After a few long weeks of tweaking, I’m finally ready to share my new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition sheet. This baby has been redesigned for ease of reference and to fit as much as you can in a few short pages. It also contains a small amount of auto calculation for things like skill and save bonuses. I retained the original look of the sheet, but with some changes. Feel free to use it as you wish. You can get it here or on my Downloads page.
So, a long while ago my buddy James posted a fiction challenge on his blog. Well, I haven’t touched this one in quite a while, so I figured what better way to get back into the swing of things? Given that one of my buddies is starting a new D&D game soon, I figured I’d do a little short story about my new tiefling Artificer, Kazamir. It’s the story of how he found his famliar, an ooze named Sploot. Hope you enjoy.
Kazamir’s tail curled over his shoulder and swept the battered hat from his head. With a trembling hand he wiped the sweat from his brow, careful not to nudge the delicate trap mechanism in front of him. He took in a deep breath and replaced the hat before bending down once more.
He surveyed the scene in front of him. He’d managed to pry the thin sheet of granite from the floor, revealing the complex set of symbols and runes underneath. The pressure plate was clearly wired to a trap in the room, but try as he might he just couldn’t suss out what it triggered.
Another deep breath and he glanced up from the plate to survey the hallway again. The walls were finely cut granite, etched with arcane runes of some ancient and completely undecipherable language. The floor was made of similar stone, though unadorned and laid out in careful one foot squares. The ceiling was only ten feet above him and also unremarkable. The only light came from the dim glow stones fitted into the ceiling every ten feet. Several of them had lost their magic and hung limply, lifeless orbs of dull gray crystal.
By Vecna’s cursed eyes, what does this trigger? Kazamir growled in frustration, a low and resonant sound at odds with his tenor voice. Another deep breath to calm himself and he closed his eyes. He carefully lifted his hands and held them outstretched, fingers splayed. Slowly he opened his eyes and started to feel for the flow of magic in the room.
His fingertips began to tingle and ever so slowly he built a mental picture of the mana flows. It was a delicate weaving, though the power behind the runes could never be fully disguised. He shifted his hands to the left wall and very carefully felt for the nexus of energy. There. The central rune roughly ten feet down the hallway, about ten feet up from the floor. That was one of the anchor points. Good. That was a start.
Slowly he pulled his hands to the right, searching in the opposite spot. Yes, the same thing on the wall. So. The runes were set up in a sympathetic net. Which meant that they had to be triggered from a primary ignition point. Which had to be the pressure plate he’d found. Once more he slowly spread his arms so that each palm was pointing directly at each anchor point.
Another deep breath to calm his nerves and focus his mind. Kazamir then slowly pulled his hands inward, letting his arcane senses guide his hands through the energy flow and down into the floor. Inch by inch they moved closer until his hands were nearly touching the the largest rune of the pressure plate.
Okay, so the flows lead to this rune here. Kazamir finally opened his eyes and glanced down at the rune. It was an inverted half dragon, a rune known even in this age. The half dragon wasn’t very complex, which was what made it an excellent trigger mechanism. Even the slightest flaw or shifting would break the anchor and release all of the stored energy, likely in a cataclysm of fire and lightning. Not a good way to die.
So, I can’t just break it or the trap will erupt wildly. No, I need to shunt the energy into the secondary runes, let it leak out gradually. But the only way to do that is by altering the rune. And to do that I need to etch it with acid. And if I mess up… well, I better not mess up!
Kazamir took in another deep breath and his nose wrinkled? The winds in the old ruin had shifted, bringing with them the stench of some terrible carrion. Probably some dead rat Kazamir thought. He pushed the smell out of his mind. No time to lose focus.
His tail deftly probed in one of his belt pouches and lifted out a small vial. He took the vial in his left hand while his right rummaged around in the upper pouch of his armor. He pulled out a very thin glass tube and with careful movements popped open the vial. In went the tube and with his finger capping the top he brought the pipette of acid over the rune.
One more deep breath and a prayer to Avandra and he was ready. With the finest of movements Kazamir slowly started dribbling acid on the rune. The material sparked as it hit the magic and Kazamir held his breath. One… Two… Three…
Nothing exploded. That was good. He glanced up at the wall and noticed that two of the runes were now glowing a cheerful green. A heavy sigh of relief and Kazamir bent down again. Another dip into the vial and the processes started anew. More sputtering. One… Two…
Pain erupted across Kazamir’s back. He screamed and tried to wrench away from the source of pain: right onto the pressure plate. The tiefling only had an instant to take in the situation. The floor and walls around him thronged with power. Behind him he saw a terrible worm-like creature. It had hundreds of single clawed legs and a mass of tentacles beneath a set of mandibles and a many-toothed mouth. Its beady black eyes were on elongated stalks and it absolutely reeked of carrion.
And then the world exploded.
* * * * *
Kazamir groaned as he regained consciousness. His vision was nothing but a blur of colors and his entire body hurt like never before. His head swam and he tried to remember just what had been so important before the world had ended. Think! Slowly he reclaimed his wits. Oh! Carrion Crawler! Avandra save me!
Kazamir forced himself to focus on his surroundings and his body. His whole body hurt. That was good. That meant he wasn’t paralyzed. He glanced around the smoldering remains of the room. The floor all around him was covered in blackened rubble. The walls rose a good fifty feet above him, the sides smoothly polished black stone. It was hard to make out anything beyond that, as the only light came from the sole remaining glow stone from the ceiling high above.
A pit trap. And as if that wasn’t enough, Kazamir could hear scuttling from up above. He slowly moved his head and caught sight of the carrion crawler advancing down the wall. Well, at least I’m not alone in my misery he thought as he took stock of the situation. The carrion crawler was moving slowly, its once green hide now covered in burns and charred bits. One of its eyes had gone white and was oozing puss. One mandible was now nothing more than a charred stump.
Ha. I’m fireproof and you’re not he thought, managing the shade of a wicked smile. Kazamir tried to push himself to his feet and pain shot through both of his legs. He screamed again and quickly dropped back onto his back. Vecna’s eyes, I’ve broken both of my legs!
As the pain receded Kazamir took stock of the situation. He was laying on his back on a mound of rubble. His back felt wet and he could hear and feel the crushed vials in his backpack. He glanced down at his hips and breathed a sigh of relief when he spotted his trusty khopesh and wand. At least he had weapons.
A quick glance up at the wall showed that the carrion crawler was now halfway to him. It might be moving slowly but it was still approaching far too fast. And if it got him he was dead for sure. Their touch brought on paralysis and he doubted if he could kill it in a brawl even fully functional. Which meant that he had to kill it now, while it was still on the wall.
That meant the wand. He slid his hand down to his wand sheath and carefully pulled out the beautiful ash and crystal device. Pain shot through his shoulder and Kazamir sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. He only had one shot at this. His arm wavered for several critical seconds as he tried to get a bead on the creature.
The crystal wobbled over the creature and then suddenly all was right. Kazamir called upon the arcane power in his soul and spoke the words of power he needed. A brilliant lance of blue energy shot forth from the wand and impacted the carrion crawler right square in its midsection. CRACK! The energy beam split into several bands that wrapped themselves tightly around the aberration. The crawler squealed in agony as the bands contracted ever tighter.
The squeal went on for almost a second until there was the horrendous sound of splitting meat. The bands sliced through the crawler and the remains of the creature fell to the floor with wet splats and a gut churning stench. Kazamir let out a a sigh of relief. At least he wasn’t going to die in the belly of a monster.
But he was still quite wounded. Well, he could fix that, too. Kazamir closed his eyes and found the center within himself. One of the first things he had really mastered was the art of infusion, healing infusions in particular. He pulled upon his inner power and then spoke the word of power necessary to infuse a living soul with arcane energy.
Magic surged through Kazamir’s body, knitting bones and mending flesh. He gasped in sudden relief as the pain left his system. He panted for a few minutes in then slowly pushed himself to his feet with a groan. He glanced down at the ruins of his backpack and sighed. He pulled it up and shook it a couple of times and was rewarded with the distinct sound of broken glass.
Well, at least he wasn’t dead.
* * * * *
It hadn’t taken long for Kazamir to examine the bottom of the pit. It was roughly twenty feet square and devoid of anything interesting, save the rubble and a small pile of all his broken potion bottles. He shook his head and glanced up at the ceiling. At least he’d had enough sense to pack some rope and grappling hook.
It only took a few moments to get the grapple attached to the rope. As Kazamir was checking his knots he suddenly stopped at the sign of movement from a small crack in the wall. Leery of another attack, his hand crept toward his wand but stopped when the tiniest ooze he had ever seen flowed out of the hole.
It was no bigger than a small apple and a bright electric blue. The little blob suddenly flowed up into a little tentacle. The tip of the tentacle swiveled all around and then stopped dead when it focused on the pile of broken potions. The ooze suddenly quivered, turned a bright red, and let out a wet sounding SQULORCH!
Then the ooze shot toward the pile with a speed that was surprising given its tiny size. Within moments it was flowing around all of the broken bits, soaking up every bit of alchemist’s fire and potion that had been left. With every little tidbit the ooze shifted color and droned in a very pleasant way.
Kazamir stood in stark surprise for a moment before letting out a tremendous laugh. It was about the funniest thing he had seen in months. The little ooze let out a SPLETCH and darted behind the nearest bit of rubble.
“Ah, did I scare you, little guy?” Kazamir asked.
The ooze didn’t answer, but after a few seconds of silence it did resume its feast. Kazamir bit at his lip in thought. Just how long had the thing been trapped down here within absolutely nothing to eat. Was that why it was so small? And would it remain that small?
Kazamir slowly walked toward the pile of glass, being careful not to make too much noise or move so suddenly. After a few minutes of patience he was kneeling beside the potion remains, watching the little ooze finish off the last of the potions. With one last little SLURP the ooze finished off the last bits. It quivered and formed into a tentacle again, trying to see if anything else remained. When it spotted nothing it let out a mournful keen and turned a dull brown.
“Ah, poor little guy. You still hungry? Well, how about you come with me, then? I’ve always got extra bits of spoiled potion you can eat” aid Kazamir. Then he paused. Why am I talking to an ooze?
To his surprise, the little ooze suddenly grew a little bluer and rose up a bit. Slowly the little creature crept closer to Kazamir. With careful moments Kazamir pulled out his very last vial of acid and uncorked it, holding it out of the ooze. The little ooze then let out another trill and darted toward and into the vial. Almost instantly it turned an electric green and started humming.
“I’ll take that as a yes” said Kazamir, laughing all the while. “But just one question. What am I gonna call you?”
The little ooze only responded with a horrible wet sound. SPLOOT!
“Sploot it is.”
Just a quick post to share the cheat sheet I made for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. It combines Page 42 with MM3 Monsters on a Business Card, with a few other handy references thrown in for good measure. I find it useful and hope others will as well. It’s a handy resource for those of us who have internalized a lot of the rules and status conditions.
Well, it finally happened. Just returned from our monthly D&D game and our entire party was killed. Suffice it to say that five 4th level characters couldn’t stand up to 4 Stirge Swarms and a Catoblepas. Rest in Peace, noble adventurers.
Brother Roderick, Human Cleric of the Silver Flame
Alrik, Dwarven Invoker
Alarich Hellekanus d’Deneith, Human Fighter
Lillithana, Kalashtar Avenger of the Path of the Light
Knappe Truc, Changling Rogue
It was a tough fight and I could see the DM realize what was happening. I think any DM who’s run for any amount of time knows that you rarely really want a TPK. Sure, we may wax poetic and threaten such actions, but ultimately all they do is derail a game. All rolls were made out in the open and it was just one of those things. But man, I feel for my friend and it makes me realize just how bad things can get with a few bad/good dice rolls.
This situation also showed me just how deadly swarms can be in 4th edition. The Catoblepas was tough, but it was the swarms that doomed us all. We just didn’t have enough burst powers and the terrain was very disadvantageous. Still, I hold no grudges and now I get a chance at playing a leader, which should be fun.
Yes, advanced dungeons and dragons. The old one, by Gygax (or the 2nd edition by Cook if you will).
Although Runequest and Rolemaster are games we play more, I do have a soft spot for the original AD&D. I think it has a lot of scope and potential, and people usually respond to it very well, once they are at the table.
So since I am bored, here’s a few different musings on running AD&D games. These are things more specific to AD&D, than broad, generic gaming advice.
1: What do I roll for this?
Its a common complaint that dice rolls are all over the place, but in a lot of ways, that can be a strength. As the GM, you have a lot of options available to you. Some ways to have a player resolve an action can be: An ability check. A straight percentage chance. A saving throw. Use the “spell learn” or “bend bars” rolls. etc etc.There’s a lot of mechanics in there, and they can be used for a lot of interesting results.
2: Say no to skills.
Skills have been standard in RPG’s since Traveller and Runequest. For AD&D, I’d stay clear of them.Look at the character and judge the situation. A ranger should never be rolling dice to see if he can find shelter, and a cleric knows about ancient religions. No hero should roll dice to ride a horse.When you factor in race, class and their background, you’ll know if they can do it or not. Bring out the dice if the situation is truly challenging.
3: Dont roll dice constantly
Rolling dice can be fun, but it can also break the game if everything comes down it.If you look through the AD&D rules, dice rolls are not actually all that common. The implication is certainly that they are rarely rolled, unless the rules specifically bring it up.There’s really two paradigms here: Roll often or roll rarely. A lot of games assume that you’ll roll dice frequently, and that you’ll have a high chance of success. For AD&D, I find it fits the game better if you roll fairly rarely, and with average or even low chances of success. The player should in most cases have a chance to solve the situation without resorting to dice. Think of them as the saving throw. Your plan didn’t work out, so we’ll give you a chance to bail.
4: Thief skills.
A few simple pointers: The thief should never be punished more than another character would, just for attempting his skills.The thief should never be punished simply for being a thief. Examine the situation. If any character could attempt it, the thief can roll for his thief skill to do it faster, better etc. If he fails, he still gets the same chance everyone else would get.
5: Hit points.
Yes, hit points are a mess. They still are. That being said, exploit the fact that they don’t all represent physical punishment in your descriptions. A 5 damage hit when the fighter is at 30 HP is a staggering blow he barely parried. The same hit when he is down to his last 8 HP is a deep gash in his arm, with blood flowing everywhere.”Hitting” does not mean you wounded them until the very end. Until then, you are just wearing down their defenses.
6: Saving throws.
Same deal. Let the players determine how their character resisted. A fighter might just shrug off the spell through determination, while the magic user knew intricate counter measures. As saving throws are based on threat, not defense (reverse of post-AD&D editions) use the freedom.
Whether you use the morale checks or not, the GM should always play creatures intelligently. Nothing saps suspension of disbelief faster than the heroes murdering 20 goblins, and the last 2 obligingly march up to get killed, just for the chance of inflicting 3 more HP of damage.When intelligent creatures are cut down, have them retreat, surrender, negotiate, etc. If the world seems to be a living, interesting place, the players will invest more in it, and may keep themselves alive longer.
8: Dont fudge dice.
Personal policy and some GMs hate this, so use if you please.All dice rolls I make are plainly visible to the players. If they know you will save them, the dramatic tension goes out of the scene. A little fear never hurt anyone in a game.On the flip side, don’t make impossible situations. Most fights should have alternate solutions, ways to improve the situation etc.Make them work for it.
Today we run our first session for my player’s foray into the Tomb of Horrors, which I had adapted for D&d 3.5 (I used the freebie by WotC as a basis, though I’ve done a lot of things my way). Since my players and I prefer the Forgotten Realms, I moved Acererak’s resting place from Greyhawk to Greenwood’s kitchen sink setting.
The characters were a (fairly unoptimized) party, consisting on:
- A bard, whose signature weapon is an intelligent, speaking scythe that she inherited from her father.
- A mature and somewhat overweight Guild Wizard of Waterdeep.
- An elven Tempest (basically, a Figther/Rogue with a couple of levels in the Tempest PrC for better two-weapon fighting).
- Two Aasimar twins (Paladin/Fighter/Pious Templar of Lathander), who had identical character sheets.
A final character (a human scout) was supposed to have turned up too (and he was to be the party’s trapfinder, as the Tempest only had one level of Rogue for now), but the player couldn’t make it in the end, so the party was missing that, plus a cleric type (since one of the Aasimar twins had been an afterthought for the player, who was initially going to create a cleric). This made me think that the whole thing was going to end pretty badly, but decided to go ahead anyway.
To give the whole thing somewhat of a background (and to tie it to the GDQ series, which I’m planning to follow up with, should they survive the tomb), I told them that evil was stirring in the north. Given that the Wizard and the Bard were friends prior to the story, and that the twins were already linked, I decided to make the Wizard an envoy from the Guild, sent to investigate the situation up north by the Lords’ Alliance, with the tempest acting as his bodyguard (hired by the guild) and set the Tomb somewhere within the Evermoors, mentioning that the party had met at Nesme, where the paladins had been told to meet the wizard to investigate a crypt that might hold some items that the guild wants to acquire. Meanwhile, the paladins get to slay some undead lich in the name of Kelemvor, so all is fine and dandy. Enter the creepy hill on top of the tomb:
The players spent some time looking around, and using a levitation spell to raise above the hill, discovering the skull-like setup of the stones. Then they spent a good while digging by the entrances, uncovering all three before moving in. After some discussion, they took to the left entrance at the wizard’s suggestion (“gut feeling gives me a good vibe for this entrance”. Famous last words?), where the bard moved in on his own, using a collapsable 10′ pole to prod around… Which meant that, from the entrance, he triggered the ceiling trap. Since he was doing this from the entrance of the tunnel, I decided to roll only 8D6 damage (instead of the 16D6 he´d normally have taken), and allowed him not to get buried. Still, he failed his save, and his ring of evasion did not work, so he took a pretty decent hit, but survived.
Seeing that the Wizard’s intuition was not that good, the players went for the second entrance (the real entrance to the tomb), and started following the red tile path. This made one of the paladins take quite a few saves to avoid falling onto pits (that he passed without much trouble, thanks to Divine Grace adding his Cha modifier to his saves). He also fell to the trap inside the chest on the wall by the wizard’s study, but his ring of feather fall, and the fact that he was already tied to a rope after falling on a couple of pits before this one saved him from all harm. After following the tile path and discovering Acererak’s riddle, the Elf tempest found that the wall behind the torture chamber drawing hid a passage, while the others were examining the glowing portal and the infamous Green Demon’s Head.
While one of the paladins was contemplating to charge through the Demon’s head (that anybody who has played the Tomb knows where it leads to…), the other decided to go and take down the wall at the torture chamber painting. The elf, meanwhile, at the demolisher paladin’s behest, had started surveying the bottoms of the open pits, and, thanks to some lucky rolling, found the secret door taking to the small crawlspace that led to the oubliette. Curiosity got the best of them, and they decided to go with this new route. To cut a long story short, some lucky rolling later, they had reached the room with the three chests, taken down the scimitar wielding skeleton without too much hassle (in no small part thanks to the bard’s clever spell selection), and got the magic ring within the chests. Since they didn’t search much, they didn’t find the secret door leading to the Hall of Spheres, so they decided to backtrack their steps to the initial room, and then went through the Torture Chamber door, to face off the 4-armed gargoyle.
The gargoyle, which I had taken from the 3.5 free conversion module without a second thought was quite above the CR11 shown on its stats, as it was proven when it dealt almost 100 HP to the Tempest in two hits (one of them a critical) on the first round of combat, dropping her down into negative HP (after I realized that the monster’s stats were somewhat out of whack and took its damage and DR down a bit. Otherwise, the Tempest would have died). After a really tough fight, where the bard got to shine again thanks to some timely cast heals and clever spells, as well as the bardic music, and where one of the twins took the worst part of the monster’s offense, the Gargoyle finally crumbled, dead (leaving the Tempest at -6 HP and one of the paladins at 4HP, with the other at about half HP). All this while, the Wizard was grumbling, as the spells he was trying to get from the Guild’s magical reservoire were never available. The players took the gargoyle’s necklace, found the secret compartment on it, and kept on, entering the gauntlet of secret doors that would take them to the Hall of Spheres, which they navigated without much trouble thanks to the wizard’s gaseous form giving him some insight on how the doors were supposed to open. From this point, their journey sped up considerably. They took some damage from the trapped false doors, explored the various illusory spheres until returning to the room of three chests, obtaining the gem of true seeing from the 3-armed statue (losing all the gems they had gained from the gargoyle in the process), and entered the chapel.
Somewhat baffled by the various good-aligned gods on the walls, caution got the best of them, and they avoided the portal, the altar and the benches in the room, and used the gem of true seeing, which allowed them to find the secret door that led into the lower areas of the tomb. Following the corridor, they avoided the three doors with the pits on the way, and came accross the reinforced door with the audible glamer. The paladin’s adamantite weapons destroyed the door, and the party proceeded forward… Right into the balancing floor trap. Some VERY LUCKY saving throws later (one of the paladins avoided falling into the lava by rolling a 25 on his reflex save, exactly the number needed), the floor was raising while everyone jumped off of it in the nick of time, and avoiding certain death once more.
Backtracing their steps, and using a wand of detect secret doors and the gem of vision, the bard finally found the hidden door on the third pit they had passed before (while they were saying “this lich was a real idiot. How did he think we’d fall for this a third time?”). Crossing it led them to the false crypt. Zone of clean air took care of the fear mists long enough to let the elf open the door to Acererak’s resting place… Or was it really his resting place? Entering the room, and getting ready to face the lich, one of the paladins saw the mace at the end of the stairs, and instead of acting carefully, he picked it up, making the Lich raise from his resting place. The fight begun, but a single hit from the Mace of lich smiting took care of the evil undead (natural 20 on the attack roll, then the lich failed its save vs. the disruption effect. It felt very fitting and heroic). With the lich’s death, the whole tomb started crumbling around them, and as the elf and the mace-wielding paladin were grabbing the jade coffer to salvage it before the tomb collapsed on their heads, the bard took out the gem of vision, and saw through the illusion. It was all a ruse. The characters stayed, ignoring the illusion, and came to the conclusion that this was just a decoy. Some more searching (with the aid of the gem of vision and the wand of secret door detection, once more) made them find the door to the lower crypts. Venturing forth into the tomb, they reached the Mummy preparation room, and at that point we called it a night, since we´d been playing for 8 hours already, stopping only for dinner.
Some thoughts on the session:
– Lack of a cleric certainly hurt the party on the only serious combat encounter (the 4-armed gargoyle), but it was mostly a non-issue on the rest of the tomb. Wands of cure light wounds + a bard to cast them was enough, given that the players avoided just about all the really dangerous traps thanks to a mixture of good luck and smart play.
– The bard player made a weak class shine through clever play. Good spell selection, a large amount of wands, and in general great support for the party made for a great asset to the group.
– Lack of a rogue was mostly a non-issue for two factors: the first was that the design of the tomb as a 1st edition module meant a greater reliance on clever thinking and experimentation than on “roll disable device”. I let them deal with most of the traps as a guy without disable device would have (the elf had a +10 or so to disable device, which wasn’t enough to really tackle most traps anyway), and they did fine, though they were very lucky with some rolls (like the saves on the lava pit)… Which takes us to the second factor. For some reason, the elf managed to roll between 18 and 20 whenever she was looking for a hidden door that was important to find.
– The more experienced players showed more restraint and creativity. The one paladin that almost went into the Demon’s head was the same one that was tempted to go into the chapel stomping about, whereas the other one was the one that kept testing for pits, that picked the mace, and that suffered the least HP damage of the two. Meanwhile, the bard was pretty spot-on when interpreting the riddle of Acererak, and using the gem of vision.
All in all, it was a hugely fun adventure (even though I did tone down the lethality of it all a little, to make for a more enjoyable experience for both my players and I) and I can’t wait for the next session to begin, to see how they handle the lower (deadlier, too) crypts of the Tomb of Horrors. If all goes as planned, the next session will be in 2 weeks from now, and I’ll post a report of it too.
These days I’m preparing The Tomb of Horrors for my gaming group, and with it, I’m checking out a few old modules and books for inspiration or simply to convert to 3.5 and play with my gaming group. Over the course of my reading, I’ve realized one thing: unlike many of the various splatbooks or sourcebooks for other games or editions, these books make me wanna play.
If I pick up the D&d 3.5 corebook (or the 4E, or even the WFRP 2nd edition corebook to an extent), I see a great book. The rules are, in most cases, well explained, the artwork is great, and they provide a great foundation to many hours of fun… But there is nothing in there that makes me hyped for playing (small footnote. WFRP’s careers do make me wanna play, but it’s a minor thing in the book).
Meanwhile, I read The Enemy Within, Against the Giants, any of the “Volo’s guide to…”, or the descriptions of the planes in the 3.0 Manual of the Planes, with their exotic locales and the various plot hooks, and the first thing that comes to mind is “man, this is cool! I could make this story that…” or “it would be awesome to play this…”
In the end I’ve come to the conclusion that we strive to make great books, with an awesome presentation, that are completely coherent, but we often forget to play up the “why do you wanna play this?” angle, and that definitely hurts the final product a little.
And to close with stuff that makes me wanna game…
Skill Challenges are probably one of my favorite parts of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I love the framework it provides to an ongoing situation or story. I love that skills are actually really useful in a tangible and noticeable way. I use them quite frequently in my games and they’re a fantastic tool. Unfortunately they’re also quite hard to run in a fun and dynamic way. It’s taken me a good deal of time and effort, but I finally think I’ve hit upon the core problem of skill challenges and a rather easy to implement solution.
The core problem with a skill challenge is that it’s dead easy to fall into a very static “roll and repeat” cycle. The DM names a skill and difficulty, the player with the best bonus rolls, and you repeat the process all over again. It’s easy to understand why this happens, too – that’s how the rules are more or less represented. The Dungeon Master’s Guide does go into some good detail on framing the scene, but precious little is said about actually moving the story forward – and that’s what you have to do when running a skill challenge.
In my mind you should only make a roll during a “breaking point” in each scene of the skill challenge. This is the point where the PCs have to act or react, for good or ill. Furthermore, this action should move the story and change the situation regardless of success or failure. The fastest way to fall into a static skill challenge is by not changing the situation after every roll. If Bob the Bard fails his Diplomacy roll when speaking with the Duke that’s going to have as many consequences as a successful check. Either the Duke leans in and whispers about the assassination plot or he calls for his guards to oust the PCs – either way something happens and the story moves forward.
By changing the situation, even slightly, after every roll you bring in new skills and change how the players see the situation. The situation should never stay static once you roll. Something has to happen, for good or ill, and new skills should come into play. Which is easy to talk about here but hard to actually put into practice. The simple fact is that running skill challenges like this requires a good deal of improvisation and thinking on your feet. It’s not something that everyone is good at and I think it’s the main reason that the skill challenges are presented as they are now.
Furthermore, I don’t like listing what skills are used in the challenge. Instead I frame the situation and ask my players “how do you resolve this issue?” Players are a crafty bunch and often times they’ll come up with a unique solution that you hadn’t thought about using. Try to roll with it, assign a difficulty as best you can, and keep the action moving. This invests the players further into the story and lets everyone try and use their favored skills, ensuring that the action moves along at a brisk pace. If your players get stymied or stuck you can suggest a few actions, but by and large try and let the players think of solutions themselves. You’ll be surprised at how creative they can get when given the opportunity.
All of this is great on paper, but I know some of you are going “how in the hell do I plan for all these options?” The short answer is that you don’t: there’s no way to know everything your players are going to do. Instead I’ve found it’s much more useful to sketch out the situation and area and the possible reactions of all the characters involved. I don’t need to know that Fytor is going to try and leap across the chasm and try to beat up my lizard shaman – all I need to know is that the shaman has henchmen and a few traps littered around. Fytor goes from rolling Athletics to bridge the gap to rolling Acrobatics to evade all those nasty traps.
Even if you want something more structured you still need to move things along briskly. Try to map out where each successful and unsuccessful check will take the PCs. You don’t need a ream of notes, but knowing which skills the PCs will be rolling after every success and failure is rather helpful. Even a simple outline of the flow of events can be hugely helpful when it comes time to roll the dice.
In short, remember the following:
- Each skill check should change the situation and the skills available (even – or especially – on a failure).
- Try to let the PCs name what skills they want to use, if at all possible.
- If you know the situation and players involved you can wing everything else.
- Either say yes or roll the dice.
Here’s wishing you luck on your next skill challenge! They don’t have to be boring and they can add a lot to your game if you’re willing to just wing things a little.
Tonight I had the final and epic battle of a short 3 adventure campaign I ran for my regular group and a long lost gaming buddy who returned to us for a limited 3 month run. I’m happy to say that things went smoothly, everyone had a lot of fun, and the good guys won out in the end. Yet when I think back over tonight I’ve come to realize that the most memorable battle for me wasn’t the final encounter with the nasty evil menace, it was one of the previous encounters. The reason it sticks out in my mind, at least to me, has to do with the fight environment.
The more interesting battle took place in a temple that was built deep underneath a lake. It was filled with air, but the bottom level had the corners open out into the lake and channels of water that flowed around the room. Every round one of the channels would fill with water and try to wash away whoever was foolish enough to stand in them. It featured enemies who could swim and who understood the terrain.
This area forced the players and characters to think about where they moved and opened up some interesting tactical considerations and roleplaying moments. The poor swordmage got pushed into a channel of flowing water by the tail slap of a lizard man, but she managed to escape thanks to the quick thinking of her friends. That was interesting. It was dynamic. It was memorable!
The final battle, in contrast, took place in the village where the nasty monster from beyond the stars crawled out of the well. Sure, it had a lot of interesting things in the environment to use, but none of the players were forced to interact with them, or even encouraged. The fight was tougher, sure, but it was less interesting because the environment was so darn passive.
These days I think that an environment that changes the field of battle and provides interesting ways to use it is far preferrable to stagnant and passive environments. Especially in a game so tactically crunchy as 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve stopped thinking about the battlefield as a passive place and started treating it more like a monster or active participant in a fight. The terrain should move, or provide new options in a fight, or even just provide some really interesting set dressing.
Sure, this concept isn’t new to roleplaying and I’m sure that a lot of you out there have done this for years. I’ve done it myself once in a while, but this is the first time since I started running games where it’s in the front of my mind. And let me tell you right now, that’s a really good thing! It’s made my fights more interesting and memorable and really forced me to think about how the players might actually move about a space. It makes things seem more real.
So, the next time you’re planning that epic battle for your group, sit down and really thinkg about where it’s going to take place. See what you can do to make the battle more interesting by spicing up the environment. You might be surprised what a difference it makes!
So, I can’t just let my friends get all up in my blog and throw around their own opinions without adding my own, can I? I figure that it’s high time that I throw down and explain just why I love 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons to itty bitty little pieces.
My friends and those that know me through various message boards generally know that I’ve always been a big supporter of the latest edition of just about any game (Changeling: the Lost notwithstanding). Generally I feel that most new editions are actual improvements over the old ones, at least when it comes to my own preferences when it comes to roleplaying games. Now, in the past I’ve been a bit of an edition elitist when it came to my favorite, but thankfully my friends disabused me of my superiority and I’m now what you’ll call a positive champion. Yes, I like 4th edition over any other editions, but I realize know that it’s because the rules adhere to what I want in a game and not because it’s flat out superior. I’ll never say that one game is strictly better than another game or edition, but I will state that I think it works better for me.
So, why do I love 4th edition so very much? There are a variety of reasons, but the biggest is because I really love crunchy bits in a game, so long as those crunchy bits aren’t too complex. I love 4th edition, and Mutants and Masterminds, but I also like games like Spirit of the Century or Savage Worlds. I like my crunch on the medium to moderate level, not super complex like Hero or as fiddly as GURPs.
For me, 4th edition hits that perfect level of crunchy and “rules light.” Yes, there are a lot of powers and fiddly bits, but by and large they all follow one generic framework that’s easy for me to understand. I like combing through all the books looking for that perfect feat or power, I gather a great deal of enjoyment finding things like this. For me character creation is just as much a fun part of the game as playing itself. I love finding that combination of feats, powers, and skills that can be combined in an awesome way.
Some of my friends call me a power gamer, and I suppose that I have to cop to that to a certain extent. I don’t like breaking the game or coming up with stupidly powerful combinations of things, but I do like my characters to be really effective. System mastery and rules mastery are fun and enjoyable to me, and 4th edition definitely scratches that itch. And best of all once I know all those rules I can tweak or ignore them to my hearts content when I run a game.
I also like class base systems, and after running at least two or three games for groups of newbies I can tell you that classes are actually really valuable when introducing new players to the hobby. They’re a wonderful package of “cool things you can do” that are a nice shorthand for a new player to wrap their head around. If I have a new player who wants to help his buddies I can point him right at any leader class and then let them go from there.
I also love running games, and for me 4th edition has been a vast improvement over the earlier editions. I have all the tools, digital and otherwise, to create fun and dynamic encounters that are both flavorable and tactically interesting enough to make running them very enjoyable. There is just something about how 4th edition monsters work that I can so easily understand that it’s been pretty trivial to prepare an adventure. Compared to the previous edition my prep time is about 1/10th of what it used to be, which means I can concentrate more on creating interesting areas and plots than on what magic items an NPC might be carrying.
That and 4th edition is also interesting in that it’s kind of two games in one. On one hand you have your classic “kill them and take their stuff” challenge of a traditional D&D game (not to say that my games are that simple). On the other hand you have this wonderful tactical miniature style battle game when you start rolling initiative. I have so much fun figuring out how my group of monsters is going to beat up the PCs, running each combat like a little miniatures skirmish game. I live for this kind of stuff and 4th edition is pretty unique in that I can sort of get two games in one.
Finally, the rest of my regularly weekday group has always been a D&D group. It’s the game they like far mroe than any other and we generally use the newest edition. I’m lucky in the fact that my players actually enjoy the same system that I do, and that my good friend and fellow GM upstairs is just as enthusiastic as I am. We talk for hours about how to do various things and what we’re going to spring on each other the next time we run.
All that said, I still enjoy a lot of other systems too. The weekend group I have (I’m fortunate enough to have not one, not two, but three different groups) tends to dabble in a lot of different systems, and I have to say that it’s been really good for me over all to try out so many different things. Learning how other systems work just reinforces my love of 4th edition and all the other games, because each one brings something different to the table. And in this day and age all us gamers have no excuse not to use the perfect tool for the job. Or the right system for our preferences. And when it comes to a fantasy game, that right system is 4th edition for me.