More on Renown Rewards

Posted on : 09-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, House Rules


A couple of my players have given me feedback on my post on using Renown Points in your home game. They seem to like the idea, but they think it was maybe a little too complex and required a bit too much book-keeping in some cases. After looking at it again and giving it the old hairy eyeball, I tend to agree with them.

I’ve tweaked a few of the Renown achievements, and lifted a lot of the per encounter/per session restrictions. None of the once-per-session achievements still carry that restriction, but some of the point values have been changed a little. As far as the ones that were once per encounter, I’ve lifted that restriction sort of. What I’ve done is I’ve created a score card for keeping track of your Renown Points.

For the stuff that is free of restrictions, basically the DM tells you that you earned that achievement, and you immediately add those Renown Points to your total. For the encounter-based ones, I included four spaces for check marks for each of those. Any time you hit that achievement, put a check mark in one of the spaces; when all your spaces for that achievement are full, you can’t earn any more check marks. At the end of the encounter, each check mark that you’ve earned turns into a Renown Point, and you erase all of those check marks so you can earn them again in the next encounter.

Because you can earn these achievements multiple times in an encounter, I’ve tweaked a couple of them. Now, instead of hitting for 15+ damage (which my strikers do pretty often), you have to hit for 20+ damage. It’ll happen a little less often, but it’ll still happen. Also, the achievement for taking 50 damage in one encounter seemed like too much book-keeping, like it would get forgotten a lot. Now, instead, you have to take damage equal to your bloodied value in a single round to earn a check.

You’ll also notice that the costs of the rewards have increased a little; specifically, each one is 5 points more expensive. This is to compensate for the fact that players will likely be earning more Renown Points than they would have before. Anyway, take a look at it, and feedback, as always, is welcome.

Random Encounters: Orc Ambush

Posted on : 06-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, Random Encounters


When planning encounters for an adventure, I like to throw in at least a few that are unconnected to the main story, to build verisimilitude and give a sense that not everything in the world revolves around the PCs. I don’t use random encounters; that is, I don’t create these encounters on the fly using a table of any kind. They’re very much planned encounters, with the appearance of randomness. Still, I like the term for this series of posts, so I’ll use it.

At any rate, this encounter is designed to be used when the PCs have camped for the night in a cave, taking shelter from a bad snowstorm. Orcs who are used to the weather and who know the area take advantage of the weather and the late hour to spring an ambush on the unsuspecting PCs.

Without further ado, I give you Orc Ambush.

Encouraging Terrain Powers

Posted on : 30-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, GMing Methodology, House Rules, Links, Tips


The DMG 2 introduced the concept of terrain powers. These are pretty much what they sound like: they’re effectively environmental effects structured as powers, to make them easier and clearer to use. I like the system quite a bit, and actually utilized some props to encourage their use in my last session. To encourage the players to use these powers, I printed out power cards for them. This allowed them to see just what a terrain power could do before they used it, and allowed them to weigh cost versus reward. I tended to err on the potent side for terrain powers (since they can be used by either side), but I also tended to make them limited in their ability to be used; that is, most were single-use, while others had a limited-use mechanic.

Overall, it worked fairly well; the players used the terrain powers, and they used them to very good effect. There was one thing missing, though: my monsters never really used the terrain powers, because I forgot to. While the players had a handy visual reminder of what they could do with the terrain, I had neglected to give myself one; as the DM, I had a lot of powers to keep track of, and without something to remind me that they were there, I tended to focus on what my monsters could do by themselves. There is, I realized, a very simple solution to this problem: put the terrain powers right in the monster stat blocks.

Thanks to the Monster Builder, it’s easy enough to modify monster stat blocks and to copy terrain powers from one monster to another. Having terrain powers in the monster stat blocks acts as a handy reminder of what tactics are available to your monsters, as well as a good reference for how powerful those powers are in relation to their own. You can also use this technique to remind yourself of specific tactical tendencies of monsters. If you’re running a combat with a lot of different terrain powers, it’s easy enough to only put the powers in a given stat block that that monster is likely to use. Is there a mounted ballista that does less damage than your artillery monster’s own weapon? It doesn’t need that power. The skirmisher or brute might, though, until the PCs close the distance. Zombies aren’t likely to utilize the environment a lot, but orcs and goblins probably will, and you can bet your bottom dollar that kobolds will.

Here is a very simple example, an encounter from my last session that I modified after the fact. I encourage you to experiment with this technique, and I also encourage you to share your results and modifications here on this blog.

Roll for Initiative!

Posted on : 18-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, Links, Tips


The Newbie DM has a really nice post up about an analog initiative tracker that I like. It’s good for heroic tier games, but would require some modification for paragon and epic.

This has prompted me to share what I do for initiative tracking. I’ve actually gone through three different methods, and I’ll share them all here.

Method one was extremely old-school. I would print out this initiative tracker and hand-write characters and monsters in their initiative slots as initiative was rolled. It was time-consuming, especially when someone moved around in the initiative order via a delay or readied action. To save time, I’d often pre-roll monster initiative and write them in before the game, but that delay/ready problem was still a factor. It does allow you to track conditions and hit points, but things got overlooked a lot, and I ran into problems when two or three combatants had the same initiative count.

This prompted me to move to method 2. In method 2, I used a magnetic whiteboard and a number of magnetic index card-style tiles (all of them dry-erasable) to track initiative. Each PC, monster (or group of monsters), and trap/hazard would have its own card, and the cards would be arranged in initiative order as it was rolled. Hit points and conditions could be written directly on the cards, and they could be moved as initiative counts changed. There were a couple of problems with this method. First, because it was a dry-erasable product, text often got smudged and erased. Second, without an easel, there really was no easy way to prop it up so the whole group could see it, and it kept falling down. Third, I had to dragoon one of my players into being responsible for it, because it was too distracting for me while I was trying to run the combat. Below, you can see what it looked like in play.

So, because of the above issues, I only used this method for a few games before adopting a new one. I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I heard about this method, as it took a while for me to adopt it, so unfortunately I can’t give credit where it’s due. Suffice it to say, I like it quite a lot. It does take some prep before-hand, but now that the bulk of it is done, future games should be easier to prep for than the first time I used this method (I’ve only used it once, so far). So, what is it? First, I created this file, and another file like it with the monsters I was using. Then I printed everything out on card stock (a DM’s best friend, by the way), cut it all out, and folded everything along the center line. I used a bead box to organize my condition cards. During the game, as initiative is rolled, I drape these cards over my DM screen with the pictures facing the PCs and the info facing me. If someone changes their order in the initiative, I can just pick up a card and drop it in the right place. If someone applies a condition to someone else, I drape on of the condition cards over that combatant’s initiative card until the condition no longer applies. It works great, gives the players a nice visual representation of all of the combatants, and gives me a lot of useful information. It’s also easy to use in play, and doesn’t take up a lot of space or time at the table. Again, you can see it in action below.

So how do you track initiative?

The Shadow Rift

Posted on : 04-09-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, House Rules, Links


As, I’m sure, many of you who have run, or are currently running, Keep on the Shadowfell, I modified the adventure as written. I added in a bunch of stuff at the beginning in order to get the PCs to Winterhaven, and I made numerous minor modifications to various encounters throughout the adventure. Mostly it was a monster here and a monster there being replaced with something that I found more interesting, either mechanically or thematically (or both), but nothing too drastic. Even the replacement of a deathjump spider with a more powerful monster, a cave troll, is something I consider a relatively minor modification; it altered the feel of the battle a little bit, but didn’t have implications that were all that far-reaching.

The single greatest modification that I made to the published adventure was in the final battle of the adventure, against Kalarel. In the published adventure, Kalarel is accompanied by some skeletons and a wight, and there’s a trap in the form of the Thing in the Portal, which grabs and draws nearer adventurers who draw too near in the first place. When I first read the adventure, I thought it was a cool encounter, but that was before I had experienced more of the breadth of what 4th Edition had to offer. I do think that, for those who are still undecided about the new edition, taking D&D for a test drive with the adventure as written is perfectly viable, and probably lots of fun. But I wanted to do something different.

So, I completely rejiggered the final encounter. For starters, I created the corpse mound that I talked about before. Then I added a couple of hazards; one represented the darkness emanating from the portal, the other the subtle and seductive call of said darkness. Then I reduced Kalarel’s level a bit and modified some of his abilities so that the encounter’s level was a little more in-line with my party’s level.

It’s a level 7 encounter, all said, but with a lot of potential to be very, very difficult. There are some nasty threats in there, and all of them had at least a couple of levels on the party. So I staggered things a little bit. Initially, Kalarel is involved in completing the ritual, so the party only has to contend with the corpse mound. After a couple of rounds, Kalarel completes the ritual, joining the fray. The following round, the two hazards activate, and every round thereafter the darkness expands, filling more of the room.

Now, I had a way for the PCs to reverse the effects of the ritual built into the encounter, but I’m a firm believer that a big failure should not be a show-stopper, but should rather make things more interesting. Thus, I created a skill challenge that would trigger if the darkness expanded too much. This had the effect of also putting a time limit on the encounter, which prevented it from turning into too much of a slog.

At any rate, here is my writeup of the encounter. The experience per party member assumes a party of 5 characters, and there’s no treasure included in that writeup (I had that in a separate document for some reason). The encounter does use the standard battle map that the original encounter used; Kalarel starts in front of the altar, while the corpse mound appears as a mere pile of corpses in the pool of blood in the center of the room. The darkness, as you’d expect, emanates from the portal once Kalarel has completed the ritual. Enjoy.


Posted on : 14-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads


By pure chance, I stumbled upon Masterplan. I have to say, this tool is absolutely fantastic. Need to create a flowchart of your adventure? It’ll do that. Want to make an encounter? Got it. How bout a trap or a skill challenge? That’s covered, too. There are some things that I wish it did that it doesn’t; it’s difficult, for example, to print just one encounter out in a printer-friendly format. Importing monsters from the Rules Compendium is possible, but not intuitive, and you have to do it one monster at a time. Some things, like DCs for skill challenges, are auto-calculated, while other things, like damage and attack bonuses for traps, are not.

All that aside, though, this is a great tool that is under active development, and the creator is receptive to feedback. I hope that the Adventure Tools that Wizards is making will be something like this, because I’m imagining something with the functionality of Masterplan, but tied to the Rules Compendium and to the Monster Builder, and it makes me very happy.

A Session Report, and some musings

Posted on : 13-08-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, House Rules, Links, Musings, Reviews


Hello, all. Apropos of the quickly approaching D&D Day, I thought I’d post a session report from the last D&D Day. The party is almost done with Keep on the Shadowfell; this next session should finish it off. I have, however modified the end of the adventure pretty heavily.

Other things. Dungeon Delve, it turns out, is a fantastic resource, not just for the obvious reason of having 30 pre-made delves at your fingertips. If you pay attention, you can glean a lot about what makes a good encounter, not just in terms of what monsters to use together, but also how to use traps and terrain to make things interesting. Even less obvious but, I think, more interesting, the book shows you how to use your Dungeon Tiles in creative ways, using features on specific tiles to represent interesting and important terrain.

Also, as you may have discerned from previous session reports, an NPC has joined the group: Splug the fey goblin. I’m using homebrewed follower rules to represent him in the battles (I’m aware that the Dungeon Master’s Guide II includes official rules for this, and I’m eager to see how close I am to the mark). For those who are interested, here is a PDF of Splug’s statistics as well as the rules for using followers.

You may have noticed that the stats for Splug were made using Wizards’ own beta version of the Monster Builder. I absolutely love this tool. For a beta, it’s extremely functional and remarkably free of show-stopping bugs (not to say that there aren’t any, just to say that I haven’t run into anything too inconvenient). There’s clearly some work left to be done on it, but there’s a lot of potential there. More than that, there’s a lot of functionality and ease of use already built into it, which is a great boon to me, and to other DMs that like to make stuff up for their campaigns. Now I just need something like this for traps.

Nipping at your nose

Posted on : 21-12-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, Gamecrafting, House Rules, Humor, Links


Here’s some holiday fun for all you 4th Edition fans out there. This was made using Asmor’s Monster Maker, which is a cool little program. Enjoy.

D&D Stuff

Posted on : 30-11-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Downloads, Reviews, Session Reports


First of all, the most recent session report is up.

Second, I recently downloaded the beta version of the D&D Character Builder. I have to say, it’s very impressive. The program makes it really easy to make D&D characters, and it’s fantastic how they’ve got content from Dragon and other published products, like the Adventurer’s Vault right in there for you to use, even if you don’t own the physical product. It’ll automatically generate a character sheet for your character, which you can customize to a pretty great degree, and it’ll generate power cards, magic item cards, and reference cards for you, too. It’s pretty sweet.

It isn’t perfect, though; there are a few things it could use. The ability to create your own items would be really nice, since most DMs are going to be giving their PCs various things that aren’t in any published product. I’m not even talking about new weapons or magic items here; the ability to give a PC an item like “an old, tattered journal” or “a necklace depicting a skull with ram’s horns” would be fantastic. Similarly, it would be nice if you could edit the text in the character sheet and power cards. Most of it is pretty good, and there’s a lot of auto-calculation (though there could be more), but I would like to be able to type in my own notes in various places. There are also some issues with the personalized information that it puts on your power cards. The ranger’s Twin Strike, for example, allows you to attack with both your primary weapon and your off-hand weapon, but the power card only includes an attack bonus and damage for your primary weapon. It would be nice if your off-hand weapon were included, or if you could type that in yourself. Since many of the ranger’s powers allow you to attack with two weapons, this seems like a glaring omission.

It is, however, still in beta, and there’s time for it to be tweaked still. As it stands, even with a few things missing, it is a fantastic product, and when the full version comes out, I’ll be really happy to be a D&D Insider subscriber.

The Thrifty DM: Resources for DMs

Posted on : 10-08-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, Downloads, Links, Tips


As a long-time DM, I’m always on the lookout for tools and such that make my job a little bit easier. Since I really haven’t shared all this stuff with you guys yet, I figured I would. Most of this stuff is relatively inexpensive, if not downright free. Some of it is designed for RPGs some of it is not, but can be used for such. Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Wizards of the Coast actually puts out some quality products that I use, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give them a mention on this post. First is their line of Dungeon Tiles, which are excellent. They feature good artwork, clean, easy to see and use, 1-inch grids, they’re modular, and they’re somewhat dry-erasable. Also, they’re only $10 a pop, which is nice. One caveat: I say they’re somewhat dry-erasable because I’ve got a few tiles with what seem like permanent marks from dry-erase ink that sat on the tile too long. So be careful. That said, if you find yourself having to replace some tiles, they’re not that expensive. Also useful if you use Dungeon Tiles is Jai’s Dungeon Tile Mapper, a free program for creating DT-based maps on your computer. It’s basically the same program that Wizards hosts, except that it’s actually been updated since the third DT set came out; the only one currently missing is the newest one, Hall of the Giant Kings, which may be added soon.
  • Also by Wizards is their line of D&D Miniatures, which I am a recent enthusiast and collector of. Booster packs are reasonably priced, and are even more so if you shop around a little bit, but are randomized. If you want specific, individual minis, is a good resource, as is ebay.
  • But what if you don’t want to drop all that money on minis? What if you need a mini that doesn’t exist, is hard to get, or you can’t wait for it to ship because you’re playing tomorrow? Cardboard counters are a good way to go. I usually make my own, printed on card stock, which is pretty cheap at Staples and other office stores. As far as images for said counters, there are a number of good resources available. Wizards hosts a number of character portraits, as well as a multitude of images from their catalog of products that can be chopped up in your favorite image editing software. You could also check out these D&D counters. Finally, the art forum on EN World is a fantastic resource for all kinds of RPG-related artwork; of particular note is Storn’s thread, not only because his artwork is excellent but because it’s all released under a Creative Commons license. Beware, though; EN World can sometimes run a little slow due to their massive server load.
  • Another thing that’s often required for D&D (especially under 4th Edition) is small counters and beads of various descriptions to keep track of conditions like marked, cursed, bloodied, and others. You could go to a gaming store, but you could also go someplace like AC Moore or Jo-Ann Fabrics. They have lots of beads, as well as bead boxes that can be used to store and organize your beads or other things. I use bead boxes to store my Dungeon Tiles, for example.
  • Finally, I recently found a website that has all sorts of great stuff, including a nice landscape character sheet, some cards for tracking conditions, and some very nice power and magic item cards (I use the Magic Set Editor, but these are nice too).

I hope this has been helpful to people out there who want to DM, or already do DM. Maybe I saved you some time.