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.