artists followed that directive in the simplest way possible - by differentiating the genders of dragonborn the same way they do every other race.
And that's too bad. I think someone seriously dropped the ball on this one. I don't think the dragonborn breasts, the way they're depicted, do their job of differentiation all that well. A couple of images in the PHB I dunno what gender the subject is. I also think that with ten seconds of thought they could
have come up with something that would have done the job better and caused a lot less geek controversy. That's about how long it took Jen and I to come up with the suggestion below when the subject came up between us.

I think female dragonborn should look just like the males we have in the books (maybe with smoother heads - that seems to be another subtle differentiating feature) and the males should have frills.

How cool would that be? How badass would the iconic male dragonborn paladin look, charging out of the page at you, with his freaking frills flared out past his shoulders? While we're at it we can give them to the male dragons to flare when they use their breath weapons (and court female dragons).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Teamwork in 4e - "Hit him again!"

Today I want to compare the two parties I've been running D&D4e for. Specifically, I want to talk about the warlords. More specifically, I want to talk about Commander's Strike and party composition.

In the first party, Garback the Stabber was constantly using Commander's Strike to give Hatha the minotaur another attack. Since Garback used a scimitar while Hatha had Str 20 and a large maul, he got a lot of bang out of her basic attack.

When creating the second party, Laurel commented that she was impressed with how well Commander's Strike worked for the first party. She took it for her warlord, even carrying a reach weapon so she could more easily target foes with it. Unfortunately, the defender in the second party is a low-strength charisma-based paladin. Her basic attack is... unimpressive, to say the least.

The new warlord has gotten some mileage out of Commander's Strike with the ranger, but not nearly as much as she could teamed with a rogue or a fighter with a massive basic attack. With the paladin and ranger, she has gotten more use out of Viper's Strike. One very effective tactic they've used is to get the ranger and paladin next to the enemy, then the warlord Viper Strikes and the paladin attacks, marks, and shifts back. When the enemy shifts to go after the paladin, the ranger gets a free attack.

It's been said before but bears repeating: 4e is more about building a kickass team than a bunch of kickass individuals.

Hello, I Must Be Going

Hello,! I've joined up just in time to leave town until Friday night.

<whine>No, not to go to Gen Con, on a boring business trip to Denver.</whine>

<whine2>Crud, I should put a random drawing from Jen in here, but all the images are on the laptop, which is already packed to go to Denver.</whine2>

Edit: There, at least now that I'm in Denver I can put in a drawing.

But this does not mean the mighty feed of RPGBloggers will have to go three whole days without my wit and wisdom! Heavens no! I've not only scheduled posts to go live at 7PM CST tonight, tomorrow, and Friday, but I think these three might be some of my best work so far.

Well, OK, tonight's and Friday's are. Tomorrow's I'm just throwing over the wall while I'm gone like a live grenade so I don't have to be take any shrapnel from it.

But in fact, the post currently scheduled for Friday is the one I had the germ of an idea for three weeks ago, that provided the motivation to actually start this blog. I really hope someone finds it useful - I haven't seen anything like it in the RPG blogosphere.

Now that I've said that, though, I'll probably find enough time in the evenings in Denver to get online and change everything around. Oh well.

<introspection>Wow, apparently I get punchy before I have to get on a plane. I hope no one takes this as indicative of my style, or even notices it at all, really...</introspection>

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wandering Monsters

I was going to keep quiet tonight even though I've been writing, to stock up on backlog. I need something to carry the blog through while I'm out of town for the next couple of days. But it looks like the mighty Mike Mearls has come to blogger, and opened with quite the post.

I find myself really wanting to try his "skill challenge to avoid wandering monsters" idea this coming weekend. Now all I need is an adventure locale that lends itself to lots of weird monsters creeping around all over the place, getting up in the PCs business whenever they try to catch their breath.

Relinquishing Narrative Control

I was rereading Jeff Rients' post on How to Awesome-Up Your Players last night, and it got me thinking about setting the players loose in between games as well as in-game.

At this point, the mini campaign with just the girls has moved beyond the bounds of any published adventure I have lying around. I'm also finding 4th edition encounter design easy enough that I think I could give them something to do for a session given a hook or goal and a couple hours prep time.

So at this point I'm throwing it open. What do Mazzil and Mardred find out from interrogating the tiefling they captured? What do they find in the cave when they go back and search it? What new adventures do those things lead them on? What cool monsters do I get to run for those adventures? I dunno. You tell me (preferably before this weekend so I can prep some encounters for them).

The narrative ball is in everyone else's court now. You can comment on this post if you want to pick it up and run with it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Tiefling and the Hobgoblins

After defeating the gnome arcanist, the girls discovered some notes about his attempts to regain the lost knowledge of how the ancient tieflings had controlled the kruthiks. They also discovered that he was in contact with a member of an evil cabal of tieflings. They decided to track down the gnome's contact and stop his evil plans (mostly because they needed about one more big encounter's worth of xps to reach level 3).

Since I figured this was going to be a single encounter, I started with a tough 800xp budget. I knew I wanted my leader to be a tiefling heretic. I gave him some hobgoblin buddies, including a warcaster, just because I like hobgoblin warcasters.

So the encounter was:
1 tiefling heretic (level 6 artillery, 250 xp)
1 hobgoblin warcaster (level 3 controller, 150 xp)
3 hobgoblin soldiers (level 3 soldier, 450 xp each)
4 hobgoblin grunts (level 3 minion, 300 xp total)
Map: Forest Cliff Lair from Fantastic Locations: Dragondown Grotto

So I kinda went over budget and created a tough 1000xp fight. I tried to separate it by moving one soldier and two grunts outside the lair into the woods as guards, which would have changed it into an easy 225xp encounter and a tough 775xp one. So of course the PCs bluffed their way into being escorted by the outside guards into the depths of the cave and then got jumped by everything at once.

Everything went well for the bad guys for quite a few rounds. The soldiers got in formation and no one could seem to hit them. The heretic stayed back and repeatedly BBQ'd the ranger. The warcaster stayed back a bit and tried to slide PCs around, but he was hampered by his relatively short range powers and the wizard's flaming sphere. Eventually the warcaster dropped from constant fire damage, then the flaming sphere broke up the soldiers' formation. Meanwhile the ranger charged the tiefling and started chasing him all over. In the end they had to chase the teleporting heretic out into the woods and take him down at the far end of the map. They then tied him up, healed his wounds, and got ready to pump him for information.

Hobgoblin phalanx AC bonuses really shut the party down, while at the same time the tiefling heretic couldn't seem to miss the ranger. Every PC except the wizard was knocked to zero hp at least once, and the wizard was down to 4 hp when it was all over. With the beating they got, I'm not sure they're going to want to track down this tiefling's cabal...

Creepy Things in the Sewers, Part 4 (gnomes!)

After clearing out a bunch of rats and parleying with their leader, the group poked their heads out of the rat room and were immediately fired upon by three gnome skulks and charged by a guard drake. They backed into the room to more easily deal with the drake, but the skulks kept firing at them through the open doorway. Once the drake was defeated, they closed the door and regrouped.

After taking a round to catch their breath, they charged back out and stormed down the passage. The ranger and the warlord quickly ran down two gnomes in their hiding places, but the third kept making his Stealth checks and sniping the warlord from hiding. Finally, when one gnome had been defeated and things looked grim for the second one, the final gnome came running in with his lightning longsword, hoping to zap the whole party with its daily power. Of course, he missed. The warlord and paladin unloaded high-damage encounter powers and took him out immediately.

This running battle went pretty well. The gnomes kept fading out and lurking around to keep things interesting. The guard drake was fairly useless, though, since he had no one to guard while the gnomes fired from a distance. I probably should have switched him with the spitting drake in the next room.

Since the wererat had told them where the gnomes' arcanist leader was, the group burst into the last room with guns blazing. The wizard unloaded area-effect encounter and daily powers with an action point, which softened up the opposition pretty well. The spitting drake never got to act, the two gnome skulks fired a shot apiece before being destroyed, and the leader's iron defender didn't fare much better (though it was the last enemy to fall). As for the leader, the warlord fey stepped next to him and used Lead the Attack, which the paladin followed up with On Pain of Death. Between those dailies and the damage the wizard laid down, he dropped after only getting to act once.

When this group wins initiative and goes in blasting with the daily powers, they lay waste. Between the two encounters, everyone in the party got to shine, which was nice. The paladin marked the guard drake and kept it from eating the squishier members of the party. The ranger hunted down sneaky invisible gnomes in the passages. The wizard laid waste to the final room, and the warlord got the drop on the leader past his iron defender and finished him with just a little help from the paladin.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Plug for Jen

My wife has a blog where she usually posts about modern art, but she has a few RPG-related posts in there. If you want to see the game through the eyes of someone more casual about it than the usual RPG-blog crowd of rabid obsessive GMs like me, here's a chance.

She also does the illustrations for this blog.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Religion Kiosks

A few days ago I mentioned that after getting the adventure hook, my group did "a bit of party gathering". This basically meant contacting the cleric, paladin, and fighter, who hadn't been present for the dwarven hook-giver's visit.

The discussion went something like this:
"Where are the others?"
"I'm sure the paladin and cleric are at the temple."
"They don't even follow the same god!"
"Well, maybe the temple has religion kiosks for the different gods."

I just wanted to throw that out there because I find the idea of religion kiosks inherently hilarious.

P.S. It was also suggested that the remaining character, the minotaur fighter, had gathered with other minotaurs around a campfire where they were all discussing the biggest creatures they had ever knocked over.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Computerized Tools at the Table

Before I start this post, let me lay out my credentials for anyone who isn't aware of them. I'm the guy who wrote Virtual Dice Tray, a program that has at least a few fans in the tabletop sphere. I've even considered trying to make a career out of writing software tools for tabletop gaming.

So it might surprise you, dear reader (as it surprises me), that the 4e games I've been running have been done with almost no computerized assistance. I keep my laptop at the table, but it has only two simple tasks, neither of which is critical to the game:
  1. Drive a small monitor that faces the group where I can display scene-setting images
  2. Run an old version of iTunes and play a mix of movie scores and other background music
What caused this change? How did I wind up not even using a program, hailed by one user with "I don't know how I'll ever DM without Virtual Dice Tray", that I wrote myself?

I think it has to do with the campaign I played in from January to June of this year. By the third session there were 4 laptops at the table for 4 players and the DM. The DM was running DM's Familiar and had pdfs open. One player was trying to chronicle what was happening in-game as we were playing. My wife and I were running Virtual Dice Tray and I had my character sheet open in TextPad.

There were certain problems that kept cropping up for everyone. I had to keep flipping between my dice and my character sheet. My wife was using a screen smaller than the Dice Tray was designed for and kept running into problems. Our chronicler kept needing things repeated that were said during flurries of typing. During combat the DM would stare into his screen and then announce "You take 12 points of damage" because DM's Familiar had already decided whether his monster hit whoever was being attacked and rolled damage silently.

Maybe if we had kept going we could have kept the computers and found our way around some of these issues. Maybe not. All I know is that when we play now my laptop is the only computer at the table and, as noted above, it's not working nearly as hard.

And when I throw handfuls of dice down on the table in front of everyone, I don't have to worry about the players getting the weird empty feeling I used to get, wondering what was happening on the DM's laptop screen.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Treasure of Talon Pass, Part 3

After defeating the kobolds, the rogue unlocked the cabinet in their room and found gold, a potion and boots. They then decided to return to the secret door they had found before proceeding further from the entrance.

After passing through both secret doors, they found themselves face to face with the two wights. The cleric made her Religion check to identify them as such. At this point a panic fueled by fears of 1st edition level drain set in. The paladin slammed the door and the rogue got to work spiking it shut. The group fled toward the entrance but got cut off by one of the wights leading a trio of zombies. Meanwhile, they could hear the remaining undead forcing the secret door open behind them.

Things looked grim, but the zombies fell readily to Acid Arrow and the paladin's breath weapon. The wights got off one attack each before being brought down by coordinated attacks. Since the wights had split up to cut the party off, the one who fell second was unable to reanimate the other.

I probably should have waited for the party to come around and try the other entrance to the undeads' room. The wights would have been much more effective as a pair. I could have also used some non-minion undead to round out their defenses. Again, the party is too large to keep the encounters as written.

After their victory the group decided it was time to rest. The undeads' room seemed to be safe enough, since the kobolds had apparently already determined that they were afraid to go there. They settled in and the rogue put on the boots she had found. As she started jumping and running around the room to see what effect her new footgear might have, everyone started to chime in with ideas.

"Walk up the wall!"
"Try to teleport!"
"Click your heels together three times!"
"Set them on fire!"

I still don't know why these people want to set everything on fire.

Non-gamers Just Don't Understand

After having the party rogue apparently stab my big bad wyrmpriest right in the base of the skull, I felt I needed to talk my feelings over with someone. One of my players kindly recommended Eliza.

Eliza: Hi. I'm Eliza. Tell me your problems!
You : My players' characters keep stabbing my NPCs IN THE BASE OF THE SKULL
Eliza: Perhaps you would like to talk about a problem?
You : Yeah, my players' characters keep stabbing my NPCs IN THE BASE OF THE SKULL
Eliza: What does this mean for you, saying " Yeah, your players' characters keep stabbing your NPCs IN THE BASE OF THE SKULL "?
You : It means they're a bunch of homicidal misfits
Eliza: I understand!
You : OK, so what should I do?
Eliza: Do you in your dreams, too?
You : My dreams aren't really the problem.
Eliza: Come on! I'll tell nobody about your problems!
You : Never mind.
Eliza: I'm not sure wether I understand you!
You : Yeah, well, you can't spell "whether" right, either.

So, y'know, that didn't go so well. Non-gamers just don't understand.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Treasure of Talon Pass, Part 2

After defeating the kobold sentries on the ledge, the group found the kobolds' ladder, got everyone up on the ledge, and pursued the kobold that fled.

In the next room, they encountered the decoy dragonshields who were supposed to draw them into the rear part of the room. The party won initiative and did enough damage to the decoys that they barely escaped the front area with their lives, and never did make it into the rear - the group cut them down in the curtained passageway. The remaining kobolds made a valiant effort, but the party soon got through their lines and took their leader down in a single round with an inspiring display of teamwork. The wizard hit him with Chill Strike and left him dazed, the cleric hit him with Lance of Faith to give the rogue +2 to hit, and the rogue charged in and finished him off with a basic attack and a pile of sneak attack damage because he was dazed.

I've read quite a few complaints that low-level 4th edition monsters (and characters) have way too many hit points, and that it's no fun to have to whack away at them for multiple rounds. This encounter showed that it doesn't have to take multiple rounds for a well-coordinated party to take out a low level monster. It only took three characters to take the kobold wyrmpriest from full hit points to dead in a round, and only one used an ability that wasn't at will (and it was merely a per-encounter, not a daily).

Treasure of Talon Pass, Part 1

August 2nd we got the whole group together again.

When we last saw our heroes, they had just completed the Kobold Hall adventure by slaying the big bad dragon at the end. It was, of course, only a matter of time before further adventure sought them out. The dwarf who commissioned Rhaen to track down the dragon hide in Kobold Hall found her again. He sent them off to Talon Pass to find the Jade Chalice and told them about the orcs also headed that way. After a bit of party gathering they made their way to the ruined Tower of Talon Pass and the dungeon beneath it.

In the entry room they searched the strange rubble and took note of the pieces of blades in it. They tried to sneak up on the orcs in room 3, but were foiled by the guard wolves. A fairly straight fight ensued. Afterward they found the secret door to room 2, but didn't like the look of the passage behind it and left it alone for the time being.

Room 4 was a bit more interesting. They managed to get to the entrance without alerting the kobolds, but they didn't want to face the slingers on their ledge. The warlock crept into the room under cover of Shadow Walk while the wizard tried to set the wooden* ledge on fire with a mage handed torch. The torch distracted two kobolds, but the third spotted the warlock and started firing.

Once the fight was on, the rogue got up on the ledge while the ranged types gave her support from below. The melee types had a round to think they had nothing to do, then the dragonshields came in. In the end, only one kobold slinger escaped to warn the leader in the next room.

This group is both coordinated and large - I need to beef up the remaining encounters before we meet again. I hope I have enough minis for the job. On a side note, why do PCs always want to set everything on fire? Whatever is wrong with them?

* Is it wooden? I think I assumed so because it's drawn a darker color on the map. The adventure text doesn't say. In retrospect it's probably meant to be stone and that's why there are no notes on how much damage it can take.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Revised Cast of Characters

Rhaen Farearitil, human rogue

Maersai Catalpacircle, elf cleric

Revis Hatha, minotaur fighter

Vistra Frostwarden, dwarf wizard

Garback the Younger, dragonborn paladin

Modrothep the Unfinished, tiefling warlock

Yes, I know this is a cheap easy post, but it's been a long day and I'm tired. Besides, I need an up-to-date cast post to refer back to later (like tomorrow when I actually get around to posting part 1 of yesterday's game). And we have a new picture of Garback with his shiny new armor and sword, so it's not a total rehash either.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hard to Post About Gaming While Gaming

Today was game day. Stories about flying torches and kobolds being turned into paste will be forthcoming... tomorrow. Maybe Monday, tomorrow could be a pretty full day itself. And now... sleep.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Creepy Things in the Sewers, Part 3 (rats and rats)

After defeating two waves of kruthiks above ground and two ochre jellies below, the PCs continued their search for whatever was behind the kruthik invasion of the town.

Down the passage, around a bend, they came to another door. When they opened it, the paladin and ranger were immediately swarmed by rats. The ranger took bite damage and discovered she took more just for starting her turn in the rats' space. She was not happy. She was less happy when the tiefling wizard's response to her cries for help was "How much fire damage can you take?"

The wizard came to her friends' rescue, unloading area-effect fire spells in their general direction. The ranger survived, but was not feeling well at all. More targeted blasting from the wizard and some smashing from the paladin finished the rest of the rats.

There was another door inside the rat room. A stellar listen check was rewarded with the sound of squeaking on the other side. They decided to take these new rats by surprise by tying a rope to the door latch and getting behind the wizard. They yanked the door open and the wizard unleashed Burning Hands, wiping out two giant rats and seriously damaging two more swarms. She then won initiative and spent an action point to hit the swarms with two Scorching Bursts. Then the paladin stepped into the doorway to block the rats' advance. Two rounds later all the rats had been destroyed except one dire rat that sat in the back of the room, watching them.

The last rat turned out to be a wererat, who decided to talk to party rather than engage them. When he found out they were looking for kruthiks, he told them there were gnomes behind the trouble, and happily ratted them out.

Jen's wizard got to shine here - she was really on fire. As far as the wererat hanging back instead of engaging - I was trying to see the situation from his point of view. The rats had an inkling that something was on the other side of the door. Before they could really investigate, the door flew open and three fiery blasts (and a dwarf) came through it. What do you do when your front door flies open and an inferno erupts out of it?

Creepy Things in the Sewers, Part 2 (bugs and oozes)

So after my hurried prep and some dinner, we sat down to game.

The PCs started in the middle of my "village square" map, just standing around talking about the wizard's research into what the gnomes in the library were doing there. The wizard had discovered that the gnomes were doing research into Bael Turath, the ancient tiefling empire. Everyone was puzzled by this.

The ranger heard chittering and hissing noises coming from a nearby house. As they moved to investigate, someone came running from behind the house, pursued by a small swarm of kruthiks. Once this swarm was defeated, another came out of the well in the center of the square, and the PCs dealt with that one pretty handily as well.

By the end of these fights, the girls were using a combination of paladin marks, warlord viper strikes, and kruthik tactics to both stay clear of the kruthik's Gnashing Horde aura and allow the ranger to attack as often as possible while keeping the swarm focused on the (freaking impossible to hit) paladin.

The group went down the well and through an access passage down below into the sewers. The sewer map has lots of 1-square-wide ledges with water on one side and a wall on the other. On one of these ledges they were attacked by two ochre jellies. The jellies used their Flowing Form ability to quickly surround the PCs. The girls pulled back through a door into a side room where they could fight the oozes more on their own terms. Once able to better control who the oozes could attack (see impossible to hit paladin, above), they made short work of them.

When I first sprang this encounter, it looked worse for the party than I had intended - they were surrounded in single file with the ranger on one end and the warlord on the other. Fortunately they managed to pull back with only minor damage (none for the warlord, who Fey Stepped away). I also neglected to use the oozes' Split ability when they became bloodied - once because I didn't have an extra mini handy, and the second time because I forgot.

Creepy Things in the Sewers, Part 1 (maps and prep)

July 26th was supposed to be the next meeting of our full group. I was all set to run Treasure of Talon Pass, which I picked up at Free RPG Day a few weeks ago. I spent hours prepping battle maps, pulling minis, and printing copies of stat blocks so I could run the entire adventure without cracking a core book.

So, of course, I had a player cancel with two hours' notice. It was time to put the much-lauded quick adventure prep abilities of 4e to the test for the reduced group.

Fortunately, I already had a general idea of where the smaller group's next adventure would take place. I had come across a two-sided battle map from an early-3e-era Dragon magazine with a village square on one side and some twisty sewer passages on the other. I had a general idea that the gnomes they fought in the library were going to have friends, and they were all involved in some twisted scheme. This scheme would of course be bad for the town the PCs were in (the one they had saved from the plague in their first adventure).

So, with maps in hand I cracked the DMG to see what it would tell me about constructing a complete adventure from scratch. Hello, page 104:
On average, it takes a character eight to ten encounters to gain a level, with the possible addition of a major quest. For a group of nine encounters, here’s how they might be broken down.
This is followed by a very handy table. For 4 2nd level PCs, that table coupled with the target xp table on page 57 resulted in:
400 xp - 1 encounter
500 xp - 3 encounters, 1 quest
600 xp - 3 encounters
800 xp - 1 encounter

I wanted to throw in a skill challenge, but I didn't think I had time to come up with one. I then went to the Monsters By Level table in the back of the Monster Manual. I simply started jotting down the monsters that didn't appear in Talon Pass so I could try out running as many different monsters as possible. A sample of the encounters I came up with:

1 adult kruthik, 1 young kruthik, 3 hatchling kruthiks – 393 xp total
2 ochre jellies – 600 xp total
2 rat swarms, 2 dire rats, 2 giant rats – 500 xp total

It took a few minutes to figure out what these monsters were doing in the sewers, and a few more to scatter them around the maps I had. Maybe 15 minutes to pull minis. Finally, I copied, organized, and printed off stat blocks for all the monsters and wrote in each one's starting hit points for tracking later.

All told, it took 1.5-2 hours prep time to drive a 4-hour session, and I had encounters to spare (which are scheduled to be played through tomorrow). Given more time, I probably would have tweaked the level down on a tiefling heretic to replace or support my BBEG. I guess since they didn't reach that encounter I still have the option...