ZEITGEIST Session Three: Recap and Review

Previous sessions: Session one, Session two

Our group gathered in mid February for our third session in the Zeitgeist campaign from EN World. This session took us to the climactic finish of Adventure One: The Island at the Axis of the World.

Beware the cannonballs!

Since my group had ended session two by going a little bit off the rails, I had to create a new encounter to kick off session three. The group was racing along a sea wall surrounding a fortress, trying to follow the trail of some fiery, smoky being that had destroyed a ship in the harbor before leaping onto the wall and into the fort. Unfortunately for our heroes, the wall was being viciously fought over by the defenders upon it and the attackers bombarding it from ships in the harbor.

Sea Wall Battle - showing enemy positions

The battle is fairly simple. The party is approaching along the wall from the left side of the map. Four Rebel Musketeers (custom enemies) are on the north side of the wall, shooting at ships in the harbor, and four more are on the south side of the wall, doing the same thing. Half of each set of musketeers have their muskets loaded and ready at any given time. Two Rebel Soldiers (from the published adventure) are between the rows of musketeers, giving orders.

At the end of each round, a cannonball comes flying across a random row of the wall around the tower, attacking creatures in that row and on either side of that row. This can cause characters (both PCs and enemies) to be pushed off the wall and into the water.

Once the PCs get within ten squares or attack the enemies, the rebels notice them and turn their focus from the ships to the PCs.

The full encounter is available here (Beware the Cannonballs), and battle maps scaled to a 50 pixel per square grid are below.

Sea Wall map - with grid

Sea Wall map - No grid

Where did he go?

Once the party had conquered the sea wall tower, they moved along the inner wall until they met up with allied soldiers who had succeeded in breaching the wall. The fiery creature they were pursuing was nowhere to be seen, but the commanding officers requested the party’s assistance in dealing with some Danoran prisoners in a brig.

Negotiations with the prisoners went well and led to some intelligence about an entrance to the central tower of the keep through the sewers. The Danorans also gave the party a key that would open a door on the roof of the tower in case they ended up there. These discussions were ultimately interrupted by screams and the sound of running feet across the roof of the brig – the fiery creature was back!

Our heroes rushed into the streets to see the fiery creature, revealed as an eladrin, using a strange orb that caused the inner fortress wall to disappear, replaced by wilderness for a few moments. The fiery eladrin ran across the tops of the hedge maze within the inner fortress wall and then started scaling the central tower. The PCs decided to rush after him.

Vesper, the scout in the party, had found the token back in the mines that gave him tremendous jumping power, so he decided to use that power to go bounding after the eladrin. He hopped along the tops of the hedges in the maze and found himself at the base of the tower, staring up as the eladrin finished ripping out bricks, tearing what looked like a gold wire in the wall (gold circles prevent teleportation in this world) and then disappearing – presumably inside the tower. Vesper climbed to the roof, used the key on the roof door, and started sneaking downstairs.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party found themselves dealing with an irate fey creature named Ghillie Dhu who was blaming them for lighting his hedges on fire (when in fact it was the eladrin who had done so with his fiery aura). Some quick negotiations followed, including a bit of a seduction by the female eladrin in the party, Andraste, and Ghillie Dhu was satisfied that the party was chasing the eladrin who burned the maze, not allied with him. Ghillie Dhu led them through the maze to the base of the tower, where they found a rope had been lowered by Vesper.

Level 1 PCs fighting a level 20 monster

Inside the tower, Vesper had gotten himself into a good eavesdropping position. He was able to see the eladrin, badly bloodied after fighting a bunch of guards in the tower, having a heated exchange with Duchess Evelyn of Shale (the Risuri noblewoman who had invaded the island) and a tiefling named Nathan Jierre. The eladrin, referred to by the duchess as Asrabey, had clearly beaten the duchess and the tiefling, and the duchess was trying to reason with him. Vesper bided his time, readying an attack in case Asrabey tried to hurt the duchess or the teifling any more.

The rest of the party was working on climbing the rope. Some of the PCs made their Athletics checks quickly, but our poor docker bard, Corduroy, struggled and struggled. As the party made it onto the roof, they saw the open door and peaked in, communicating through hand gestures with Vesper below.

Once Corduroy finally made it to the roof, he danced a jig of happiness…

Which made some noise, attracting the attention of Asrabey, who finally looked up and saw Vesper above him. His rage set off Vesper’s readied action, and we were in combat!

This was a beautiful moment in the adventure, where the writer, Ryan Nock, provides the DM with two ways to run the encounter. The default approach is to run Asrabey as an injured level 20 creature with only 27 hit points. This makes him practically impossible to hit, unless a PC rolls a natural 20, uses a power that deals damage without an attack roll (like Magic Missile) or uses a power that still has an effect on a miss (like most daily powers). At the same time, his attacks always hit the PCs unless he rolls a 1.

Alternatively, the battle can be run with Asrabey as a level 2 solo creature. I went hard core – he was level 20.

Combat was quick and deadly. Asrabey set his shield to work chewing on Vesper as the rest of the party rushed inside. The eladrin set up a zone that would soon erupt into flames. Andraste the witch used a power that would deal damage to Asrabey every time he hurt one of Andraste’s allies.

The party started to worry that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but they were doing their best to make use of daily powers and creative effects. Asrabey took a few hits and was clearly teetering, but Vesper was unconscious and laying in the area that would soon erupt into flames.

Asrabey began his turn, the flames rose, and Vesper was burned to death…

At which point Andraste’s effect caused Asrabey to take a few points of damage, killing the eladrin.

My players, including Vesper’s player, literally jumped to their feet, cheering and high fiving one another. It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a DM. Even though a PC died, it was a huge victory that was hard-won. They earned it, 100%.

In the aftermath of the battle, the party managed to steal Asrabey’s sword and cloak – high-level items that they really shouldn’t have and that are quite illegal for them to have taken in-game. But that’s okay… I don’t mind there being consequences later!

Thus ends adventure one of ZEITGEIST. It’s a very cool campaign so far, and I’m hoping to start adventure two as soon as we can get everyone’s schedules to line up. I’ve just learned that two of my six players are moving away in August, and there’s a chance that two more might be going eventually as well, so I hope to make some progress on the campaign while we still can.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Madness at Gardmore Abbey – MapTool campaign file

At long last, I have finished putting together my complete MapTool campaign file for the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure. Huzzah! You can download it right here.

I’m pretty sure this is the largest MapTool campaign file I’ve built to date (around 33 MB), and I’m quite happy with it. It has all of the maps, all of the monsters, all of the Deck of Many Things tokens, all of the traps. I’ve got a template token for PCs and a template token for monsters.

The campaign file consists of eight maps with encounters from the adventure, plus a ninth map that’s a holding pen for NPCs, the Deck tokens and some background stuff for the campaign (library token, templates). The maps are labeled according to the encounter numbers that are included on the map. For instance, the map named 01-04 Village has the encounter maps that take place in the outer part of Gardmore Village (Encounter 1: Main Gate; Encounter 3: Double Talk; Encounter 4: Ruined Garrison; plus the overland map of the abbey and the map of Winterhaven).

Because of the number of maps that are in this adventure, I’ve included Wolph42’s Bag of Tricks macros – specifically the Teleport Pads. To use these, you’ll need to click the “Back of Tricks Macros” button in the Campaign pane and then the Initialize Pads button. Once you’ve done that, you can drag tokens around the various maps by dragging them to the teleport pad corresponding to the map where you want them to go. The 01-04 Village map has the portals to every other map.

I hope that folks find this campaign file to be useful. I know that I’ve had a lot of fun with Madness at Gardmore Abbey so far, and I’m looking forward to running the rest of the adventure!

– Michael the OnlineDM

Monster Stock Art and Minions Do It With One Hit Point

Here’s a quick post to highlight a couple of cool things I’m supporting on the RPG internet this week.

Monster Stock Art

As you undoubtedly know if you read my blog, I run lots of D&D games using MapTool (both online and in-person with a projector). One of the reasons I love MapTool for in-person games is that I don’t need to buy monster minis; I just use monster images on round tokens in MapTool to represent the bad guys.

I generally just use Google Image Search to find cool monster pictures online, but I’d love to have an all-in-one source for monster images. So, I was happy to discover and support Joe Wetzel’s Monster Stock Art project on Kickstarter.

Basically, he’s paying for a whole crapload of monster art to be delivered in either PDF or higher-resolution image form, with the option to also get monster stand-ins for physical tokens (which I obviously don’t need). Yay for cool monster images! Coming soon to a MapTool game near you (if you’re one of my players).

Minions Do It With One Hit Point T-shirt from d20monkey

I’m not a major reader of webcomics, but I do follow a few. These include the Order of the Stick, xkcd, The Oatmeal, and d20monkey. The latter of these has been coming out with nifty merchandise for a while, and he’s finally gotten me to bite on an item:

How awesome is that? This was featured in one of Brian’s comics in July 2011, and it’s finally available as an actual shirt. Get yours here! (Note: Man, did I have a hard time tracking down the comic where this idea originated!)

-Michael the OnlineDM

Stormy Weather – 4e Encounter with map and monsters

While I’ve mainly been running published adventures lately, every now and then I throw in some encounters that I create myself.

I’m currently running my Friday night online MapTool group through the War of the Burning Sky adventure path. We’re in adventure number five right now, and one part of the adventure called for the party to venture into the Valley of Storms. Despite the name, this valley had no storm-themed creatures in it at all, which felt like a crying shame.

As I was thinking about this encounter, I happened to be joining Mark Meredith as co-host of an episode of Dice Monkey Radio, his new podcast. The episode hasn’t gone live yet, but (spoiler alert!) I used the segment at the end of the podcast where Mark offers campaign advice to get his suggestions for some storm-themed encounters I could throw at my party. His ideas were excellent, and the result is Stormy Weather.

Download the encounter PDF

This encounter is for a party of five PCs of 15th level. You could use it in any campaign where the party is likely to meet hostile storm-themed creatures. The basic setup is that the PCs have intruded on the territory of a thunder titan and his genasi friends, and they intend to destroy the interlopers. While you could certainly handle this type of interaction via diplomacy (assuming someone speaks primordial), I wrote it as a fight.

Taking advantage of the ever-awesome Power2ool, I created monster stat blocks. I drew a map in MapTool. And the result is right here for download!

Since I’m proud of the monsters I created, I’ve reproduced their stat blocks below (click the images to enlarge them). I particularly like the thunder titan who spews lightning motes.

I ran this encounter for my group last Friday night, and they absolutely loved it. Now, that may be in part because they went after the genasi with a tornado of carnivorous hell-frogs, but it was a cool battle. Fair warning, though – they ended up using a LOT of map! Getting out of range of those genasi is a tricky business.


Map – scaled to a 50 pixel grid for use in MapTool and similar programs

Valley of Storms map - gridded

Valley of Storms map - no grid

Custom 4e monster: The digger

I thought I’d put up a short post to share one of the monsters from the finale of my adventure trilogy (Descent Into Darkness – coming soon!). This is a minion called the digger

The digger is a big underground bug with nasty pincers that it can use to burrow through rock – or grab unwary PCs. They tend to show up in large groups, sometimes used as tunnel-builders for drow or duergar. When a digger grabs hold of its prey, it may very well try to drag it back to its nest for dinner, with the unfortunate victim kicking and screaming the whole way.

Diggers often like to tunnel beneath their foes, causing them to fall in shallow pits. This makes it easier for the bugs to grab hold of the victim to drag it away.

MapTool geek-out update: Flexible monster creation

Update: The new campaign file now has a cool Edit Monster macro that lets you tweak things on the fly, including Solo/Elite/Minion status. Thank you to JonathanTheBlack over on the MapTool forums!

After I put my initial pass at new damage tables and MapTool monster templates out there for the world to see, I saw some niggling problems that I wanted to correct.

First, my original damage tables had a couple of flat spots where the damage expression stayed the same from one level to the next. Since average damage is supposed to increase by 1 per level, this bugged me and I wanted to fix it.

Second, I knew I should be able to make monsters tweakable more easily with some additional properties.

Third, I wanted to handle limited damage expressions more elegantly.

Updated damage tables

My damage table now increases at every level. It also has a slightly wider range than the official tables, even at low level, but I’m okay with that. My crits will hurt a little more and my lousy damage rolls will hurt a little less than with official monsters. At the lowest levels, my expressions still have less overall variance because I’m rolling two dice right from the start (the official expressions only roll one for level 1-3). And at the highest levels I have some more variance because I’m only rolling two dice instead of four; that’s a good feature in my opinion.

I also fleshed out the table to include damage expressions for multi-target attacks (about 25% less than standard attacks) as well as limited damage expressions (25% more and 50% more than standard attacks). These took some fiddling to get right, but I’m pretty happy with where they ended up.

Tweakable monsters

I added a property for the attack bonus versus non-AC defenses (NADs); it’s just the normal attack bonus minus 2, but it makes it easier to tweak attack macros en masse. If you want a particular monster to have an easier time hitting NADs (as Soldiers do), just tweak the one property rather than editing every attack macro.

The same goes for having the 125% and 150% damage expressions; it’s easier to do something like tweak the Brute by changing the normal damage to the 125% numbers and the 125% numbers to the 150% numbers in the monster’s properties rather than in each individual attack macro.

Limited damage expressions

High-damage attacks are not perfectly formulaic; the official guidelines say to increase the damage for encounter or recharge powers by 25 to 50 percent.

I decided to add a formula. My generic monsters’ recharge powers do 25% extra damage, while their encounter powers do 50% extra damage. If it’s a multi-target recharge attack I use the standard single-target damage expressions; a multi-target encounter attack gets the 125% damage expressions.

A word on artillery monsters

The official guidelines say that artillery monsters should have +1 or +2 to hit for ranged or area attacks. This is entirely too vague for me, and messy to implement. So, I just gave them +2 to hit versus both AC and NADs. Sure, maybe they’re a little more accurate than they “should” be; I can live with that.

Putting it all together

If you want to download a template campaign file with the sample monsters and properties, you can download it here. The file was created in version 1.3.b66 of MapTool. The properties themselves have been pasted below.

#MaxHP:{((HPModifier + Constitution + (Level * HPModifier)) * SubTypeHPMod) + MinionHP}
*#HP:{Hitpoints}/{MaxHP} + {TempHP}
*#AC/Fort/Ref/Will:{ArmorClass} / {Fortitude} / {Reflex} / {Will}
*#Type:Level {Level} {Role}
*#Str/Con/Dex:{Strength} / {Constitution} / {Dexterity}
*#Int/Wis/Cha:{Intelligence} / {Wisdom} / {Charisma}

MapTool geek-out: Creating flexible monsters FAST

Edit 7/15/2011: I put up a revised version of this post with a better set of damage tables and everything a day after the original went live. I’ve left the original below for posterity.

I run all of my D&D games using MapTool, whether online in the traditional MapTool way or in-person using my projector rig. I don’t use a pre-made campaign framework for my games, since I enjoy learning new things and I enjoy computer programming (as a hobbyist, not a professional). More of my posts about my learnings with MapTool can be found in my MapTool Education Central.

Today I spent a fair part of the afternoon creating flexible monster templates. This came about because I’m working on finishing up the third adventure in my Staff of Suha trilogy (part 1 is here, and part 2 is here), and I want to use custom monsters and to make it as easy as possible to run the adventure at multiple levels (adventure level 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10). I’m already updating older monsters to use the most current monster math, so I thought, why not create flexible templates for each monster role?

My goal was to make it so that I could create a new monster in very little time. All I wanted to have to do was pick a role, pick a level, and then write down any special abilities. All of the math should be baked in based on the level and role. This meant that I needed to change around my monster properties.

I’ll paste the full properties at the end of the post, but what follows is a discussion of the math you’ll see there.

The math

HP modifier is either 6, 8 or 10. Artillery and Lurkers get 6 hit points per level; Skirmishers, Soldiers and Controllers get 8; Brutes get 10. MaxHP follows the formula laid out by Wizards of the Coast post-MM3 (HP modifier times Level+1, plus Constitution).

Defenses are tied to level and role. By default, Armor Class is Level+14 and the non-AC defenses (NADs) are Level+12. Soldiers have AC of Level+16; Brutes and Artillery have AC of Level+12.

The AttackBonus is Level+5. Versus NADs it’s Level+3, but I handle that in the attack macros instead of here in the properties (maybe I should do the latter).

Ability scores default to 10+Half Level each. I tweak these based on monster flavor, of course. I haven’t seen this explicitly spelled out anywhere, but glancing through recent monsters, it appears to be about right.

Initiative is basically a Dexterity check – Dex mod plus half level. Brutes reduce this by 2, Skirmishers increase it by 2 and Soldiers increase it by 4.

The most interesting part comes with damage. The table laid out by Wizards of the Coast is nice in that it scales pretty steadily in terms of average damage (Level+8 on average for a single target attack). It’s a bit tricky, though, in that it uses varying numbers of d6s and d8s at different levels. I wanted an easy-to-program solution to this problem that would give me similar average damage and a similar-shaped damage distribution to the official numbers.

What I ultimately came up with was to always roll two damage dice and add a bonus. The size of the die varies with level. It starts as a d6 and increases by 1 every fourth level. No, that doesn’t mean it goes to a d8 at level 5 – it goes to a d7! I’m leveraging the power of MapTool here; it’s happy to roll a d7 or d17 or whatever you like, just as easily as a d6 or d8.

Thus, every attack rolls a pair of damage dice, ranging from d6s at 1st-4th level to d13s at 29th-20th level.

The static damage bonus goes up every level or every other level, starting at 2 and ending at 23. Thus, a first-level monster deals 2d6+2 damage on a normal attack and a 30th-level monster deals 2d13+23.

The distribution of results is going to be a bit different from the official results, especially at higher levels, but I like it. My damage expressions have a slightly narrower range (at 30th level, WotC’s minimum damage is 24 and maximum 52 while mine ranges from 25 to 49). However, my distributions have more variability within that range (if you roll four dice instead of two, it’s much less likely that you’ll get extreme results). Honestly, I think the shape of my damage distribution curve at higher levels is more fun; higher variance in a slightly narrower range.

Also, due to rounding I have a couple of spots on my table where the damage from one level to the next is actually the same; I’m not overly concerned, honestly.

Multi-target attacks deal a bit less damage; I won’t go into the details.

Recharge and encounter powers (and Brute attacks) also deal extra damage, which I handle in either the token properties for the Brute (altering the static damage) or in the individual attack macros for recharge and encounter powers.

The templates in action

Once I had finished putting these new properties together and creating token templates for each role, I started putting an encounter together.

Wow, was it fast! I knew I wanted a level 7 skirmisher, a level 8 soldier and a level 8 artillery. I copied the appropriate token templates, set the levels, tweaked a few stats (a bit more Reflex and a bit less Fortitude on the artillery; low Intelligence on the beast skirmisher, etc.) and then got to the meat of monster building – abilities.

I was able to focus all of my attention on what would be a cool ability for a monster to have. For instance, my Skirmisher is a beast called a Digger. It can grab an enemy with its Pincers. It can use a special move action to drag the enemy up to half its speed without requiring a check. It has a recharge power that lets it burrow under an enemy, trying to make the enemy fall into the newly created channel.

It literally took about five minutes. I gave no thought to math. I just thought about flavor and abilities.

I built this Digger with an eye on the level 8 version of the adventure, but when it comes time to run it at Adventure Level 2, all I need to do is change the level. One stat; that’s all.

The download

I figure that the best way to share this is in a campaign file that has all of the necessary properties and a set of the tokens. You can download that template file here. Note that this file was created in MapTool version 1.33.b66.

The properties

*#HP:{Hitpoints}/{MaxHP} + {TempHP}
*#AC/Fort/Ref/Will:{ArmorClass} / {Fortitude} / {Reflex} / {Will}
*#Type:Level {Level} {Role}
*#Str/Con/Dex:{Strength} / {Constitution} / {Dexterity}
*#Int/Wis/Cha:{Intelligence} / {Wisdom} / {Charisma}

Free adventure: Tallinn’s Tower (updated)

Edit 9/8/2011: This adventure has been further updated; more about the updates can be found here.

I ran my Tallinn’s Tower adventure at my friendly local game store this past Thursday, and I thought it went pretty well. As I ran it, I made a few notes about things to improve. So, I made those improvements and have published an updated version.

Download the updated adventure here.

The updates I made include:

  • New layout; each encounter now has the description of the encounter followed by the map and the monsters (instead of having all of the maps and monsters at the end).
  • Inclusion of monster stat blocks (built using Power2ool)
  • Tweaked the rune trap to no longer knock PCs prone
  • Changed the rune puzzle no longer require a variable number of runes depending on the party size
  • Allowed the use of Arcana or Thievery to help locate the control panel in the metal maze
  • Clarified that the medusa’s statues are carvings she made from petrified adventurers before later releasing them
  • Clarified that the wizardess can be persuaded to restore PCs who’ve been petrified

As always, I appreciate feedback. I’m quite happy with this adventure so far and will certainly continue to refine it based on my experience and your suggestions.

Original post about the adventure, including downloadable maps.

MapTool file for the adventure.

Free encounters: The Battle of Otharil Vale

I’ve been running my Friday night online campaign through EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign, and we’ve been having a lot of fun. We’re currently in the fourth adventure of the campaign.

For our most recent session, the party was involved in a war – defending a nobleman from his out-of-control king. The published adventure presents the battles as skill challenges but provides some very rough sketches for parties who want to run their part of the battle as tactical combat.

I decided that actually running the combat would be more fun, so I took those vague suggestions and ran with them. The result is the Battle of Otharil Vale PDF. This is a series of three encounters in a war, with two waves of enemies trying to break through the heroes’ line and then the heroes’ being asked to retake a tower that has fallen to the invading army.

Maps and monster stat blocks (created using the awesome Power2ool) are presented inside the PDF. The gridded and gridless maps are below. As with all of my maps lately, these are pre-formatted to a 50-pixel grid size for use in programs like MapTool or Fantasy Grounds.

Download the encounters here.

Snowy battlefield map with grid

Snowy battlefield map - no grid

Snowy tower map - gridded

Snowy tower map - no grid