I wish opportunity attacks would continue to matter

Opportunity attacks can be hard for new players to understand. If you drop your guard by either walking away from a monster (rather than cautiously shifting a small distance) or doing certain things that take your attention elsewhere (making a ranged or area attack), the monster will get a free shot at you (a melee basic attack).

I like this rule. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like it, but I do. Maybe just force of habit, I suppose, but it feels “sensible” within the D&D world.

Thus, I’m a little bit annoyed by easy-to-access features of the game that shut off opportunity attacks. The biggest transgressors I’ve seen are Shadowdance and Shimmering Armor and the relatively new Staff Expertise feat.

Shadowdance Armor

Shadowdance Armor is available in cloth or leather, and it’s available as low as a 5th-level item. Now, it’s an uncommon, which means that the players only have access to it if the DM says so (thus, the DM can say, “Sorry, there’s no Shadowdance Armor in my game.”). It has a troublesome property in my mind:

“Your area and ranged attacks don’t provoke opportunity attacks.”

This is obviously a fantastic item for anyone who likes to make area or ranged attacks and doesn’t mind wearing cloth or leather armor. I think that would apply to lots of rangers, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, etc.

The item annoys the heck out of me. If a PC uses a ranged or area power while standing next to a bad guy, unless they have something really cool about the power that makes it extra-defensive, the bad guy is going to get a free shot at them. Thus, they’ll need to figure out a way to get away from the baddie first, or maybe a way to make the free shot hurt (such as if the monster is marked by a defender) – or else just suffer the consequences. It’s part of the game, and I think it makes things more interesting.

Compare it in power level to the Razordark Bracers from Adventurer’s Vault 2 – a level 11 arms slot item for warlocks that says, “Your warlock at-will ranged attack powers don’t provoke opportunity attacks from adjacent enemies.” It only applies to warlock powers, it only applies to ranged powers (not area), it only applies to at-will powers (not encounter or daily) and it only applies to adjacent enemies (not farther-away foes with threatening reach). And that’s a level-11 item! I didn’t even mention that Shadowdance Armor also comes with a daily power (which, granted, I’ve not yet seen anyone use).

Shadowdance Armor is apparently from Seekers of the Ashen Crown, which is an Eberron adventure published in July 2009. I’ve never seen or played the adventure, and I don’t know how “integrated” it’s intended to be with the rest of the D&D world, but I’m comfortable saying that its armor just doesn’t exist in my universe in the future.

And for the character of Alayne in my Friday night campaign, don’t worry – she can keep her armor. Although I think it’s illustrative to note that when I theoretically bribed the warlock in my Friday night game with different leather armor that’s +4 instead of her current +2, she preferred to keep the Shadowdance. Yeah, it’s pretty optimal.

Shimmering Armor

Shimmering Armor is pretty much the same as Shadowdance, except that it’s only available in cloth and it doesn’t have the extra daily power. It’s available at 3rd level, and it’s from Adventurer’s Vault. I don’t like this one, either, though I’ll admit it’s a bit harder to justify it not existing in my world since it’s from a more core book like Adventurer’s Vault rather than a single adventure. Still, I can live with myself if I rule that it doesn’t exist.

Staff Expertise

Staff Expertise is the one that really bugs me now. This is one of the new expertise feats from Heroes of the Fallen Lands / Forgotten Kingdoms, and I generally love those feats. They add some flavor to a simple math bonus of a +1 to hit, and I’m a fan of that. Staff Expertise seems absurd to me, though. First of all, it gives +1 to the reach of your melee attacks. This isn’t going to come up all that often, but it will be nice every now and then.

Second, it gives you much the same benefit as Shadowdance or Shimmering Armor: your implement attacks made with a staff don’t provoke opportunity attacks.

Now, when I played a wizard as my first D&D 4th edition character (before the existence of Staff Expertise), he used a staff as an implement. I liked the idea that he could smack something if need be, and I liked the extra defense. But I know that lots of other wizards would use orbs or tomes or whatever.

Today, is there a reason for a spellcaster who CAN use the staff as an implement to use anything else? I think that making sure you never provoke an opportunity attack from casting a spell is a pretty huge incentive to be a staff wizard (unless you already have Shimmering Armor, I guess!).

Given that this one is a feat, it’s much more of a dick move for a DM to say, “Sorry, you can’t use this feat.” I’ll do it if I think it’s the right thing to do, but I feel guiltier about it. It’s right in the core Essentials books, after all.

Your thoughts

What do you think? Am I out of line for being annoyed with easy ways to prevent opportunity attacks? Am I wrong in thinking that these are no-brainer default choices for the appropriate character classes (if the DM allows them)? Are they TOO good?

My players are smarter than I am – lucky me!

As a relatively new dungeon master, I take the approach that I still have much to learn.  This education can even come at the hands of my players.

Now, I’m not talking about rules knowledge or information about D&D canon – I might have some gaps there, but those are no big deal.  I’m talking about knowledge of what makes an adventure fun.  When I get a great idea from my players, I’m proud to say that I quash my ego and run with the idea (or I try to).

This came up most recently on Saturday, when I was running my in-person campaign through my home brew world.  The adventurers are currently exploring an underground complex that they’ve learned is populated with duergar.  I’m actually taking the Second Edition module “The Gates of Firestorm Peak” as a source of inspiration here.

The first time the party encountered the duergar, it was in a guard room.  The room had a 20-foot ceiling and was about 30 feet square.  Running right across the middle of the chamber was a 10-foot wall made of rocks held together with some kind of mortar, and liberally spiked with shards of glass, pointy sticks, etc.  It could be climbed over without cutting one’s self to ribbons, though it wouldn’t be easy.  There was also a door hidden in the wall, though the latch was trapped.

The party found the door but not the trap, and combat began when our monk tried to open the door and found his hand nearly taken off by a bear trap.  At this point, the four duergar guards on the far side of the wall Enlarged themselves to become 12 feet tall (something that I gather was much more common in 2nd Edition than 4e, but I ran with it).  Now they could swing their warhammers or toss their throwing hammers over the wall.

In the first round of combat, the PCs threw some ranged attacks at the duergar while the two melee characters positioned themselves closer to the wall, perhaps in an attempt to try a climb or jump or another shot at the door in the next round.  One of my players said something interesting at the end of this round:

“Man, I hope they don’t push the wall over on us.”

Hmm… they weren’t going to, but only because I hadn’t thought of it before!  But now that I had three gigantic dark dwarves lined up along the non-spiky side of the wall, ready to take their turn… heave!

I had the duergar make some strength checks to push on the wall, which I was glad I had described as being somewhat makeshift.  No problem – over it goes!  I had the debris make attacks against the two PCs who were near the wall, going against Reflex (they could try to dodge out of the way), and I hit both of them.  I decided that this should deal some pretty significant damage (I believe I went with 3d6+7 for these 6th-level characters) and knock the PCs prone.  It also created a zone of difficult terrain where the wall fell.

I wrestled a bit with whether to tell the players that I was doing this on the fly thanks to their suggestion but ultimately decided not to bother.  On the one hand, they might have gotten a good feeling from having come up with a creative idea that I used.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t want them to hold back from sharing this kind of idea in the future!  So, I let them believe that this was all part of my grand plan.  Of course, if they read this post that illusion is gone, but I’ll live. 🙂

What do you think? Do you ever incorporate your players’ ideas for what terrible things might befall them on the fly?  If so, do you credit them for thinking of it, or act like it was all part of the plan?

New campaign: Homebrew all the way!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve volunteered to take the next shift as dungeon master with the group I’ve been playing with here in Colorado for most of this year (my first real Dungeons and Dragons experience).  I had considered three options for this campaign:

  • War of the Burning Sky, which I am already running for my online campaign (though I would have to adjust for the fact that the in-person campaign is starting at level 5)
  • An adventure setting from Nevermet Press that I’ve volunteered to playtest (called Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom)
  • A total homebrew campaign, based on an adventure I had written but never run for D&D Third Edition

War of the Burning Sky was originally my first choice, but after starting to work on the adjustments I’d have to make for the level issue and after talking to my current players and getting their thoughts on the matter, I decided that it didn’t seem like it would be as much fun for me (even though it would be a LOT less work).

The playtest game intrigues me a great deal, but the adventure would span several sessions, and I really didn’t want to commit to anything like that without having the time to really get to know the material first (the whole document is over 100 pages in length).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that homebrew was what I really wanted.  Having discovered my adventure from years ago that never saw the light of day, I felt like I had to give it a go.I began by transferring my map of what was originally a goblin stronghold (the adventure was written for first-level characters) into MapTool.  It’s now an orc stronghold, since these characters are higher level.  I kept the geography pretty much the same as I had created it years ago, removing only a couple of pointless storage rooms (I like verisimilitude, but rooms that have no bearing on the adventurers at all should be cut).  I sketched out the whole complex, only making a couple of edits… and then realized that the party wouldn’t be STARTING in the stronghold, but out in a town where they’ll get the chance to find out about this thing.

So, I needed to back up and draw some more.  I started with a tavern, using a Dungeon Tile image.  I called it the Shady Maple Inn and built it around a huge maple tree in the middle of the place.  It was built and owned by an elf who loved the tree and made it part of his establishment (this made me very happy for some reason).  The players had the possibility of meeting some bandits along the road, so I created a bridge encounter map.

There was also going to be an attack by some insects during a night spent camping in the forest, so I put together a forest encounter map with trees and bushes.

This would be everything the party would face, at least for the first session.  I figured that we would get through some decent fraction of the maps I had prepared.  After all, there was a lot to get through in the first session:

  • Character introductions
  • Determining how the party members know one another – past adventures together, etc.
  • Meeting the NPC who would ask for the party’s help
  • Getting from the tavern to the manor house where a minor noble was looking for aid (likely encountering bandits along the way)
  • Meeting the minor noble and learning about the family heirloom that had been stolen
  • Investigating near the manor house to learn more about the thieves
  • Tracking the thieves through the forest
  • Battling creatures overnight in the woods
  • Getting to the stronghold
  • Dealing with the front door defenses
  • Working their way into the depths of the keep

Now, I don’t know if it was the efficiency of running the game in MapTool with the projector or what, but we got through a LOT in one session!

We started playing at about 4:15 this afternoon.  We spent about 30 minutes on character introductions and party backgrounds.  Then the action started, and the players jumped on it.  No gallavanting about, chatting with random NPCs – they heard about a mission, pounced on it without asking questions and started to complete it.  They wisely figured out that they could take a boat up the river to the manor house, which meant that they could skip the bandit encounter at the bridge.  At the manor house, they investigated the theft of the family heirloom efficiently and moved on to the forest.

Here, they were set upon by some creepy crawlies at night.  The luck of the dice had this encounter happen during the first watch, which meant that everyone would be taking an extended rest afterwards (some of them had just started doing so).  This worked out pretty well, actually – since the extended rest was coming, everyone was free to blow daily powers and action points.  The attack came from some centipedes and rot grub swarms (set to appropriate levels for the party, of course).  Even after I brought in some extra centipedes in the second round, the PCs had no trouble beating them all up.

The next morning we had a little skill challenge to continue the navigation through the forest to the orcs’ lair.  The party just barely failed this skill challenge, which made for a cool encounter.  Instead of being able to walk right up to the front door and trying to figure out how to get through, their failure meant that orc archers in the guard tower saw them coming and got a surprise round on them.  This was excellent, because the archers with surprise were pretty darn scary.  Even though these are only level 4 creatures, they have a burst 1 attack (a hail of arrows, basically) that deals d10+6 damage to everyone in the burst that it hits, and I rolled a 9 and a 10 for damage for the two archers who fired into the group.  Suddenly our healer was down to 12 hit points (out of a maximum of 43) and the party was legitimately scared.

Despite the fear, the party had the right tools to handle this problem: Area attacks.  By the rules of the game, an area attack only requires that the spellcaster have line of effect to the origin square of the area burst (which the arrow slit grants), and then enemies inside the tower would not have cover from the area attack because it’s originating inside the tower.  Unleashing a few of these helped bring the archers down before they could raise the alarm.

The door to the stronghold was trapped, and I allowed some active Perception checks to notice the trap before just setting it off on everyone’s heads.  This was a bit generous on my part, but our games haven’t involved a lot of traps in the past and I felt like it was unfair to shock them TOO much by springing a trap when they would never think to look for one.  Now they’ll think about it!

Once inside, the party used some good Stealth to sneak up on the orc minions (two-hit minions, as is usual in my games) in the next room, who were distracted by their dice games.  For this battle, the minions went to the far side of the bridge and pulled it back across, attacking mainly from range (even though they’re not great at range).  I made it clear that the river is nasty and the party does not want to fall into it.  Again, the PCs beat up the bad guys before they could raise a further alarm.

The last battle of the evening took place in the orcs’ sleeping chamber.  This area was dark, as the night shift orcs were sleeping.  One orc was awake – the cook over in the kitchen area, preparing a foul-smelling stew.  The party again made good use of Stealth, letting the party’s Monk get a surprise attack on the cook.

This battle was a little more interesting, as the orcs who had been asleep quickly woke up and did their best to sneak toward the party in the dark.  The Monk ended up bloodied a couple of times, and the Warlock/Sorcerer got a little bit beat-up as well, but since the baddies kept clustering, they were mowed down by burst and blast attacks.  Who says you need dedicated controllers in a party?At this point it was a little after 9:15 PM.  It had been five hours since we had started playing, and we had taken about an hour-long break for dinner in the middle.  We played through four combat encounters, plus the background stuff and some role-playing, investigations and skill challenges.  And this was all with brand-new characters and players who were still figuring out what those characters can do.  I was amazed at how far the party had gotten.  This was as much of the adventure as I had prepared, so we called it a night at that point (playing a few games of Zombie Dice first).

Today was a great start for a new campaign!  I feel like everyone had a good time, and the MapTool / projector combo continues to be a big hit.

DM Lessons

  • Once you’re comfortable as a dungeon master, run your own homebrew games whenever possible.  Time constraints may make this hard, but don’t let a lack of confidence stand in the way.
  • Drop future adventure hooks liberally – even if you haven’t figured out exactly where they’ll lead yet.  See what piques your players’ interest, and run with those, abandoning the others.
  • Preparation is huge.  Know the layouts of combat areas and how the enemies will use them before the battle starts.  If you can do the mapping in advance (such as with MapTool, or even pre-drawing the maps on battle mats or paper) it will save a lot of time at the table.
  • Be prepared for players to come up with ways to skip over combat encounters, and let them do it if they find a way.  Don’t get too attached to a battle.  You can probably find an excuse to use it again at some point in the future!
  • If you’re comfortable with it, technology at the table can automate the boring parts and help everyone get to the fun faster.

Giving dungeon mastering advice

As my regular readers know, I’m pretty new as a dungeon master.  I only started playing Dungeons & Dragons in early 2010 and my first attempt at DMing was about six months ago.  I regularly make notes in my blog about the lessons I learn from other DMs that I play under.

It was, therefore, a little surprising when I was asked for MY advice from another DM.  This past Saturday I played a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  It was a game for level 1-4 characters and I had planned to play a new cleric I had put together using Heroes of the Fallen Lands.  There were already two other healers at the table, though, so I instead played my trusty half-elf paladin, Rhogar, in his last 1-4 adventure (at the end of this session he had reached level 5).

The DM for this adventure was Andy, who had played in the first game I had run with my new projector setup about a month ago (I believe you can see Andy’s elbow on the left side of the picture on that post).  Andy is the one person I’ve met who has told me that he reads my blog, which was a very cool moment for me (Hi Andy!).

The adventure itself was a lot of fun.  Our party got off a ship in a genasi city and was beckoned by an elderly dragonborn to come over and talk to him and his elven companion.  The elf lady was the dragonborn’s ward, and she was very ill.  He was trying to take her to the realm of some elves who lived in some woods far to the south in the hope that they could cure her.  We agreed to help.

Andy ran this whole section really well – the roleplaying was great, and he got everyone around the table involved.  Rhogar decided that, being a noble paladin he couldn’t bear to make the poor elf woman walk all that way, so he rented a horse for her to ride.  Andy was great at improvising the existence of a stable, stablemaster and horse on the spot, even giving the stablemaster and horse some names. None of this made a lick of difference from a mechanics perspective, but it made the adventure come alive.

After about an hour of roleplaying, the party got into three combats.  The first two were tense, interesting affairs while the third was, frankly, a boring solo encounter (no fault of the DM).

At the end, Andy asked for feedback.  I’ve never been asked to give my thoughts on another DM before!  I told him the things I laid out above, and also suggested that he should feel free to modify combat if it makes sense to do so.  For instance, he could have had the solo monster have two initiative rolls if it wasn’t turning out to be much of a challenge, or have some more bad guys come in after a couple of rounds (a few more of those insects that grabbed and immobilized in an earlier encounter would have been vicious!).  But that’s subtle stuff, and a published adventure is supposed to take care of that sort of thing.

Most interesting to me, I realized that I actually felt fine giving dungeon mastering advice.  I didn’t feel like a fraud.  I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I will ALWAYS be looking for more advice on my own DMing, but I’m now a legitimate part of the dungeon mastering community and I have useful things to say.  That’s a good feeling!

Balanced-power parties are ideal

This post was inspired by my response to Robert J. Schwalb’s blog post about the Killer DM within.  A quick aside: I found Robert’s blog via a link on Sarah Darkmagic – a fellow RPG Blogger Network member whose blog I regularly follow.  I love the way RPG Bloggers leads me to so many interesting items online.

Some dungeon masters / game masters hate power gamers.  These are the players who try to find every possible advantage from any available material when putting their character together.  If there’s an overpowered angle to take on a character, they’ll find and use it.  This is sometimes referred to as “character optimization” or “CharOp”.  Those who don’t approve might call it “being a munchkin” or “twinking”.  This is the character who can easily kill monsters well above their own their level without breaking a sweat.

Robert talks about the Killer DM having the potential to emerge when the DM is frustrated with the players and the way they’re playing the game.  I think DMs in general are not fans of power gamers who min-max to the hilt.

Having thought this issue through, I’ve concluded that the problem isn’t exactly power gamers per se – you can always ramp up the difficulty to make it a challenge for them.  The problem is when you have characters of vastly different power levels in the same party.

If everyone in the party is super-powerful for their level, then the DM’s job isn’t too hard – you use higher-level encounters, give monsters extra abilities that will make them more challenging, and so on.  The problem is when one or two players are super-powerful but the others are of a normal power level.  In that situation, ramping up the difficulty to challenge the power gamers will make the monsters just plain deadly to the rest of the party.

The same problem can occur in reverse if you have a party of mostly average-power characters and one or two characters who have terrible stats for combat (the weak but charismatic fighter, for instance).  Those under-powered characters are not going to be able to fight interesting battles alongside their more powerful brethren and will be reduced to either standing in the back or getting themselves slaughtered.

In my opinion, the key to a fun gaming environment is to have a party of similarly-powered characters.  They don’t have to be all the same power level, but they should be close.  In that situation, the DM can create encounters that challenge everyone but that everyone can contribute to.  That’s what we want as dungeon masters.

I’m happy to say that my online campaign feels like the party is pretty well balanced from a power perspective.  When it comes to combat, everyone can contribute.  If we ever got to the point that one character was simply outshining all of the others, I would talk to that player about ways to bring the character in line, because otherwise combats will be too easy or too deadly for some part of the party.  A balanced-power party is a happy party.

Two-hit minions (and another gaming hiatus)

One-Week Hiatus (from gaming, not blogging)

After three Fridays in a row of running my online D&D game, it looks like we’re finally going to have to take a week off.  My wife and I have a date Friday (yes, I have a life outside of D&D!) and two of the five players have scheduling conflicts or potential scheduling conflicts, so we’re going to take the week off.  This is probably a good thing since I’ll be on a business trip to New York next Monday through Wednesday and probably won’t have a ton of time to get ready during the trip (although I’ll admit that several hours on a plane with the laptop does make for a lot of D&D planning time if I wish).  I’m pretty much set for the next session already, so getting a little ahead would be a good thing.

TactiCon Prep

Dark Skull - The Black Knight of Arabel

I’m also going to start getting ready for the Living Forgotten Realms game that I’ll be running at TactiCon over Labor Day weekend.  I’ve been through the adventure once as a player, and I’ve just finished reading through the published version this evening.  The DM who ran it was pretty creative with rearranging things on the fly; I might take some of his modifications into the game when I run it.

One thing that the DM who ran this adventure did that I liked was making minions a little tougher.  Minions in D&D 4e are enemies that only take one hit to kill, no matter how little damage they take.  That’s fine – it gives the wizard in the party a gang to blow up.  But honestly, minions end up feeling a little bit pointless.  I’ve been making a lot of my minions two-hit minions instead, and I think it makes them more fun.  The rules I use are as follows:

Two-hit minions

  • Minions begin with two hit points
  • Whenever a minion takes damage, that damage is reduced to 1 hit point
  • This first hit bloodies the minion (so any PC abilities that kick in on bloodying an enemy kick in)
  • Damaging a bloodied minion drops it
  • Dealing a critical hit to an unbloodied minion drops it
  • Dealing damage to an unbloodied minion of a type that the minion is vulnerable to drops it
  • Rule of cool – anything that should wipe out a typical enemy drops a minion even if it’s not bloodied (massive damage, etc.)
  • And if the PC does something that would wipe out an unbloodied minion but the minion is already bloodied, feel free to have the attack drop the bloodied minion and then bloody an adjacent unbloodied minion (or drop another adjacent bloodied minion)

These aren’t hard and fast rules, but I think they make minions more interesting.  Now that Magic Missile is an auto-hit (my players have already started calling it “Magic Hittle”), regular minions just seem boring.  Sure, the wizard has to use his standard action to drop one rather than doing something awesome someplace else, but it still feels boring.  I am against boring!

MapTool Macro Updates

I’ve continued to tweak my MapTool macros on the Downlaods page.  First, I’ve discovered that WordPress supports a fixed-width font that lets me show you the proper indenting for the macros.  This makes IF blocks and WHILE loops much easier to follow.  Second, I’ve added new Basic properties and new code to PC macros to handle Brutal weapons.

A weapon with Brutal X means that you re-roll any dice that are X or lower.  So, a Brutal 1 weapon means you re-roll any 1s for damage, Brutal 2 means you re-roll 1s and 2s, and so on.  I first programmed this very manually for the dwarven fighter in my campaign who was using a Brutal 2 Craghammer.  Then I realized from searching online that a d10 weapon with Brutal 2 is exactly the same as a d8+2 weapon.  With d10 Brutal 2, you have an equal chance of getting a 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10.  And with a d8 + 2, you have exactly the same chance of getting exactly the same numbers.  Sweet!

My code now contains the following lines:

[h: DamageDie=Wpn1Dmg-Wpn1Brutal]
[h: NumDice=1]
[h: DamageRoll=roll(NumDice,DamageDie)+NumDice*Wpn1Brutal]

So, if your weapon doesn’t have the Brutal property, Wpn1Brutal will be zero, and the damage roll will be one weapon die plus zero.  However, if it’s Brutal 1, the damage roll will be a roll of a die that’s one number smaller than the regular damage die, and then one point will be added to the roll.  Note that for Brutal 1 this means that you’ll be rolling a d9 or a d7 or something like that.  This is obviously impossible in real life, but MapTool doesn’t care!  Feel free to roll a d23 in MapTool if you like.

Summing up

I’ll be okay without my online game for a week, but I’m really hoping that the in-person game that I play in will start up again soon (the DM has not been feeling well for a while).  I’ll throw myself into future prep work, which, I must admit, has led me to keep on dreaming about the projector setup that I talked about last time.  What’s wrong with me?  🙂

I’m curious: Do any of you out there use house rules for minions, or are they all one hit all the time?

War of the Burning Sky Session 2

All right, now this is more like it!  I got together with my online group last night for our second session in the War of the Burning Sky campaign (our third overall session as a group).  The first WotBS session didn’t go all that well in part because we had to wrap up early when one player got called into work but mainly because I was underprepared and didn’t feel ready to wing it when needed.

This time, I was ready.  With this session, I started intentionally deviating from the campaign as laid out in the published module, and I’m glad I did.  There are some spoilers for the campaign ahead, just so you’re warned.

I started the party off in session 1 as scripted, meeting their contact, Torrest, in a closed-down inn at New Year’s Eve in the town of Gate Pass as the world was on the brink of war.  I ran the bounty hunter ambush battle more or less as scripted, though I ran it badly.  The players did well to think quickly and try to lure the lead bounty hunter to the Resistance – a cool idea.

I then ran some of the mini-quests as written as the party made its way from the inn to the bank tower to meet their next contact.  The party helped heal a burned family, caught a panicked woman who was jumping from a burning building, and shared in the panic in the crowd as a huge winged figure swooped overhead in the night.  That’s where we ended things last time.

Next, I ran the much-maligned “Animal Crossing” encounter, in which a rich man begs the party to help him find his Kiki, who, it turns out, is his pet dire weasel (see photo to the left).  I had Torrent clearly be uninterested in helping, and I would have awarded XP for simply the group deciding that this was a waste of time, but the soft-hearted warlock in the party helped persuade the others that this poor man was in need of their help.  So, the weasel hunt was on, and for me at least it was a ton of fun.  They tracked the weasel through the streets, into a closed temple, out a side door, down an alley and into a locked sewer grate.  The druid in the party used a fabulous Nature check to calm Kiki down, at which point she climbed out and snuggled into his arms for safety (I essentially role-played Kiki as one of my cats).  I showed the party the picture I had made for Kiki, and the druid was sorely tempted to keep her (she IS pretty adorable, if a bit dire), but the group ultimately returned the cute little dire weasel to her rightful owner.  They then spent a surprising amount of time trying to get out the box of treasure that they spotted alongside Kiki in the sewer grate, ultimately blasting the crap out of the lock on the sewer grate with a bunch of magic.

Fun aside: At one point the gnome in the party tried to squeeze through the sewer grate, which was an untrained Acrobatics check.  The dwarf fighter assisted by shoving him through with a great Athletics check.  Unfortunately, the gnome’s Acrobatics roll was a natural 1, so I ruled that he got his knee caught on the grate, the fighter’s shove cause him to bang up that leg, dealing him 1d6 damage. Ah, the dangers of assisting!

At this point I made my first major deviation from the published story.  As published, the party encounters a character in the bank who appears to be their contact, Rivereye, but who is really a good-aligned spy from a nearby eladrin country.  The spy has secretly subdued the real Rivereye and taken a potion to disguise himself as Rivereye.  He has taken the case of secret information that Rivereye was supposed to be giving to Torrent (that is, the MacGuffin) and sent it with some of his eladrin allies to another part of town because the real Rivereye has convinced the spy that the case is rigged to blow up if it’s opened without the proper pass phrase.  The encounter is scheduled to go like this:

  • The party arrives and meets the fake Rivereye
  • The fake Rivereye doesn’t realize who Torrent is and slips up in his charade
  • When Torrent catches him in the slip-up, the spy flees with his wisp solon partner
  • The party then has a long series of encounters helping the Resistance and tracking down the case, possibly becoming allies with the eladrin along the way

This struck me as overly complicated and, more importantly, no fun.  I don’t like the “meet a bad guy and keep him from fleeing” encounter, especially since it seemed like it would be easy for him to get away.  So I completely revamped it.

In MY version (available here as a PDF), the fake Rivereye is a doppelganger counter-spy from the evil empire that Rivereye has been spying on.  The doppelganger and his gang of half-orc goons have been tailing Rivereye in the hopes that he’ll lead them to his contacts in the Resistance.  As in the published version, the fake Rivereye tries to pass himself off as the real one and ultimately slips up.  However, in this version he doesn’t HAVE the MacGuffin – it’s locked in a bank vault and he needs Torrent to get it out.  When he fails in that, he and his goons attack.  He ultimately tried to flee at the end of the battle, but I had him use a potion of teleportation to try to get away – which, when combined with the Burning Sky teleportation issues, fried him to a crisp.  Add in the lightning trap that I had jumping around the battlefield, and it was a more fun encounter (at least for me).

I considered running the Flaganus Mortis encounter after this one, but I ultimately decided not to bother as it felt too random.  I had the party go to a safe house (which I made into the Dagger’s Rest Inn from their first session, transplanted from Waterdeep) and rest for the evening.  In the morning, they started their plans to escape the city.  I gave them the option of trying to work with a city council member as written in the published module, but that seemed boring to me, so I presented them with another option: Escape via the sewers.  Happily for me, they went with the sewers

I skipped most of the rest of Act Two, Act Three and Act Four as written, but I took the Dead Rising encounter from Act Two and said that in order to get from the sewers into the natural cave system that would take them out of the city, the party would have to fight through an ancient crypt of undead.  I ran this one exactly as written (except with an exit out the back of the crypt, and the fact that the entrance came from the sewer), and it was pretty darn brutal – but the players made it in the end.  I did soften the death explosion of the Dwarven Boneshard Skeletons to be 1d6+4 damage rather than 3d6+4 – they were crazy-powerful enough without dealing insane damage on death.

We called it a night as this point, as the party got ready to delve into the natural cavern system (which is not part of the published adventure at all).  I’m very happy with the changes I made to the adventure, and I personally am having much more fun than I did in the first WotBS session (mainly because I feel like I know what’s going on now and am free to make changes as I see fit).  I’ve already put together what I think is an interesting trek through the natural caverns, after which I will likely pick up some of the published threads of the adventure (probably using Act Five more or less as written and then moving on to the second published adventure).

What do you think of the changes I’ve made so far?  Was running the weasel hunt worthwhile?  Do you have any suggestions for a trek through some caverns in an effort to escape the city?  I have some ideas of my own, but I’m always looking for more input!

Chaos Scar third session – swallowed by frogs

We gathered at our place today for what is becoming a Monday holiday tradition – grilling and gaming!  Since we all had the day off for the Fourth of July holiday, just as we did a month ago for Memorial day, we decided to grill some burgers, ribs and veggies and play some D&D.  This was our third session in the Chaos Scar.  (Sessions number one and number two are at those links).

BullywugsOur party had just finished fighting bullywugs (frog people) on the first level of a ruined keep last time, and we began the day today by heading down a trap door into the next level.  Amazingly enough, our minotaur on a horse had no problem squeezing through the trap door.  🙂

We played through three battles today – some random bullywugs in a muddy chamber, some bullywugs and giant frogs in a big laboratory and some mud men in a vault.  The first battle was pretty good – nice and balanced – though my character ended up spending the entire battle stuck in the mud.   Fortunately, my Avenger, Kern, does have an at-will ranged attack, so I wasn’t TOTALLY useless!  Still, the mud that attacked at the beginning of my turn to immobilize me (save ends) was pretty annoying, but at least it only hit me and not the rest of the gang.

The third battle against the mud men was also easy, and we squeaked through the skill challenge that followed with success.  The real story of the day was the second encounter.  We fought three Giant Frogs (the link only works if you’re a DDI subscriber).  There were some other bad guys in the room, but this battle was all about the Giant Frogs.  These guys have an at-will power that lets them swallow a PC on a hit.  A swallowed PC is stunned (save ends).  That means that the character doesn’t get to do anything on their turn except take five damage (from the frog’s digestive acids, presumably) and make a saving throw.  If they fail the save, they don’t get to do anything next turn, either.

This was a miserable encounter for Nate, whose minotaur fighter was swallowed for pretty much the whole battle.  He didn’t get to take a single action until the battle was almost over (something like five rounds).  It was touch and go for the party (Nate and I both had our characters swallowed at least once), but Barbara used the healing abilities of her runepriest very wisely, which let us pull through.

This was a fun adventure on the whole, and we ended with enough experience points to move up to second level, which we’re all looking forward to.  Bree, our DM, did something I thought was really cool at the end of the session – she asked for our feedback on what was fun, what was not fun, and how to make the game more fun for us.  This leads naturally to some DM lessons.

  • The stun ability needs to be used very, very sparingly, if at all.  Certainly I wouldn’t recommend using a creature with an at-will ability that can stun (save ends).  If it’s once per encounter, okay.  If it can only stun for one turn and it is a recharge power, that’s probably all right.  But stun (save ends) at will is just too unfun for the players.
  • Similarly, monsters that daze or dominate should be used very sparingly as well.  Anything that keeps the players from doing stuff on their turns is not a lot of fun.
  • Adjusting the challenge level of encounters for a strong party is tricky.  Adding an extra monster with a stun (save ends) ability was not the way to do it in this case.  Consider increasing the damage dealt by the monsters and increasing their hit points.  MAYBE consider increasing their defenses, but don’t overdo it (having the PCs missing with all of their attacks is not fun either).
  • Flexibility is good, especially when the pre-packaged material just doesn’t work.  We faced a skill challenge that required Arcana and Nature as primary skills.  None of us are trained in either of those (except our Shaman, who was absent today).  Our DM rewarded creative uses of Athletics and Acrobatics on the fly, which made the challenge way more fun.
  • Think carefully before allowing a character a mount.  This hasn’t been a problem in our campaign so far, but we have one character with a mount, which seems really, really useful.  More speed, saving throws from being knocked prone, etc.  It’s all upside, and it seems to be pretty significant upside.  As a DM, I would make mounts an all or none proposition – either the players are all on foot, or they’re all on mounts.

Bree is doing a good job as a DM, and it’s clear that she really cares about getting better and making the game fun.  I think that’s the most important thing – a DM who is focused on fun for the whole party.  If you’ve got that, you’ve got a very important ingredient for a good game.

A nice little addendum – Bree ended up using some of my monster tokens for minions today.  They worked great!  I’m looking forward to using them in my LFR game (which Nate has said he wants to play in – cool!).

Advice I’ve received for my LFR session

For my last several posts, I’ve been talking about my decision to plunge into dungeon mastering a Living Forgotten Realms game at my friendly local game store, Enchanted Grounds.  That game will be three weeks from today.  I’ve already put the maps and minis together, so all that remains is for me to get comfortable with the adventure itself and then to run it well.

To that end, I’ve been seeking advice from other DMs, both here on my blog and over on EN World.  Here is the advice that I’ll be trying to keep in mind as I get ready to run my first adventure in public:

  • Be enthusiastic!  Enthusiasm from the DM means enthusiasm and fun for the players.
  • Make sure to really know the story of the adventure, not just the monster stats and skill challenge mechanics.
  • Get a feel for the personalities of the NPCs, especially in skill challenges.  Try to make them memorable and act as they would act.
  • At the table, set up a sheet that reminds me of who the PCs are:
    • Name
    • Class and race (optional, but it helps me for roleplaying)
    • Passive perception and insight
    • Defenses, including non-asset class defenses
    • Initiative modifiers
  • Have a flexible method of keeping track of initiative.  I’ve seen some DMs with little tags that they move around, or I’ve seen people using index cards.  I’ve also seen a dry-erase board, or ultimately D&D 4e Combat Manager (which I love, but not for this particular session).
  • When announcing whose turn it is, also announce who will be after that so that the next person can be thinking about what they plan to do.
  • Look for opportunities for bad guys to do cool or unexpected things – grabbing an item a PC drops, trying a stunt, etc.  This may encourage the players to think creatively, too!  Just make sure I’m ready to handle the rules for cool stuff.
  • Have the bad guys taunt the PCs or otherwise talk or yell or whatever during combat.  Make them characters, not just stat blocks with weapons.
  • When the battle is over except for a meaningless minion or two, just call it.  Don’t take the time to make the PCs hunt down that last little dude who can’t really hurt them.  Have him surrender, or just say that the PCs eventually finish him.

Naturally, these tips apply to dungeon mastering in general, not specifically for Living Forgotten Realms.  What other suggestions do you have in order for me to make this fun for myself and, more importantly, for my players?  Have I forgotten anything obvious?

Living Forgotten Realms DM Preparation – Maps

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ll be a first-time DM for a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) session at my local store on July 24, 2010.  I’ve gotten the adventure module (WATE1-1 Heirloom) and read through it once, which is a good start.  The things I haven’t been certain about are what to do about maps and what to do about tokens.  I’m pretty sure I’ll follow Ismael_DM’s suggestion in the comments of using the tutorial on Newbie DM’s blog to make flat tokens using metal washers.  More on that as I actually give it a shot.  (Thanks for the tip, Ismael_DM!)

As for maps, I’m pretty sure I’m going to stick with what I know: MapTool! While I’d love to set up a projector with my laptop to project a MapTool screen onto the tabletop (and there is a person at the local store who does exactly this), I’m not ready to lay out the cash required to build that sort of thing.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I can build my maps in MapTool and then print them out as “posters” to put on the table for my players to use.  DM Samuel has talked on his blog about doing this, building the maps in a program called GridMapper (which I probably would have loved a few weeks ago before I learned how to really use MapTool) and then printing them out to scale using a program called PosteRazor.  I haven’t tried the printing part yet, but I figured I’d start by building the maps in MapTool.  Printing can come later.

There are three combat encounters in the module I’ll be running (no real spoilers here).  There’s a battle outside of a random inn on a random street, a battle inside a shop and the room beneath it, and a battle that can take place either in a room in an inn, next to a stable, or on the city streets depending on what has happened earlier in the adventure.

The adventure describes how to build each encounter area using Dungeon Tiles.  Now, I don’t have any Dungeon Tiles myself, but Wizards of the Coast has a program called Dungeon Tiles Mapper that you can download for free and which contains images for a bunch of different tiles (not all of them, but a good variety).  Combining that with the big MapTool image download that I have, I was able to recreate the maps pretty well (in my humble opinion).  In some cases I tried to be as faithful as possible to the original, but there were some cases where I decided to make my own improvements.

First, I created a map that serves as both the inn exterior for the first battle as well as for the last battle (the downstairs part of the inn).  I used a texture to paint the cobblestone streets, a Dungeon Tile image for the inn itself, a stairs object from the big MapTool download and a roof object from that same download to represent the building next door.Inn Exterior

Next, I created the main room of the shop from the second encounter.  This was dead simple – one Dungeon Tile image.

Shop Interior

After that, I created the hideout beneath the shop.  This one was much more involved.  I used some Dungeon Tiles for the spiral staircase, the blue rune, the wooden stairs and the trap door.  I used some flooring from the Dungeon Tiles to paint the stone floor as well as the wooden platform floor.  I used images from the MapTool download for everything else (tables, bookshelves, chair, chest).  I think it turned out really nicely.


Next up was the room in the inn.  Nothing here was from Dungeon Tiles.  The stairs, beds and windows were from the MapTool download and the floors and walls were painted using various wood textures from that download.

Inn Room

Finally, the exterior of the stable.  It’s a lot like the inn exterior with the streets and the roof.  The horse and cart came from the big MapTool download.

Stable Exterior

My next task will be to try to print these out using the correct scale in PosteRazor.  Wish me luck!  And as always, I’d love to hear your feedback, whether about the maps themselves or about the general idea of printing these out to use at the table (probably on card stock).