Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I have the barest sliver of a wireless connection, so I'll keep this brief. Here's my little Christmas gift to you, a new monster prompted by someone on (I think Peter LaCara). The idea is that if elves are related to the eladrin, what is the Feywild equivalent of a goblin?

My answer the boggart. I'm sure that name has been used in D&D before, but I'm coopting it for this annoying little beastie. Have fun, and merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Here's another conversion of a "classic" (in my eyes, at least) Fiend Folio monster: the blindheim.

End of the Year Part I: Gaming Resolutions

I had two options for today's post: either talk a bit about magic items in D&D in response to today's post at Grognardia, or shamelessly copy Amityville Mike at the Society of Torch, Pole and Rope.

I started to wax eloquently about magic items, but then stopped when I had an idea that might grow into something larger. So, here are my gaming resolutions for 2009:

1. Paint enough kobolds, orcs, hobgoblins, undead, and gnolls to have metal minis on hand for those monster types.

2. Get back to running my OD&D megadungeon, Kardallin's Palace. I ran two sessions at work, but stopped once the next phase of 4e work (and my lunch time Temple of Elemental Evil game) took up my time.

3. Play or run Traveller.

4. Play a game of Divine Right.

5. Keep my 4e Temple of Elemental Evil campaign running throughout the year.

6. Start my 4e Keep on the Borderlands sandbox game.

7. Stay on top of creating item cards for all my D&D games, and make a point of using them in the game. This is tangentially related to James' post, but I've had some success in making up index cards to represent each magic item I had out in 4e. The card has the mechanics on one side, and a (story) description of the item on the other. This method made items interesting when I put energy into it, but it is a fair amount of work.

8. Post here at least once a week.

9. Stay focused enough to complete these tasks, rather than fall victim to gamer ADD.

Next up: my gaming wish list.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Adherer

I'm messing around with Google docs. Below is what it belched out when I tried to publish a document to this blog. If you want to peek at the original Google doc, I've published it for public consumption. Let me know if this is a handy way to get stuff out there. In the future, I think I'll just post notices here of stuff that I've cooked up.

Anyway, here's the original. Or at least, I think that's the URL.



This strange creature has wrinkly skin that hangs from its body in
thick folds that resemble a mummy's wrappings. This creature is
covered in a thick, sticky substance it secretes. An adherer usually
preys on insects and other creatures that it can trap on its skin. It
then slowly digests trapped prey by bathing it in acid that flows
from its skin.

Adherers are aggressive creatures originally found deep in
the Darrana jungles. They were unknown in the region until shortly
after a doomed adventuring expedition led by Lord Tallark Greyfaire
departed for the plateau of Karrn. Lord Greyfaire claimed to possess
a map that led to a great treasure. The dragonborn clansmen of the
region refused to provide guides or porters for the expedition, as
local legends hold the plateau as sacred to Torog. Greyfaire and his
men never returned, but soon after the first adherer was spotted in
the jungle along the plateau's western fringe.

In the years since, beast handlers have trapped and trained adhere for
use as guards. Their ability to disarm and capture intruders without
immediately killing them have made adherers useful as guard beasts.


Adherer Level 5 Controller

Medium aberrant humanoid XP 200
Initiative +3 Senses Perception +3; low-light vision
HP 62; Bloodied 31
AC 19; Fortitude 18, Reflex 16, Will 16
Speed 6
m Slam (standard; at-will)
+10 vs. AC; 1d8+4 damage and the adherer grabs the target.
M Adhering Crush (standard; recharge 5 6)
Target grabbed by the adherer only; +10 vs. Reflex; 1d8+4 damage and the target loses its standard action each turn until it escapes from the adherer's grab. The adherer also loses its standard action while it has a target trapped in this manner.
M Adhering Hide (immediate reaction when hit by a weapon melee attack; at-will)
+10 vs. Reflex against the triggering attacker; on a hit, the target's weapon becomes stuck to the adherer. Creatures using natural weapons are grabbed by the adherer. A creature can free a stuck weapon with a Strength check as a standard action (DC 18).
Acidic Secretions
A creature that ends its turn grabbed by an adherer suffers 5 acid damage.
Alignment Unaligned Languages None
Str 18 (+6) Dex 12 (+3) Wis 13 (+3)
Con 14 (+4) Int 9 (+1) Cha 11 (+2)

Friday, December 12, 2008

It's All in the Details

This is why I love writing D&D stuff:

"With an Arcana check (DC 23) the PCs learn that the entire plateau is, in fact, the broken shaft of a spear used to pin some monstrous creature to the bottom of the Sea of Howling Souls."

Tip o' the hat to Amityville Mike at The Society of Torch, Pole and Rope for this post. It proved useful this week in working on an adventure.

I think that's one of the things I love best about working on RPGs. There's no layer between designer and the end product, or the methods used by "customers" and producers. Really, we're all producers. Some of us just do it on company time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Gates of Death

If you haven't read any of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane stories, well, I'm not surprised. They've been out of print for years, and the few collections printed in the recent past go for outrageous sums of money. I prowl the Planet Stories forum at Paizo on a weekly basis, hoping that they've managed to secure the license for a reprint. So far, no dice.

I've read only one Kane novel, Dark Crusade, and it provided a number of ideas to help populate my campaign:

1. I want to create a number of "freelance NPCs", basically rival adventurers who can serve as foils to the characters' plots. Think of it as semi-character driven sandboxing.

2. I've designed a series of gates throughout the region that allow rapid transport across the area, turning a week-long trip into a one day excursion.

There is, of course, a catch. I don't like the Star Trek/science fiction-esque feel of a teleportation transit system. It's too cold, clinical, and technical.

Instead, these passages are called the Gates of Death, and for good reason. When the gods and titans warred over the world, it was only partially completed. Here and there, titanic and divine creatures still labored over the world. The world spider was one of these creatures. It and its brood wove the firmaments of time and space.

The Death Gates are areas where the world spider and its children still lurk, realms where time and space run at odd angles. To a mortal, this lets you take a journey of 100 miles in 50 steps. Nice, isn't it?

Sadly, the world spider and its children are trapped within the gates. They've gone mad over the eons, as they are trapped within creation while the gods and titans are consigned to the planes. Thus, while a journey through the Gates is but 50 steps, it is 50 steps of pure, maniacal, panic as a horde of eons old spider demons rushes after you.

Legends hold that the world spider has lost track of the extent of its domain. Passages twist and turn, leading to chambers and realms untouched since the dawn of time. Further legends whisper that, hidden within that awful maze, are doorways that contain the treasure troves of gods, lands where gold grows from the soil like grass, and a library in which every single truth of the world is kept hidden.

So, that's how I'm handling gates in my campaign.

Kane's adventures also prompted a few other ideas, but I'll get to those in future posts. If you have a chance to read any of the stories, I highly recommend them.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Outdoor Survival!

As a little, early Christmas gift to myself, I bought a copy of Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival board game. For those not in the know, Gary suggested using the Outdoor Survival board as a map for the overland environs in a D&D campaign. If it worked in 1974, I think it'll work just fine now.

The game board is going to serve as the regional map for my Keep on the Borderlands sandbox game. Here are my impressions of the map so far:

  • It's a mounted gameboard, making it more durable and giving it a nice, solid feel. As a physical artifact, I like the heft of it. It'll just feel nice to lay it down on the table and ask the PCs where they want to go.
  • It has plenty of mountains, swamps, forests, and other nooks to explore. It looks like a wilderness ready for exploration.
  • It lacks an obvious scale, so it's easy to simply treat the hexes as huge regions or tiny bits of wilderness. There aren't any huge bodies of water, so any map that needs oceans or seas is right out, but otherwise it's flexible.
  • The map comes in three pieces. I would've preferred one big map.
  • There are 10 cabins scattered about the map. Most of them are on the center map piece. They might be a distraction if you choose to ignore them. Otherwise, that's 10 places (ruins? settlements?) that the map imposes on you. I don't mind it so much, but it could prove a bit restrictive.
  • There are deer icons all over the map, presumably markers for the Outdoor Survival game. They're a little distracting.
  • There's a lot of blank plains on the map. I'd prefer more mountains and forests.
  • The hexes aren't numbered. Either I'll to number them myself (and mark up my precious map!) or make a smaller, reference copy of the map in my notes. This is easily the biggest drawback, IMO. I think I'll sketch a copy in my notebook, but it would've been nice to use hex reference numbers instead.
Still, overall I'm happy I dropped the money on a piece (albeit a tangential one) of D&D lore. I'm excited to run a sandbox game in 4e. The game's design makes it perfect for that style of campaign. 4e's emphasis on a structure - the standardized math, spread of monster level vs. PC level, and treasure independent of encounter type - make it easy to throw together a lot of material quickly and to build the world on the fly.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Like Dwarves

Ever since I read The Hobbit I've been fascinated by dwarves. I love the stunty little guys! As I mentioned in the last D&D podcast, I've been messing around with some dwarf sub-types. Here's one of them:

Iron Dwarves
Hailing from the deepest reaches of the mountain depths, iron dwarves are basically redneck dwarves. They seek out the furthest veins of precious minerals and even venture down into the Underdark in pursuit of precious metals. Few non-dwarves have even seen an iron dwarf, as these greedy, grasping creatures only show up in civilized realms (usually dwarf towns) long enough to sell their ores and invariably spend all their accumulated wealth on strong drink and similar diversions.

Iron dwarves rarely become adventurers. After all, life on the fringe of the Underdark is an adventure unto itself. Between dodging drow and mind flayers, surviving cave ins, and digging mine shafts that could suddenly open up to a cave filled with dire corbies or ochre jellies, iron dwarves have enough problems to deal with without seeking out trouble.

Iron dwarves that do become adventurers are invariably derided as soft and weak by their kin. Sure, charging into a dragon's lair might be dangerous, but real dwarves earn their fortunes the hard way: by ripping them out of the earth with pick and shovel.

Game Stuff
Iron dwarves use all the normal rules for dwarves, but with two exceptions:
+2 Strength instead of +2 Wisdom
When an iron dwarf uses his second wind, he can choose to forgo regaining hit points. Instead, he may regain the use of one his expended encounter attack powers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Terms of Confusion

It's easy in designing a game, particularly an RPG, to overlook the importance of building a good vocabulary for your game. It's not a particularly exciting or thrilling part of the process, but if you screw it up you can turn your game into an annoying, unplayable mess.

When you slap a label on a mechanic you're creating your game's jargon. This applies specifically to measures like hit points, tools like skills and weapons, and anything else that the people sitting at the table, playing your game, need to refer to.

My rule of thumb, after working on a number of games and seeing terms soar or flop, is that similar mechanics need very different names, particularly mechanics that run into each other alot.

In 4e, temporary hit points are a poster child for this. They look and act a lot like hit points, thus the shared name, but if you treat them like hit points the game goes haywire. The problem is that, unless someone reads the rules in depth, it's very easy to overlook that word "temporary" in temporary hit points. With a similar name and 90% similar mechanics, it's easy to mesh the two together.

On the other hand, a shared name is useful as long as you apply it to a mechanic or measure that uses it correctly. In D&D, there are 10,000 things that are given a level, but it's rare (despite "Use of the Term Level" headers in early versions of D&D) for people to confuse the term. Magic items, monsters, characters, dungeons, and so on all use level the same way: higher level means more powerful. In that case, a single term keeps things simple and clear. It helps that it's hard to figure out a way to conflate a level in a dungeon with an item's level. The two don't interact in a meaningful way!

So, those are my brief thoughts on naming mechanics in your games.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The 1e Monk

A while back I posted some ideas for my 1e house rules. Of all the classes in the game, the monk needs by far the most work. The other classes range from fine as-is to "needing" a few tweaks just because that's what I feel like doing.

The monk violates one of the core precepts of class-based RPG design: it pulls a bait and switch. Most well designed classes stake out their core concepts and remain within them. In terms of game play, playing a fighter at 1st, 3rd, or 8th level is a relatively similar experience. You're good in melee, you have lots of hit points and a good AC, and you're probably at the front of any battle. Magic-users/wizards, clerics, and thieves/rogues all have similar, consistent identities.

Some games succeed in introducing some fundamental shifts in a class, but that's rare. AD&D and BD&D gave characters access to land holdings and groups of retainers at higher level, but most (all? I don't have my books with me...) of the classes underwent that change. It wasn't a shift in how the class played so much as a shift in how the *game* played at higher levels.

Rebuilding a class's identity over the course of gaining levels is bad for a number of reasons:
  1. A player might like the class at certain levels, but hate it at others. That makes for a lame experience. The player either grits his teeth at low levels, or loses interest at higher ones. Note that AD&D classes that had an "initiation" phase, like the wizard, don't fall prone to this trap. Sure, a 1st-level wizard is weak, but the key is that at high levels the wizard plays mostly the same. He has more spells and more powerful ones, but it's not like he transforms into a melee monster or a healer. The class naturally improves at its core abilities.
  2. Balancing power at high levels with weakness at low levels is a bogus design trick. The monk's weaknesses at low levels become strengths at high levels. Chewing through hordes of weak monks at low levels is cold comfort when a high level monk rips Orcus in two. The magic-user does gain in power at high levels, but its basic weaknesses remain the same. The class simply improves its core abilities. The monk's weaknesses go away. That's why the magic-user works, and the monk doesn't.
  3. The monk lacks a clear identity. Is the class a martial artist that excels in melee? The 10 AC and 2d4 hit points dispute that. Is it a replacement for the thief? Maybe, but at high levels the monk replaces both the thief and the fighter. When a class shifts so much as it advances, it either starts without a niche in the game or it expands to cover more than one. In either case, it meshes poorly with the rest of the game.
These three points are major guideposts in 4e class design. I think we did a good job of defining each class and working within those definitions. The classes feel different in play, and each has a distinct identity.

In comparison, 3e fell into this trap with its item creation rules combined with the rules for wands. A low-level 3e wizard, sorcerer, cleric, or druid plays much, much different compared to a high level caster with access to plenty of long duration buffs, wands, scrolls, and potions. Whenever you see a shift like that in a class-based design, you're probably looking at deep issues with the class or maybe even the system.

It's interesting to note that the other class dropped from 1e to 2e, the assassin, suffers many of the same problems. The assassin is a crappy thief with a cumbersome, difficult to integrate assassination mechanic grafted on to it. On the other side of the coin, the bard went from a strange, optional mishmash to a core class in 2e. The bard has a pretty clear identity in fantasy novels, one that was strong enough to make it a class that cleanly severed its druid/fighter/thief heritage.

Here's what I'd do:

1. Pick a a few core mechanics for the monk and stick to them. I think I'd focus on the monk's thief abilities, good AC without armor, and multiple attacks with unarmed strikes. I'd give the monk 2 unarmed attacks per round at 1st level, but never let him go beyond that number. Damage would start with 1d6 and improve to 1d8, 1d10, and 2d6 at its highest point. A monk's AC would start around 6 or 7, improving to AC 2 at its best, and allow for Dexterity to improve it.

2. For the assassin, I'd first make the thief more of a Gray Mouser than a... whatever character the thief is actually supposed to be. I'd institute a mechanic to give the thief an equal AC footing with the fighter despite light armor, maybe some sort of active defense. I'd drop backstab, because...

3. The assassin would drop the assassination tables, but then steal the thief's backstab ability. That'd be the class's core ability, with an improved bonus to the attack roll and an increasing damage multiplier with level.

4. I'd drop the thief's abilities entirely, instead embracing an OD&D approach of using traps to challenge players, rather than a character's stats. This is one area, though, where I'd mess around with the fundamentals of the game. As DM, there are plenty of times when deciding if an orc sees a character trying to sneak past him is entirely open to my fiat. There's little the player can do to affect the situation, making the dice an ideal arbiter. I'd give monsters a perception-based defense, similar to AC, and give each class a sneak rating that improves with increased levels. Like the attack matrices, you might have a sneak matrix broken down into categories, like this:

  • Thief, monk, assassin, ranger, the best sneaky characters.
  • Magic-user, illusionist, druid, the average sneaky characters.
  • Fighter, paladin, cleric, the anti-sneaky characters.
So, those are my thoughts on the monk, assassin, and 1e in particular, and class design in general.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Because the King Wears Green Boxers!

In response to my last post, fire snake aries asks:
It sounds like you're really good at improvising and adapting the area and what its inhabitants do depending upon what happens. I try to do that, but it's tough! I always seem to find myself thinking, "Uhh... I have no idea what should happen now."

When you make these dynamic decisions on the fly like that, how much of it is simply you thinking, "What would actually, logically happen here?" and how much is more like, "What can I do that will be cool, but won't be too unreasonably hard on the PCs?"

I always want to make the players feel like they're dealing with a real, living place with occupants which interact with one another organically, so that there are definite ramifications to their actions beyond simply the current encounter. YET, I always worry that if I really do this, it will almost certainly end in a TPK. How do you balance that?

I felt rather clever when everything went down the way it did because of a little technique I've applied to my dungeons.

Back in the day, there was a ton of DM advice about creating a history for your dungeon. The idea was to think of the dungeon before it became a ruin, determine the rooms' uses, and then push time forward, account for the ravages of time and wandering monsters, and use that to drive what the place looks like when the PCs enter it.

I do something a little similar when placing monsters in a dungeon. I try to answer the following questions:

1. Why did these guys come here?
2. What keeps them here?

Answering these questions is useful, because it helps set the stage for quick decisions and improvisation. In the kenku's case, the answers were:

1. The kenku are thieves and bandits looking to make some easy cash.
2. Iuz's lieutenants pay them to act as spies and raiders.

During the last session, it was a lot easier to plot the course of events with those two things in mind. The kenku were in it for the money and they were here because they got paid. Why wouldn't they run to help the wizard?

The simple, but boring, answer is that they just didn't hear the alarm gong. I decided that I needed something more interesting to keep the action going. If they heard the gong, why wouldn't they come? That suggests conflict or some active plan on their part.

The risk to this approach is that you might create stuff that you never need to use because the PCs just kill the monsters when they meet them. For instance, in the same dungeon the PCs fought a band of hobgoblins. The hobgoblins had traveled to the moathouse from the south looking for mercenary work. I had built up an entire skill challenge that allowed the PCs to bargain with the practical minded, hobgoblin commander. They ended up just killing most of them.

OTOH, if I create a monster background that I like and it never comes into play, I just recycle it for the next dungeon.

Really, it's just building in details that seem a little pointless but have the potential in play to come in handy when you have to improvise. I don't obsess over the details, but rather look for some simple, one sentence explanations that can come in handy. It's all about the useful parts of simulation (depth, detail) without the bad parts (drowning in minutia).

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Love D&D

Today's session of Temple of Elemental Evil reminded me how much I love D&D.

The characters were in the dungeon beneath the moathouse, locked in a fight with a doppelganger wizard who had posed as Burne. Immediately before the fight, they had accidentally triggered a gong that rang and alerted the entire dungeon level. Luckily for the PCs, they had already defeated most of the creatures on the level. Or, if you're a pessimist, they had unluckily only defeated most of them.

So, while the PCs fought the doppelganger and his orc guards, a pair of ghouls rushed down the hall to attack the party from behind. The characters managed to close and bar a door to hold back the ghouls for a few rounds, just long enough to defeat the doppelganger and the orcs. They had one round to get ready before the door finally splintered to pieces and the ghouls charged in.

By the end of the fight, half the party was down and everyone was badly injured, but the characters were victorious. They trudged out the escape tunnel from the dungeon and made camp. As one PC was down to 1 hit point and zero healing surges, the party felt a trip back to Hommlett was too risky. It was near dusk, and everyone was in bad shape.

This is when things got interesting.

See, I had spent a fair amount of time stocking the moathouse and its dungeon, and my inconsiderate players had skipped half the encounters. I had all these monsters in the dungeon, and the cruel, cruel dice had dictated that only the two ghouls had heeded the ringing gong.

On the fly, I decided that the kenku that the dice had determined took their sweet time responding to the alarm were upset with the doppelganger. They figured that, if they tarried and the wizard died, they could clear out the treasure in the dungeon and take over the place.

So, as the PCs rested, the kenku went to work. With the ghouls dead, I judged that the kenku were able to command the skeletons that still remained in the crypts. The kenku then organized a search party to make sure the PCs weren't still around.

That led to a brief fight in which the badly injured, really hoping for an extended rest party managed to cut down all three kenku. There was another tense moment when some skeletons almost stumbled across the party's camp, but the undead failed to notice the characters.

At that point, with one search party gone the kenku decided that the characters were still close by. As dawn broke they went on one, final sweep of the dungeon. As the characters woke up, the shrill, high pitched screams of dying kenku echoed from the moathouse.

The kenku had found something the PCs had missed. Something terrible, something hungry, something angry.

Anyway, I love D&D because when the session began we had the party trapped in a room with two ghouls outside, trying to batter down the door. It ended with the characters outside the moathouse, wondering what's going on. I never could've guessed that we would've ended up with the kenku ransacking the dungeon and unleashing a very, very bad thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Keep on the Borderlands: Environs of the Caves

So, if you followed my WotC blog you know that I'm currently running a 4e game based on Temple of Elemental Evil. I've messed around with the plot a bit, added some new villain groups, and shifted around some NPCs. I run the game twice a week at work, during lunch, though Player's Handbook 2 has zapped many a session as of late. Luckily, we can finally play again tomorrow.

In addition to the campaign at work, I've been hankering to run a game based on Keep on the Borderlands. I love being able to run D&D at the office, but I sometimes miss the depth and complexity that four hour sessions allow. With one hour sessions, I try to keep things a little modular and fast-paced, so that every session has a nice beginning and end point.

Anyway, tonight I put together an overview map of the Caves of Chaos. As with my Temple campaign, I've changed a few things around to keep things interesting and to have a bit of fun with. A straight conversion of the Keep is fine, but I want to add some more depth and backstory to the dungeon as a whole. In addition, I want the campaign to have a strong sandbox element within the bounds of the Keep, the Caves of Chaos, and the area around the Keep.

So, a few things I changed:
  • The ravine of the caves is far larger. It looks much more like something out of this image, rather than a narrow box canyon.
  • I placed a small lake in the middle of the ravine, flanked on both sides by steep ridges that form a barrier between the ravine's entry and its rear area.
  • There are several sites of interest in the ravine, including the ruins of a small fort once occupied by an order of knights tasked with watching over the caves, a few strange pillars dedicated to the Lords of Chaos, a mysterious wizard's tower, a necropolis, and a small hut where an undead ferrymaster takes pilgrims of chaos across the lake mentioned above.
  • A strange mist hovers over a region at the far end of the ravine. A ring of standing stones surrounds the mist. No one has ever entered the mist and emerged to tell the tale.
  • I came up with a background for the caves, explaining its history and why humanoids congregate here, but it's not quite ready to go.
So, that's what I did with my Monday evening.

Friday, November 7, 2008

My Old Flame, 1st Edition

I have to admit, I still love 1st edition AD&D. Sure, the rules are whacky and labyrinthine, but there's an undeniable core of fun that beats at the heart of the game. Sure, I love 4e (duh!), but there's something nifty about 1e. Whether it's the art, Gygax's prose, or the fundamental simplicity of the game, I'm always drawn back to it.

The thing is, I've been playing D&D in its various forms for over 25 years now. There are things in AD&D that still really bug me. I have half a mind that, once I get a replacement laptop, I'm going to embark on my own, personal redesign of bits and pieces of the game. Not a redesign in the sense of adding a skill system or rebuilding things from scratch, but more from the perspective of having played a lot of (A)D&D and learned what I think works, and what I think doesn't.

Really, the list of things to change is short and almost entirely wrapped up in character classes. To whit:

  1. The fighter could use some other toy to play with. Rangers and paladins are strictly better, and that bugs me. I'd want to see something simple and in keeping with the spirit of AD&D, more like "+1 attack when using a weapon you are proficient with" than a feat or maneuver based approach of 3e or 4e.
  2. The thief, oh the poor thief. From those who curse its appearance in OD&D, to people like me who really want to play the Gray Mouser without feeling like a chump, I'm not sure this class really makes anyone happy. I'd look to do a radical revision, though I'm not sure exactly what I'd want. Remove the proto-skill system? Make it a fighter sub-class more in-line with a swashbuckler? I'm not 100% sure.
  3. The assassin is stuck in the same boat as the thief. This is the class I'd like to see embrace the backstab/assassination mechanic. To me, that's interesting, but I think the thief's backstab makes the assassin semi-pointless.
  4. The monk! OK, I love the concept of the monk, but I always disliked Gary's implementation of it. The monk falls into the same category as the magic-user, in that you have to manage to survive low-level in order to gain massive power at higher levels. However, the magic-user's fundamental weaknesses remain at all levels. Whether a lowly prestidigitator or a mighty wizard, the M-U breaks into a cold sweat when a nasty ogre shuffles up to him. The monk, on the other hand, carpets over his weaknesses with innate, constant abilities. Having played a monk at low and high levels, it is essentially two classes. That shift in playstyle bugs me, and is far too bald a filter between a weak and strong character. I'd seek to balance the monk, strengthening it at low levels and toning it down at upper levels.
I'm not sure I'd change much else. Sure, initiative needs to be fixed up, but that's not something I see as critical. After all, people have played the game for decades without that getting in the way. The class issues are more topics that, for me at least, make the game less enjoyable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

In Search of the Unknown

Now that PH 2 is off my plate (well, mostly; it killed today's Temple of Elemental Evil session), I've had more free time to doodle around with stuff. Lately, I've been stocking Mike Carr's In Search of the Unknown, the lesser known but still popular companion to Gary's Keep on the Borderlands.

The really fun thing about the module is that, since it's a "teaching" adventure that lacks monsters, it spends a lot of time focusing on interesting details of the dungeon. For those out of the loop, the idea is that the PCs find a map to the subterranean lair of a pair of long vanished adventurers, the magic-user Zelligar and the fighter Roghan. There's a room overrrun by fungus, a chamber with lots of weird pools to mess with, and so on.

My favorite bits concern the secret chambers of Zelligar. They have lots of little bits that point to Zelligar as a less than nice guy. His lab has an empty coffin, the skeleton of a slain enemy, a tapestry made of human skin, and a few other baubles.

I really liked the idea of Zelligar poking at things best left alone, so there are a number of extraplanar critters in the dungeon and chambers with weird, demonic themed puzzles and oddities.

Today, I picked up this Dreamblade miniature on the free table at work. It looks cooler from the opposite side - it has a big, steamroller splattered with blood. I liked the idea of Zelligar leaving behind a really nasty guardian to kill intruders. So, with that in mind, here's what I did:

If the party takes a short rest in the dungeon, roll 1d20, +2 per prior short rest taken during this expedition. On a 15 - 19, the party faces a wandering encounter (I haven't placed monsters in the dungeon yet). On a 20+, the Doom Crusher appears 2d10 squares away from the PCs and moves to attack. It cannot open doors, and scrupulously avoids destroying the furnishings and decorations in the dungeon. Otherwise, under Zelligar's 30+ year old orders, it attempts to crush intruders as an encouragement for them to leave.

I'll work up stats for it soon, but I'm thinking of making it a level 10 elite in a dungeon aimed at level 4 characters. I'll also add in some signs of its presence, like a crushed chaos warrior or orc here or there, pulverized skeletons, shattered armor and weapons scattered in the halls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

James Wyatt is Hardcore

I've acquired the habit of carrying a 1e Dungeon Master's Guide to meetings at work. James calls it the Gygaxian Bible, and I think there's something to that.

Anyway, while waiting for someone to show up to our meeting, I rolled up a 1e character using James' 1e Player's Handbook, which he had also brought to the meeting. Determined to delve into the full AD&D experience, I puzzled over the weapons vs. AC chart to pick out two weapons for good old, 7 Charisma, 7 Intelligence Algar the half-orc fighter.

As I looked over the table, James said, "I had a unified table that combined weapons vs. AC with the standard combat matrices."

So yes, my fellow gamers, someone did use those tables. James Wyatt: more old school hardcore than you.

(And as an aside, I found something rather interesting about the tables that makes me want to use them. It's kind of neat to kit out your fighter with a scimitar for orc hacking, and a halberd to pull out when a high AC or big monster shows up. OTOH, I once asked Gary if he used those tables, and he insisted he put them in AD&D only because some people on the TSR staff insisted gamers wanted that level of realism and detail.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Magic Item for... ME!

I love playing fighter/wizards. Here's a little toy I've invented for my own use in 4e, to help out that multiclass combo:

Runeshield Level 2+ Magic Item
This iron shield is covered with arcane runes. In the hands of an arcanist, these runes glow with yellow fire.
Level 2: +1, 520 gp
Level 7: +2, 2,600 gp
Level 12: +3, 13,000 gp
Level 17: +4, 65,000 gp
Level 22: +5, 325,000 gp
Level 27: +6, 1,625,000 gp
Property: This shield functions as an implement for any arcane class, but its wielder must be proficient with shields of the appropriate type in order to use it as an implement. It adds the listed enhancement bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls for arcane powers that use implements. Note that the enhancement bonus applies only in this situation. It does not apply to AC or Reflex.
Property: The shield grants a +4 bonus to AC against opportunity attacks provoked when you cast an arcane spell.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Skill Challenges as Tool for Putting Demogorgon on Dungeon Level 1

Here's a stray thought about skill challenges. Back in the 1e days, you'd hear all sorts of stories about dungeons where Orcus and Tiamat stomped around on level 1. Meeting those monsters is, obviously, instant death.

In 4e, you could do the same thing, but if you want to give the PCs a chance to live, use the encounter as a skill challenge. You could even make it a level 1 (or whatever is appropriate) challenge to give the PCs a chance and work the big bad guy into the story.

For instance, the PCs open a door to a summoning chamber in the abandoned wizard's lab, and out bursts Demogorgon. Before he returns to the Abyss, his two heads demand that the PCs do him a favor. Cue the skill challenge (success, you're in Demogorgon's debt; failure, he eats a few PCs).

There's no reason why the superstars of D&D's monster world can't show up early in a campaign, and the skill challenge system is a good way to use them in situations other than combat.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Borderlands Style Adventures

I am a terrible blogger. I intended to post here three times per week, but a number of factors combined to undermine that plan almost from the start. I'd say "I promise to post more often," but I'm not sure that's going to hold up.

Tonight is one of those nights where I'm too tired to paint a miniature or read, but I'm too keyed up to slip into a TV assisted, vegetative state. There's also a funny tension in this blog. I've recently been made the lead designer for D&D, so there's less incentive for me to post new rules here. I can use those at work!

Instead, let me ramble a bit about adventure design.

The last session of the Forgotten Realms campaign I play in reminded that, while I love my twice a week, lunch time Greyhawk campaign, there's a lot to be said for a nice, juicy four hour game session. In particular, long sessions are great for what I think of as Borderlands style adventures, adventures that give the PCs a long list of shallow options.

Melan's excellent post on megadungeon mapping has been kicking around in my head since I first read it. In particular, his analysis of Keep on the Borderlands stuck in my head for a while. I really like the idea of an adventure that gives you a lot of places to go, even if those specific places are simple and even linear. In particular, I think such a design shines if those simple, straightforward spots have some level of interconnectivity, again, even if the connections are simple. Those could range from the physical (the ogre's den has a secret door leading to the orc lord's throne room) to the social (the orcs hate the gnolls and are looking for allies against them).

The appeal, IMO, lies in the raw possibilities of bouncing around the map, delving here, allying there, looting here. I think there's some element of sandbox gaming at play, but on a smaller, more focused level. Rather than the world as a sandbox, this style of design focuses instead on a single city or adventure site, with the connections I mentioned above a critical part of the design. The adventure is like a pool table cluttered with balls, with the PCs a cue ball careening across the field, knocking some balls into pockets, slamming others into each other. The key is that with every action by the PCs, the "board" changes.

By keeping the individual components simple, it's much easier to manage the scope of changes and reactions across the entire adventure set up. It's easy to manage changes within the individual caves in KotB because each one is so simple, basic layouts of rooms wedded to rosters of (mostly) homogenous tribes.

The complexity of this design rests in the relationships and interactions between the individual, simple nodes. In addition, particularly in 4e, you need the flexibility to keep each node at least somewhat challenging for the PCs. Given that the characters gain about 1 level for every 10 encounters, you have to balance the number of nodes in the adventure with the PCs' level progression. It'd be great to offer the PCs 5 or 6 places to investigate, but you need to limit each node to 3 or 4 encounters to keep those nodes in a 3 level band.

While the Keep on the Borderlands is the best known example of this design style, I think the approach would shine for urban adventures. The connections between locations can cover a broad range of social, political, and military alliances, both including and forming against the PCs.

It's interesting to me that KotB-style design is relatively rare. Most published adventures rely on a plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, or individual dungeons. A borderlands-style design has the cosmetic flaw of appearing simple, since the individual pieces are simple. The value of the design rests in its emergent properties. It plays, rather than reads, well.

So, that's my rambling for tonight.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Roll for Initiative! Wait, No, Don't Roll!

Over at The Art of the Near TPK, Gregor talks about his take on 4e initiative. The post reminded me of an initiative variant I've thought about using.

There's no more rolling for initiative. The characters all take their turns in whatever order, then the monsters. You can ready actions and what not, but that has no effect on when you take your next turn. There's no delaying, since both groups go in whatever order they want. There's a clean up phase for the party as a whole after the party's turn, and one for the monsters. Durations key off those end points.

The nifty thing is that it takes care of any weird complexity with delaying and durations. Let's say an NPC monk dazes the paladin, and the daze lasts until the monsters' next clean-up phase. It's clear that the paladin is going to lose his next turn. He can't delay to avoid it (not that you can in 4e, but we had to put in some semi-convoluted rules to make sure that worked out).

OTOH, if the cleric has a spell that can end the daze, you don't need to deal with the complexity of delaying to make that happen. On the party's turn, the cleric just goes before the paladin.

As Gregor points out in his post, that allows for a lot more teamwork and coordination on both sides of the screen.

Anyway, rolling for initiative was too popular for me to get this, or any of the other, changes I had in mind for 4e.

Giant Ticks!

Inspired by a post on Jeff's blog, here's my 4e take on the giant tick. In this case, I'm tackling it as a hazard rather than as a monster, so I guess that makes it more the "noticeable larger than normal but perhaps not truly giant" tick. I'd peg it as about six inches long, not huge by any means, but pretty scary when you think about it.

Barrow Tick, Level 6 Hazard
A barrow tick is a common dungeon predator, particularly in areas where ogres, trolls, and giants dwell. The tick attacks the first creature that moves within 10 feet of its position. It leaps out in a blur of movement and attacks with a poison that deadens the victim's sense of touch, making it possible for the tick to feast undetected.
One the tick attacks, it slowly drains the victim's blood. Unless the tick is removed or killed within a minute of its initial attack, the victim loses 2d10+8 hit points. Each time the victim takes a short rest while the tick is still present, he loses another 2d10+8 hit points. If the victim is unlucky enough to take a long rest without noticing the tick, the poor sod loses all his healing surges and is at 1 hit point when the rest ends. The tick, for its part, departs after such a feast.
The tick makes Stealth checks to remain hidden from view, but any close examination of the victim reveals its presecence. The next time the victim takes damage, he also realizes that he has lost blood (the DM should inform him of his new hit points total) and may make Perception checks to notice the tick on him. The tick is general clever enough to attack itself to the victim's back or some other spot that makes it hard to notice.

Barrow Tick: +8 attack vs. Reflex, Stealth +14, speed 5, AC 18, Fortitude 16, Reflex 15, Will 13, the tick suffers a -4 penalty to all defenses while it is attached to a victim, hit points 1, though the barrow tick never takes damage from an attack that misses; 2d10+8 damage on initial exposure, another 2d10+8 after each short rest.

Edit: Changed damage from 25% of max to a normal damage expression. Since this is a level 6 hazard, I aimed it to do about 25% of a 6th level PC's hit points. That makes it scale easier. I can just adjust the damage upward or downward for different levels.

Monday, September 1, 2008

RPG Carnival: Homebrew Alignments

Donny_the_DM has decreed that the theme of this month's RPG Carnvial is homebrewing. So, let's talk alignments.

4e has breaks alignment down into lawful good, good, unaligned, evil, and chaotic evil. Prior to that, D&D used an axis of good - evil and law - chaos. I saw BAH! to both. Alignment is pretty much ripped screaming from Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, particularly the saga of Elric of Melbinoné. The awesome thing about Elric, IMO, is that he can and did directly interact with the great powers of Law and Chaos, the very beings that formed the basis of the Multiversal struggle that Elric and the other eternal champions were caught up in.

What's this mean for your campaign? Well, here's how I'm handling it.

Rather than use alignment to describe good or evil, it instead describes the power source that your character sees as the most important piece of the cosmic pie. If push came to shove and only one power source could rule, which one would your character pick?

Of course, that means that the power sources have to stand for something. Well, here's my stab at it:

Divine (Deity-centered)
A character who embraces the divine alignment places the gods above all else. Divine characters typically worship a single god. They place their god's teachings and dictates above all other concerns, and actively battle members of rival faiths.

An adventurer with the divine alignment tithes to his church, seeks out enemies of the faith to slay, and relies on the church hierarchy for guidance.

A commoner with the divine alignment attends church services, prays regularly, tithes to the church, and obeys the church above the rule of law (unless his church is the law).

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the divine alignment would stand by their gods and fight for them.

Arcane (Self-centered)
The arcane alignment places its faith in its own adherents. Magic is power, and those who can master it are a cut above the rest. The other power sources can be explained and understood just like magic, with sufficient study and research. There's no reason to worship a source of power. Instead, such well springs of might exist to be studied and used. This attitude extends to everything else. The world is full of useful tools, and those who can master them deserve to do as they wish, without interference from others.

An adventurer with the arcane alignment is in it for himself. He seeks knowledge and power, primarily to improve himself and his skill. If he has to choose between helping himself and helping his companions, he is at least tempted to take the selfish path.

The commoner with the arcane alignment is probably a hedge mage or a would-be arcane apprentice. He sees the mastery of the arcane arts as the key to power, power that he wants.

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the arcane alignment would rely on their own power to survive. They'd try to leave the other factions to destroy each other, either to continue their studies in peace or to make a bid for cosmic domination that only one being can win.

Martial (Mortal-centered)
The martial alignment eschews external sources of power. Training, focus, and drive are all that these characters need to achieve whatever they want, and whatever they might want is a diverse list indeed. Most martial characters pick a mortal cause to embrace, whether that is the concept of democracy, their own personal drive for tyranny, or the freedom and peace of their home village. Martial characters fight for something rooted in the mortal world of men. They tend to view those of different alignments with suspicion, as they can never understand the impulse to rely on talents and power that comes from an outside source.

An adventurer who follows the martial alignment is a crusader for some cause, though that cause could be his own coin purse. He gets into dangerous situations because he is driven to by some overarching goal. It is the fate of martial characters that, when they resolve one cause or quest, their drive and ambition pushes them to find a new, grander and more epic one.

A commoner who follows the martial alignment similarly fights for a cause, and if given a good reason could very well become an adventurer. The farmer who volunteers in the local militia, the street urchin who picks the pockets of a merchant, and the peasants who hide their wounded king from a band of assassins all follow the martial power source.

If the world ended in a final battle, those of the martial alignment would rally to their causes. A great swordsman might stand watch over the vale he was born in, sworn to slay any god or archlich who dares enter it, while the queen's elite knights rally around her banner to ensure the realm's survival.

While the alignments map to the power sources, that doesn't mean a PC's power source is his alignment. A warrior who considers himself the greatest swordsman in the world might wander in search of skilled warriors to slay in battle, thus proving his skill. While such a character might use the martial power source, his alignment is arcane. He studies his craft, improves it, and thinks of himself and his skills first and foremost. A wizard might be an ardent worshipper of the sun god, using his spells to blast the priests of the god of devouring darkness, while a cleric might pray to Thor, but she studies divine magic to heal and protect the people of her home city.

There's room for the other power sources, and perhaps factions such as the Abyss, the devils of Hell, and the Far Realm.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

British D&D

A recent post on EN World about Fiend Folio and its influence on the 4e Monster Manual reminded me how much I love the British AD&D and basic D&D modules from the 1980s. They had a feel to them, a combination of distinctive art, interesting maps, and fun stories that combined the make them stand out from the American offerings of the day.

Here's why I like those modules so much:
  • They had interesting plots and backstories that had an effect on the adventure. When you found the weird artifact, it's backstory provided the framework for the adventure.
  • Cool, interesting, high magic stuff played a fun role in the adventure. The elemental air "subway system" drove home the power and accomplishments of the ancient civilization whose ruins you set out to explore. It also gave you a sense that you were going somewhere distant, and maybe getting back would be hard.
  • The adventures had an epic feel without going over the top. You helped defend castles, spoiled the machinations of the most potent force for evil in the Grand Duchy, and saved an entire order of monks. It was never just a matter of beating up some orcs.
  • The art was evocative. It depicted classic D&D stuff in a recognizable manner, yet still retained its own distinct feel.
  • The maps were clear, easy to read, yet drawn in an evocative way. They looked like maps someone drew, rather than maps printed by the local tourism board.
Speaking of adventures, I'm chomping at the bit to see more on the Raiders Guild, the coolest thing I heard about at GenCon. The framework for the adventures sounds great, and I think it's the most promising third party product I've heard about since the OGL came down the pike.

(BTW, Axe Initiative Games has posted their writing guidelines for those of the would-be or currently-are writing persuasions.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Random Tables: Wide is Better than Tall

Sometimes, you might have the compulsion to create random tables to help spur your creativity or to throw off the cuff surprises at both yourself and the players. Tables are also useful tools for instant content generation.

In my experience, it's tempting to make a table that uses a d20 or d100. Big, long, sprawling tables look impressive, but they're inefficient. Instead, make several short, squat tables that work together to generate a result.

Let's say you want a table to generate the appearance and mannerisms of NPCs in Waterdeep. Here's what you do:

1. Come up with three or four general traits to describe the NPCs. I'm going with race, gender, size, appearance, and disposition.

2. Create a table for each trait. Aim to use d6s, or maybe a d10 if you're inspired.

3. When it's time to use the tables, roll once on each table and combine the results. Voila!

Here are my tables:

1. Human
2. Elf
3. Eladrin
4. Dwarf
5. Halfling
6. Tiefling
7. Half-elf
8. Dragonborn

1. Female
2. Male

1. Thin
2. Tall
3. Short
4. Fat

1. Dirty
2. Well-dressed
3. Travel worn
4. Immaculate

1. Happy
2. Angry
3. Helpful
4. Sullen
5. Grumbler
6. Pessimist
7. Optimist
8. Sarcastic

I built those tables off the top of my head in about 5 minutes. Here's the cool thing - they might not be awesome tables, but they have the potential to generate about 2,000 different NPCs. With a little more work, I could build out a few more categories and fill in the existing tables with more options and more vivid words.

So, sometimes being lazy is more efficient than doing lots of work. You could create 500 different NPCs and stuff them into a table, or pick 26 words and use the mighty, mighty powers of multiplication to turn them into thousands of outcomes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Simple Algorithm for Generating DCs

As has become something of a habit for me lately, I wrote an adventure on the plane ride home from GenCon. Lately, it's rare that I have 3 to 4 consecutive hours to do anything other than (sometimes) sleep.

I'm a big believer that laziness is the mother of insight. Many folk see a tendency toward sloth as a bad thing, but if not for sloth, we'd still be living in caves, hunting brontosauruses, and hiding from thunderstorms. It's the human capacity for laziness that drives us to make short term sacrifices (inventing science was no easy feat) for long term pay offs (computers for everyone!).

Thus, I found myself writing an adventure while wedged into seat 24D with a pencil box, a notebook, and two Forgotten Realms sourcebooks (the new 4e one and the DM's book from the old gray box). I had put my D&D books into my luggage because, frankly, I didn't want to carry them around.

The monsters were pretty easy to generate for the adventure - I either remembered their levels, or I built them from scratch (the formulas are easy peasy to memorize, and again my commitment to laziness pays off - I don't need to carry the DMG).

However, I was a little annoyed when working on traps, terrain features, and just general stuff that needed DCs. I couldn't remember the DC progression. I puzzled over it for a few minutes, then realized that my laziness had saved me once again. In an insight so obvious that I feel like punching myself, here's Dr. Mearls' Patented, Super Easy, Instant DC Generator:

1. Start with 10.
2. Add half the trap, encounter, or challenge's level.
3. Do you want only people trained in the skill to have a shot at success? If so, add 5.
4. Think of the stat a PC would need to have a 55% chance of success, assuming the PC is trained if you want only trained guys to have a chance of success. Add that stat's modifier.

Voila! Instant DC.

Here's an example:
In a dungeon aimed at 6th level PCs, there's a locked door. It's a really good lock, so only a rogue or someone trained in Thievery has a chance to open it, but someone who is trained doesn't need much natural talent to open it.

+ 3 (half of level 6)
+ 5 (assume training)
+ 1 (a Dex 13 character who is trained should be able to handle this one)

Is a total DC of 19. Voila! An untrained character with a good Dex still has a 30% chance to open the lock.

If you know the PCs' stats, you can achieve a fine control of the DC by using the process above, plugging in the PC's stat mod, then adding 1 to the DC for every 5% you want to drop the success chance.

The nice thing about this method is that it pushes you to think of what the PCs can do, and it's simple enough (IMO) that you can use it on the fly.

OK, back to taking care of all the chores that have piled up since I've been away. I'll talk about GenCon later this week.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Praise of Wandering Monsters

Wandering monsters have been a fixture of D&D since the beginning. I can't even begin to explain how or why Gary included them. Did his players have a tendency to dither outside dungeon chambers? Was he bored and looking for an excuse to throw a gelatinous cube at the party? Who can say?

(Well, I'm sure someone can say, and if they want to roll in here and say it, fire away!)

My old gaming groups never used wandering monsters. There was enough adventure in the rooms of our dungeons, and enough of our adventurers took place in urban settings, that we never saw the need for them. The resource model for earlier D&D editions was such that, from a strictly mechanical perspective, each wandering monster meant one fewer monster the group could handle before heading home.

Wandering monsters do add the element of the unexpected for both players and the DM, and there's always the chance that something cool and memorable happens when you add situation A, condition B, and wandering monster roll C.

The interesting thing to me is that, of all the versions of D&D, 4e is perhaps best suited to make the most of wandering monsters. The characters lean heavily on their ability to take short rests. Wandering monsters are a spanner in that works. To wit:

When the characters take a short rest, roll 1d20. On an 19+, a wandering monster stumbles across them at some point during their rest.

(Insert a table of wandering monsters here, based on your adventure.)

Voila! Each time the PCs rest, there's a chance they fail to regain their precious encounter abilities and hit points. Instead, they're looking at a mob of angry critters. Even if the party is safely holed up in a room, and the monsters pass them by after a few tense Stealth and Perception checks, you've added a compelling element of uncertainty, danger, and chaos to the adventure.

If you want to get fancy (and who doesn't want to get fancy?), you can tie your wandering monster checks to a skill challenge. Let's say the check starts at 15+. Each success in the challenge bumps that threshold up by 1, each failure drops it by 1. You could use Perception, Stealth, Streetwise, and so on, along with judging the PCs' actions in the dungeon, to manage the challenge.

So, time to dust off those old wandering monster tables. They're more useful now than ever.