TactiCon 2012 Recap: Fiasco, Ashes of Athas, Chaos & Alchemy and impromptu D&D

Labor Day weekend has been a lot of fun for me the past three years, as I’ve been attending TactiCon. This is the smaller of the two conventions put on by the Denver Gamers Association each year (the bigger one is Genghis Con over Presidents’ Day weekend in February), but the 2010 edition was the first gaming convention I ever attended, so it always has a place in my heart.

I’ve done the “Marathon GM” thing in the past, where I run a D&D game in all nine of the convention’s four-hour slots over the weekend, but I was taking it a little easier this time – only being signed up for seven. Yes, I’m still nuts.


Thursday night, I had signed up to run a session of Fiasco. I had only played once before, but I think it’s a cool system and one that I want to get more comfortable with. I’ve been playing around with creating a playset of my own, but since it wasn’t ready in time I just brought the four sets from the base Fiasco book, plus the D&D-themed set, the rock band set and the set played on Tabletop a couple of months ago. My players, two of whom had never played before, opted for the Antarctica set. Since there were four other players plus myself, I decided not to participate as a player, instead just helping them along. I think Fiasco plays best with four.

The players had a good time, setting up a web of relationships and secrets. Things were going swimmingly until the radioactive penguins started growing tentacles at the end of Act One. Amazingly, the players all rolled pretty well by Fiasco standards at the end of the game, so none of them ended up dead and one ended up coming out smelling like roses. We finished in under two hours, too, which was great – I still had a little prep for the rest of the weekend’s games to finish.


Friday was Ashes of Athas Day One. I was running the three adventures from Chapter Three of the Dark Sun-set organized play campaign. I was delighted to discover that three of the guys whom I’d run Ashes of Athas for back at Genghis Con had returned, and they were stoked to play at my table again! They really made it fun for me last time.

This time was no different. With my projector setup running (and attracting lots of admiration from passers-by, as usual), we kept the fun flowing all day long. I felt bad for my core three players when they were bumped to another DM’s table for the middle session, but the reason was that we had a group of new-to-D&D players and the organizer knows that I love running games for new players (and that they tend to keep coming back after they’ve been at my table). I did love the new folks, too. Something about new players just gets my energy up.

My core three players were back at my table for the final adventure of the day, and it was mostly a big, two-part combat encounter. The second part had a very interesting environmental effect: Any PC starting or ending a turn in a zone of evil ashes had to make a death saving throw. This was in the Athasian plane of death, so it made sense. The cool thing about this was that it made it possible for a PC to die while still at full hit points, but not randomly out of nowhere as in a pure “save or die” effect. It really affected player tactics once they found out about it, and made things tense when they otherwise might not have been.


Saturday was going to be an interesting one. I was signed up to run Ashes of Athas from 9:00 to 1:00, from 2:00 to 6:00 and from 7:00 to 11:00. However, I was also signed up to run demos of Chaos & Alchemy in the board and card game room from noon to 3:00. I had asked the D&D organizer ahead of time if maybe I could bow out of some of my Ashes of Athas games, but he told me that he was really short on DMs.

Fortunately for me, he was wrong. Saturday morning, we had three DMs and three players. Easy solution: I would bow out, one of the DMs would play and the other DM would run a table of four! This let me get some much-needed coffee, check out the vendor hall, and then start showing people how to play Chaos & Alchemy.

Chaos & Alchemy cover art by Chris Rallis – Logo by Bree Heiss

My lovely wife came to join me in the demos at noon, and she was very eye-catching (like I said, she’s lovely). We had two tables of demos running non-stop, with lots of folks deciding to buy a copy of the game. One guy started telling all of his friends that they needed to come try this game, and I believe four of them bought copies. One of THOSE people also sent another buyer my way! Players are teaching one another to play the game.

A guy who owns a very new game retail store bought a copy and asked about carrying Chaos & Alchemy in his store. Two guys turned out to be involved with the organization of Denver Comic Con and wanted to talk to me about having a table at next year’s convention, with a “local game designer” angle on it. There was a lot of enthusiasm, and I ended the weekend with just 25 copies from my original 125 copy print run on hand. It’s off to a really good start!

As you might guess from all of that, I was able to spend most of the afternoon running Chaos & Alchemy, in part because there were only two tables worth of players for Ashes of Athas and the other two DMs ran the games. However, when the evening time slot came around, we had two tables of players but one of the other DMs was nowhere to be found, so I set up the projector and ran the adventure.

The players for Saturday night were the same six I’d had for Friday night. The adventure was the conclusion of Ashes of Athas Chapter Four, and it was my least favorite of the Ashes of Athas adventures I’ve run so far. It was really long, with too many skill challenges and combats for a standard convention time slot, and one of the combats ended up wiping out the other table of players (my table had a very hard time with it). We still had fun at the table, though. The party didn’t mind when I switched to some brief narration rather than actually running through some skill challenges, and they rolled with the bizarre “desert peyote trip” ending of the adventure.

This adventure also gave me my favorite gaming moment of the convention, when a new player who was running a spear-toting Ardent was trying desperately to figure out what she could to to help her allies while she was standing on a bridge and the gargoyle menacing them was 20 feet below her. Answer: Jump off the bridge, spear pointing down, and hope for the best. I gave her a +1 bonus for charging (sort of) and a +2 bonus for combat advantage (the gargoyle did NOT see this one coming!), and ruled that if she hit with the attack, it would count as an automatic critical hit.

Boom – gargoyle pieces everywhere! What a great ride.


I had nothing scheduled on Sunday, which was a first for me. I decided to sleep in, have an early lunch and get to the convention around 11:15. I got in on a game of Smash Up, which I knew had been a big deal at GenCon. I love the theme of the game – you play with a 40-card deck that’s made up of two 20-card decks smashed together to give you something like Alien Dinosaurs, Ninja Tricksters, Zombie Pirates or Robot Wizards. The mechanics of piling up minions and playing actions to take down some shared bases, with points awarded based on who contributed the most to breaking the base, were pretty good. The balance seemed fine, too, with the final score being 15-11-11-8 (I was one of the 11s).

However, I just didn’t have that much fun during the actual gameplay. The Robot Wizards, for instance, had really long, involved turns. The Ninja Tricksters got to do interesting things at unexpected times. The Zombie Pirates both had things popping out of the discard pile. The Dinosaur Aliens… were big. And they could return things to players’ hands. My turns were short and a little boring. It’s a game with lots of potential, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

I ran a couple more demos of Chaos & Alchemy, then headed over to the D&D area to see if maybe I could play in a game in the last time slot at 2:00. The organizer asked if I could run something instead. I didn’t have my laptop with me, even though the projector and rig were in the car, but since I’d never tried running module cold, I agreed to go for it.

I was loaned a wet-erase mat and marker and was seated at a table that was mostly empty, since the players (mostly kids who were friends and family of one another, with one adult) were apparently in their rooms leveling up their characters. Once I realized that they didn’t care what module they played, I decided I’d run one that I wrote – The Stolen Staff. I downloaded it from my blog to my iPad. I used the backs of business cards for initiative trackers. I wrote down monster hit points on a sheet of paper. I borrowed some minis from one of the players to represent the monsters.

And we had a rollicking good time! I soon realized that these kids really just wanted to fight stuff, so I gave them plenty of interesting things to kill. We had gotten off to a really late start, but we still fit in three fights and some role-playing, finishing on time. I did have a weird moment afterward when one of the kids asked me, “So who did the best?” I didn’t understand the question, so he clarified, “Who did the most damage and killed the most monsters? Who was the best?” I told him that my favorite moment was when one of his friends had his character jump off a tower to land on a minion (I guess I have a thing for PCs throwing themselves off of stuff). Maybe he’ll get the message that D&D is about creativity, not just numbers. Here’s hoping. It was a very min-maxed party, so I’m guessing I won’t change any opinions, but so it goes.


Once all was said and done, I still wasn’t quite finished. A couple came up to me as I was packing up from my last game and asked if I was Michael (I am) and if I could teach them about Fiasco. Apparently they had bought the game and weren’t confident in jumping in, and they had seen my name in the program as someone who had run Fiasco. So, after the GM appreciate ceremony, I met up with the two of them and taught them about Fiasco before heading home.

Yay for more new gamers!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Cruise ship D&D

There were no new blog posts for me last week because I was on vacation, taking a Caribbean cruise. My wife and I went with some friends of ours and had a lovely time, getting to spend time in Puerto Rico, Saint Maarten and Saint Thomas.

We also had several days at sea, so I naturally brought along some games to play. During one of the sea days on the way out to the islands I managed to persuade one of our friends to play San Juan with us, the card game version of the Puerto Rico board game. It was definitely in-theme for the cruise, and we had a nice time with the game.

On the way back from the islands, I mentioned D&D at lunch and was pleased when the woman in the couple we were traveling with asked about the game. She really knew nothing about it, but she knew that I really liked it and that my wife played, too, so I started describing D&D to her.

D&D is ultimately a cooperative storytelling game. Each player has a character that they get to play, and they have a sheet of paper with information about that character, explaining what the character can do. The dungeon master describes a situation that the players’ characters find themselves in, and then it’s up to the players to tell the DM what their characters do. If it’s something straightforward, like “I walk over that way,” then the DM just narrates the result. If it’s something that the character might or might not succeed in doing, like “I scramble up that tree,” then the DM might ask the player to roll some dice and determine the result of the action based on the result of the die roll.

D&D is a fantasy game, like the Lord of the Rings, and the players get to play the heroes. This means that they’ll probably find themselves in combat with bad guys from time to time, and the game has rules for taking turns in combat, attacking enemies, getting hit by enemies, and yes, even death.

Given that description, my friends were interested in learning to play. Fortunately, I had come prepared!

Usually I run D&D games using my laptop and a projector. While I did have my laptop with me on the cruise, there was no way I was bringing my projector rig. Instead, I had grabbed the Dungeon Master’s Book from the Essentials Red Box set, along with the poster map and the sheet of tokens that came inside the Red Box. I also brought the pre-generated characters from D&D Encounters, which I had from last summer, and a container of dice.

The Red Box adventure, The Twisting Halls, assumes that the players start off by going through the solo adventure in the player’s book, creating their characters that way. I wanted to get the new players into the action as fast as possible, so I just gave them pre-gens and a little back story.

The adventure began with the party having been hired by a merchant to go to some goblin caves to recover a box that had been stolen from the merchant. The merchant also mentioned that he had seen a scary dark rider and thought that the rider might be involved. That was it for story; off we went into the first combat with two goblins and a wolf (scaled down from two wolves since we only had three PCs).

D&D in the ship's cafeteria. Note the ice cream bowls full of dice. Awesomeness.

Our first combat went smoothly enough, with the new players getting a feel for what their characters could do. They won the fight without much trouble and then sent their drow ranger down into a passageway to scout ahead. She was very stealthy and saw a couple of goblins standing in a room, not noticing her.

She asked, “Can I shoot this one?” Well sure! Surprise round, go for it. And thus began the second combat, with the rest of the party still at the top of the tunnel.

This combat was intentionally harder. I ran the full combat for four PCs, but I did it in waves. In the first few rounds, the players noticed someone peeking out from behind a door that was ajar, and the door later closed. Then, as combat with the goblins and their guard drake was almost over, a goblin spellcaster came out from behind a closed door and started blasting the party with magic.

My wife’s character, the cleric, spent some time making death saving throws, one of which fortunately ended up on a 20. From there, the party was able to handle the fight with no problem.

At this point the party discovered a little treasure, and I decided to call it a day. I could tell that our friends were starting to get a little tired, and I didn’t want to overwhelm them.

I was a little disappointed that I had picked an adventure without much real exploration or role playing at the beginning; we basically just had two fights and that was it. I’d like to give new players more of a sense of adventure, so that was a mistake on my part. But still, I was glad that my friends were intrigued enough to give them game a shot. We’ll be visiting these friends in Minnesota in a few weeks, and I’ll bring my D&D stuff along, just in case!

-Michael the OnlineDM

Madness at Gardmore Abbey: Session Four

Past sessions: Session OneSession Two, Session Three

This is the recap of my fourth session running the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure via MapTool and Skype for my family group. As always, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Sora the dragonborn swordmage (played by my wife), Homer the elf hunter (played by my brother in law) and Stasi the half-elf warpriest of Pelor (played by my sister in law) found themselves in the Temple of Bahamut on Dragon’s Roost, having just finished an extended rest under the protection of Sir Oakley. Upon their waking, Sir Oakley offered the party a mysterious object he had found hidden in a niche on the altar to Bahamut: An ivory plate that the party immediately recognized as a second card from the Deck of Many Things, to go along with the Key card they had found earlier.

This card had an engraving of three women – one young, one middle-aged, and one old (with a pair of scissors). Stasi was able to figure out that this represented the Fates. (Note that I’m running the game online and therefore am not handing out the physical cards; I like that the players get to puzzle out what some of the cards represent based on a description that I provide rather than getting to read the names on the cards.) Stasi agreed to carry this card with the other for the time being.

Having escorted Sir Oakley to the Abbey and having helped him defeat the enemies in the Temple itself, the adventurers agreed to help him find the three missing relics that would be necessary for him to perform the needed cleansing rituals. He didn’t know where these relics were, but he knew that they must be somewhere within the grounds of Gardmore Abbey. Sir Oakley ultimately agreed to accompany the group on their search (with a three-PC party, it’s nice to have a companion character along to help with the scaling of battles).

The group decided to start by searching the catacombs. Stasi the warpriest was itching to blast the heck out of some undead creatures (which have been rare in the Essentials adventures to this point). Coming down the stairs, they heard prayers ahead. Homer the hunter stayed back on the stairs while Stasi and Sora accompanied Sir Oakley down to investigate. They found a bunch of humans in armor praying around an altar of Bahamut.

Thus began Encounter 23: Altar of Glory. I’ll say right here that I totally screwed this up, because this was supposed to be the first encounter where my party was to meet The Others – the rival adventuring party. Oops. I forgot all about that, and I hadn’t prepared The Others in MapTool yet anyway. Major oversight on my part, but I have an idea of how I’ll fix this.

My other oversight is that I once again forgot to have the cards from the Deck do anything in combat, but that’s in part because combat was a little weird in starting. This encounter began with a skill challenge for the party to figure out what was going on with these knights praying in the catacombs. Sir Oakley joined in the prayers at the urging of the PCs. A religion check from the warpriest showed that the lead knight was making up some of the prayers as he went along, and the other knights were following his lead. They also noticed that the knights had their scabbards loosened and kept their hands close to their weapons, as though they were expecting a fight. However, they failed to recall any history of the Abbey that might be helpful in understanding the situation, and they twice failed to notice that the knights weren’t casting shadows.

Thus, the skill challenge was failed, and the knights attacked with a surprise round. It soon became clear that these weren’t actual knights – they were pale reavers disguised in the forms they once held in life. I loved describing the first attack, as one of the minions disappeared into a wall, reappeared next to a PC, and then reached for his sword, which somehow transformed into a long mane of hair as the reaver’s true form was revealed.

The fight was challenging with the surprise round and the good initiative roll from the lead reaver, but our warpriest finally got to Smite Undead on the lead reaver, and the group kept him pinned in a corner for much of the fight while they beat up his friends and later focused on him. Some surges were spent, but none were actually drained by the reavers themselves.

Examining the room showed that the altar to Bahamut could infuse a weapon with the one-time ability to deal fire damage, which Homer the hunter was all over. Sir Oakley helped him with the prayers, and the dragon heads on the altar came to life and bathed Homer’s bow in flames, which then died down, leaving the bow warm to the touch. This came in handy in the next fight.

One sarcophagus in this room had been pried open, and the skeleton within was missing its skull. Corruption emanated from this coffin, and the party was able to figure out that the corruption could only be cleansed if the skull could be returned. No skull was to be found in this room, however.

Onward to the east, then! The stone doors opened smoothly enough, revealing a room with a badly damaged ceiling. Roots from above had grown through the ceiling, creating a tangle that extended most of the way to the floor, stopping six feet above the ground. Stasi’s Sun’s Glow showed a good portion of the room, and the party could hear some shuffling footsteps in a far corner and a very faint sound of movement coming from another corner of the room near the ceiling (up in the roots). After Stasi and Sora moved into the room, the light revealed a mummy coming toward them

Encounter 25: Memorial Chamber was under way. Homer won initiative but delayed, staying back in the Altar of Glory chamber. The mummy moved toward the doorway and cursed Stasi, so that she would take necrotic damage every time she tried to hurt the mummy (a brutal but cool ability). Sora figured out that she could yank on the roots in order to bring the fragile ceiling down on the mummy, which worked like a charm (I decided that DC16 Strength would be for a minor action check and DC12 would be for a standard action). That mummy struggled for the next three rounds to free its legs from the rubble (immobilized, save ends).

Knowing that they had heard other movement in the chamber, the party was cautious about moving farther in. Too bad for them, then, when a swarm of rot scarab beetles stealthily crawled through the roots on the ceiling without attracting attention and then rained down onto Sora’s head. This was a wonderfully disgusting moment, leaving Sora the swordmage inside the swarm. Homer eventually jumped into initiative at the end of the round, after Sir Oakley told him that the mummy would catch fire if hit with fire, using Bahamut’s blessing from the previous chamber to light that mummy up.

At the beginning of round two, I remembered that I wanted to use the Deck of Many Things, and I decided later that I actually kind of prefer having the Deck manifest its power after the first round of battle. It feels artificial for the Deck to know exactly when combat is breaking out and to show up immediately; I like the idea that it responds to the stress of actual combat and then manifests.

In this case, the image of the Key appeared next to Stasi as a big glowing light. A minor action Arcana check revealed that someone standing in the Key square could use a move action to teleport 5 squares; pretty cool stuff!

Round two is also when the Flameskull revealed itself from behind a mosaic-covered wall on the far side of the room and dropped a fireball that enveloped three of the PCs plus the mummy and the scarab swarm. Uh oh! The new threat caused some major concern.

Eventually, Sir Oakley ended up charging into the chamber largely to get away from the swarm’s aura and to go after the Flameskull (and because I wanted to make the combat more dynamic than a chokepoint between two rooms). He was left to his own devices for a while as the PCs finished off the mummy and the swarm. Finally, the PCs came to help, rescuing Sir Oakley from unconsciousness and destroying the Flameskull.

When the Flameskull was defeated, the skull’s fires went out, leaving behind a normal skull. The PCs immediately thought – aha, perhaps this is the missing skull from the earlier sarcophagus. Indeed it was, and Stasi the warpriest returned it to its rightful place and used some healing magic to cleanse the corruption – in the process gaining Bahamut’s blessing and the one-time ability to breathe fire.

The Memorial Chamber was revealed to have a secret door to the north (the Perception check beat a 19, but not a 23), which led to a small room with three long-dead knights of Bahamut beneath a mural depicting the Platinum Dragon as a dracolich. Sir Oakley was able to explain that this was a private practice of some worshippers of Bahamut, and that it represented adherents steeling themselves to face death rather than worshipping undeath. Some searching of this secret chapel revealed two other doors leading to other chambers, three topazes that had been taken from the temple, and the fact that these knights evidently closed themselves in this room and starved to death rather than leaving. Interesting stuff. Having Oakley along at this point has been helpful.

From here, the party decided to go through the door on the west part of the north wall of the Memorial Chamber, which revealed a short hallway, beyond which was a room with a fountain – and a couple of skeletons.

Encounter 24: Font of Divine Health began with two skeletal tomb guardians arising and attacking. I once again had Sir Oakley get himself in the middle of things in order to create some movement. A blazing skeleton popped out from a niche to light Stasi on fire.

In round two, the Fates revealed themselves. The new card from the Deck manifested adjacent to Stasi, who boldly stepped into the light and understood that if she were hit by an attack while in the Fates’ square, she could force a re-roll of that attack with a -2 penalty. This power appealed greatly to Homer, the great chicken of the party, who camped in that square for several rounds.

Meanwhile, the tomb guardians were slicing and dicing all over the place, making effectively four attacks per round (a fun mechanic). Some skeletal minons revealed themselves, providing a flank for the guardians. All the while, the blazing skeleton kept burning things from a distance.

The fight ended with Stasi using a daily power, then finishing the final foe in a blaze of holy might. At this point, the mosaic of the head of Bahamut inlaid in the floor glowed brightly, and the whole party regained some free hit points. It was soon discovered that drinking from the fountain in this room would also regain some free hit points, plus grant some necrotic resistance. Good times; I love these alternate, short-term rewards.

Here we stopped for the night, with Homer and Stasi suggesting an extended rest in the secret chamber and Sir Oakley adamant that they must press on and find the holy relics. I hope they do press on; they’re not in severe shape just yet (Oakley is the lowest on surges by far). If they decide to rest in the secret chapel, so be it. It’s possible that their entrance has guaranteed that it will not remain secret indefinitely…

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Next session: Session five

Campaign session zero: Group character creation

I’ve mainly been a 4th Edition D&D Dungeon Master. I had a little experience with 3rd Edition, but nothing before that, and I hadn’t run any games regularly until mid 2010. Because my players have had access to the extremely useful Character Builder program, character creation has usually been a solitary activity. Everyone creates their own character at their own home, perhaps exchanging ideas via email to make sure that we end up with a relatively balanced party, and then there’s a little bit of trying to make the characters fit with one another story-wise at the first session.

This weekend, I tried something different. I’ve known for a while that I wanted to run the ZEITGEIST campaign from EN World, and my regular in-person group seemed like the right people to try it with. One of my players, Bree, has been in massive crunch time in art school for months and has been out of gaming, but that’s finally done now (congrats, Bree!) and she’s ready for some D&D.

Because ZEITGEIST is a more story-focused campaign than I’ve generally run, I knew it would work better if the characters in the party had a strong connection to the world and to one another. I first floated the idea of the campaign to the players after an earlier session of a different campaign a few weeks prior, just to gauge their reactions. They seemed intrigued, so I sent them the players guide for the campaign (which you can get here).

I scheduled session zero of the campaign this past Sunday. I told everyone to bring their existing characters for the campaign that we were wrapping up, but also to have a look at the ZEITGEIST campaign guide if they had time and to start thinking about character ideas. I sent a reminder email about this the day before the session.

When everyone arrived, they seemed excited about starting a new campaign together. One person suggested that we fully roll up characters right at the table – and to use dice to generate ability scores rather than point buy. This was fine with me, so we went with 4d6, drop the lowest, assign the six scores as you like.

Thus, my recommended steps for Session Zero of a new campaign:

Step 1: Tell the players about the campaign at least a week ahead of time. Since this was a published campaign, I sent them the players guide. Had it been a home brew, I would have described whatever made my idea special and unique, so that they could “get” the idea of the campaign and start thinking about character ideas.

Step 2: Schedule a session specifically for character creation. Since we also like to actually play D&D, too, I suggest still having a one-shot game with existing characters as a side show to the main event of character creation (ideally your players won’t be jumping right in with the new characters – see step 10).

Step 3: Sit down together and talk about the character hooks for the world. In the case of ZEITGEIST, this meant the eight campaign-specific character themes, which I explained were recommended but not required. In a different campaign, this could be talking about the different regions of the world that the PCs might hail from, or unique ways that particular races or classes are viewed in this world.

Step 4: Ask if anyone is particularly intrigued by any of the hooks, and if anyone already has strong feelings about what race and/or class they want to play. Let the people who already have ideas here be the first to speak up.

Step 5: As the rest of the players one by one what appeals to them or not about the options that are out there. If they’re non-committal at this point, that’s okay; ask if they have any feelings about something broad, like the combat role they want to play. If a player is willing to fill in whatever role is needed, no problem. You can come back to that player.

Step 6: Start going through specific class (and later, race) options. I used the Character Builder for this, but solely as a convenient all-inclusive list of the classes. If someone wants to be a controller, present them with the different controller classes and say a few words about what each class is like and the ways in which that class might fit into the world or the ways in which you would re-fluff it for this world. Jump around a bit from player to player in this process.

Step 7: As people start getting their classes chosen, start handing out books (if the players don’t have their own) and blank character sheets. I liked getting to use my physical books for a change, handing Heroes of the Feywild to the person rolling up a Witch and Players Handbook 2 to the player rolling up a Bard and so on.

Step 8: Generate ability scores. We used 4d6, drop the lowest, and we went one by one around the table so that everyone could watch. This was surprisingly fun to do! Point buy would have been fine, too, though. Start assigning those scores to the abilities, and adding in racial bonuses as the players make their race selections.

Step 9: Talk about the choices that everyone is making. There’s a lot of opportunity for give and take at this point. The players will want to get one another’s (and the DM’s) input on the different options available. Maybe someone will suggest a class or race change, either because of the way the character is shaping up, or in an effort to make characters fit with one another. Perhaps someone will suggest a name for someone else’s character. This a good thing!

Step 10: Set character creation aside until the next session. At this point, the players who have the Character Builder will probably want to get their characters set up in the program so they can browse feats and more powers and so on, and perhaps even reconsider their race or class choices. That’s okay. Let them do the fine-tuning between sessions before actually running the new character.

I have to say that I think this process went really, really well. The players seemed to have fun, and their characters definitely make more sense in the world of this campaign and relative to one another then they would have if everyone had created characters on their own.

Once this process was done, we had some food to eat and then played a one-shot game with characters that they already had from an existing campaign. We set a date for our first actual ZEITGEIST session sometime over Christmas weekend. I can’t wait to get it going!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Skills in D&D 4e part 2: Player skill versus character skill

In part 1 of my skills series, I talked about passive skill use and rewarding players who choose to train skills. Now it’s time to share my views on player skill versus character skill.

It’s useful to note my D&D background here. I had a hint of exposure to D&D 2e when I was about 13 or 14 years old, but never even played a single session. I got the books and learned Third Edition in the early 2000s but only played a few one-on-one sessions with my wife and then one session with a couple of friends before things petered out. So, most of my real D&D experience has come with Fourth Edition since early 2010.

The old school approach

As I understand things, earlier editions of D&D (especially prior to 3e) tended to focus more on the skill of the player sitting at the table than the skill of the character in the game for things like social interaction, searching and puzzle solving.

If a player wanted her character to convince the town guard to let her through the gate after hours, the player would try her hand at making a moving speech, or telling a convincing lie, or scaring the guard into backing down, or whatever. The DM would then judge whether she had made a good enough play to get through the gate.

If a rogue was searching a room looking for hidden doors and secret treasure, the rogue’s player would describe going to each corner of the room, tapping on the floorboards, feeling around the window frame for catches, moving the rug out of the way to look for trap doors, and so on. If he searched in the right place and in the right way, he’d find the secret. If not, then not.

If the party were confronted with a puzzle, the players around the table would put their heads together and try to figure it out. They might beg the DM for hints, and he might or might not give them out.

The new school approach

In 4th Edition, things work a little differently. The player whose PC was trying to get by the town guard would likely be asked by the DM to make a Diplomacy, Bluff or Intimidate check, perhaps with a +2 bonus for good role-playing. A good roll of the die can overcome a lousy speech, a transparent lie or a meek threat.

The player whose rogue was  searching a room would be asked to make a Perception check. If he wanted to really take his time and search extra carefully, the player might tell the DM that he wanted to take 20 (more for 3.X than 4th Edition) and be sure to find every possible secret.

The party confronted with a puzzle might be told to make an Intelligence or Insight check to get a hint – or to possibly solve the puzzle outright.

My approach

Like most DMs, I tend to do things my own way, but I’m definitely more new school than old school when it comes to skill use at the table. I default to challenging the character rather than the player in most instances.

The logic of this approach is consistency. I don’t require the player to demonstrate the ability to pick a real-world lock in order to use Thievery or to lift a heavy object in order to use Athletics; why would I require the player to make a real-world speech in order to use Diplomacy? Why should they have to demonstrate that they (the player) know where things are likely to be hidden in order to use Perception?

That said, I certainly want immersion in my games, and I absolutely reward players with bonuses for being creative and entertaining in whatever they’re trying. If they actually do a good job of speaking in-character for their Diplomacy check, I’ll given them a +2 bonus to the check as well as a bonus point. If it’s a really fantastic speech or lie or whatever, I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they look at the map of the room and say, “You know, that bookcase looks a little out of place; can I check to see if pulling on any of the books triggers a secret door?” then I might just say “Success!” with no roll needed.

If they’re working on a puzzle, I’ll probably set things up so that they can solve it as players, perhaps using character skills to get a hint, but I’ll also give them an option to handle the whole thing with skills in case my particular group of players isn’t into doing puzzles. A good example of this is the Room of Runes puzzle in my Descent Into Darkness adventure (page 7-9 of the PDF). The players can solve it as a puzzle, but if that’s not their style, they can just use skill checks to get through the room without actually dealing with the puzzle’s solution.

Reward skilled players, but don’t penalize unskilled players

You might be complaining at this point: “Hey OnlineDM, you say that you focus on character skill more than player skill, but you just gave examples where skilled players can achieve automatic success without rolling the dice. What gives?”

Well, I admitted that my own approach was a mixture of old and new school, with a leaning toward new. What I don’t like about the pure “player skill” approach is that you can end up penalizing unskilled players, even if they’re running skilled characters.

A high-Charisma bard who’s trained in Diplomacy is going to be able to charm a barmaid into sharing some details about the last party to pass through the tavern, even if the bard’s player can barely string a coherent sentence together in real life. If that player says he wants his bard to charm the barmaid, he should be allowed to roll a Diplomacy check and succeed if the character’s skill is high enough.

In this situation, I’ll still ask the player, “What’s old silver-tongue saying to the barmaid?” in an effort to encourage some role-playing, of course. But if Tommy Tongue-Tied gets a great roll but can’t come up with something reasonable to say in-character, I don’t tell him, “Well, your bard stammers and then insults the barmaid’s mother. She tosses a mug of ale in your face and storms off.” I encourage the role-play, but if the player can’t manage it, we move on based on character skill.

Yes, this means that I’ll occasionally let a character with low Charisma and no social skill training succeed on a task that’s probably beyond their character’s abilities by role-playing the heck out of the situation, or I’ll let the low-Wisdom unperceptive character find the secret door because the player suggested looking in just the right spot. I won’t let this be abused at my table, though.

If a great role-player wants to be the face of the party but chooses to put all of her skill training in the non-social skills in a power-gamey way (“It will be just like having training in all of the social skills without having to waste my skill training slots!”) then I’m going to clamp down. A great role-player should also be able to role-play having low Charisma, for instance. If she comes up with a genius lie every now and then, despite a terrible Bluff score, I’ll go with it. But if it becomes an abuse of my approach, I’ll say, “That’s very creative, but let’s see what your character comes up with. Roll me a Bluff check.” I’d probably still hand her the bonus point for creativity, though.

This is mainly going to come up with skills tied to Charisma and Wisdom, and perhaps Intelligence to a lesser degree (recalling some piece of history from the setting’s background materials could test player skill, I suppose, instead of asking for a History check). But creative description and good role-playing can make any skill check easier at my table. If your fighter’s struggle to brace himself against the stone block that’s trying to close off the exit to the room is described in especially vivid, exciting terms, I’m going to give you a bonus to the Athletics check plus a bonus point, but a terrible roll can still result in failure.  On the flip side, if the player is absolutely convinced that the shaman is lying to him, regardless of the result of his Insight check, he still could proceed as if the shaman were lying (which, of course, the shaman might not have been after all, but the character wasn’t Insightful enough to tell).

Player skill matters, and if the players have got it, it will certainly help them at my table. But if they’re lacking in social skills or wisdom skills as actual individuals, that doesn’t mean that their characters must also be lacking when they play with me. Best of both worlds, that’s my goal!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

Skills in D&D 4e part 1: Passive skill use and training

Skills in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition seem to have been a big topic of conversation online in recent weeks. I’ve finally gotten to the point that my own views are well-formed enough for me to chime in. I’m going to start with the way I handle passive skills and skill training.

Oftentimes, a published adventure will refer to PCs’ passive Insight or passive Perception skills to tell whether a character can detect a minor illusion, an NPC’s deception, a small detail, a hidden enemy, etc. Lots of virtual ink has been spilled debating the pros and cons of this approach, especially when the DM is crafting adventures for his or her own group. After all, the DM can know all of the PCs’ passive scores in advance. If the highest passive Perception in the group is a 19, then the DM can choose to assign the hidden thing a DC of 20, in which case no one will notice it, or a lower DC, in which case at least one PC will notice it. What’s the point of bothering with the number in that case?

I’ve started handling things a little bit differently. Whenever there’s a situation in which a PC might or might not passively know something, I ask the table, “Who’s trained in Perception / Insight?” Anyone who’s trained gets the bonus info.

  • “Ah, you notice a small humanoid crouching behind a tree over three.”
  • “You get the feeling that the fishwife is holding something back in her statement.”
  • “You notice that the texture of the stone wall here looks slightly unusual.”

Furthermore, I use this with other skills, too (mental skills more than physical skills for the most part):

  • Arcana: “You can tell that this construct is not very strongly tied to its creator.”
  • Diplomacy: “The duchess just committed a minor breach of protocol by continuing to stand until the baron was seated.”
  • Dungeoneering: “The rocks piled up in that corner are not there naturally, and furthermore they look a little unsteady.”
  • Heal: “The stab wound was definitely not self-inflicted.”
  • History: “You remember that the empire never conquered this particular town.”
  • Insight: “The innkeeper is sincere when he tells you that the road east hasn’t seen any bandit attacks lately.”
  • Nature: “You recognize that vine as being out of place in this type of forest.”
  • Perception: “The footsteps of at least three people can be heard in the common room downstairs.”
  • Religion: “This shrine is dedicated to Gruumsh.”
  • Streetwise: “This part of town is known to have the occasional illicit goods shop.”
  • Thievery: “You recognize the workmanship on this trap; it was built by gnomes.”

This is all very much in the spirit of “passive skill use” rather than anything active that a PC might try. I could see a case for Endurance perhaps, but usually Endurance comes up when a PC wants to try something active. Athletics, Acrobatics, Bluff, Intimidate and Stealth are all pretty hard to use passively, so I didn’t list any examples.

My general approach is pretty simple:

  • Find situations where someone who knows a lot about a particular thing might get a little extra information thanks to their expertise
  • Reward characters who are trained in the relevant skill with that bonus information

It’s very much like normal passive skill use, except that I use it for skills other than just Perception and Insight, and I don’t bother with checking the exact value – I just hand out the bonus info if the PC is trained.

I like this in part because it’s easier (no need to figure out what passive DC will be caught or missed by the PCs) and in part because it rewards players for their choice to train a particular skill.

Now, I know that this means that the 8 Int fighter who somehow has trained History might occasionally get to recall a fact that the 20 Int wizard with no history training doesn’t automatically know. I’m fine with that, because this particular skill use is about rewarding the choice to train the skill, not high stats. If the wizard wants to make an active roll to see what she recalls, she might well get a high score even without training, in which case there could be additional information. But the freebie comes from the choice to train the skill.

I’ll mention here that I do still use passive Perception, for instance, if a monster makes a Stealth check to hide. But when it comes to “PCs automatically know this information or not,” I check whether a PC is trained rather than whether their passive score is greater than or equal to a particular number.

I’m always looking for suggestions on how to make skills more interesting, how to reward player choices, etc. I’d love to hear the creative things that other DMs do with skills in their own games!

-Michael the OnlineDM

OnlineDM1 on Twitter

MapTool: Using the latest version

I first discovered MapTool in May 2010. At the time, the most up-to-date version of the program was good ol’ 1.3.b66. That’s what I downloaded, and that’s what I kept using for about a year and a half.

Why? Well, first of all, it worked. Second, I had heard that certain things that worked in older versions (macros, etc.) would not necessarily work if you tried them out in a newer version. Third, new builds kept coming out regularly, and I didn’t want my players to have to constantly download new programs just to connect to my game.

Recently, I was browsing the MapTool wiki and forums and found some discussion about the program’s performance. Specifically, I saw a note that moving a whole bunch of tokens at once was faster in newer builds.

Now, I don’t have many complaints about MapTool, but it’s definitely been a major annoyance to want to move the entire party from one section of the map to another and having to wait 30 seconds for MapTool to make this happen. So, I downloaded the current version of MapTool, 1.3.b86 (as of this writing), which has been the most recent version for months (and thus pretty stable).

Woo hoo – I can now move mobs of tokens across the map instantly! I can also run a macro on a whole bunch of tokens at once – such as when I have a bunch of enemies that are invisible to the players and I want to run my “Toggle Visibility” macro on all of them. Previously, the tokens would blink into existence one by one (which was a kind of neat effect, I suppose, but not really what I wanted). Now – poof, they all appear! Awesome!

Best of all, I haven’t found any macros that have broken yet. I try to keep my macros pretty straightforward, of course, and I’m guessing that helps. But every adventure I’ve opened so far in 1.3.b86, even though it was created in 1.3.b66, has had no problems.

The real test will come on Friday, when my regular players will have downloaded the new software and will try playing with it together. Honestly, I’m expecting it to be a non-issue, but we shall see.

So, the moral of the story for me is: Use the latest version of MapTool, as long as it’s been out for, say, a month with no updates. I don’t want to update constantly, but in this case the update is definitely worth the trouble.

Rejected for DDI – and I feel fine!

Edit: The final, polished version of the adventure can be found at this link.

I decided to submit the third adventure in my Staff of Suha trilogy to Dungeon Magazine for their consideration. The timing was right, after all; the adventure was ready to go at just about the time the submission window would be opening (October 1).

I spent a lot of time in September trying to polish the adventure itself, figuring that if I could attach the finished adventure to the “pitch” email it would help my chances. I ran the adventure four times and had a couple of friends and a couple of readers from my blog look over it and provide really useful feedback.

Since I live in the Mountain time zone, the submission window opened at 10:00 PM Friday night for me (midnight Eastern time). I was finishing my Friday night game that I run via MapTool at the time, after which I read Chris Perkins’ editorial about submitting pitches. I had already written the pitch weeks before, so I went ahead and submitted it exactly one hour after the window opened. The entirety of my email to submissions@wizards.com follows:

Descent Into Darkness – an adventure for 8th-10th level characters – 5,000 – 6,000 words

The powerful wizardess Tallinn seeks adventurers to be teleported into the Underdark bearing a powerful magical artifact, the Staff of Suha. The mission: Find three other artifacts that have been stolen by unknown creatures, likely in an effort to recreate a teleportation device once used by a long-dead drow sorcerer to bring his foul armies to the overworld in conquest. The other three artifacts (Orb of Oradia, Chalice of Chale and Shield of Shalimar) must be recovered or destroyed, and the forces behind their theft must be stopped.

The adventurers discover that the powerful beholder Ergoptis has enslaved drow, diggers (new insectoid monsters), halfling thieves and mindless duergar as soldiers and hunters of artifacts. The party must fight their way through treacherous traps and puzzles to ultimately face Ergoptis and its underlings in a room dominated by a ziggurat, with a magma river crossed by bridges and floating platforms. Can they recover the final artifact and escape or destroy Ergoptis before the one-hour time limit on their teleportation ritual runs out? Or will the beholder simply add the adventurers to its army of enslaved warriors and continue its plans for domination?

Descent Into Darkness includes four new artifacts, an all-new monster (the digger), a find-the-path puzzle with custom runes and an exciting final encounter with an evil beholder.

Link to a PDF of the current draft of the adventure, complete with maps, stat blocks, puzzles, etc: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6875434/Descent%20into%20Darkness%20Submission.pdf

Michael, the OnlineDM


That was the pitch. I wondered how long it would take to get a response; they said that they’ll reply to everyone within two months of the close of the submission period, which meant that I could theoretically have to wait until the end of January.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait that long. Monday morning I received the following email from Chris Perkins:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the adventure proposal. The “artifact hunt” story doesn’t really grab me, so I’m going to pass on this one. We see a lot of artifact hunts, and four artifacts seems a bit much (the write-ups for them alone would eat up thousands of words of text). Also, we already have an adventure in the works featuring a beholder villain.


Chris Perkins
D&D Senior Producer
Wizards of the Coast LLC

I’ve got to say, I felt pretty good about that. No, they didn’t accept my adventure, but Chris took the time to explain what he didn’t like about the adventure. “Collect the artifacts” doesn’t interest him, and they have another adventure coming with a beholder villain. That’s totally fair.

I came away from this feeling pretty good. The best part was that I got the response quickly, which means that I can release the adventure here on the blog!

The version I actually submitted to Chris is at this link. It’s set up specifically for upper-heroic parties.

However, I also assembled the adventure in a way that can be run with any level in heroic tier (though I feel that the adventure runs best at level 6 or higher). That version can be downloaded here.

I’ll talk more about the adventure itself in a later post, but I wanted to share my thoughts about the process for anyone else who wants to submit an adventure to Dungeon.

First, just focus on the pitch, not the finished product. I’m sure that Chris didn’t even look at the link I sent him, and I don’t blame him for that. He has tons of submissions to go through, and he’s not going to read a sixteen-page PDF for each submission.

Second, be creative. It seems like the key is to pitch something that makes the editor say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything quite like that before!” The key is novelty, not execution, when it comes to the pitch. I feel like I’ve put together a fun, solid adventure, but the things that make it fun and solid (cool combats, puzzles, magic items, etc.) aren’t the things that make a good pitch. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill adventure premise, and that’s not going to get it past the initial screen.

Third, do your research. In my case, my adventure was rejected in part because there’s an upcoming adventure with a similar villain, which I couldn’t have known about. But I’m sure that if I had pitched an adventure whose villain was similar to something done in the past few issues of Dungeon, it would have also been rejected. And there’s no excuse for me not knowing that.

Anyway, I’m glad I went through the submission process, and I’m especially glad that Chris handled my rejection letter the way he did – quickly, professionally, and with some helpful feedback. If I get any truly inspired ideas for adventures, I might pitch again. But this process was a good one for me.

D&D Encounters – Lost Crown of Neverwinter – Week 8

Edit 10/1/2011: Apparently WotC is NOT changing their policy of requiring that D&D Encounters be run on Wednesday nights, as I had originally mentioned in this post. My mistake.

I ran D&D Encounters at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds, all summer long, and I loved it. I love the mini-sessions for prep purposes, I enjoyed the story, and most of all I enjoyed helping new players learn the game. One of the people I met via encounters is now good friends with my wife and I, along with his wife.

Thus, I was sad to have to give up DMing Encounters this fall when my Wednesday night bowling league started up. I agreed to serve as a backup DM in case any of the regular folks were out of town, though, and this week I got the call. Put me in, coach – I’m running a game!

My party consisted of four PCs – two warpriests, a bladesinger and a thief. They began the session by taking a short rest in a boat house in a swamp, where they had come in search of the Dead Rats gang. The boat house held only a table and a rug, and a sharp-eyed PC noticed the rug sagging in the middle. Pulling it aside revealed a stone pipe with metal rungs forming a ladder down into darkness.

The adventurers successfully negotiated crumbling ceilings, narrow ledges, tough climbs and tricky tracking with no problem and eventually emerged into the sewers proper. They noticed some movement in the water – two pairs of eyes staring at them from just above the water’s surface. As the dwarf warpriest pushed forward, the eyes revealed themselves to be attached to a pair of crocodiles, and a swarm of hundreds of rats poured out of some pipes in the walls to join the fun. The PCs could also hear noises inside a larger pipe, as if something else was making its way toward them.

The party thief decided to try to jump across the sewer channel but failed, landing in the water next to the large pipe – which was revealed to contain a dire rat. The rat bit the thief (one exposure to Dire Rat Filth Fever) and was soon joined on the other side by a crocodile who clamped its jaws around the poor thief’s leg. Ouch!

The rest of the party was dealing with the swarm and the other crocodile, but the drow warpriest did wade into the muck and drop a cloud of darkness to help the thief get away. No luck, though – the crocodile’s next turn of grinding its jaws down on the delicious thief left the sneaky bugger unconscious (and getting more exposure to disease from the dirty water).

Eventually the thief was healed and got himself out of harm’s way and the rest of the party started taking care of the bad guys one by one – first the dire rat, then the swarm, then finally the crocodiles. And there was much rejoicing!

At the end of the encounter, since the thief had been exposed three times to Dire Rat Filth Fever (twice from rat bites and once from bleeding in the dirty water) I invoked my house rule: He only had to make one saving throw to avoid infection, but because of the two extra exposures, the saving throw was at a -2 penalty. It was a moot point, as he rolled a 7 on the die and found himself infected.

In prepping for the game, I realized that it would be a pain in the butt for a typical Encounters player to have to deal with a disease. “Wait, what do I have to roll to get better? And what happens if I get worse?” So, I used the awesome Power2ool to create disease cards to hand out to any players who get infected:

While it was only a one-week return to the Encounters DM table, I had a lot of fun. It was also nice to have more people compliment me on my projector setup + MapTool for my in-person games. The encounter itself wrapped up within an hour, so I was even able to make it to bowling on time.

Best of all, the coordinator at the store is thinking about moving Encounters to Tuesday nights in the future, since WotC has given store owners more flexibility about when they run the program. That would be awesome, since I’d be able to get involved again!

Edit: However, it looks like this is not a new WotC policy after all, and Encounters is still required to be run on Wednesday. Well, poop.

OnlineDM’s house rules – Part 1

Every DM has some house rules that they like to use at their table, so I thought I’d share some of mine here on the blog.

If a creature is force-moved into hazardous terrain (fire, off a cliff, etc.) they get a saving throw to fall prone instead of going into the hazard. This is a standard rule. However, it’s annoying when a character has a power that force-moves the creature multiple squares, but a single saving throw negates those extra squares entirely.

  • House Rule: If a forced movement power would move a creature extra squares into hazardous terrain, the extra squares of movement can be applied as a penalty to the creature’s saving throw. Thus, if a creature is at the edge of a cliff and you push it three squares, you can push it one square (off the cliff) and give the creature a -2 penalty to the saving throw to avoid going over the edge (so it needs a 12 or better to save itself).
A related issue comes up with diseases from creatures like rats and lycanthropes. If you are hit by one of these creatures’ diseased attacks, you make a saving throw at the end of the encounter to avoid contracting the disease. It doesn’t matter how many times you were exposed to the disease; a single saving throw will save you.
  • House Rule: If a creature is exposed to a disease multiple times in an encounter, each exposure beyond the first imposes a -1 penalty to the creature’s saving throw against contracting the disease at the end of the encounter. Thus, if a creature is bitten four times by Dire Rats in a combat, the creature will make a saving throw with a -3 penalty at the end of the encounter to avoid contracting Dire Rat Filth Fever (needing a 13 or better to avoid the disease).
Lots of people have complained about action-denying conditions like Dazed, Stunned and Dominated. I have my own way of running the Dominated condition:
  • House Rule: If an effect would dominate a creature, instead that creature takes a free action to move up to its speed (provoking no opportunity attacks along the way) and then use any at-will ability of the dominator’s choice against a target of the dominator’s choice. Any attacks made in this way have a +2 bonus to hit and +5 bonus per tier to any damage (+5 at heroic tier, +10 at paragon, +15 at epic). If the dominated condition is “save ends”, then the creature still makes a saving throw at the end of its turn to end the condition. If it fails the saving throw, it takes another free action at that point to move and use an at-will ability of the dominator’s choice with the appropriate bonuses. It can still take opportunity attacks and flank and does not grant combat advantage (basically, the domination only applies while it is taking its dominated action).
I’m always looking for other suggestions for cool house rules to make the game more fun, so if you have any that you like, please share them in the comments!