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

Quick-hit recap

I took a little time off from blogging over the holidays, but my D&D life continued.  Here are some quick-hit thoughts from the past couple of weeks.

  • My brother-in-law and his wife became huge D&D fans during their visit.  He played Sunday through Friday, every day, and she played Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Now we have to figure out a schedule for an online game since they’re in Texas and we’re in Colorado.
  • We rolled up Gamma World characters with the family and had a good time doing so, but didn’t get a chance to actually play the game yet.  Too bad – it seems like goofy fun.
  • I ran two Living Forgotten Realms games at my local game store, one of which was my first try at a MyRealms adventure (one I wrote myself).  It went well and had some exciting combat, and I asked for player feedback afterward.  Since we finished with an hour to spare, they suggested that I include more role playing time at the beginning.  Done!
  • My regular Friday night online game took two weeks off and got back together for gaming last night.  It was good to get the band back together.  They’re deep in a swamp and spent last night fighting witches and skeletons.  I’m a little worried because we had a four-hour session and spent almost all of it on two combats – I need to speed those up.  I’m happy, though, that they reacted quickly and strongly to the new NPC I introduced – I think I’ve done well at role-playing her, and some of them love her and some of them hate her.  Perfect!
  • I’m participating in a forum-based “story playtest” of the next campaign saga from EN World, called ZEITGEIST.  Basically, the writer spells out a given situation, we tell him how our characters would react, and he narrates what happens and what comes next.  This is my first play-by-post experience, and I think it’s totally cool.  I love being able to really get into character with the rest of the group, and I could see myself doing some more play-by-post in the future. Also, the ZEITGEIST story is really cool so far.
  • I’m all signed up for Genghis Con, the February convention here in the Denver area.  I’m running three LFR games (two sessions of my MyRealms and one of another module I’ve run before) and I’ve signed up to play in three RPG sessions, none of which are D&D 4e.  That’s intentional.  My only RPG experience is with this one game, and the Con seems like a perfect time to see what other games are like.  I’ll be trying Savage World, Call of Cthulhu and GURPS.
  • My regular in-person game gets back together this afternoon after the holiday break.  I guess that means I’d better stop blogging and start prepping!

An adventure becomes a campaign

My first ongoing in-person Dungeons and Dragons game as a dungeon master reached a milestone yesterday: It moved from being an adventure to being a campaign.

I’ve read the Dungeon Master’s Guide from both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, and I know that there’s some discussion of what differentiates an adventure from a campaign.  From my reading, it’s always felt to me like it’s a question of duration.  An encounter is something that takes a few minutes of game time and maybe an hour of real-life time.  An adventure is a string of encounters that takes a few hours or days of campaign time and probably one to three gaming sessions in real-life time.  A campaign is a series of adventures that takes any amount of time in-game and many sessions over months or years in real-life time.

I suppose those things are true, but I think there’s a more important distinction about what makes a real campaign: Collaboration between the dungeon master and the players.

In an encounter, I know which enemies are out there and what they’re capable of, and the players react to that.

In an adventure, I know the same things on a larger scale.  Maybe the players are delving a dungeon or chasing after a bad guy through a city or something like that, but the overall script of what could happen is written by me.  Yes, the players can come up with interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of and I can work them in as I see fit.  But I’m the one who establishes what could happen.

When we move to a campaign, things change.  I’ll still be responsible for creating the future adventures and encounters, but what those adventures ARE is something that the players can have a huge hand in establishing.  Would they rather head to the mountains to help a trader or head to the coast to find a wizard?  Would they rather do something else entirely that I hadn’t considered as a possibility?

My first adventure ends; my first real campaign begins

Yesterday, my friends finished the first D&D adventure I had ever written.  The main structure is something I wrote eight years ago when my wife and I tried D&D 3rd Edition, but that game never got off the ground and I never had the chance to use the adventure.  The overall plot was pretty straightforward – the party is out to recover a mysterious family heirloom from a stronghold full of orcs.  I used the stronghold design that I had drawn years ago and updated the monsters to match 4th Edition.

Things took an unexpected turn when the adventurers tossed some dead orc bodies into an underground river, which flowed by another room populated with live orcs.  This triggered another battle, and the players decided to hole up in a fortified location in the stronghold to take a rest and defend themselves.  Some bad guys took the heirloom out of the stronghold while the party was attacked by a smaller force, which led to a later chase through the woods and a last stand with the boss orc and a few lackeys.  It was a satisfying conclusion.

So now what?  Well, the party was able to establish that the heirloom has some magical properties that are being suppressed by a powerful enchantment.  They could go find a mighty wizard to help them investigate further, or they could honor an earlier promise they had made to a riverboat merchant who had given them free passage if they would agree to serve as an armed escort on a future trip.  They decided to help the merchant.  And thus the campaign is born!

What makes this into a campaign for me is that the players have decided where to take the story.  I held off on designing actual encounters for the next couple of possibilities, as I didn’t know which way the players would go.  They’ve made their choice, so I now know what to build.

Furthermore, the players also took the story in a direction I hadn’t thought about at all – they decided to claim the former orc stronghold as their “castle”!  Now, it’s out in the middle of nowhere in hostile lands, but they managed to convince the owner of the heirloom to send a small garrison of able-bodied villagers out to the stronghold to keep monsters from moving in while the party went a-questing.

There are so many juicy possibilities with this side story that I can’t wait to use them!  The party CARES about this stronghold now.  They have conquered it, and it is THEIRS.  Any time you can get the players to actually care about something in the game world, you create the opportunity for future plots.  Also, since they’re going in a completely different direction for their next adventure, things can be happening at their “castle” while they’re away.  So many possibilities!

I feel great as a DM that I’ve managed to create world elements that my players care about and that they’re interested in making decisions about where the story goes.  It’s a really good feeling.

Putting some role-playing in my dungeon mastering

I’ve been running D&D 4th Edition games for about four months now, and I feel like I’m to the point that I can run combat pretty well.  I generally know what the bad guys can do in combat, and I know how they want to approach the player characters.  I’m getting better at using interesting terrain, putting some movement into the battles and so on.

Where I’m not so great yet is role playing.  Role playing as a dungeon master is a very different experience from role playing as a player.  When you’re a player, you have a single character whom you know inside and out, whom you’ve built up from nothing, who has a personality and desires and fears that are intimately familiar to you.

When you’re a dungeon master, you’re playing a host of different characters every session.  Sure, you might have some recurring NPCs or some characters that accompany the party for many sessions, but that’s not always going to be the case – and besides, you don’t want an NPC to take too much of the spotlight anyway.  Most of the time, you’re playing monsters.

A great dungeon master can make these throw-away characters come to life – not to the degree that a great player character will come to life, but enough to make the bad guy memorable before it falls beneath the attacks of your party.  Below are some thoughts on how to become a better role-player as a DM (which I’m still trying to put into practice myself!).

Think like the character

This goes for any role-playing, but it’s easy to forget about it when it comes to a monster.  An intelligent NPC should certainly be thinking, and you should get into their heads, but that’s obvious.  What about a beast or an undead creature or an aberration?  Do they act on instinct alone?  Are they following commands from another creature?  Do they act randomly?

Once you know how the character acts and why, show it!  You can say, “The rat whips its head around, looking for the nearest piece of flesh.  It sees the meaty-looking cleric and charges in with fangs bared!”  Or, “The zombie hears the necromancer command it to attack the paladin, and it mindlessly obeys, shambling over with its arms raised in preparation for a smashing blow.”  “The aberration swerves erratically, paying no heed to the avenger standing next to it as it randomly heads toward the wizard.  Avenger, you can take an attack of opportunity…”

Talk like the character

No, you don’t have to channel your inner thespian too much here.  Some bad guys bellow.  Others sneer.  You might find some that hiss.  And of course lots of them don’t speak at all, but that doesn’t mean they’re silent.  Have your NPCs taunt the party, bellow in rage when hit, whimper pathetically when nearly destroyed.

On a related note, have the monsters talk to one another when appropriate.  A leader may yell commands to his troops (and here’s a possible area where you can reward the player who took language training in Goblin or Giant – they may be the only one who can understand the command).  A great suggestion that I received recently was to have one creature complain about the skill of another, especially when the other is a minion. “You useless pile of bones!  You’re not worth the necromantic energy the Dark Lord spent to animate you!”  Evil creatures don’t always get along with one another – play this up!

Act like the character

Might your NPCs and monsters have any interesting mannerisms?  Run with them!  Lots of dungeon master books talk about behavioral quirks that NPCs might have, but this can apply to monsters, too.  A bad guy might do a little dance of joy when he hits a player.  The monster might cower after being hit.  I played in a game with one DM who essentially described a poor little kobold as having pooped himself upon seeing a PC obliterate some other kobolds.  Yeah, it’s a poop joke, but it worked!


Just because you’re the DM doesn’t mean you don’t get to role-play.  You have a huge influence on how much your players will role-play and how immersed they get in the game world.  The more you can think, talk and act as your characters would (even when they’re just monsters), the more your players will buy into the game and the more fun everyone will have.

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!

Online campaign – What a rush!

It’s amazing that I have the energy to write tonight, given that I just spent four and a half hours running a D&D adventure online for EIGHT PLAYERS, but it was such a rush.  I can’t believe how well it all went!  Seven of the players were already logged in before the scheduled start time, and the eighth ran about 10-15 minutes late (no big deal).

Starting Screen

We started off with everyone being able to see their tokens on a small map (with an image of the map of Waterdeep on the page), and I explained how MapTool worked.  As a player, the only things they really needed to know were how to move their token (click and drag), how to move around the map (right click and drag; zoom with the mouse wheel) and how to deal with their macros (just click them).  That went pretty easily.

We also spent a little time talking about the future of the group.  We’re going to split in two – one with me as the DM playing at level 1 and one with another person from the group as the DM, playing at some higher level in order to get to paragon tier faster.  But since I had put everything together for this evening with the plan of having eight players, we would still play the adventure together.  (It was the Living Forgotten Realm module that I’ll be running in my local store next Saturday – WATE1-1 Heirloom.)

I should also point out that, in addition to having MapTool open with everyone impersonating their characters in order to talk in-character (way cool), we also had Skype open for voice chat.  Let me give a huge shout-out to Skype – this software is awesome.  We had excellent call quality with eight active lines (two of the players were together at one computer), no lag – it was just fantastic.

Anyway, I used audio to communicate with my players most of the time, and they used a mixture of audio and text.  The adventure started off with a lengthy skill challenge to track down a thief who had stolen a family heirloom (hence the title of the module, “Heirloom”).  Mixed in the middle was a quickie combat encounter with some drunken sailors, which ended in one action – the party’s invoker walking up and unleashing an encounter power that just about wiped them out (whereupon the sailors that were still up surrendered and staggered away).

At the end of the skill challenge, the party confronted the thief and his cronies in their underground lair.  This battle was much more interesting, with some good movement, creative use of marks, and SO many conditions to keep track of!  It’s easier in MapTool than in real life – I can’t imagine running this encounter with eight PCs around a real table.

We took a five-minute break before diving into the final encounter, where the party faced the person who had hired the thief to steal the heirloom.  The party did a good job of achieving surprise, and it became clear that I could either have the bad guys fight smart – keeping their guard drakes in front of the door to the room and making it hard for the party to do anything – or have them fight fun – letting the drakes shift back into the room so the melee fighters had something interesting to do.  I went with fun, and I’m glad I did.

The best part of the evening was the very end of this encounter.  I had some bad guys, who were hidden at the time, go out the window of the room they were in, trying to escape.  Hilarity ensued as the party tried to go after them.  Lots of falling out windows, landing on people who had already fallen (dealing improvised damage – why not?), and so on.

Looking back, it was clear that the encounters were not all that challenging for the party, since no one ever ended up making death saving throws.  But you know what?  For a party of eight, that’s okay.  The encounters were long enough already, and making them tougher would have made them take longer.

The most important thing was that everyone legitimately seemed to have a great time.  A couple of people who were planning to go play in the high-level game reached out to me to say that they were having so much fun that they were considering staying low-level.  That’s really gratifying to hear – “I’m having so much fun that I want to keep playing in your game.”  Is there a better feeling as a DM?  Not to mention the fact that one of the players is an Englishman playing in his first-ever tabletop RPG, and he played with us from 1:00 AM to 5:30 AM his time.  How’s that for dedication!

It will be a little sad to break up the group, but I honestly don’t have the energy for an eight-PC campaign.  I can handle four or five, but beyond that I think it’s just a little too much.  Still, just to run a game this big one time was worthwhile.  It was, quite frankly, an unqualified success, and I can’t imagine it having gone any better.  This is what I live for as an online dungeon master!

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?

Free RPG Day 2010

Since yesterday was Free RPG Day, I decided to head down to my friendly local game store to participate in the festivities.  Specifically, I knew from their Facebook feed and their podcast (yes, I listen to my local store’s podcast!) that they were running a free Dark Sun adventure.  Since I’m never able to play in D&D Encounters thanks to my Wednesday night bowling league, I thought this would be a good chance for me to experience Dark Sun.

I went to the store a little before the 9:00 AM start time for the game, and had no trouble getting a seat at the table.  We soon had the full six players, and a seventh showed up about 10 minutes after the hour, which the DM accommodated by handing her one of the player cards from Encounters.  She played a second healer, which turned out to be much needed!

My character was a goliath fighter, a former gladiator in the city of Tyr who was fleeing the chaos in the city along with his adopted cousin and a friend, both clandestine arcane spellcasters (apparently arcane magic is taboo in much of the Dark Sun setting).  We joined up with the other PCs, who were on a quest to get water for their people living in the mountains.  We all signed on with a elven caravan going from Tyr to Alderak, hired to protect the elves and their cargo.

The first part of the adventure was a loose skill challenge or two about surviving the desert and badlands, which we had no trouble with.  We were then set upon by raiders in a canyon for our first battle.  I enjoyed role-playing my fighter throughout – he had 10 Intelligence and 8 Wisdom, so he wasn’t too bright and he was quite gullible, very willing to go along with whatever his allies wanted to do.  He liked to smash bad guys with his sword and defend his buddies when they were in trouble.  It’s all mechanics, but you can totally role-play these things, which I loved doing.

The battle with the raiders was most interesting for me because of the guy sitting next to me, who had never played an RPG before but who had apparently read up on things a little bit before coming into the store.  His character was a wizard, and he found himself surrounded by minions before he could act, so he was thrown right into the fire of having to learn about opportunity attacks.  Every single power that his character had was either ranged or area, which means that if he cast them while standing next to a bad guy, the baddie would get an opportunity attack on him.  I believe he took Second Wind in the first round, then was able to shift away and start blasting in the second round after the rest of the group had pushed some of the minions away from him.  It was fun to see him learning what he could do, including trying to climb a cliff to get out of harm’s way (with 8 Strength, that didn’t go as well as he would have liked).

I did get a DM lesson out of this battle.  The DM generally did a great job all day, with lots of role-playing of the bad guys and description of the effects of attacks and so on.  However, he made one decision that I would have changed.  The minions in this particular battle only took one hit to kill, as with typical minions, but they would then keep fighting until the end of their next turns, at which point they would drop.  I have no problem with the mechanic, and the adventure writers tried to give some flavor for it.  Where I would have done things differently, though, is on critical hits.  Crits on these minions were treated just like any one-damage attack, and the minion still got its next round of actions before dying.  I think it would have made the players feel more awesome if a critical hit would kill one of those minions outright, rather than letting it fight on for another turn.  It’s a minor point, but it’s the type of thing that I would change on the fly to make the game more fun for the players.

After the canyon battle, the party arrived at Alderak and hung out in an elven marketplace while the guy who hired us went into a tent.  My guy, being rather dumb and oblivious, had no clue that anything was fishy, but some of the other PCs didn’t trust the elf who hired us and tried to follow him.  The DM basically said no – which was okay in this case, because the PCs in question happened to roll low on their Insight checks.

Sure enough, the party was soon ambushed by something like eight elven archers and four insects, all of whom acted in a surprise round while only one of our characters acted.  Then the bad guys went first in the first round of combat.  Before I had a chance to act (despite getting a 19 on initiative in this battle, after the 3 I rolled in the last one) I was on the ground making death saves, soon joined by another ally.  Our healer brought me back on her turn, at which point I was immediately dropped again.  The elf leader came back out of the tent, and he was soon killed by two of the other PCs, at which point the town guards showed up and sorted everything out.

This particular battle didn’t feel like it was very well designed.  Being able to take down two PCs (one of them twice) before they even have a chance to act seems far too harsh.  And then having the battle immediately end halfway through that round when the surviving PCs dropped the leader seemed anticlimactic.  I guess this was how this battle was intended to go, but two or three of our PCs didn’t even get to their spot in the initiative order before the battle ended.  It didn’t seem like much fun.

Anyway, the authorities established that we were in the right here, and so they arranged for our party to be paid what it was owed.  In addition, they let us face the elves in the arena games that were going on.  Here is where things got pretty cool.  Instead of a simple arena combat (which is what I think the written adventure called for), our DM modified things to make it an interesting game.  The two sides (the party and the wicked elves) started on opposite sides of the arena (east and west).  In the middle was a pile of seven huge ceramic coins – big enough that they required two hands to carry, but no check to pick them up or move them.  At the north end was a closed chest for our team, and at the south end was a closed chest for the elves.  The goal of the game was to have more coins in your chest than your opponents have in theirs when the battle ends at some unknown time in the future.

The real twist was that we were not allowed to deal any damage directly to one another – doing so would result in forfeit for the team that dealt the damage.  However, the arena was littered with lots of razor vine, which would deal 5 damage to any creature that began its turn in the vines.  Most of the elves were minions, so if we could push or pull them into the brambles, that would be fine within the rules and would kill them off.

The elves acted first and managed to get three coins into their chest right off the bat.  We had an ace in the hole, though – our wizard had Sleep prepared, which was awesome.  Our team grabbed some coins, shoved some minions into vines, etc.  The tide was about even, when suddenly three monster hounds of some sort were released into the arena and started attacking everyone.  Fortunately, we were allowed to fight back, but this would distract from the coin game.  Still, our team took the upper hand after taking a coin from the elves’ chest, putting it in ours (giving us four of the seven coins), closing the lid to out chest and then having a PC stand on top of the chest.

My fighter and our barbarian were keeping the hounds occupied, and the hounds had just dropped (but not totally killed) the barbarian when the elf leader saw the handwriting on the wall.  The evil elf knew that the game was lost, and since the DM said, “This is Dark Sun after all,” the elf decided to coup de grace our unconscious barbarian.  The authorities immediately declared our team the winners and said that we were free to fight to the death now (it’s worth noting that this was a one-shot game, and this was the final encounter).

I followed with what I thought was a winning move.  Surrounded by the two remaining hounds, both of which were bloodied, I Cleaved.  I critted on the attack roll, so I killed off one hound and dealt 5 damage to the other.  That wasn’t enough to kill the second hound, but since it was standing next to the elf leader and the hounds had a history of going after the closest person, I shifted away, figuring that the hound would kill the elf.  He almost did, but the DM decided that would be anticlimactic, so he had the hound come after me instead, which dropped me.  Then the elf coup de graced me as well.  Finally, our wizard killed the last hound and the elf with one spell.

Even though my character was killed off, I didn’t really mind.  It was the last battle, and I understood that it was appropriate for the Dark Sun setting.  I had a good time at the game and I think I picked up a couple of lessons.  I don’t think the Dark Sun setting is my particular cup of tea, but I know that lots of gamers out there love it, so good for them!

I do want to mention one final note about Free RPG Day.  The store was offering 20% off all RPG products, which I hadn’t realized until the afternoon when I was listening to the store’s podcast as I mowed the lawn.  They mentioned that the store was open from 7:00 AM until midnight on Free RPG Day, so I figured I’d stop on by in the evening to pick up Divine Power and Monster Manual 3, two books I’ve had my eye on.  I went to the store a little after 9:00 PM and saw that they didn’t have MM3 on the shelf, but they did have Divine Power.  I went to the register to buy my books, asking about MM3 and hoping to get a rain check (no luck).  When the cashier rang up Divine Power, it came up to full price plus tax.  I asked about the 20% discount for Free RPG Day that they had advertised, and she told me, “That ended at seven o’clock.”

Um, what?  The store’s web site and podcast clearly talked about Free RPG Day lasting until midnight.  I put the book back and left.  I’ve emailed the store owner, whom I know very well from having purchased lots of D&D and Magic stuff in the past, and I’m expecting that he’ll honor the discount.  Assuming he does (and I’ll post the resolution here, of course), I’ll trumpet this as the clear reason that you should support your friendly local game store – they’re not a faceless corporation, and they’ll make things right when problems come up.  If for some reason he fails to correct this, though, my faith in local stores will be shaken.  I really want to support them, but this is the sort of thing that will send me to Amazon with a clean conscience.  Here’s hoping the FLGS comes through!

Edit: I’m happy to say that the owner of the store got back to me promptly and said that this was indeed just a miscommunication with the employee, and that the discounts were supposed to be in place all day.  Even better, they DO have MM3 in stock and have set both it and Divine Power aside for me to come and get at 20% off.  The friendly local game store comes through with flying colors!

Living Forgotten Realms – Second attempt

Barbara and I were planning on dropping by our friendly local game store tonight to play some Living Forgotten Realms (LFR).  Since I wasn’t that crazy about the Paladin that I played at LFR a week ago, and since Barbara and I have already rolled up the characters that we’re going to be using in the new campaign we’re starting soon with Kyle, Nate and Bree, we planned to try out those new characters at LFR.  Unfortunately, Barbara wasn’t feeling well, so I went on my own and decided to stick with Rhogar, my half-elf paladin from last week.

Similarly to last week, I didn’t officially have a seat reserved at the table, but I was at least on the waiting list.  One of the other players hadn’t shown up by the start time and the DM said he was fine to play with seven players instead of six in case the other player did show up – which he did, about 10 minutes late.  So, we had seven players.  The DM, Doug, said that this module didn’t take long to run, so having the extra player wouldn’t slow us down significantly.

Last week’s session started with a combat encounter, then a lot of roleplaying, then a combat encounter.  This time was all roleplaying for a long stretch, then a random little combat encounter that took no time, then more roleplaying, then basically two back to back combat encounters to finish things off.  The party was hired to recover a sextant that had been stolen from the house of a noble family, along with some other conventionally valuable items.  The sextant was a family heirloom, which they believed would lead to their ruin if it were not returned.  Thus, we went off on a long series of roleplaying encounters to try to track down the thieves.

We went to taverns in sketchy parts of town, making lots of Streetwise, Diplomacy, Bluff and Intimidate checks.  Since my character is a heavily-armored good Paladin, he was a little out of place.  Thus, I hung back and didn’t say much.  The random battle with some drunk dockworkers was a bit of a waste of time, as it had nothing to do with the main plot.  We ended up having a battle with the were-rat thief who stole the goods, along with his bandit associates.  This battle was in the basement of a boot shop, and it led to some interesting movement and use of powers.  The thief told us how to find the gnome merchant to whom he had sold the sextant.

We went to the inn where this gnome was staying, hurrying there before he left town.  Here is where things got a little tense around the table.  Three of the seven players had played this module before, so when it came time to make decisions about what to do, they tried to stay out of it and let the other four of us decide.  I thought that sending four people upstairs and three people around to the alley below the gnome’s window was the way to go – that way, we could keep him from getting away.  This was voted down in favor of having six of us wait downstairs in the inn while one person (our pacifist dwarven Cleric) went to the alley to try to disable the gnome’s wagon.  Well, the gnome’s allies spotted the dwarf at work and fired at him from the window, thus starting combat with all of us downstairs and unable to do anything for the first turn except start to move upstairs while the gnome and his buddies took target practice on our Cleric.  It worked out okay in the end, and the battle of the inn room was an exciting one, but I think that my lesson is that I need to be more assertive around the table, even though I’m still a new player.

Doug wasn’t as engaging a DM as Aarrun from last week was, but he still ran a good game.  The lessons I’d take from playing with Doug are:

  • Feel free to make minor modifications to increase the fun of a battle (such as changing the pointless dockworkers from one-hit minions to two-hit minions)
  • Try hard to make sure all of the players have a chance to be heard (I didn’t feel heard tonight, and I don’t want my players to feel that way)
  • If the battle is well in hand, feel free to call it and wrap it up, even if there are still some baddies to mop up.

Barbara and I are going to be traveling for the next week, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to blog for a while. That’s a shame, because I’ve learned some really cool MapTool tips that I’m anxious to share, but I haven’t had the prep time to do so yet.  Soon, though!

Living Forgotten Realms – my first time

While I mainly use this blog to talk about my efforts at serving as a Dungeon Master for my own online games of D&D, I do like to play D&D, too.  At the moment I am between campaigns in real life.  I don’t mean that I have no prospects for my next campaign – the next one will start in a couple of weeks with my same play group, just with a different person taking a turn as DM (as I discussed in my post about the death of my wizard character, Zod).  The online game that I DM is also on hiatus as two of the three players are currently on vacation.  This has given me lots of time to learn about MapTool, for instance, which is great – but I miss playing D&D.

Fortunately for me, I live within walking distance of a fantastic local game store called Enchanted Grounds.  This is a game store / coffeehouse.  I mainly go for the games – formerly a lot of Magic: The Gathering and German-style board games like Pandemic and Settlers of Catan, and more recently of course for Dungeons and Dragons books and dice.  In addition to selling D&D stuff, Enchanted Grounds also runs organized D&D events.  They’ve been running D&D Encounters on Wednesday nights, which I’d love to check out but which unfortunately conflicts with the bowling league that Barbara and I are in (yes, we both play D&D and bowl).  They also have Living Forgotten Realms, or LFR, which I only vaguely understood.  I knew it was a D&D Fourth Edition game, but it’s set in a campaign world that I know nothing about.  Also, I wasn’t sure about the rules for creating a character, getting into a game, etc.  When I finished work Thursday evening, I had a hankering to play some D&D, so I printed out the character sheet for one of the three potential characters I had rolled up for the campaign that we’ll be starting with our friends in a couple of weeks (a character that I was pretty sure I was not going to play in that campaign) and headed off to the store.

I had checked the store’s web site and their LFR Yahoo Group before leaving, and I knew that players had to basically reserve their spots in the game in advance.  There were going to be two tables of players – one in an adventure for level 4-7 characters and one for level 1-4 characters.  I introduced myself to Rich, the man who coordinates the LFR games at Enchanted Grounds, and said that I had never played LFR before and would be watching and learning this evening.  However, when game time rolled around, one of the six seats at the low-level game table was empty because one of the scheduled players hadn’t shown up.  Lucky me – I would get to play!

I introduced myself and my character (Rohgar, the half-elf Paladin) to the group, and we were on our way.  The group had five first-level characters and one second-level.  We were a technically balanced party, though a little heavy on healing.  My Paladin was the only defender, and he was a healing-focused guy.  We also had two Clerics, one of which was a mega-healing pacifist.  We had a controller – a Psion, which I hadn’t seen in action before – and two strikers (a Ranger and an Avenger).

The adventure began with the local king charging our group with the task of investigating some evil activities in the area around the city, and we soon encountered an old man with a broken cart by the side of the road.  As we approached to help him, some shadow creatures came out of the trees and attacked us.  We beat them up without much trouble, fixed the man’s cart, then headed off in pursuit of a black-clad knight we had seen on a nearby ridge during the battle.

From here, the night turned into a long stretch of role playing, which was kind of fun (though mixing in a combat encounter along the way might have been more fun).  We were on horses and had to follow the knight’s trail down a steep slope, which was problematic for me as I was terrible at Athletics.  Most of us ended up breaking our horses’ legs in the descent (so sorry, Starshine!) and had to continue on foot.  We found the knight, who had a skull for a face, in a glade of white-painted trees, which a Religion check revealed were designed to ward off evil spirits.  We talked to the knight instead of attacking, and it turned out that he was a guy from town who had been falsely accused of treason, cursed by his father, and banished from the city.  The skull face was just a mask he used to hide his identity from the townsfolk who hated him (smart choice, going with a skull face).  We wanted to help him clear his name, so we took him back to town with us.

We arrived to find a big, torch-wielding mob freaking out about the evil activities and the approaching (unscheduled) lunar eclipse.  Our knight friend skedaddled.  We dispersed the crowd, repaired a holy obelisk, talked to the knight’s father (who definitely seemed fishy to us), tracked town the town official who had banished the knight (he was incompetent), tracked down some reports about the evil activities that the town official had hidden (they would help to clear the knight’s name) and finally ended up at a temple to an evil goddess.  The cult leader, naturally, was the knight’s father.  We dispersed the cultists and engaged the leader, who was about to sacrifice his baby son on the altar.  Our strikers teamed up on the cult leader while the rest of us handled the shadow creatures that were trying to get into the temple.  Again, it was a fairly easy combat.  We saved the baby, got a new hearing for the knight (I’m sure he’ll win) and were awarded the king’s favor.

My verdict on Living Forgotten Realms as a player is that it’s definitely a way to get that D&D fix when I can’t get it any other way.  I believe this store runs games three times a week, so there are plenty of opportunities to play if I so desire.  I was surprised at the low level of challenge in the battles, but the role playing was quite fun.  Our pacifist Cleric basically stood up and gave a fire-and-brimstone speech to the mob in the city, which had the odd effect of convincing the townsfolk to try to incinerate their lamps, but it was way cool.  My Paladin was supposed to be quite diplomatic, but I sort of stunk when it came to actually talking rather than rolling dice.  I’ll work on it, though.  I definitely prefer the home games with friends, but LFR is something I could see myself playing from time to time.

The magic item system for LFR is a little confusing.  During the adventure we came across a few different magic items, and we had to divvy them up for use during the adventure.  However, at the END of the adventure we could each take one magic item, and multiple players could pick the same thing.  To make matters more complicated, you can only USE a magic item up to four levels higher than your character (so, as a first-level character I could use up to a fifth-level magic item), but you can HAVE any level magic item.  Also, if it’s an enchanted weapon of a particular type, you can transfer the enchantment to any weapon you want.  In my Paladin’s case, I took a seventh-level magical dagger and transferred its enchantment to my longsword, but I can’t actually use that enchantment until I move up to level three.  Confusing, I know.

I could see myself playing LFR again in the future – hopefully with Barbara joining me – but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to play my Paladin again.  He did exactly what he was supposed to do – bring the enemies to himself, absorb damage, dish out healing, punish the enemies he calls out when they attack his allies – but it just wasn’t that much fun.  I really didn’t move around at all in either battle – I stood there and traded blows with bad guys.  It worked for the party, but it was kind of dull.  I know I’m going to play an Avenger in my main campaign with my friends, so I might try LFR again with a Warlord that I’ve rolled up.  We shall see.

How about DM lessons?  Aarrun, the DM for the game Thursday night, was a great DM in my opinion, and I feel like I could learn a lot from him.

  • He knew the rules forward and backward.  For instance, he knew what my Paladin’s powers could do much better than I did.
  • He kept the game moving, letting the table know whose turn it was and who would be up next.
  • He got into the role playing in a good way.  He had a favorite NPC – a batty old lady who ran a book and bird shop – who really came alive with Aarrun’s acting.
  • He let the players try whatever they wanted, even if it was stupid.  Hilarity often ensued.

I have a long way to go before I can be a DM on par with Aarrun, but I feel like I can get there one day.