Monday, August 30, 2010

From the Bookshelf - Fury in the Wastelands: The Orcs of Tellene

There are many different Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings out there created by other companies besides Wizards of the Coast. Some of these settings are more popular than others and one that gained quite a bit of a following with D&D 3.5 was from Kenzer & Company, the makers of HackMaster, called Kingdoms of Kalamar. What does this have to do with D&D 4E? As my current campaign revolves around a pending war with a huge Orc army, I turned to a book from ages past (2008) titled Fury in the Wastelands: The Orcs of Tellene.

The books...

Fury in the Wastelands: The Orcs of Tellene
Number of Pages 120
Number of Chapters 11
Number of Appendices 3
Text Layout 2 columns per page
Font Size Smaller than the 4E manuals
Artwork High quality black and white drawings
Easily to Readable 8/10
Comprehensible and Well Written 9/10
Use of Images, Headers, and Sidebars 7/10
Overall Rating 8/10


The author...

Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams is currently listed as the Creative Director of Triple Ace Games and has previously written under many different companies. His biography information from the Triple Ace Games websites says the following:
Wiggy is the Creative Director of Triple Ace Games and brings with him over 25 years of roleplaying experience. He's been a published author since 1998 and has written for Atlas Games, Eden Studios, Britannia Games Design, Kenzer & Co., Pinnacle Entertainment Group, and Green Ronin. When Wiggy isn't working he's usually plotting something he can write up later. He's married and lives in the wild north of the UKUK, in the land of little ponies and constant wind.

There is also a more personal interview of him over at Tales from the Savage Troll, dated April 24th, 2010, providing an interesting look into the author's gaming habits, personal life, and other parts of his life.

The material...

Fury in the Wastelands: The Orcs of Tellene starts off giving the legend of how Orcs came to be, created by the gods of darkness so long ago "that even the elves and dwarves have no true memory of their creation." It goes on to present a translation of the Codex of Doom detailing a fierce battle between Light and Darkness, ending in a truce between the equally matched foes. "The Gods,those lesser power of Darkness and Light" then began creating and shaping the world of Tellene. The Creator of Strife took characteristics of each of the three Races of Light (Elves, Dwarves, and Humans) to create the most horrid race: Orcs.

Chapter 2 goes on to described the 5 sub-races of Orcs, including their physical and psychological similarities and differences, including each subraces' name in the Orc's own guttural language. This section has become a great aid to me as I prepare my campaign story. I do not want my Orcs to be bland, but want a greater amount of variety much like there is in real-life humankind.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover the social structure and culture of the Orcs. These chapters have been great tomes of knowledge to me as well. The Orc leaders, warriors, casters, workers, servants, and breeders are all described in great detail, allowing for parallel inter-structural hierarchies. Tattoos, medicine, recreation, habitat, and the diet of the Orcs are worked through in detail, which has allowed me to create many different skill challenges, dice checks, and side quests based on the intricacies the Orcish culture.

Chapter 5 is all about warfare. Warfare is the center of my campaign and this chapter gives extremely valuable information about not only the Orc's weapons and armor, but their military organization, tactics, and strategies. A battle lead by an Orc commander is brutal and the attacks are very pointed, contrary to many beliefs. Orcish commanders will have casters and archers targeted first, cavalry is to be fought against from favorable ground, and ground troops are to be swarmed, flanked, weakened at key locations. My favorite section of this chapter goes into details about how the Orcs would setup and execute an ambush with ranged troops above on the rocks and concealed warriors on the ground. These are not your typical beasts only fighting to survive.

Chapter 6 covers the Orc Religion. I read through the chapter and enjoyed the insight but will not be consuming any of the information there for my campaign.

Chapter 7 takes a look at several misconceptions that exist. These were a short, but interesting list of great rumors I plan to spread, sprinkled with truth, to my party through the local townsfolk. My favorite misconception has to do with sunlight:
Everyone claims to know that orcs fear sunlight and are weakened by it, for as a subterranean race they are unused to its glare, similar to drow elves and deep gnomes. Common myth also states that so long as the sun is shining, you will be safe from orcs. Sadly, both statements are, for the most part, incorrect.

Chapter 8 describes the major Orc tribes of Tellene. This chapter details out extremely useful information on not only tribal symbols and land area controlled by each tribe, but includes information on tribal resources, religious biases, their latest raiding targets, and recent events that happened within the tribe. With 14 different tribes represented, the shear amount of information and detail is overly abundant.

Chapter 9 presents 10 sample Orc personalities, what tribes they belong to, their background, appearance, personality, and 3.5 stat block. Many of these are notable and make fine templates for creating unforgettable Orcish friends, foes, and everything in between.

Chapters 10 and 11 include how to create Orc PCs and several interesting adventure hooks. These chapters, although very good reads, did not pertain to my situation as I am not allowing Orc PCs in my game at this time (even then, the powers would need to be adjusted for 4E) and my campaign specifics are already mapped out.

The best and most fun parts of this book to read, from just a reader's standpoint, are the quotes from various adventurers though the book. Each chapter and sub-section starts off with a quote pertaining to the section. My favorite, by far, is in Chapter 2's Brown Orc sub-section:
"In the desert, the line between man and beast is impossible to distinguish. That is what makes the brown orcs so dangerous." - Saryf, Dejy ranger of Thygasha

In conclusion...

This book has proven to be very helpful in my search for Orcish lore, habits, sub-races, and other details not available in the Monster Manuals. As with all things D&D, regardless of the edition being played, any information from any source can make its way into your campaign and ongoing setting. My campaign just happens to be based in The Forgotten Realms, but that does not make the information from the Kingdoms of Kalamar books any more or less relevant. D&D is all about having fun and enjoying time spent with friends while trying to do your worst, as a DM, to those friends' characters.

I've enjoyed reading through the book and will continue to go to it as I'm creating the story and encounters for my current campaign. I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good source book on Orc lore and more detailed information than is available in the Monster Manuals. If you would like more information, I suggest picking up the book from Amazon or Lulu.

What other sources have you used or would you suggest for aiding in story and campaign building ouside of the ofical D& D4E manuals?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Me? DM? Surely you Jest!

Planning and running a Dungeons and Dragons game is hard. We all know that. We scour the interwebs for ideas on how to make it an easier process. We look at the wizards site, friendly gaming blogs, and even mass RSS feeds. There is a simpler solution, though. Simpler than any of the above options: You pawn it off on someone else. That’s right; today I’m going to talk about ways you can convince another person to run a game. That way, when the stress of the world hits you, you can just tell someone else to run the game this week.

1. Plant the Seed

The first thing you have to do is find a sorry sap to put the yoke of DMing on. Discussing game building with your party off-handedly at the end of a session lets you thin the herd. If they seem interested in what you were doing with the session, they probably have a desire to run a game. Keep this idea in the back of your mind when you start a session or are planning a session and you have only a couple of players. This is a great time to throw out, “hey, why don’t we switch hats today, John, do you want to take a shot at running an adventure tonight?”

2. Stoke the Fire

It takes a leap of faith to run an adventure in front of your friends. There is a lot of pressure when you are showing your creative powers, and you really want everyone to have a fun time. Add on the fact that the main DM is playing, too, and there is an incredible amount stress on this new player. It is your job as a seasoned DM to give guidance (not rules-lawyering) and to give lots of praise and encouragement. The goal is to give them enough confidence to run another game later, giving you the chance to take a breather.

3. Pull the Bandage

It’s difficult to do, but if you really want your future DM to want to continue DMing, you’re going to have to force the issue. You can do this one of two ways: skip and have another player convince the prospective DM to run a game, or set up a splinter game and have the new DM run it. You have to move them into a position where the pressure to DM is there and a true test of whether or not they want to do this long-term. If they make it through this step they’re ready for anything.

There it is, the three-step process to pinning some other poor sap with the horrible burden of being a Dungeon Master. Soon enough, your victim will be talking about the use of fantastic terrain, the advantages and disadvantages of lowering HP and increasing damage, and whether to railroad or sandbox. And we, the happy few who do the same, will never be more proud. Feel free to leave me a note in the comments, and stay tuned for some more changes.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday's Monster Mash #4 - The Enemy of My Enemy

Monday’s Monster Mash is a weekly series where monsters are selected from the three Monster Manuals and put together as an encounter group. A situation is discussed where these monsters would have been together and how their powers or status effects work together against the players.

The story...

Magdiana has seen many lifetimes. It has been ages since she followed her sister Breemita to this mortal realm, where she became stuck in this retched mortal form. Breemita had said they could bring light to this realm, but what is a single wick in the deep, black fathoms of the Underdark? The Underdark is not all darkness though. There are several caverns of piping hot magma. It is from these areas Magdiana was first introduced to the Hell Hounds. They resisted her will at first, but just like all other creatures, submitted in time. Now, with her army of Hell Hounds, she has set her sights on the Kuo-Toa settlement between her and her ultimate goal: Menzoberranzan, the City of Spiders.

Berrol, the Kuo-Toa Lash, had sent scouting parties when he heard the Hell Hounds' lair had been conquered. His Kuo-Toa Cutters returned with stories of a great, evil angel controlling the Hell Hounds and heading towards the Kuo-Toa settlement. He instructed his Kuo-Toa Mad Ones to take defensive positions. As Berrol began preparing the rest of his people to defend their home, he was brought a rumor of a group of adventurers nearby causing trouble. Today was not going to be a good one...

The monsters...

Monster Manual
Monster Manual 2
Monster Manual 3
Hell Hound
Page 160
Deva Fallen Star
Page 62
Kuo-Toa Mad One, Lash, and Cutter
Pages 124 - 125

The powers...

First off, let's take a look at the Deva Fallen Star. This creature does everything in its power to stop the players from dealing damage to it. Fateful Transposition (immediate interrupt, encounter) allows the creature to swap places with a target and split the damage of the trigger attack between itself and the newly transpositioned creature. If that is not frightening enough, the Deva Fallen Star also has Fate Manipulation (free, recharges when first bloodied) allowing it to add or subtract 1d8 from any attack roll, ability check, or saving throw made by any creature within 10 squares or itself.

Next, we have the Hell Hounds. These beasts have a Fire Shield (aura 1) that deals 1d6 fire damage to any creature that enters or begins its turn in the aura. And a nasty Fiery Breath (standard, recharge 4 5 6, close blast 3) dealing a massive 2d6+3 amount of fire damage to the entire party.

Finally, we have the Kuo-Toa. All Kuo-Toa have the Aquatic trait, allowing them to breathe underwater and gain an additional +2 to attacks against nonaquatic creatures. The Kuo-Toa Mad One have an Eldritch Scream (at will, close blast 3) dealing psychic damage to a group of foes. The Kuo-Toa Lash has multiple lightning attacks, the worst being Forked Lightning (standard, area burst 2, recharge when bloodies an enemy or reduces an enemy's HP to 0 or less) which not only deals 2d6+6 lightning damage but blinds the target until the start of the Lash's next turn. The Kuo-Toa Cutter has a triggered action called Swift Strike (at will) which triggers when an enemy misses it with a melee attack and allows the cutter to shift 4 squares and attack with its Barbed Dagger (at will, melee) attack.

The encounter...

The party had been adventuring in the Underdark for a few days now and had been successful in their ventures. As they rounded the next bend in the maze-like tunnels, they saw a small Kuo-Toa village under siege by an army of Hell Hounds. Always in need of allies, especially in a place as treacherous as the Underdark, the party decided to move forward and help the Kuo-Toa fend off the attack. As they approached, the Kuo-Toa leader and Deva Fallen Star struck up a quick bargain to work together against this band of top-siders before the intruders could take advantage of their warring situation.

As the party rushed in on the Hell Hounds, taking damage from their fire sheilds, the Kuo-Toa Mad Ones rushed the party, Clawing and (Eldritch) Screaming as they worked the party's defenses down. The Kuo-Toa Cutters darted in swiftly and landed multiple Crippling Strikes, dealing extra attacks with their Barbed Daggers as they dodged the party's attacks. The Deva Fallen Star moved in to attack with its Rebuking Rod, but noticed the Kuo-Toa Lash beginning to target her. The Deva quickly drew the attention of the party's casters and used her Fateful Transposition to switch places with the Kuo-Toa Lash. The Lash took the brunt of the party's attack, but not before launching several volleys of Forked Lightning.

It was a close battle, but the smoke cleared with the one who had been victorious on the battlefield. The Deva Fallen Star laughed to herself as she surveyed the damage and wondered if fate would have a common foe appear near Menzoberranzan when it came time to attack. Perhaps she would find this common foe herself and infiltrate the Drow stronghold as a friend, coming to warn of the attack. Yes, these plans would work out nicely.

The discussion...

  • What other monsters do you think could add an interesting flair to this group and how would you work them into the story?

  • What other strategies could this group of monsters use against the party?

  • What are some possible defensive tactics the party could use against these monsters, Kuo-Toa Cutters being so "shifty"?

  • How could different party make-ups be better or worse against these monsters?

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Master's Lackeys

There are several amazing Dungeons & Dragons blogs out there, but one of my favorites has recently run two articles written by one of my favorite authors, Chris Sims (an editor and game designer known for work on Wizards of the Coast’s Duel Masters, Dungeons & Dragons, and Magic: The Gathering) about one of my favorite components in 4E: MINIONS!


Minions Are Everywhere!

No matter the story, whether set in a fantasy, science fiction, comedy, or drama, the main bad guy always has lackeys. Darth Vader had the Storm Troopers, Dr. Evil had several nameless thugs and Mini Me, Sauron had the first 1/3 of the Orc army that was attacking Helm's Deep (seriously, they dropped like flies when the arrows started flying).


Minions: By The Book

A few game sessions ago, I decided I did not like using the minions in the same old fashion I had been. They were great as zombies in my campaign's Whispering Willow Cemetery session, wonderful as cheaply hired mercenaries to guard a slave camp in The Slave Pit session, and really interesting as village fishermen the party had to protect as the slavers retaliated in the final encounter of the Gates of Dyadasti session, but I decided to mix things up a bit. I used 2-hit minions in the Longtooth's Labyrinth session but when one of the players landed a high damage roll, he felt cheated that the enemy wasn't killed. I quickly converted my 2-hit minions back to regular minions to keep the level of fun at a maximum for the evening, but decided I wouldn't give up hope on the 2-hit minion.


My Minions Have HP?

For the next session, I had created 2 new flavors of minions. The 2/20 and the 3/30 minions. The 2/20 minion is dead after 2 hits or 20 damage, whichever comes first. Likewise, the 3/30 minion is dead after 3 hits or 30 damage. This may sound fruitless and you may be asking "why not just have the monster with 30 HP??" Well, for our group, this worked very well. Our Ranger misses quite a bit (he obviously hasn't read my article on how dice are made and refuses to switch d20s mid-session), so when he does land a shot, it really counts against these 2/20 and 3/30 minions. On top of this, when the "cheated" player landed a heavy blow on a 3/30 minion with 2 hits left, it was destroyed. Everyone had lots of fun and I was still able to swarm the party with a nice mix of regular minions, 2/20s and 3/30s!


For discussion...

Chris' articles really got me thinking again about other things I can change to keep the players on their toes. I'm going to look for specific creatures with interesting auras and burst that make sense for the setting when creating my minions. The 2/20 and 3/30 minions worked in the one session I used them, but I'm not convinced they're here to stay, time will tell.

  • Have you modified how you use minions?

  • Are there certain powers or considerations you give to them in your games?

  • Do you think my modification was effective or just a waste of time?

Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

D&D Macaroons: The Three-Act Skill Challenge

Skill Challenges are a widely-written about topic. The nebulous nature of the challenge, paired with its newness to the system, all create difficulties when approaching. Reading about, listening to, and running skill challenges has led me to put in my two cents regarding how I run skill challenges. The best skill challenges are like great macaroons: crunchy on the outside but fluffy on the inside. First, I'll explain how I use the three act structure to create a challenge, then I'll explain how they are run.

Three Act Skill Challenge
Before I ever read about the three act structure to adventure making, I was applying a three-scene structure to my skill challenges.


The first act is exposition and preparation. The problem is presented in the first act: a ritual must be prepared, the city is on fire, the ancient tome is being stolen. The players are then asked to prep for their plan to fix the problem: gather components, rally the fire brigade, sound the alarms and give chase. The players get prep time equal to their success. I take the number of successes, divide by 2 and subtract one. When they reach that number or their first failure they initiate act two.

The second act of the skill challenge is incitement and climax: the ritual is cast, the fire is fought, and the thief is chased. Successes in the first act will dictate the difficulty of the second act's checks; if they made it through all the successes, drop the difficulty one tier (hard to moderate, moderate to easy) if they failed early, increase the DCs by two (12 DC becomes 14). This goes on until they reach the number of successes (total needed divided by 2) or the second failure.

The third act is all resolution and dénouement. The consequences for the challenge thus far are given. The ritual is either a success (it does what it was supposed to) or a failure (incorrect result, it blows up, it summons demons!) the city is either extinguished or the fire still rages. You've captured the thief or backed him near a dead end. If the PCs haven't made the cut yet (they should have one success needed) this will be the most difficult part. If they have over 4 checks to make, increase the DCs a tier. If they have 4, 3, or 2 checks left, decrease the DCs a tier, and if there was only one check left when they started the act, make the DC an easy one.

At the end of the challenge, the PCs reap the consequences of their rolls. If they did well the challenge goes well (the ritual goes off without a hitch, the fire only causes minimal damage, the thief is caught), but if the challenge went south the players have to deal with some difficulties (the ritual summons demons and the PCs have to fight, the fire nearly wipes out the town and the PCs are blamed, The thief gets away, but leaves his orders about where to take the item). This punishes the PCs for failing but keeps the game going. The absolute last thing you want is a dead-end situation where the PCs have to either backtrack or wonder what they are to do next.

Running the 3-act Skill Challenge
The three act skill challenge runs a lot like a 3-scene play. I present the act's challenge, and start taking rolls around the table. I do make everyone take a turn, but they can choose whatever skill they want as long as they describe it. There is a small caveat to that. No player can use the same skill twice in a row, and no character can use the skill the last player used. If it fits in perfectly with the scene (Arcana to draw the ritual circle, Diplomacy to rally the brigade, Athletics to chase down the thief) then I make it an easy DC. If it fits in a little bit but not really in the spirit of the act (Streetwise to search for components, Nature to find the nearest water source, Intimidate to scare the thief into stopping) I make it a moderate DC. If it has nothing to do with the spirit of the scene (Acrobatics to jump from rooftop to rooftop to deliver components in the fastest fashion, Perception to see where the fire is strongest, Insight to see why the thief stole the item) I set the skill to a hard DC. I keep taking tallies until they hit the successes or their failure.

After the rolls, I narrate the scene. I tell the PCs how the scene played out based on their skills, and transition them to the next act. Then they roll, go until their failure, and narration begins again. Same for the final act.

By the end of the challenge, they won't know whether they won the challenge or not, because it's not about winning or losing, it's about the story. That's really what skill challenges are about: crunch then fluff. Just like a great macaroon they start off hard and crunchy but end with incredible fluff that leaves everyone satisfied.

Skill Challenges are one of the most written about facets of 4e. I'm not bold or stupid enough to think this will end the writing on Skill Challenges, but hopefully it will be an aid to others. If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them!

And if you want to make the macaroons pictured in this article, be sure to visit, that’s where I stole the pics. I made them yesterday and they are delicious!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Monday's Monster Mash #3 - A Fallen Leader's Tomb

Monday’s Monster Mash is a weekly series where monsters are selected from the three Monster Manuals and put together as an encounter group. A situation is discussed where these monsters would have been together and how their powers or status effects work together against the players.

The story...

Arcaniss, the Poisonscale Magus, had been charged with overseeing the construction and protection of the tomb for their recently deceased leader, Maekrix. With the majority of the construction complete, Arcaniss roamed the tomb deciding where various traps and constructs would be put in. As she silently moved from corridor to corridor, she felt as though she was being watched. Out of the darkness, a Su Sentinel came barreling towards her. She turned and caught him in a great hug. "Where have you been, Ir? You know you shouldn't be down here while I'm preparing the traps."

Ir was Arcaniss' personal guard. Several years ago, when venturing through the swamps, she came upon him caught in a snare laid by Yuan-ti. Arcaniss hid in the foliage until the Yuan-ti came. She watched as they taunted and teased the trapped Su Monster. Feeling a moment of compassion, she leapt upon the Yuan-ti and slaughtered the lot of them. As she freed Ir from his bonds, she tended to his wounds and spoke in soft, soothing tones to keep the Su Monster calm. In return, Ir followed Arcaniss out of the swamp and returned to the land of the Lizardfolk as her personal guard.

As Arcaniss began the rare and powerful ritual to bind an angelic spirit to the newly carved Sphinx statue, Ir's sat by waiting and watching for any signs of trouble or intruders. As she completed the ritual, Ir's senses alerted him to a nearby presence. Quickly, he pulled Arcaniss into the side chamber and quietly leapt into the rafters of the tomb...

The monsters...

Monster Manual
Monster Manual 2
Monster Manual 3
Page 245
Lizardfolk, Poisonscale Magus
Page 156
Su Monster
Page 188

The powers...

First off, let's take a look at the Sphinx. These things are usually setup to guard a sacred or magical location, come in pairs usually, and like riddles. They have a power called Sphinx's Challenge, where they actually pose a question to the party. If the party answers correctly (or recites the required holy verse) the Sphinx lets them pass, but keeps a close eye on their activities. If they start to tear things up, the Sphinx immediately attacks with its Frightful Roar (close burst 10), with all targets taking a -2 penalty to their attack rolls.

Next, we have the Su Monster, Su Sentinel to be specific. Next to clowns, I find nothing more frightening than a monkey/fey panther hybrid with psonic powers (aka NIGHTMARE FUEL). These beasts move silently through trees, attacking from above with some very wicked moves. Psionic Boost (triggered action, recharged when takes psychic damage) is trigger when it lands a Claw (at will, melee) or Flashing Talons (at will, melee) attack and deals 2d6 additional psychic damage. The Su Sentinel also has a special Skirmish trait allowing its attacks to deal another 5 additional damage if it moves at least 4 squares from its starting square.

Lastly, we have the Poisonscale Magus. This is a poison dealing turret, essentially. Poison Blood (standard, at will, ranged): 1d6+3 poison damage with an ongoing 5 poison damage. If that's not bad enough, Corrupt Poison (minor, at will, ranged) slides the target 3 squares and slows them until they roll a save. Then, there's Poison Barrage (standard, encounter, area burst 3) which hits for 1d6+3 poison damage and the target takes a -5 vulnerability to poison until they roll a save. But, if Poison Barrage misses, it still deals half damage and the -5 vulnerability lasts until the end of the targets next turn.

The encounter...

The party enters the tomb of a Lizardfolk king and are greeted by a Sphinx. After not being able to recite the king's motto in Draconic, the Sphinx attacks with its Frightful Roar as the Su Monster swoops in from the rafters with its Claw and Psionic Boost attacks. The Poisonscale Magus pokes her head out around the corner and beings launching volleys Posion Blood and Posion Barrage, draining the party of their precious life-force. With all the commotion in the tomb, the nearby Lizardfolk guards come to the aid of the Magus, only to find the broken bodies of the party members never made it past the entrance.

The discussion...

  • What other monsters do you think could add an interesting flair to this group and how would you work them into the story?

  • What other strategies could this group of monsters use against the party?

  • What are some possible defensive tactics the party could use against these monsters, especially with all the poison damage being dealt?

  • How could different party make-ups be better or worse against these monsters?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Loot Scootin Boogie

It's the elephant in the room. It can be a welcome addition or a jealousy-inducing roadblock. It can help you out or turn you into a snide douche. I'm not talking about bringing a girlfriend to game night, I'm talking about loot. As a DM, I think that giving loot is more difficult to plan than an encounter, skill challenge, or even a campaign story. I've run the gamut: wish lists, planned rewards, straight gold-buy, and random table. These strategies all hold pros and cons, and I’m going to give some helpful tips on using each.

Wish List

Wish lists are great for players getting exactly what they want when they want it. The only thing the DM has to do is drop the items in a chest in the cavern. The characters have to do all the footwork, because they have to figure out what items at what level they want, and just wait with hands held out waiting for their items. The main problem that this type runs into is verisimilitude. What are the odds that this particular Goblin party just happens to be holding the exact sword, out of hundreds of swords, is the one you wanted? It’s a little bit of a stretch, but of course who cares about verisimilitude when there’s an anthropomorphic dragon breathing fire right next to you? The way that I work the Wish List into the game is making it a literal wish list. Your characters aren’t lore-masters on every magic item in the universe (at least not until Epic). The only way your characters know about the items is by hearing about them. You want a legendary warhammer? Of course you do! The hobgoblin chieftains have been passing that item down for generations, and it even killed your little cousin when you were younger. What better way to get revenge than getting that item and killing hobgobs with it? This segways into my other use for loot: there is little to no chance that magical items are hoarded by most creatures. Even if you are battling goblin cutters, if they have a magical greataxe that sets things on fire they will use it. Edit a creature to be wielding the magical item. If it’s an item that they aren’t used to using (archer using a longsword) give it a -2 to attacks using it. If it’s an item that makes no sense being used by that creature (goblin cutter using a greataxe) give it a -5. This will give some flavor to the items, and can lead to characters running off without checking bodies for that item. This takes a lot of planning by the DM, which brings up the next list. PRO: players get what they want, and do all the work. CON: makes the game (more) unrealistic.

Planned Rewards

Planning a campaign is tough and time-consuming. It takes a lot of work to weave a story of intrigue and adventure with the struggles of life upon you. Adding treasure seems like the last thing to think of. “I’ll just throw in a magic item of plus two level and move on.” This leads to the worst of contrived adventuring, and eventually leads to the wish list approach. Using a planned rewards type of loot placement requires time and thought. To make it work, you have to think “why is the item there, is it being used, and if it isn’t, what will drive it’s hoarders to use it?” This type of planning could be your greatest asset, though, creating loot that is highly connected with your characters and story. Some encounters can be built around the treasure first, and the monsters and traps second. Kobold warriors have been worshiping a Dragonborn-styled Flame Sword. They have built traps to emulate the flames that lick off of the sword, and they have adapted their breath weapons to match its fiery nature. They would never use the item unless it were directly threatened to be used by infidels, and then only by the Kobold highpriest. A pack of bulette’s could hoard healing potions, but may have no idea that they heal injuries. They look like the shiny red baubles that they tried to eat once and broke a tooth, and collect the items to illuminate their caves. Using planned rewards can create more deep storytelling, but require a fair amount of (you guessed it) planning to work well. PRO: can aid in encounter and story creation. CON: takes additional DM work to make the items fit into the story instead of looking like a band-aid.

Gold-Buy System

Money makes the world go ‘round. There’s bound to be tons of it around the world, and tons of it hoarded away by evil hands. The gold-buy system takes all the itemizing out of the hands of the DM and the players, and allows PCs to go on a huge shopping-spree the next time they get to town. This is great for a DM, because all they need to do is look at the average gold cost of an item, plug it into a treasure chest or on the body of a raider, and you’re done. Lather, rinse, repeat. This can be problematic for PCs. 20 pounds of gold is great, but I’m in the middle of a delve. I can’t drink molten gold to regain 10HP, and I definitely can’t use my gold to add three to my AC once a day. When I get back to town I’m great, but I’d really like to live until I get to town. Another thing this can cause is PC hoarding. They keep their cut for the first two or three levels, then takes their entire hoard of gold and buy one super-powerful item. This can create an unbalanced player and an eventual unfun experience. The way to make this type of system work is in parcel management. Instead of giving out four magic items a level, give only one or two and convert the rest into gold. Give more healing potions (to make up for the lack of magical support) and give non-magical baubles (like art and jewels) that can be melted down and used for magical items when in town. This, I feel, is the most realistic form of loot distribution. There’s sure to be tons of gold in the world, but probably few magical items. When you get back to town, you drop a large bag of gold onto the blacksmith’s lap and commission a magical item. The item then has personal value to the PC. It’s not just A +1 sword, it’s YOUR +1 sword. Never underestimate the power of sentimental value, even with a min/maxing player. PRO: most realistic, and least-thought taxing for PCs and DMs. CON: can put PCs in a bind in the middle of an adventure, and may cause PC hoarding and un-balancing.

Random Loot System

Variety is the spice of life. What DM doesn’t want the pressure of loot distribution off of their shoulders? The random loot system takes all the pressure off of the DM. “It’s not your fault you didn’t get a shield this time around, it was the loot table. I rolled right in front of you; you see the chart, that’s how it worked out.” This system, more than any other, will require DM adjustment to make the game enjoyable for everyone. I find that this system is the best for a non-magical item campaign. I create a 100 item list in Excel of mundane items, gold, healing potions, and divine boons. I then randomly scramble the list and save it. Then, I have written down in my notes how many items I need to roll for, then roll a d100. This type of system takes the most forward work, but after you have it built you can use it indefinitely (or if you don’t allow repeats it will last the number of parcels you use). This also limits the stress of creating parcels. You just write down the number of rolls you do and refer to your table. Sometimes you get really lucky PCs, which is where the best laid random loot system sometimes goes awry. Overpowered and underpowered PCs are most likely in this system, and lucky PCs can get the upper hand in the random system. The final disadvantage to this system is that it sucks all the verisimilitude out of a game. Rolling loot after an encounter will make it look like there was no planning at all in putting treasure in a delve. The items have no logical place to be in there, and the specialness of getting a magic item is diminished when it just magically ‘poofs’ in there. The way to make this work is to combine this strategy with the planned loot system. Roll your prizes beforehand and let that be a guide to creating the reasons why the loot was there. PRO: least amount of preparation after the creation of the chart; completely random to reduce player ire. CON: over and under-powered PCs can occur very quickly; realism becomes almost zero.

How do I give PCs Loot Then?

Personal preference is always the way to go when considering how you will give PCs loot. Most will mix and match different ways of doing this. Hopefully many DMs will look through and decide which is best for them. Things to consider when making loot distribution is thinking about how much time you have to plan, how much realism you want your game to have, and how much you want your PCs to be involved in the loot creation process. Hopefully this guide would help you in deciding how to distribute items. So the next time you are sitting at the table, and the PCs finish an encounter, take a look at the elephant in the room square in the eyes, and ask her if she could pitch-in on the pizza. Then tell the PCs what they’ve earned from their encounter, because you had no problem trying to hand out loot to your players.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday's Monster Mash: #2 - An Icy Prison

Monday's Monster Mash is a new weekly series where monsters are selected from the three Monster Manuals and put together as an encounter group. A situation is discussed where these monsters would have been together and how their powers or status effects work together against the players.

The story...

The great Ancient Silver Dragon Storath was trapped in an icy prison, lured there by a fair Eladrin maiden with flattery and ill intent. Once inprisoned, his son Gradak took up a quest to find and release his father. Gradak, idealistic and with a crusading temperament, first looked to his fellow Silver Dragons for help. Most were not willing to follow him on his search, but Pruora, a Blizzard dragon, overheard Gradak's pleas and agreed to follow to aid him in the search for Storath. Ever since the Dawn War and the death of Io, Pruora had been lost in search of a master and a cause. As Gradak and Pruora approached the northern mountain peaks, they were attacked by a group of Ice Archons under the command of a Greater Air Elemental. The dragons made quick work of the elemental and the Ice Archons dissolved their weapons, willing to follow Gradak and Pruora in exchange for their lives.

The monsters...

Monster Manual
Monster Manual 2
Monster Manual 3
Ice Archon
Page 20
Silver Dragon
Page 85
Blizzard Dragon
Page 65

The powers...

First up, we have Gradak, the Silver Dragon. These magical beasts have two attacks to be weary of. First, all Silver Dragons, whether Young, Adult, Elder, or Ancient, have an attack called Wing Slice (melee, immediate reaction). This attack is trigger when the players are flanking the dragon and attacks it. The dragon stretches out its wings and slices at the attacker and one enemy flanking with the attacker. Even with the addition of the flanking bonuses, the party would not be able to stay in close because of the Wing Slice. Secondly, every Silver Dragon has the Dragon Onslaught (melee, at will) attack allowing them to make a claw attack (plus one bite a attack for the bigger dragons) against every enemy within reach.

Next up, we have Pruora, the Blizzard Dragon. Much like the Silver Dragons, all Blizzard Dragons share common attacks, regardless of their size. These elemental beasts have two attacks I want to touch on. First, is their Double Attack (melee, at will) which allows them use two standard actions every turn. What's worse than a dragon's bite? How about being bitten twice!?! Their second frightening attack is a triggered action called Chill Rebuke (ranged, recharged when first bloodied) which attacks with a close blast five when an enemy's melee attack deals damage to the dragon. This can spell trouble for the party if the tank has to get in close, potentially taking double attacks on the dragon's turn and causing damage to the entire party when landing a hit.

Last we have the Ice Archons. These elementals have two attacks the party should be deathly afraid of. Much like the Blizzard Dragon, the Ice Archon Hailscourge have a Double Attack, but with a different flavor. Their attack allows them to use their Ice Shuriken (standard, at will) ranged attack twice, much like the Ranger's Twin Strike attack. The second attack is called Hail Storm (standard) which allows the Ice Arcon to send out shards of ice in an area burst with a size of their choice: 1, 2, 3, or 4. Even if the attack misses, the players still take half damage.

The encounter...

So how does this all tie together?

Imagine, a party consisting of a Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, and Wizard are exiting an ice dungeon with their payload of loot and whatever artifact they were sent there to retrieve. Next thing they know, the snowy ground bursts open and they are bombarded by the Ice Archons' Ice Shurikens and Hail Storms. The Fighter rushes in but a Blizzard Dragon lands right in front of him, dealing multiple bite attacks. The Ranger and Wizard begin firing on the Ice Archons when a Silver Dragon lands directly between them using its Dragon Onslaught to deal damage to everyone within range. The Cleric attacks the Silver Dragon with her Lance of Faith, commanding the rest of the party to focus there. The Fighter quickly becomes bloodied without the support against the Blizzard Dragon and Ice Archons so the Cleric tries to make her way to him as the Wizard is taken down in a Hail Storm of ice. The Ranger drops his bow and goes after the Silver Dragon with his sword while still taking damage from the Ice Archons. As the Fighter goes down, he lands a blow to the Blizzard Dragon, causing its Chill Rebuke attack to be triggered, dealing the killing blow to the Fighter and severely injuring the Cleric. As the rest of the party is ripped to shreds by ice and teeth, Gradak searches the bodies for any sign of the party may have had pointing him in the direction of his father's prison.

For discussion...

  • What other monsters do you think could add an interesting flair to this group and how would you work them into the story?

  • What other strategies could this group of monsters use against the party?

  • What are some possible defensive tactics the party could use against these monsters, especially with their trigger attacks?

  • How could different party make-ups be better or worse against these monsters?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, August 6, 2010

D&D Homework - Collaborative Storytelling

Thadeous over at posted an interesting article today called "Giving Up Some Power" that got me thinking about the current campaign I am running.

The party has been based out of the town of Everlund and has purchased a guild hall there. This town is supposed to be a moderately-sized trading town with streets setup like spokes on a wagon wheel, making it easy to move goods in and out of town from any direction. The party has only visited the guard barracks, purchased their guild hall where they stay, and went to a few nearby shops. They have yet to truly explore what the town has to offer. So, I sent my players the following email:

Hey guys,

I have a little bit of homework I want you each to do over the next 2 weeks.

Since Kron came in to town, the party took a little break and has spent 2 weeks shopping, hanging out, and exploring the town. Everlund is a good sized trading town but still has that "everybody knows your name" atmosphere about it. The party has only seen a few shops, the guild hall, and the guard barracks (so far, according to the story).

#1 - I want each of you to come up with 2 places that exist in the town. These can be as simple as a fletcher's shop in the market district (described in very little detail) or as elaborate as an underground sewer system (detailing the exit points throughout the town).

#2 - With each of the 2 places, create at least 2 (but no more than 4) unique NPCs that live/work/whatever in these new places. Give them a little backstory...why are they there?

#3 - Decide how/why your character has visited these places and met these NPCs over the last 2 weeks.

DO NOT share these places or NPCs with each other. Send me the information (if I have to DM-veto anything, I'll let you know) and let me know if you have any questions.


We'll see what they come up with! I'm looking forward to it and hope this opens the door for more collaborative storytelling and world design.

Have you ever been involved in a collaborative creation of people and places for a campaign you've played in? What were some of the pros and cons to what you or the players brought to the gaming table?


Here was my favorite immediate response:
oh goody, this should be fun :)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

3 Player Monty

Dungeons and Dragons is not a popular game in my area. I should clarify that statement. Dungeons and Dragons 4e is not popular in Leavenworth or Lansing, Kansas. The two batches of students that I’ve had who played DnD were 3.5 fanboys who went into nerd rage when I mentioned 4e. I did have two 3.5 players come into my college group’s 4e game, but after a few sessions they dropped out (a mixture of scheduling conflict and edition frustration). My point for bringing this up? I’ve always had to run games with 3 or 4 PCs. In the beginning of our game it was 2 PCs and 1 DM controlled NPC. My group has been holding steady for the last 4 or 5 months with 3 PCs. This has posed some problems for me as a DM, because my XP budget is pretty low for encounter building. I have come up with some ways to deal with my small party dynamic, and I hope that these things could both benefit games that have an adequate number of players, and encourage people who have small player-bases to still get a game going.

1. Understand your enemy (the PCs)

This is a general tip for any DM, but especially for a small party, knowing who your PCs are and what they can do tactically. A three-player party (3PP hereafter) is going to be missing at least one role (my home game is missing two). This means that to make the game enjoyable for the players you as a DM have to look at what you can throw at them without demolishing them. My home game doesn’t have a defender, but it has two leaders. I rarely pit them against Soldiers because the high HP value and damage output can drop one or two PCs in the first couple of rounds without someone to soak up damage. With two leaders, though, I can pit them against an elite with a couple of soldiers right before an extended rest because they have the opportunity to use their healing powers and recharge before the next day’s difficulties. This could be a “Sissy DM” way of looking at encounter building, but one character dropped in a 3PP suddenly sinks player actions by 33%, creating an un-fun encounter quickly.

Understanding your PCs goes beyond combat. With fewer characters, there is more pressure on each PC to interact in a roleplaying situation. A smaller group means that the group has to be tighter-knit, and they have to work together for common safety; failure to do so ends tragically much quicker than in a larger party.

A short example: Manneo, the Barbarian, demands healing from the party Cleric. The Cleric states that she only heals when he is at least at his bloodied value, as per the party agreement, but Manneo demands healing. When the spider swarm flanks Manneo, he quickly drops to below his healing surge value. Manneo’s player begins to act aggressively towards the Cleric’s player in the real world, prompting the Cleric to not heal him at all. Tired of their bickering, the Druid drops a burst attack killing both the swarms and Manneo, ending the argument.

This situation is not exclusive to just a 3PP, but a larger party would still be able to function during a two-character breakdown; a 3PP falls apart completely, creating real world friction and a stall in playtime (funtime). A preventative measure for this situation for the DM is explained well in the next tip.

2. Gift the Masses

Treasure is an important part of any PCs life. The DMG explains that for 3 PCs they lose one magic item and some gold. That really doesn’t change the loot dynamic that much, but I find many of my parcels changed more by the nature of my treasures and the number of healing potions I give to players. Almost all of my characters have some form of the Onyx Dog (AV) that they can control with minor actions. I take advantage of the extra damage output to increase the difficulty of the encounters (see section 3).To survive the encounters that I set up for the party I also give my PCs 4-5 Healing Potions per level. This allows them to use their healing surges in combat and takes some of the friction off of the Cleric (as above). Another thing that I allow for my players are more frequent short rests. I gauge how many encounters they’ll have through a day depending on remaining party healing surges. Although healing surges run out pretty quickly around my group, as is evidenced from my final tip.

3. Lay on the Hurt, but Spread the Love

With an XP budget significantly lower than a 5 player party, the 3PP can survive surprisingly difficult encounters. Many of the encounters I’ve run have been on-par for 5 PCs and the 3PP can still thrive. There are a couple of things I do here that allow for that. As stated above, the PCs have Onyx Dogs that basically add up to another whole PC in the party, and with their extra healing potions, it allows me to up the XP budget to 4 PCs. Most of my encounters fall into the “hard” category (level +2 or above). How do I do this without TPK everyday? I put in a lot of minions. A low XP budget means few monsters, and few monsters make stale encounters. Waves of minions don’t let the PCs think they’re in a smaller encounter, and lets them get that mighty feeling of threshing through enemies. The other key thing I do combat-wise to help the PCs is I rarely focus fire. Although it is the intelligent thing to wail on one PC until they fall, it makes that PC feel bullied and hurt (that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen: if the barbarian rushes into the fray before the artillery have time to set up, he’s going through the meat grinder). I try to make sure the monsters I pit the PCs against have the opportunity to battle everyone. With one melee and two ranged, all of the creatures have ranged attacks to keep the artillery from feeling safe. I usually use the buddy system for PC attack. One or two monsters will pick a PC and attack them until goaded into attacking a different PC. This sets up grudge matches and gets the PCs invested in the combat.

These are a few of the things that I use to keep my 3PP happy. My players have never complained that they wished that they had another player to make the game more fun, and the only time I’ve seen them yawn in a game is during Finals week. Have any of you readers encountered a small party situation? How have you handled the lack of personnel in the game? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Monday's Monster Mash: #1 - A Deadly Promise

Monday's Monster Mash is a new weekly series where monsters are selected from the three Monster Manuals and put together as an encounter group. A situation is discussed where these monsters would have been together and how their powers or status effects work together against the players.

The story...

The Meazels, once human, were attacked by a plague and turned to Baalzebul, duke of Maladomini, the seventh hell, to save them. Baalzebul's promise that the plague would not kill the humans stayed true, but had very frightening side effects. Instead of death, the Meazels were turned into flesh-hungry creatures covered in weeping sores. Their endless hunger drove them into the surrounding areas and on into the rest of the world as they tried to nourish their ravening appetites.

Cruril Duskwalker was a powerful Eladrin Wizard who sought after nothing more than ultimate power. He quickly learned how to summon powerful Firelasher elementals to do his bidding and took control of his favorite creature: the Phase Spider. His appetite for power and destruction was never quenched and in death he chose to perform an ancient ritual on himself, turning into a powerful Lich. This ritual got the attention of the archdevil Levistus, trapped in his ice prison in Stygia, the fifth hell, who granted Cruril unspeakable power for a price. Cruril would seek out the ancient city that became ground zero for the spread of the Meazels and turn them against Baalzebul.

Over several years, Cruril used his power to search out the ancient city and was easily welcomed in by the Meazels with promises of lifting their cursed plague and turning them back to humans. Not all Meazels followed him, but those that did were told the only way to be rid of the plague was to destroy Baalzebul himself. Cruril keeps the Meazels in check by allowing them to feed on small villages and plays to their wants by speaking of great magical treasures they must acquire to defeat the archdevil of the seventh hell.

Now, at the head of an army of Meazels, Phase Spiders, and Firelashers, Cruril is making his way across the realms wreaking havoc and growing more powerful by the moment.

The monsters...

Monster Manual
Monster Manual 2
Monster Manual 3
Page 104

Lich (Eladrin Wizard)
Page 176
Phase Spider
Page 190
Page 130

The powers...

First off, let's look at the Meazels. All Meazels have the Wretched Curse of Baalzebul (Aura 1) giving all players starting their turn within the aura a -2 penalty to all defenses and a vulnerable 5 to all damage. But it gets better...any ally starting its turn next to the affected creature also becomes affected by the curse. This is a nasty disease and would easily spread like wildfire, dropping the defenses of the party's tank(s) and melee striker(s). I would stick with the Meazel Bravos (brutes) and fill the encounter with some Meazel minions, who, don't forget, would also have the Wretched Curse of Baalzebul.

Second, we have the Phase Spiders. This spider has 2 attacks that make it a deadly enemy: Ethereal Bite and Ethereal Repulsion. Ethereal Bite allows this beast to teleport up to 10 squares and make its Bite attack, which slows the target (save ends) and has an additional effect of knocking the target unconscious if the first saving throw fails. Ethereal Repulsion is an immediate interrupt triggered by an enemy moving to any adjacent square. The spider actually teleports the enemy 4 squares away.

Third, we have the Firelashers. This elemental has an attack called Wildfire Cyclone (close burst 2) that pushes the target back 1 square and knocks them prone on a hit. A miss still deals half damage. I wouldn't start the encounter off with any Firelashers on the battlefield but actually create a new power for the Lich (Eladrin Wizard) to summon them in pairs within 10 squares as a standard action.

Finally, we have the Lich (Eladrin Wizard). This monster has a ranged attack called Necrotic Orb that stuns its target until the end of the Lich's next turn. Not only that, but as a Lich, this monster is Indestructible. When its hit points are down to zero, the body and all his possessions crumble to dust. He then reappears in 1d10 days next to his phylactery, unless the phylactery is destroyed, making him a great reoccurring villain in any campaign!

The encounter...

So how does this all tie together?

Imagine, a party consisting of a Warlord, Paladin, Ranger, and Sorcerer enter the ruins of an ancient city and are suddenly ambushed by Meazels. As the party gets oriented and begins picking them off, Phase Spiders teleport in and attack. The Ranger spots the Lich atop a nearby broken tower as the Paladin rushes a Phase Spider. The Paladin is teleported back as the Lich summons Firelasher to flank him. The Sorcerer begins launching attacks towards the Lich but the Meazels get in close and curse her. With her defenses down, a Phase Spider teleports in knocking her unconscious. The Warlord gives orders to the Ranger to concentrate fire on the Lich while attempting to give the Sorcerer aid. The Lich launches a Necrotic Orb at the Ranger, stunning him, and the Meazel Bavos wail away through his defenses. The Firelashers, now finished with the Paladin, turn on the Warlord with their Wildfire Cyclone attacks, pushing him back and knocking him prone. The Lich laughs from the looming ruined tower as he watches the party fall. Cruril Duskwalker is back and more powerful than ever.

For discussion...

  • What other monsters do you think could add an interesting flair to this group and how would you work them into the story?

  • What other strategies could this group of monsters use against the party?

  • Do you have any ideas for powers (like the Lich's ability to summon Firelashers) that could be created specifically for this group?

  • What are some possible defensive tactics the party could use against these monsters?

  • How could different party make-ups be better or worse against these monsters?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!