Lords of Waterdeep, and a break to build MapTool macros

I don’t usually go multiple weeks without a post here on Online Dungeon Master, so I thought I’d give my loyal fans an update.

I’ve been traveling for work a lot in the past  couple of weeks, which certainly interferes with blogging time. However, I HAVE been using the time for D&D stuff – specifically MapTool work. You may recall that I had built and shared some macros for quickly creating monster powers a few weeks ago. Well, I’ve been working on the same thing for PC powers in D&D 4e. It’s been tremendously time consuming to build the macros, but actually using them has been fast! (Aside from bug killing, that is.)

Three of the players in my long-running Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign created new characters for last week’s game (one new player, two existing players switching to new characters), so I had the chance to put my new PC power creation macros through their paces. I’m pleased to say that they worked like a charm! No problems at all so far, and the ability to recharge a power with a button click has been awesome.

The next step is to add a character sheet frame, similar to what I’ve done for Marvel Heroic RPG. I’d love for my D&D players to be able to scroll through their powers in a custom frame rather than the buttons in the Selection window. I could include the rules text of the powers in a small font, links to recharge powers individually, some nice-looking tables for organization purposes, and so on. But for now I still have a little tweaking to do on the PC power creation, though I hope to start sharing pieces of it soon. It’s a complicated family of macros, and I have not yet figured out how to break it into blog-post-sized chunks.

I haven’t run Madness at Gardmore Abbey in the past few weeks, which is a bit of a bummer. I finally have that whole campaign prepped in MapTool, so I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice! But the timing hasn’t worked out with my players.

I was going to try to revive my ZEITGEIST campaign for today’s gaming session, but two players had to bow out at the last moment. The day wasn’t a total loss, though, since the rest of us used the time to play three games of Lords of Waterdeep!

I’ve played a total of five games of Lords of Waterdeep now, and I absolutely love it even though I haven’t won yet. LoW feels like a streamlined fantasy setting of Agricola, another game that I absolutely love. We haven’t discovered a “dominant strategy” yet, which is a good thing. I love the design of the box itself – there’s a great insert to organize all of the pieces. The rulebook is excellent, too – very clear, with a handy summary of the rules on the back cover. It’s tons of fun, and everyone who has played it so far has loved it. I highly recommend Lords of Waterdeep.

I’m going to be out of town on vacation starting next weekend, so I hope to get another post or two up before I go. But if not, don’t expect to see anything from me until late April.

-Michael the OnlineDM

Dragons and tentacles and flying sleds – oh my!

I don’t write about my long-running Friday night War of the Burning Sky online game nearly enough. It’s time to correct that.

Spoilers ahead for EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign – specifically, the end of Adventure Six.

This past Friday night, I gathered via MapTool and Skype with my group for our regular D&D game. The party was at 18th level, and they found themselves high up  in a castle with a raging firestorm above it (which they had held back with a magic item). The top level of this castle contained a rift to a fiery plane. They were here in search of a powerful magical torch.

“Katy, bar the door!”

During the last session, the party had fought a legion of fiery undead soldiers and explored the rest of the top level of this castle, which was reachable only via a hydraulic lift. As this session began, they had finished most of their exploration, when they heard the lift start to rise. The wizard/swordmage decided to cast Arcane Lock on the elevator door. It takes 10 minutes to cast. Uh oh!

So, I began by asking everyone what they were doing while the wizard/swordmage was casting her ritual. Some were standing guard near her, while others were loading treasure and people into this magical flying sled they had discovered. At this point, a little halfling NPC who had seemed rather dumb for the whole adventure popped into the room through a wall and started animating a dragon skeleton. And wouldn’t you know it, the whole “dumb little halfling” look was an illusion; the creature revealed itself to be a tentacled monster called Deception (a trillith).

Let’s roll initiative!

The fight began with most of the party in or near the cart in the room with the Dark Pyre, while a couple of them were through the banquet hall and down the hallway leading to the elevator doors. The animated dragon and the tentacle monster rather neatly cut the party in half.

Now, keep in mind that most of the party was entirely out of healing surges at this point, with no significant daily powers left. Their goal was escdape: Use the magical flying sled to burst through a window-wall in the Dark Pyre room and fly to safety, all before whatever ba guys were in the elevator made it to the top.

Our brave dwarf fighter threw himself at the dragon to try to keep it at bay to give the cut-off characters a chance to get to the sled. Unfortunately, the tentacle monster phased through some walls and started dominating the swordmage.

I used the house-ruled version of Dominated in this game that I’ve been playing with for a few weeks (with great results in my opinion:

OnlineDM’s Domination

  • When a character becomes dominated (save ends), it immediately takes an at-will action of the dominator’s choice (including a charge, a move, dropping to the ground – or of course an at-will attack power).
  • The character is dazed. On its turn, it gets to take one action of its own choice, just as with a normal daze.
  • Whenever the character fails its end-of-turn saving throw against the domination, it immediate takes an at-will action of the dominator’s choice.
  • If the domination is not “save ends”, then the dominated character immediately takes the at-will action and then is just dazed until the domination wears off.
This way, the dominated character still gets to do some good stuff on their own turn, but they’re also potentially wrecking their allies at the same time (which, you know, is fun). It worked out really well, in my opinion.

“I teleport out the window!”

Anyway, after some near-blinding of the bad guys, the party made its way to the cart, with the dragon and Deception hot on their heels. The dragon’s breath weapon then tried to dominate a whole bunch of folks, including our genasi pyromancer. As a free action, he used a power that would remove him from play and let him reappear within 10 squares at the beginning of his turn – still dominated. He reappeared OUTSIDE the big window that the sled was going to smash through; this left him 100 feet off the ground, above an invading, hostile army.

He used his one action (since he was dazed, thanks to my domination) to swap in Feather Fall, which saved him from death, but put him on the giant bear skull sculpture above the castle entrance. Some of the army members were eladrin, who teleported up onto the skull with him. The pyromancer quickly surrendered, realizing he was in a bad spot.

Meanwhile, back up in the castle, the party expended tremendous effort to get the warlock’s hell hound pet out of the clutches of the tentacled Deception and into the sled. The swordmage/wizard Thunderwaved the monsters away and the dwarf rushed out of the cart, hauled the hound onto his shoulders (burning himself in the process) and rushed back in.

Our warlock hit the gas on the magical flying sled and smashed through the window-wall. Whee!

Someone asked, “Hey, does smashing through the wall cause rubble to fall down on the eladrin who’ve captured our pyromancer?”

Excellent idea! The rubble hit the pyromancer as well, and the sled spiraled down to a stop next to the captive. Some fast talking by the swordmage convinced the eladrin to hand over the badly-wounded genasi.

“Not without my wyvern!”

Only one problem remained: The party had left the dwarf’s wyvern mount tied up outside the castle when they came in, and poor Wendy was now trapped in a cage by the army. I decided this army was cruel, so I had a half-orc deal a killing blow to the wyvern, right in plain sight.

The PCs asked if they could fly the sled so that it would smash into the half-orc – oh heck yes! The evil soldier went flying off the edge of the cliff on which the castle was situated, plummeting to his death 1,000 feet below.


With the dragon in pursuit, it seemed clear that it was time to take off and fly away… but our fighter couldn’t just leave his poor mount’s corpse to the evil invaders, so he grabbed onto the cage.

“Where did that thing come from?”

No problem! But now the sled was flying at half speed, and the dragon was gaining on them. To make matters worse, it turned out that the tentacle monster had used a power when the sled was back in the castle that let him invisibly teleport into their midst on the sled, leaving an illusory duplicate of himself behind. And now that the sled was flying away with a huge cage full of wyvern body dangling behind it, a bunch of tentacles came out of nowhere and started grabbing the party.

Our swordmage decided to turn once again to Thunderwave, shoving the tentacled beast out of the sled – but oh crap, that thing can fly!

There was only one thing to do, with the tentacled Deception bearing down and the dragon coming on from a distance: Our fighter tossed the wyvern cage at Deception, sending the thing plummeting to its doom.

No longer weighed down by the cage, the sled was able to fly away (with our warlock keeping her pet outside of the sled itself so that it didn’t burn the whole party to death), seeking safety, an extended rest, and a level up to 19.

Whew! Have I mentioned that my players are awesome? Thanks everyone!

-Michael the OnlineDM

Opening for a gamer: Friday night MapTool game

Spread the word all: You could be the lucky person chosen to join an actual OnlineDM-run campaign in MapTool! Calooh! Callay!

All right, so maybe this isn’t the most exciting news ever, but I do have an opening in my long-running Friday night game. It’s a D&D Fourth Edition game in EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign saga. The characters are 17th-18th level, so we’re at upper paragon, in spitting distance of epic tier.

The game runs on Friday nights, starting at 6:00 PM US Mountain Time (8:00 PM Eastern, etc.). We usually game for about four hours, and the game runs most weeks (typically three weeks a month or so).

Obviously, if you’re very new to D&D 4th Edition, this probably isn’t a great fit since the party is at high level. But if you or someone you know is interested in joining the game, drop me a line at onlinedungeonmaster@gmail.com. Start the new year in a new campaign!

FYI, the party is pretty well-balanced, so almost any class of character would be welcome. We have a dwarf fighter, a tiefling warlock, a genasi wizard (damage focused), a pixie bard and a human hybrid wizard/swordmage (more wizardy with a control focus).

Death of a PC after a year and a half

I’m not a killer DM, but I’ve offed a few PCs in my time. Off the top of my head, I can remember the following deaths:

  • In the first Living Forgotten Realms game I ran, a low-level striker rushed into a room full of bad guys and got chomped on by two Guard Drakes, taking him below his negative bloodied value.
  • In the first game I ever ran for my wife’s brother and his wife, my brother-in-law’s character died in the first combat. He got better.
  • One party in an LFR game let the bulk of the party become separated from their healer, resulting in a dead seeker
  • I destroyed a PC in memorable fashion when the foolish thief rode a beholder into a river of lava after hanging on a little too long for the ride.
  • I’m pretty sure I killed off another PC played by the same player whose PC I killed off with the guard drakes in the first example, but I don’t remember when that was.

Now, in my longest-running campaign, my Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign via MapTool and Skype, I had never killed a PC through 15 levels of play. They had some very close calls, but the numbers always seemed to come up in their favor when the chips were down. The characters had reached 15th level with no PC deaths.

That all ended with our most recent game.


After the session last week with the Storm Titan and friends, the party was ready to burst into a mysterious laboratory. The lone healer in the party (a pacifist cleric optimized for massive healing) wasn’t around for the night’s game, so we pressed on with a party of four PCs.

The first fight was against a flying minotaur and some freaky creatures from vats of goo, and the party was definitely up to the challenge. They blew through the bad guy without much trouble.

The second fight of the night (which was the fourth fight of the adventuring day) started when the PCs opened the doors to a fancy two-story library/office room with a glass-domed ceiling and an opulent rug inside the door. Thorfin the fighter marched into the room and just barely jumped out of the way in time as the rug itself tried to reach up and grab him. With that attack having missed, an invisible flying monk tossed him across the room and into a wall, beginning the combat.

The party was at level 15, and the monk was a level 19 solo. I updated her stats to be more in line with modern solos, but since there were only four PCs instead of five, I lowered her hit points from 718 to 450.

This was one bad-ass monk, and the party had a hard time with her. They tried throwing out various controlling effects, but she had the ability to shake off a condition once per round, which made a big difference. It didn’t help that the adventurers’ dice turned ice cold on them for long stretches. If it weren’t for the fact that Hammer Rhythm let the fighter deal 5 damage even on a miss, things would have been far worse.

Vena, our elf seeker, found herself knocked unconscious by the monk’s lightning hands. Faebs, the human wizard/swordmage hybrid, managed to deactivate the man-eating rug and knock Vena off the suspended sculpture where she had fallen unconscious so she could let Vena spend her second wind. Shortly after getting back on her feet, Vena was knocked down once more. She failed a couple of death saving throws and then rolled a 19 – which, using a bonus point, turned into a 20 and let her spend a healing surge! Boy, were they missing their cleric.

When the monk darted out of the room, the party decided to close the doors of the library and barricade themselves inside. They created a hole in the glass-dome ceiling so they could climb out. The monk huffed and puffed and blew a hole in the door, by which time two of the PCs were on the roof with the other two on the rope on their way up.

The monk’s teleport power failed to recharge, so she couldn’t pop into the room that way.

The monk’s power to summon a magical fist inside the room to attack the climbing PCs failed to recharge.

But the monk’s “turn into lightning and zap a bunch of PCs” power DID recharge. Up the rope she went, zapping the climbers and ending on the roof.

Vena the seeker tried to take care of the frightening monk, but her dice betrayed her once more. She found herself stuck next to the monk when the monk’s bonus turn to make a free basic attack came up – and the lightning hand dropped Vena to the ground.

Whereupon Vena promptly failed her third death saving throw, in round 14 of the fight.

Things were looking grim for the party, when all of a sudden the player of our pacifist cleric showed up! His character was on the opposite side of the battlefield and spent the first round and a half rushing over to the fray – in time to resurrect Thorfin, who had fallen unconscious, but too late for Vena.

With the battle teetering on the brink, the cleric made the monk vulnerable to damage, and the wizard finished the monk off with a super-powered magic missile. The party got away from the lab (with the body of their fallen comrade) just in time to watch a magical storm destroy the building.

Thus ends the tale of fair Vena the elf seeker. Her character’s paragon path was Twilight Guardian, which to her meant that she respected the natural cycle of life, and therefore would not want to be resurrected (despite the cleric’s attempts to make it happen). We’ll work on a new character for Vena’s player; we may very well end up with the first Pixie PC I’ve seen in action!

RIP Vena.

Running online D&D: Weekly prep

I’ve talked a fair amount on my blog about macros that I’ve programmed in MapTool for my online games and recaps of adventures that I’ve run, but I realized that I haven’t spent any time talking about the prep process. Preparing to run a game online has a lot in common with an in-person game with vinyl mats and minis, but it definitely has its differences.

1 week before the game

I figure out what I’m going to be running. For my longest-running online game, this is easy; we’re running EN World’s War of the Burning Sky campaign and have been for over a year. I do still need to make sure I’ve read far enough ahead in the campaign to know what’s coming in the broad sense, but I try to be good about staying ahead of things there.

For my other online games, this might mean picking out a one-shot game (like a Living Forgotten Realms adventure) or actually writing my own adventures (a topic for another blog post).

This is also the time that I reach out to the online players about any changes they need to make to their characters. For instance, if they’ve leveled up after the last session, I remind them to tell me what choices they’re making for their characters. This is a difference between an online game and an in-person game; online, I have to maintain the tokens for the PCs and add new powers, adjust stats, etc. I also talk about magic items that the party acquired in the previous session and see which PC is going to be using them (so I can update their tokens).

3 days before the game

I send out an email to the group, announcing that there will be a session at our usual time (6:00 PM Mountain Time on Friday night for me and the person in South Dakota; 5:00 PM for the person in California; 7:00 PM for the people in Indiana and Texas, 8:00 PM for the people in New Jersey and Florida, and 9:00 AM Saturday for the person in Japan), asking who will be able to attend. I usually get a couple of responses right away and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days. Sometimes I’ll get a “maybe” (there’s a possible schedule conflict, but they might be able to come – this is usually a “no” in the end). I have a total of seven players, and we usually have 4-5 show up each week. One of the seven is almost never there, and four are almost always there; the other two are there most of the time, but not all of the time. This works for us, though I know some DMs don’t like it if players are absent irregularly. This is why I have seven players! We can still game even if three people are unavailable.

1-2 days before the game

I do my actual prep work (sometimes I get this done earlier, of course). This involves a few things:

  • Updating PC stats if the players have sent them to me after a level-up
  • Updating PC treasure if the players have decided on what they’re using
  • Setting up the maps for the next few encounters (easy for War of the Burning Sky, since decent JPG versions of the maps are available)
  • Building monsters for the next few encounters using my handy-dandy monster construction macro

For some reason, I used to procrastinate more about the PC stuff than the map and monster stuff. When the PCs hit paragon tier, I actually canceled a session so I could use that four-hour time slot to work on their PC tokens. It’s gotten better since I’ve changed my PC properties to be easier to level up (defenses now scale automatically with level, for instance), but there was a time when I almost wanted to stop running online games just because of the extra layer of work on the DM to update PC tokens. It’s better now, though.

The new monster macro has made building the monsters way easier and actually more fun. I also enjoy the process of using TokenTool to create cool-looking monster tokens from images I find online. I’m sure lots of these images are copyrighted and such, but I’m only using them in my own game (this is part of the reason I don’t distribute lots of monster tokens on my blog – well, that and laziness).

The day of the game

Since our game starts at 6:00 PM my time, I go to work early so I can leave at 4:00 PM. It only takes me 15 minutes to get home, at which point I’ll chat with my wife briefly and help take care of household tasks (feed the cats, figure out dinner). This usually leaves me at the computer by around 5:00, giving me time for last-minute prep. If there are any monsters I haven’t done yet, I’ll try to put those together quickly. If I already have a good image for the monster, it tends to take about 5 minutes per monster type to assemble.

If all goes well, I like to spend the time from 5:30 onward re-reading the material I’ll be running that evening. War of the Burning Sky is a very story-heavy adventure, and I want to make sure I understand the various NPCs and the branching points of the tale so that it all makes sense during the game.

At 5:45, I start up the MapTool server so that my players can connect. It’s not at all unusual for one or two people to be ready to go right at that time, and we might chat a bit in the text window of MapTool until start time, or they might say, “Hi, I’m here, but I’m going to be busy with something else for the next few minutes.” I also might say, “Okay, the server is up, but I’m still preppping! Please talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic: A half-elf is neither a halfling nor an elf. Discuss.”

At 6:00, assuming we have at least 3 players on MapTool, I’ll start the Skype audio call so we can talk to each other… and away we go!

Game on!

After that, we play D&D for four hours. Honestly, the online experience is darn near as good as the in-person experience for me. We still get to know each other out-of-game and chat as friends. Role-playing still happens. Combat is still exciting – and pretty quick, too, thanks to the software handling a lot of the math. It’s a ton of fun, and while I also enjoy in-person games, my online game is my longest-running campaign by far.

I’ll talk in later posts about the process of running a session, but I hope this window into the online game prep process helps to show you what it’s like. Give online D&D a try sometime – it’s a ton of fun!

Magic item distribution: Random wish lists

I have some good qualities as a dungeon master, and I feel like I’m completely competent in most areas of running a fun game. But I do have a major weakness: Magic items.

Somehow, picking out magic items for treasure troves is a task that I put off and put off and put off and sometimes entirely forget about. Last week, I took the time to pick out a bunch of magic items to give to my Friday night players in my online War of the Burning Sky campaign… only to find out that I’d done a lousy job. I picked chainmail that nobody wanted. I picked a +3 rod for the warlock in the party, thinking that she only had a +1; I’d forgotten that she’d gotten a +3 the last time I’d given out treasure. Sigh.

Another option is wish lists, but I’ve never liked wish lists. I once had a DM ask us to put wish lists together, and it just felt… wrong somehow. When you just tell the DM “I want these things” and the DM later says “Here you go,” there’s no magic in the magic items. You know what’s coming.

One of my Friday night players suggested another option that I plan to try: random wish lists. I’ve asked each player to give me a list of three magic items they’d like. They’re at 13th level, so I’ve asked them to list a 14th, 15th and 16th level item (downgrading any spots they like). That is, items of their character’s level +1, +2 and +3.

I have seven players, so if they all participate I’ll have a list of 21 magic items. I’ll pad that out with a few of my own ideas (maybe an artifact, maybe a booby prize, maybe some coins) and create a table. When it’s time to hand out treasure, I’ll roll on that table (openly, in front of the players).

This way, almost everything I give out will be something that somebody wants (except the booby prize, which is intentional), but there’s no certainty that any particular thing will come up at all. I’ll ask for new items at higher levels, so some items may never come up. And if one PC keeps getting lucky, the party might swap things around or turn a few items into residuum to make new stuff (but only new stuff with DM approval). If I roll for an item that’s already been given out, I might roll again or I might give nothing.

I’m going to give this a try and see how I like it. At the very least, I won’t be scrambling to look through the Compendium to find cool items at the last minute (or beyond the last minute).

Have any of you tried anything similar? How has it worked out? Do you have ideas about how to make it better?

My players are awesome

I don’t spend enough time writing about my Friday night game. I’m OnlineDM after all, and this is my long-running online game. We’ve just passed our one-year anniversary of playing together. How cool is that?

Anyway, we weren’t able to play for the past two weeks (it felt like forever) because I had other plans on a Friday night and then I had to work late the next week. So this week we got the band back together – six of the seven players were able to make it (though one had to drop out about 40 minutes before the end of the session).

I had done a fair amount of prep work for this session over the past couple of weeks, and then realized in the 30 minutes before we started that there was a whole aspect of tonight’s session that I hadn’t prepared for. I threw that stuff together partly in the few minutes before game time and partly on the fly during the game, and it worked out just fine.

We’re running the War of the Burning Sky campaign saga from EN World. We’re currently in the fourth adventure (spoilers follow). The party had recently helped a noble win a war against his own king who was trying to destroy him. Tonight, the party traveled with the noble to the king’s capitol to talk about peace. They were wary but went along to protect the noble against any funny business.

The peace accords were celebrated with festivities – jousting, food, games, spelldueling, fireworks, etc. These would ultimately be followed by some treachery and combat. I had prepared the treachery and combat. I hadn’t prepared the jousting and spelldueling, so I threw those together quickly.

For the jousting, I drew a quick jousting ring (wood for the border, dirt for the center of an ellipse) and used an existing knight monster with a lance as the opponent. For the spelldueling, I took advantage of my new quick monster creation tool (what a lifesaver!) and whipped up an opponent. While the party talked amongst themselves later, I whipped up a second opponent, based on the first. It worked out great.

The party began with the fighter entering the joust. I ran the first round as an event that started on horseback and finished on foot. That was a mistake – the on-foot part was boring and dragged way too long. When I ran a second round later, I changed the rules so that becoming unhorsed would end the joust (which I ruled would happen when someone took a total of 25 or more damage). That worked much better (even though the fighter lost that round). I think the adventure is supposed to include detailed rules for jousting, but I couldn’t find them.

After the first round of the joust, the party explored the festival. They ran into a halfling cook arguing with a man who clearly didn’t appreciate how special the halfling’s food was. They calmed the halfling down, and he revealed that he was Randas, head cook in the king’s castle, and he was royally pissed at being told to clear out of the castle and cook outside at the festival. Rylos the cleric calmed him down and enjoyed an absolutely amazing bowl of soup. Randas became a favorite, at least of Rylos.

A shell game in an alley followed, in which our sharp-eyed elf seeker was able to follow the coin quite easily. Then we moved on to spelldueling in which the wizard/swordmage and the warlock in the party both vanquished their first-round foes. The other PCs cheered them on.

The good-natured thief in the party joined a game of horseshoes and taught the old man running the game how it was done, earning a round of beers for his skill.

Coming back by the halfling cook’s stall, the party found it empty with some guards clearing it out. The guards didn’t know where the cook was, so the party went on a mission to find him. They tried to talk their way into the castle to talk to the guard captain about the missing halfling, but utterly failed, insulting the head gate guard (Merrick) in the process. They tried again later, with the plan being that the thief would sneak in if necessary, and a better bribe got them the access they wanted. The guard captain told them that the cook had been disturbing the peace and had been locked up for the night to make sure he didn’t cause trouble. The PCs were satisfied with this and left.

Back at the spelldueling area, the warlock and wizard/swordmage had faced off against one another with the hybrid coming out on top. She then faced another spellduelist for the championship and lost in awesome fashion. The hybrid opened up an Arcane Gate leading out of the arena and tried to push the spellduelist through it with Thunderwave. She missed, spent an action point, cast another Thunderwave… and missed again. Whereupon the spellduelist walked around her (opportunity attack missed) and cast a spell that pushed the hybrid through her own Arcane Gate and out of the arena, thus costing her the duel. I felt a little bad that she lost in that way, but it was actually a really cool finish to a cool battle.

Some fireworks soon distracted the PCs; the alchemist who was setting them off asked for help in getting more supplies, as his normal alchemy supply houses had been shut down for a special project for the king for the past three days.

A “test your strength” hammer game proved irresistable for the dwarf fighter, who completely missed the target with his first swing (a natural 1) but shoved the cleric out of the way to take another turn, winning a stuffed polar bear toy that he soon gave to a small child (too sweet!).

While the party watched the action at the hammer event, a dwarf emerged from the crowd to surreptitiously pass on information about some fishy goings-on at the castle. They shared the information with their noble patron, who asked them to investigate. He was on his way to a royal banquet.

Here’s where things went off the rails. Rather than investigating by following the suspicious trail into the castle via the sewers, the party decided to go investigate the closed-up alchemist shops. Improvising completely, I had them go to the alchemy district where the shops were all closed up. They broke into a shop and ultimately found some ledgers that documented big deliveries to the king… for ingredients that could be combined to make a poison that would cause insane, murderous rage.

Uh oh. Time to run back to the castle, where the banquet was in progress. They debated whether to fight through the front gate guards or sneak in through the sewers before finally realizing that they were invited guests and just needed to talk their way in. Easy enough.

The dwarf fighter had grabbed some powder back at the alchemy shop that he believed was flash-bang powder, but knowing nothing about Arcana he wasn’t really sure. He was so excited to burst into the banquet hall and throw down the powder that I just ignored any possible resistance from the guards in the hallway and had him toss down the powder…

Which turned out to be stink powder, enveloping the group in a nasty stink bomb. Feeling that there was no way I could top this with a mere combat, I decided to call it a night at this point.

So, in the end, we had no real fights (just some jousts and spellduels) but all kinds of fun adventures and some advancement of the plot. My players were awesome and creative, getting into the role playing and character interaction and… well, I just can’t say enough good things about them. They clearly had a good time, and I had a blast. I’m really excited about next week’s game!

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

Free map – winter bridge

Here is a map that I put together for an upcoming War of the Burning Sky game. Usually I’ve been using the official maps from the WotBS adventures, but there’s one encounter whose description in the main body of the adventure has one map, but the actual tactical encounter write-up has a completely different map.

I liked the map that was described in the main body of the adventure, so I created a version myself. It’s a pretty simple map – a road crosses a stone bridge over a chasm in a wintry scene. It was pretty quick to draw, but I thought it was worth sharing. Both of these versions have been rescaled to a grid size of 50 pixels for easy use in MapTool or Fantasy Grounds. The top map is gridless while the bottom map contains a grid.

The 4e Thief is brutally effective… and boring

My Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign has reached an exciting point – paragon tier! I had to delay the game by a week so that I had time to get everyone’s new and improved characters programmed up in MapTool, but we finally got together last night for some gaming with more power.

At this point, we have a party of seven PCs. We have the original five players who started the campaign in July 2010, plus two more players I added earlier this year when one of the original players got a job that caused a scheduling conflict and another player was only able to come about once every three weeks for a while. Lately, though, they’ve all been able to play, so it’s a big party.

One of the original five players was starting with a new character (11th level, of course) last night. This was the player who was running Fudrick, the gnome warlock who defected to the bad guys in the previous session. Fudrick’s player rolled up a new character – a human Thief. This is the Essentials rogue.

Meet the Thief

I had seen a second-level Thief in action once before, and the paragon thief is similar in a lot of ways. The Thief has fantastic accuracy with his attacks, especially since he has so many ways to get combat advantage. His damage is fantastic, too, with sneak attack being an almost every-round thing. Once the Thief was able to get into melee with the bad guys, they didn’t last long.

The Thief is a very effective striker, dealing out massive damage quite reliably. But after running a session with the Thief in the mix, it felt, well, boring.

I know that hitting despite a 2 on the attack die is what a Thief is built to do, but that takes the excitement out of the Thief’s attack roll. If you know you’ll only ever miss on a critical failure, there’s no drama with the attack roll.

The Math

The Thief in this party starts with a +20 to attack at 11th level. For comparison, an 11th-level monster should have an armor class between 23 (brute) and 27 (soldier), with 25 being typical (other defenses should be two points lower). Add in the fact that the Thief almost always has combat advantage (+2 to hit) and a feat (Nimble Blade) that gives him an extra +1 to hit when he has combat advantage (so we’re up to +23 now), and a feat that lets him choose whether he wants to attack AC or Reflex (which averages two points less than AC). And he can use Backstab twice per encounter for another +3 to hit.

Thus, the Thief is usually attacking at +23 versus Reflex, and twice per encounter he can bump this up to +26 versus Reflex. If by some chance the monster has a lower AC, he can attack that instead. Even-level opponents should have a Reflex defense of about 23. Level+3 opponents should have a Reflex defense of 26. With Backstab and Combat Advantage, the Thief will hit a typical foe three levels above his own on a zero, so the only chance to miss is on a natural 1.

To be clear, I do understand that “this is what Thieves do”. Their schtick is to be ultra-accurate, hardly ever missing. It works really well. And it’s boring. It’s like Magic Missile in a lot of ways (though the Thief at least gets to roll a bunch of dice for weapon damage plus sneak attack) – another power that works, but is boring.

This particular Thief is also a little boring in that if he can’t get into melee, he can’t do anything useful. Early in yesterday’s session, the party was facing down some soldiers mounted on flying drakes. The Thief actually spent one round taking the total defense action because he couldn’t do anything to a flying foe.

What to do?

So, what’s the solution for me as the DM? Well, I have a few options.

First, I could raise enemy defenses. This is a terrible idea, as making it so that the Thief needs to roll, say, a 6 to hit will mean that other PCs will need a 15 or better. Not fun for the rest of the party.

Second, I could give enemies ways to negate combat advantage. This isn’t a trait I’ve seen on many monsters, and using it would just feel like a “screw you” to the Thief, which isn’t what I want either.

Third, I could use monsters that punish melee strikers. They could have auras that deal damage or do other nasty things. I like this idea, as long as I give the melee PCs some ways to mitigate or entirely avoid the issue by doing something interesting.

Fourth, I could use monsters that are hard to get to in melee, such as fliers or artillery with protected positions. I’ll probably do this a little bit, but I won’t want to go overboard.

Fifth, I could raise hit points on monsters. I really have no desire to do this, as it leads to fights that drag on whenever the Thief isn’t hitting a particular bad guy. Plus, it’s still boring.

Sixth, I could have monsters that beat the crap out of the Thief, either by dealing tons of damage or by denying him the ability to get combat advantage by using something like immobilization (most of the Thief’s easy ways of getting combat advantage come from using move actions, though there are lots of cases where the Thief could use them even if he can’t leave his square).

I’m sure there are other options I haven’t thought of, and I’d love to hear more ideas in the comments. For now, I’ll try to think about using some enemies that are either hard to get to in melee or that punish PCs who get too close to them, but I don’t want to unduly punish the Fighter and Swordmage in the party, either. I definitely won’t make the bad guys shy about attacking the Thief when he starts dishing out massive damage, perhaps even breaking defender marks to do so. We shall see.