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

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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.

Conditions in 4E

Posted on : 19-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Links, Musings, Tips

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I just came across this monster optimization article in my blogroll. In general, I like these articles a lot, primarily because I’m always looking for ways to really challenge my PCs. Most of my fights wind up being significantly easier on them than I expect them to be, and some of the ones that are “difficult” are really only long and probably somewhat annoying. In theory, I like the idea of the grell/quickling combination presented in the article above. That one-two punch of blinding or dazing combined with a combat advantage damage spike can be a nasty surprise for PCs who think they’re untouchable. It does bring up a problem that I find myself dancing with frequently, though.

The problem is, some conditions in 4E can be really annoying to players when they’re overused. The dazed condition is one of them, the blind condition is another. Slowing and immobilizing can make your extremely mobile characters have to vary their tactics, but they can also be really irritating to players whose tactics rely on mobility if they’re being shut down for an entire fight. Stunning and dominating are probably the ones you want to use the most sparingly, though a monster that dominates can be a lot of fun if you allow the PC to continue to play the dominated character.

As a related aside, I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on my DS lately. It’s a lot of fun and, like 4E, utilizes a myriad of conditions that do various things. Some of these conditions are extremely fun and satisfying when you get to use them on monsters. Immobilization works like it does in D&D; disabling prevents a monster from taking actions other than movement. I rely on these two conditions quite a lot in my fights, and it makes the game more fun. But here’s the thing: there are a lot of conditions, both in FFT and in D&D, that are lots of fun for players to use, but can make the game really un-fun when they’re used on the players with similar frequency.

The above article makes me a little wary. In theory, I like fight that allow the monsters to gain combat advantage frequently, especially when that grants them extra damage, too. It makes the fight more dangerous for the PCs, which makes the fight more exciting and memorable. If you can drop a PC in a fight, that’s a fight that’ll be remembered in the future. However, I know from experience that relying on the dazed condition too much makes for a long, drawn-out fight that isn’t all that exciting, or that feels unfair to the PCs. There’s a fine line between difficult and cheap, and it can be difficult to walk in D&D.

What are your thoughts? What experiences have you had with conditions such as dazed, stunned, dominated, and so forth? Do you have tips for how to utilize them effectively?

D&D Race Glut

Posted on : 08-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, GMing Methodology, Musings

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I went to play D&D Encounters last night, which was a blast. I played a human monk with a heavy emphasis on control, and I think it worked out pretty well. I started strong, had a nova round in which I inflicted almost 50 damage spread amongst three enemies (first level character, by the way), and then proceeded to miss for the rest of the fight. It was fun anyway.

At any rate, after the game I got into a lively conversation with the DM about the huge number of races available in D&D. He was of the opinion that, with all these fantastical races available (he pointed to the tiefling and the dragonborn in particular, but I think there are others to which the label applies), it somehow dilutes the fantasy of the whole experience, making everything else a little less fantastical by comparison. After all, he said, if you can walk down the streets of Waterdeep and see a dragon-man walking with a drow, then why is it exciting when you meet dragon-men or drow out in a dungeon somewhere? They’re just regular people, after all.

I can definitely see where he’s coming from, and I think it’s a perfectly valid point of view. He likes his fantasy a little more traditional, even going so far as to say, “If it wasn’t in the Fellowship, you can’t play it in my game” (though he bends the rules a little for races that are at least passingly similar to Fellowship races, like gnomes and half-elves). I respect his stance and, were I to play in one of his games, I’d respect it with the character I chose to play.

I do not, however, agree with his opinion. I take more of a shotgun approach with race selection. I tell my players that every race is available, and I see what sticks. I find that, once everyone’s made a selection, I’m left with a number of characters for which rich backstory can be crafted, and for whom race can become an important story consideration.

I should mention at this point that, in the game I’m DMing, there’s not one human in the group. Elf, half-elf, dragonborn, tiefling, and warforged; that’s my party. And I like it that way; I’ll tell you why.

For the elf and the half-elf, race is not really that much of a factor, their races being fairly common. The dragonborn is big and intimating, and I like to imagine that a large part of that is because he’s a guy who looks a lot like a dragon and, in my setting, those guys aren’t that common in most civilized areas. So he turns some heads.

Tieflings are a little more common, having been in control of the Demesne’s territory a hundred years or so before it was founded, and they are not well-loved (though not hated, either). My tiefling player plays a proud, ambitious scion of an ancient noble house, and he’s determined to see his family and, by extension, the entire tiefling race returned to their place of power in the world.

The warforged thought he was, until recently, the only one of his kind in existence. He was created by an old hermit to act as a son and legacy in the world, and when the hermit died, he went out to find his place in the world. When he ran into another warforged who called him “brother”, that caused him to take notice. When he fought a mind flayer with warforged thralls, he noticed even more.

I think the thing that I like the most about all these available races is the same thing that I like about any instance in which player choice is expanded. The more choice a player has when making his character, the better he’s able to express the idea in his head in mechanical and story terms. If that means I have to find a place for a race that I hadn’t thought of before, I’m more than willing to do that; after all, it’s not my world. It’s ours.

Healing Effects

Posted on : 07-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Links, Video Games

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So I’ve been playing Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift for the DS lately. It’s a good game with a lot of cool mechanics at work, but I just turned off my DS in the middle of a fight, without saving, in disgust. Why? Healing effects.

Healing effects are great when the PCs have them. They help keep the PCs in the fight, and increase the chances that the PCs will see more of the game, whether you’re talking about a video game or an RPG. But when monsters have access to healing effects, watch out. There’s a very good reason why there aren’t that many monsters in D&D who have access to things like regeneration, or powers that heal themselves and other monsters.

See, in this fight, one of the bad guys was a bishop. Apparently, as a bishop, this guy can cast Cura (a fairly potent healing spell) with alarming regularity. This means that, every couple of rounds, he completely undoes any progress I’ve made toward finishing the fight. When this makes the fight harder in a fun way, that’s fine. The problem is, the only thing it’s succeeding in doing is frustrating me.

If you’re DMing a game of D&D, or any other game that has a similar structure, bear this in mind. It’s okay to give the occasional monster regeneration. It’s even okay to give the occasional monster the ability to heal his allies. These things should be limited, though. If a monster has regeneration, you should make sure that the PCs have some way to counter it. If a monster can heal its allies, you should make sure that it can only do so once or twice in the encounter. If you’re healing your monsters willy-nilly, you’re increasing the length of the fight while simultaneously making it more frustrating and, as a result, less fun.

Mass Effect 2, Encounter Design

Posted on : 04-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Tips, Video Games

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I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2 lately, which I absolutely love. The role-playing elements (and by this, I mean things like characterization and choices that impact the game, not stat progression) are all very well implemented, and the combat is fantastic. In fact, there are a number of things about ME2 combat that, I think, are applicable in games like D&D. One thing, in particular, occurs to me now.

Waves: Many of the fights in ME2 take place in waves. You run into a room and fight five or six guys, firing from behind cover and trying to get the tactical upper hand. Just when it looks like you’ve got them mopped up, five or six more guys come in, these ones a little bit tougher. When they’re almost taken care of, something big and tough will sometimes come in, like a combat mech or a heavily armored and shielded commander of some sort.

In a D&D game, introducing enemies in waves can be a great way to have a really huge fight with a lot of peaks and valleys in the tension without making it overwhelmingly difficult for your players to get through it. When you introduce waves, it can also add verisimilitude to the game, making it seem like reinforcements from nearby rooms in the dungeon are bursting in, reacting to the noise of the fight. Setting up an encounter this way also allows for players to feel really clever if they manage to take out a group without alerting the others.

By way of example, you could have the encounter start fairly simply; a room full of minions with a few non-minion enemies, maybe brutes or skirmishers. The fight starts, the party wipes out most of the minions, and one of the non-minions sounds an alarm of some sort. A round or two later, a leader enemy, maybe an elite, bursts through the door with some other tough hombres–brutes or soldiers–and maybe a controller or an artillery or two. If you really want to add drama and tension, once those guys are on the ropes, introduce a solo. Let’s say you’ve got a room full of demon-worshiping gnolls. These guys are easy enough, and eat up few of the party’s resources. The next wave, though, has some gnoll soldiers a couple of archers, as well as a demonic scourge. Try to reserve the demonic scourge’s death for later in the fight, when a lot of the others are dead. Make it clear that the demonic scourge is possessed, and killing him might release a demon. When he does drop, a solo demon bursts out of his body and attacks; if the party tries to incapacitate him instead, the demonic scourge kills himself to release the beast.

Encounter Roles

Posted on : 10-03-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, GMing Methodology, Links

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I agree with nearly everything in this post, save one point: that every encounter in your adventure has to further the plot of the adventure.

I’ll clarify my position by saying that every encounter should have a specific purpose, but I don’t think that that purpose must be attached to the current plot. After all, if every encounter has something to do with what’s currently on the to-do list, you run the risk of making it seem like the entire world revolves around the PCs (which it does, but it shouldn’t seem like it). Sometimes it’s good to pepper your adventures with seemingly random encounters in order to add verisimilitude to your game world; sometimes, in a dangerous fantasy world, the owlbear is just hungry.

But, as I said, every encounter should have a purpose. The lion’s share should be tied to the current plot, and should be furthering it in some way. A few, though–probably no more that two or three in an adventure with 15 encounters–should not. They can be there to add color to the world, to introduce an enemy faction that you plan to use later, or they could be a form of the spaghetti method: throw a few different encounters at the PCs and see which one “sticks”; that is, which one do they latch on to the most? That’s a plot hook for future use.

I’ll clarify one further point: when I use the term ‘encounter’, I don’t mean ‘fight’. In D&D, there’s a tendency, I think, to treat every encounter as a fight, but it’s often more satisfying to vary things somewhat. Social encounters are encounters, too, as are periods of investigation or even research, and even long-distance travel through dangerous terrain, like a desert or mountain range, can be handled as an encounter in 4E. Also, if all 15 of those encounters are fights, it’s going to take you a long time to get through your adventure. Social encounters, travel encounters, and other non-combat encounters tend to be quicker to run, and can be used to build tension and world color just as effectively–if not, in some cases, more so–than combat encounters.

PC Organizations

Posted on : 30-05-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, GMing Methodology, Musings

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It should come as no surprise that I’ll be starting up a D&D campaign soon. It’s a given. I’ve even got some players lined up for the big show. And that got me thinking about the classic conundrum of D&D: where do these guys meet, and why do they adventure together? You could simply say that they’ve known each other for a while, but what if you don’t want to do that? These guys are all going to be new to 4th Edition, and some of them don’t actually know each other that well in real life. So it would make things a little bit easier and more natural if the characters, themselves, were just getting used to each other, both in terms of personality and abilities. So how do you do that?

One way you can go–and the way I plan on going–is via an organization of some kind that the PCs are working for. The organization that I’ll be using is a somewhat loosely-governed group of elite troubleshooters and professional adventurers known as the Queen’s Wardens, or just the Wardens to most people. Their mission is basically to keep the Demesne–that’s the territory that the PCs will start off in–safe and prosperous. In order to do this, they need a wide variety of character types, from diplomats to treasure hunters to lawmen to assassins. They’re also willing to overlook quite a lot if you pull your weight and get the job done. Thus, the players can still make pretty much any kind of character they want, and still be members (because I promise you, they’ll be pulling their weight).

Starting all of the PCs off as Wardens grants a couple of nice benefits to me as the DM. One, I can easily provide them with a reason for adventuring together without telling them that they already know each other. Simply put, they’re a newly-formed company of fairly green–but very promising–recruits. Two, it gives me an easy way to introduce quests. Ideally, I’d like many of the quests to be player-driven, in that they indicate through behavior at the table the kinds of things they’re interested in investigating, and I plan for that for the next session. However, when they’re at a loss for what to do, or for when there really aren’t any loose ends to tie up, it’s nice to be able to have the chain of command hand them something to do. Three, if (Pelor forbid) one of the PCs die and they don’t feel like raising him (or if that option simply isn’t available), or if one of the players gets tired of his character or feels its time to retire him, it gives me an easy way to introduce a new character, and to give that character a reason to join the party.

I really like the idea of using the Wardens in this way, and I hope my players are receptive to it (a few of them read this blog, so I’m at least giving them fair warning (I’m looking at you, Chris, Dean, and sometimes Tad)). I think they will be when I explain that Wardens have a measure of authority and respect above and beyond what a freelance adventurer would be likely to receive, and that they are compensated for their troubles with a monthly stipend, mission bonuses, and good sale prices on valuable magic items that the party may have acquired in their travels. That’s always nice, right?

PC Death

Posted on : 27-10-2007 | By : Brian | In : GMing Methodology, Links

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Over at Treasure Tables, there’s a post about describing the death of a PC. The gist of the post is that when a PC bites the dust, it usually comes as a surprise to the GM and the group as a whole, and thus the GM probably has some trouble doing any kind of justice to the character’s death when put on the spot. Now, I’ve never actually killed a PC (though I’ve killed major NPC allies before, both intentionally and not), so I can’t really speak from experience on this issue. I do know what I’d probably do in that situation though. I’d let the player handle it.

My reasoning is thus. As the GM, I have a strong connection to and investment in the world, the supporting cast, the allies of the PCs, and the villains, since they’re all under my control and, in many cases, I’ve created them all by hand. When something major and dramatic happens to an important NPC or group or feature of the setting, chances are I can do it some kind of justice in describing its demise because of that connection and investment. The thing is, while I might like the PCs, and while I may be secretly rooting for them to win, I don’t have that same connection with them because I didn’t create them and they aren’t under my control. I’m not invested in the PCs. The players are. Especially if a player has been playing a character for a while, he/she is invested in that character and likely thinks about that character a great deal more than I do. A player often knows how his/her character will behave in a given situation, what that character wants out of life, what his/her hopes and fears are. The player may even have given some thought as to how he/she wants the character to die eventually (or even how the character wants do die).

Given that the player has a much stronger connection to the character, why not capitalize on that when it counts? A PC’s death is arguably one of the most important things that will ever happen to that character. It only seems right that the player should be able to decide how that happens. Obviously the circumstances surrounding the PC’s death will color the description somewhat, but I’d much rather let the player have that moment than take it away and make a mess out of it. It might even make the death of a well-loved PC easier to take.

Fudging the Dice

Posted on : 11-05-2007 | By : Brian | In : GMing Methodology, Musings

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Treasure Tables posted an article, complete with lengthy commentary, on fudging die rolls. As has been mentioned in that article, the topic of fudging is something of a hot-button in the RPG world. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why is it so important that other people game the same way you do? There is no “right” way to game, and ultimately any group is going to game in whatever way works for them, regardless of what forum-goers think. I think a lot of the argument comes from (on one hand) the misconception that GMs are always fudging die rolls against the players, and (on the other hand) that GMs are simply allowing players to die willy-nilly because it’s what the dice told them to do.

I’ve already made my opinions clear as far as fudging goes, but I’m going to expand on that a little bit now. My previous post aside, saying that I’m “pro fudging” or “pro cheating” is a gross oversimplification. Ninety-five percent of the time I roll the dice, and I go with the result. Sometimes, though, the result of the dice would either bog down the game and ruin it for everyone, or kill the players and bring the game to a halt. Is this the result of poor planning on my part? Maybe. I’m not perfect, and I don’t profess to be. Regardless, my players shouldn’t suffer for my poor planning if there’s something I can do about it in the moment.

There’s also the fact that (I suspect) many people who would balk at fudging die rolls wouldn’t have a problem with making an NPC attack a different PC when the one they’ve been pounding on is almost dead. Is this different? I don’t think so. Ultimately, when I’m running a game, I’m always thinking about what I believe will be most fun for everyone. If the result of the dice is going to cause one of the players to not have a good time, then I consider that a failure on the part of the dice, and I’ll correct it. If the result of the dice would serve to heighten dramatic tension in the game, then I’ll let it stand; this is what happens most of the time, as I’ve already mentioned.

I guess the bottom line, as far as my way of thinking goes, is that I’m not infallible as a GM, so I use dice to resolve most disputes (since they’re impartial). However, dice aren’t infallible either (since they have no capacity to perceive how much fun the players are having), so sometimes I bend the results a little. I should note that it’s very, very rare for me to ignore the dice completely. If a monster scores a critical hit that would kill a PC outright, I won’t turn that into a miss. Instead, I’d probably cause that hit to significantly cripple the PC for the rest of the fight, but at least the PC would get the opportunity to live to fight another day.

One final thought: it’s a common argument that, while GMs think it’s OK for them to cheat, they don’t allow their players to cheat. My counter-argument is that a good GM (particularly one who’s open to fudging) should either be cheating on behalf of the players at least as much as on behalf of the NPCs, or should allow the PCs a mechanic that allows them to “cheat within the rules”. This is exactly why I use mechanics like story tokens, even when such mechanics aren’t in the core rules of the game. If I give the players a means by which they can pull their own bacon out of the fire, then I don’t have to do it for them when they make a silly mistake or bite off a little more than they can chew.

At any rate, that’s how I GM. And if it’s wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

Session Padding

Posted on : 21-03-2007 | By : Brian | In : GMing Methodology, Links, Musings

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This Treasure Tables post puts me in mind of a session I ran way back when. I think it might have actually been the first 3rd Edition session I ever ran. It was a somewhat short-lived solo campaign, myself in the DM’s seat and my friend Mike playing a human fighter, accompanied by a roster of NPCs. Among these NPCs was a rogue named Japhed (the first time I ever used this name, which I use all the time now), who was the best friend of Mike’s character. At any rate, they went into a dungeon infested with kobolds and started hacking their way through it (there wasn’t actually that much setup, as I recall, just a simple dungeon crawl to start things off). About halfway through, they ran into a kobold sorcerer who really gave the party a run for their money. This was where I first discovered the joys of mage armor. The kobold had a 19 AC, difficult for a group of 2nd-level characters, to be sure. They won, but not before the kobold summoned a viper which managed to actually kill poor Japhed. I think that’s probably why the name sticks with me, after all this time. He became a much beloved character in that campaign, and returned in various pseudo-dream sequences.

Anyway, the kobold sorcerer was considerably tougher than I had originally intended, and this was exacerbated by the fact that the (higher level) human cleric that I had created as the ‘end boss’ of the dungeon was killed in two or three rounds, despite his use of a potion of invisibility and more than one cure spell.

Now, I realize that, at best, this probably only qualifies as unintentional session padding; that kobold fight lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. And I guess it was sort of canceled out by the rather quick (and anticlimactic) final battle. However, this was what first sprang to my mind when I read the aforementioned post.

As to session padding in general, I’m for it and against it. The term carries some negative connotations with it, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing all the time. There’s something to be said for not having everything planned out in advance, and if you go into a session figuring that you’ll have to pad it a little, you can use what the PCs are saying and doing to generate some really great role-playing situations based, in whole or in part, on their own personal goals and agendas. What I’m against is throwing in monsters for the sake of drawing out the session, or because the party isn’t beat up enough, or because they’re not getting enough XP. I think that doing that can give your session a more generic and arbitrary feel, and it’s definitely something your players will notice.

[Edit: fixed title.]