Yesterday I made a rather bold announcement on Twitter:
The only #dnd rule that I attempt to follow 100% of the time is that the game will be fun. What fun means is determined by the group. :)
Rob Donoghue replied that it's a dangerous rule because "it means you may end up violating every rule-based methodology of how it should be done. Which is not really dangerous, just Internet dangerous." I agree with him. The Internet is great for many things, but we will read what we want to from statements such as this one, particularly when the 140 character limit of Twitter limits our word choice.
The first part of the rule seems pretty easy. We play because we enjoy it and I have yet to hear of a group that follows every D&D rule to the letter. My observation is not limited to just 4th edition, people ignored or changed rules going back to OD&D. It's really the D&D way.
The second part is the hardest. First, it's difficult to understand motivations that we don't have and what it is about them that makes the game fun for others. If I hate puzzles, I'm going to have a hard time wanting them in the game or understanding what about them makes the player next to me do a dance of joy every time we come across one. This failure of shared understanding is particularly difficult for dungeon masters since we are expected to provide a fun game to a wide-variety of play styles, many of which are not our own. To some degree, it requires that we put aside our own egos and look at everyone's needs and desires.
In addition, this requires that we understand the goals of the rules. Rules generally aren't arbitrary, they are meant to encourage certain behaviors or reactions at the table. If we can understand why the rule exists and what it is trying to achieve, we'll be in a better position to massage it into something fun for our groups. The newer errata gives explanations for rule changes; I think in a large part to facilitate this sort of discussion.
This understanding helps us figure out which rules to enforce. For instance, many players are fine with getting hit by a monster, it's to be expected after all, but they hate missing on their attack. If you have a group like this and load up on monsters that give negatives to attack rolls or who have high defenses, your players may get frustrated at you, even though you are following the "rules." If the players are just rolling through the encounters, there are other ways to fix the problem, such as using terrain elements or choosing monsters with high damage paired with ones that give boosts to accuracy. Still all within the rules, but geared towards the group's desired play style and definition of fun.
Of course, to do this, we need to understand what is fun for ourselves and the other players. Unfortunately, this really only comes with experience. New players might have some ideas about what their play style might be, but it's not easy. While I knew that I loved tactics because that was my favorite part about playing Avernum, I also thought I would enjoy puzzles a lot more than I do.
Also remember that what you enjoy may change from group to group. In some groups, you might love comparing kill numbers with your buddy across the table while in another group, the focus might become who is the most cunning linguist. My best advice for the entire group is to play a few games together and then have a real conversation about what is and isn't fun. DMs should try to have these conversations on a one-on-one basis since people might be afraid of hurting someone else's feelings by saying something isn't for them.
Once people have an idea of what they want, it's time to provide it. Often this rests on the DM's shoulders but everyone should try to pitch in. For things most of the group likes, try to make them a core part of the campaign. With those items covered, sprinkle in the rest the other things your players like, possibly during their spotlight. Make them shine doing the things they love. Players can help by recognizing a spotlight scene and cooperate in making it awesome. Don't be a jerk and ruin it for the player or the group might devolve into petty squabbling.
One last thing, remember that DMs are players too. That means they get to have a say in what happens from time to time as well. They shouldn't abuse it; if most of the players like the role play and the DM consistently hand waves every tavern scene, that's a big problem. On the other hand, if the DM likes to run a tactically hard combat every once and a while, maybe it's best to acknowledge the motivation and let it go.
Baths are important and I don't mean just because it's convention season. Adventuring is hard work and baths make it more bearable, both for the adventurer and the people he meets. But it's more than that, baths present excellent opportunities for role playing and immersion into the game world.
Without baths, the adventurers' smell would soon make it impossible to sneak around, particularly in a home or town. Not that sneaking would be all that easy to do with a cold. Without baths, the scrapes and cuts that result from the numerous fights would fester and become infected. A nice hot bath also helps relax the muscles and work out the knots that come with so much physical assertion. There is a reason why many towns became famous for their baths and, even in ancient times, communities built bath houses.
Beyond physical comfort, baths provide a number of great opportunities for social interaction. Without running hot water, drawing a bath requires the assistance of others. Water needs to be heated and poured into the tub. Since everyone likes a good bath, the people who do these tasks can be excellent sources of the information. They may have chatted with everyone from the stable hand to the visiting dignitary.
In addition to information gathering, baths provide an opportunity to let down one's guard. While it could become a distraction at some tables, the act of removing the clothes and gear that call attention to our status as adventurers might help us think of them as people too. If the table isn't into that sort of role playing, don't spend too much time on it, but the relaxed atmosphere might help bring out the shy members of the group.
These are some of the reasons I think baths are important. What sorts of everyday experiences do you find important in your games?
"Demand more money from me? Who does that Urgak think he is?" Ragdin growled as his fist hits the table.
"He will make a fine addition to our army," sang Dolra as she held up the battle axe she was cleaning. "I would love to test him, personally, with or without the collar."
"Soon, my dear, soon," came Ragdin's reply. "For now he must keep an eye out for those murderous bastards. They'll be here soon enough. While C. C. and I disagreed on much, she did not deserve to die in such a manner. And her poor brother, Darius, there for the festivities. They'll get what's coming to them, but not before we've had our fun."
We haven't played for awhile and I am having a hard time coming up with a good preview for tonight. Add to that the fact that I'm not very confident when it comes to writing dialogue, and well, my preview ends up a bit short. I do like the idea of a female dwarf warrior who has a lilting voice though.
It's been about a week since I posted my rough attempt at a lumber mill delve, and it's time to go back and review it. Since I didn't post them in my last entry, this is a good time to put down what I'm hoping to accomplish with this delve. First, some working parameters:
- I'm using a format similar to the one in the Dungeon Delves book, 3 encounters, starting at a level equal to the players and increasing by 1 level each encounter. Thus, a delve for 1st level characters will include encounters at levels 1-3.
- Game mechanics over story. Most of the delves in the book provide some story hooks in case you want to include them in a normal campaign, but overall, I'm not going to worry about developing a story line too much.
This last one is particularly important. While I'm not going to worry too much about tying the delve to a longer story arc, the delve itself should be memorable in its own right. That means one of my criteria will be judging how much each encounter, monster and trap reinforces the theme, in this case a lumber mill. For me, that meant conveyor belts and saws. Wanting to focus a bit more on the fantastical, I made it a mill run by gnomes.
With some guidelines for the feel that I wanted and how I wanted to accomplish it, it was time to create the first encounter. It made sense to me that they would start in the room where the logs would be debarked and cut into manageable chunks. I tried to think how gnomes might accomplish this. A few of them with a tool for debarking, along with a ceiling mounted saw seemed like a good idea.
Updating the Debarking Gnomes
There are a few things that I could do to make this better, playing up the tension and increasing the difficulty a bit. First, let's throw out the bit about the gnomes being surprised. Given that they just kidnapped some local children, I'm sure they are all going to be on high alert. If the group wants to try to sneak in, we should have the member with the lowest stealth modifier roll a group stealth check. We will use the difference between the stealth and perception to determine the starting action:
- If they succeed, the gnomes are surprised.
- If they fail, the gnomes hear the PCs approach and have the chance to hide themselves. One of the gnomes will run over to start the bucking saws before the PCs enter the room and the other two will start under the conveyor belt and attempt to hide.
Now that we've evened out the start of the encounter a bit, let's work on the gnomes themselves. Gnomes have low-light vision, and there isn't much of a need for bright light in the room. Let's add in some terrain elements that provide dim light for the gnomes to see by, since they won't use fire based sources on the account of the sawdust. With that added in, I should add back the "Reactive Stealth" power.
Also, I want to update the damage from the attack. The updated damage from MM3 would be 1d10+6. However, I'm thinking 2d6 + 4 instead. The extra dice might make the players feel like the little gnome is tougher, but the average damage is about the same.
Simplify and Strengthen the Bucking Saws
Now that we've reworked the gnomes and environment, it's time to simplify the saws. For story reasons, let's have one of the gnomes turn on the saws as soon as a PC enters the room. This is done via the control panel and the doors to the next room lock at the same time. If the PCs somehow take out the gnome near the control panel before it can turn the machine on, the next gnome will try to do that first.
The current mechanics for running the saw are a bit too complicated and really need to be simplified.
So those are some of the changes I would make to the encounter. Next time, I'll look at the second encounter. In the meantime, what changes would you make to this encounter?
One of the things I struggle with in building monsters is when to use conditions instead of just damage. There just isn't a ton of advice on which ones to use, how often, or anything like that. And given that one of the big design changes for MM3 is the use of more effects, and effects on a miss, understanding the severity of effects is even more important.
So here is the list as I see it, starting with the harshest penalties (the ones you'll want to use the least). When I created the list, I looked towards the fun of the players in addition to the effects the conditions had on the PCs. So the first group is little fun because basically the players get one roll per turn, their saving throw, and they are open to coup de grace.
After that are the conditions that aren't much better as they still remove the players actions but the PCs aren't as vulnerable. Dominated is particularly annoying to players because their carefully crafted character is turned against their fellow party members. Perhaps these are best saved for elites and solos and even then, only on their recharge powers. Additionally, they make good conditions after a 2nd or 3rd failed saving throw on a weaker condition.
From there we have the somewhat harsh, fair and annoyances. The first group is probably best left to recharge powers (ones that are used once or twice per encounter) or as conditions of a failed saving throw. The second group can be tricky, so you might want to limit them to recharge powers or only to the end of the next turn. The last group is pretty safe and can be used much more often.
Group 1: The Harshest
Group 2: Use with Care (removes all actions)
Group 3: Somewhat Harsh
- -5 to attack
Group 4: Fair
- Ongoing Damage
- Immobilized / Grabbed
Group 5: Annoyances
- Forced Movement
- -2 to attack
- Grant Combat Advantage
- -2 to defenses
So that's my list. What changes would you make?
Edit: I moved weakened to the somewhat harsh category.
Edit: At Rob's suggestion I added -5 to attack, -2 to attack and -2 to defenses, although I changed the groups for the latter two. I also added in granting combat advantage.
June was a crazy month for me, not only here with things like the unofficial monster builder manual, but I contributed to some podcasts and wrote an article for another site. I'm having a blast doing it and I want to thank all of you for making it possible.
- I have a new monthly column at Temporary Hit Points. There I'm known as the Player's Guide and I hope to demystify D&D for newer players and answer their questions about playing this great game.
- I'm part of The Fellowship of the Tweet, an online OD&D game run by @newbiedm and often including @deadorcs, @DMSamuel, @ThadeousC, @gamefiend, and @chattydm. When we can't play, we often have a conversation about D&D. We recorded our second one and posted it here.
- As of Wednesday, I am also a co-host on the new podcast 4geeks4e. So far we've released our introductory episode and hope to record another one soon. We aim to keep it at about 30 minutes and just give our take on this great hobby of ours.
- I am also a fairly regular contributor to the Tome Show. Last month I helped with the review of the Player's Strategy Guide and Amethyst.
There you have it, just a few of the things that have kept me extra busy. I'll be busy this month preparing to go to my first GenCon. There's lots to do and little time to do it in.
Greg Bilsland recently wrote an excellent post on his blog about the DM's dirty secret. Put simply, as awesome as PCs are, they are always going to be challenged. What's more, it's the DM's responsibility to make sure of it and the rules as written often can't provide that challenge.
That last bit is particularly important. My guess is that's partly why monster and encounter design is left loosely defined in the core books and why they remain a mystery to many DMs. Given the nature of D&D, the different player motivations and skill levels, it's impossible to craft monster and encounter generation rules that will challenge all groups in the same way. The DM needs to be able to make tweaks and changes that provide the type of tension and challenge that makes the game fun for the group.
The Kobold Guide to Game Design volume 3 echoes this philosophy. In the chapter "Myths and Realities of Game Balance," Monte Cook argues that the gamers' social contract is that "everyone is responsible for making the game fun for all involved" and that the players must "trust the GM to provide a fun and balanced play experience." While rules systems can provide a number of tools to make this easier on players and DMs, none of them can provide the actual balance. For that, you need the people at the table to trust one another.
Greg provides some pretty controversial methods for providing this challenge including fudging dice rolls and modifying monsters on the fly. Since players often feel like their characters live or die by their dice, I understand the hesitation and how such behavior affects trust at the table.
The second one is really only an issue at tables where a number of the players DM or are big into meta-gaming. It's a thornier issue because players are required to go by their character sheet. What often gets forgotten is that a monster stat block is a shortened character sheet with a lot of room left for modification. In addition, 4th edition is meant to allow characters, PCs and NPCs alike, to go off script. Page 42 exists in the Dungeon Master's Guide for a reason.
Personally, I roll in the open. My changes occur on the monster side, often before we even hit the table. When it comes down to it, I'm much more likely to fudge on the side of my players than not. If they are having a tough time in an encounter and the monster has a power that is likely to finish them off, I'm more likely than not to pull my punches. What I would ask for in return is that if they are totally blowing through an encounter that I thought would be harder, then I would like to recharge the dragon's breath weapon even though I rolled a 4 instead of a 5 or 6. It will provide a bit more fright but in the end, the group will be victorious and happy.
One thing that often surprises me is how much, and yet how little, we change when we create fantasy worlds. For instance, we often radically change the look and feel of the world. We add new wondrous species, awe-inspiring locales and epic legends. However, rarely do we change the fundamental underpinnings of our societal structure such as our views on gender, race, and disability. In these aspects, our worlds are more likely to mirror our reality than our desire.
Why is this? For one, we have a hard time imagining people with motivations and a world outlook different from our own. This is evident in our insistence on giving modern motivations and sensibilities to historical events and people. Given how I was raised, I can't imagine what it was like before the advent of modern medicine, when most children did not live to see adulthood. Likewise, I can't imagine being willing to sacrifice a child or to kill someone for stealing the seed grain. But yet people did those things and made those value judgments. I can write them off as monsters or acknowledge that perhaps they thought about the world in a way different than I do.
Often, these societal views are tied to fundamental issues of identity. Our race and nationality often tie us together to certain value groupings and orderings in ways that are difficult to escape, or, at the very least, lead others to group us in ways that are unfair to our individuality. Gender identity confronts us every day, from the ways we address each other to which restroom we use. Those with disabilities are often acutely aware of them because they call out our individuality, often at times when we most want to be part of the crowd. We allow these things to define us because our societies define us by them.
The fundamental nature of these rules means it's often easier to change ourselves than change the rules. We go through great lengths to "fit in" whether it's neutralizing accents, getting plastic surgery or going into debt to have the newest shiny. It's no great surprise then that we have a hard time ignoring these impulses when we design our fantasy worlds. And, when we do escape their pull, we have a habit of pointing it out, often in a jarring manner.
This underlying issue is why the lack of character diversity in D&D upsets me as much as it does. I know that there is no vast conspiracy, corporate or otherwise, to keep anyone "in their place." Rather, the problem is that we lack a bit of imagination and a willingness to reshape the rules of our existence. Even in a world where trains move by magic and people can call lightning from the sky, we often have few female adventurers, far fewer than the 50% of the population they presumably comprise, and most adventurers are healthy without a scratch on them. Our characters still conform to Western European ideals of gender and color and the virility of man.
Not every writer, DM, or player is like this, but enough are that the promise of fantasy still outweighs the reality. I'm sorry that it saddens me a bit, but I would be lying if I said otherwise. It's an incredibly hard problem to solve and, for the majority of players, often not a fun one. I wish I had some easy fix and I know it's much easier to just shrug our shoulders and ignore the issue entirely. But I'm making a resolution to think about these things in my games and, I hope, that some of you will join me.
Yesterday on Twitter I mentioned that I was trying to think up a good adventure idea for a downloadable delve. Rob Donoghue suggested using a lumber mill as a backdrop. Loving a good challenge, I decided to give it a shot. Here is my rough draft of such an adventure. I created it in less than 24 hours so there are still some rough edges. I still have to create maps, but basically, it's just a series of interconnected rooms, probably about 10 by 10 squares and a conveyor belt moving through the middle of them. Movement between the rooms can be through the conveyor belt or through doors.
The PCs are returning to town when they come upon two huddled figures limping along the road. When they get closer, the group notices they are two teenagers, badly beaten. The youngsters tell their tale of woe. They and the some other village children were collecting firewood in the town wood when they came upon a group of gnomes cutting down trees. The gnomes noticed them before they could escape and beat the two teenagers and left them for dead. They took the rest of the children, probably for ransom or sale to slavers.
The teenagers give clear instructions to the location of the crime and, from there, the PCs are able to follow the trail without problem. It leads to a lumber mill. The PCs' experience tells them it might be easier to enter through the back, rather than try a frontal assault.
Encounter 1: Up the Conveyor
Encounter Level 1 (500 XP)
1 Bucking Saws
3 Gnome Debarkers
The first step of the manufacturing process is to remove the bark from the tree trunks and cut them into manageable sizes (bucking). This room is set up to do that, with gnomes specially trained to debark the trees and machinery hung from the ceiling to do the cuts.
When the PCs enter the room
They surprise the gnomes while they were taking a break. The gnome closest to the control panel will try to turn it on.
The gnomes will try to engage anyone who gets near the panel.
Features of the Area:
Illumination: Brightly lit
Conveyor Belt: Creatures on the conveyor belt get 1 extra movement in the direction the belt is moving. If moving against the belt, treat it as difficult terrain. It takes an Athletics/Acrobatics check (DC 5) to get on or off the conveyor.
Encounter 2: Blades of Doom
Encounter Level 2 (625 XP)
Gnome "Saw Master"
12 Flying Buzz Saws
Rather than the normal machinery one would expect in a lumber mill, the hard work of crafting lumber from chunks of tree is done by a gnome and his mind controlled saws. He leers at the party and figures his saws will be just as good at cutting them up.
The Saw Master will mark 2 of the PCs to start and have his blades annoy those members of the party. From there, he will attempt to provide them with combat advantage where ever possible, using his blinding pain power as soon as possible.
Features of the Area:
Illumination: Bright light.
Encounter 3: Meet the Foreman
Encounter Level 3 (800 XP)
2 Gnome Finishers
1 Guard Dog
2 Lumber Piles
The missing children are in this room, being hassled by the gnome foreman and his dogs. As soon as they see the party enter, the finishers climb on top of the lumber pile. The foreman is not above bargaining with the PCs but he is very confident in his abilities (with good reason) so his initial offers will be quite high.
The lumber pile traps easily can be used against the PCs or against the finishers. The finishers like their perches, however, so will wait before using them. The guard dog is very loyal to the foreman but not the finishers.
Features of the Area:
Illumination: Brightly lit.
During the recent discussion over pregens, some people asked if I would create some to share. While I'm not sure my characters would appeal to everyone, I decided to try my hand at creating a couple. Here are my first two. One thing to note, sources such as the Player's Strategy Guide suggest setting ability scores in a more optimized manner, but I like to use the standard array. Overall, I tend to be much more in favor of story than crunch, but if there is a glaring weakness, feel free to point it out. I spend much more time DMing than playing, so my character creation skills aren't always as strong as they should be.
Class: Fighter (Battlerager)
Background: Citizen of Kiris Dahn
Ability Scores: Str 18, Con 14, Dex 12, Int 11, Wis 13, Cha 10
Fighter Talent: Battlerager Vigor
Skills: Dungeoneering, Athletics, Intimidate, Streetwise
Languages: Common, Goblin
Feats: Against All Odds, Toughness
At Will: Brash Strike, Crushing Surge, Threatening Rush
Encounter: Passing Attack
Daily: Comeback Strike
Rituals: Gentle Repose, Brew Potion
Equipment: Adventurer's Kit, Chainmail, Mace, Hand Crossbow, Heavy Shield
At one time, Meredith's family was amongst the proudest of Kiris Dahn. A long line of fighters, most of the town's guard had her family's blood in their veins. But the family's fortunes mirrored those of the town, and when they were forced to flee 8 years ago, the they lost what little wealth they had left. Recently, old family letters were found that describe a favored hiding place of her great-great-great-grandfather and her family believes some long forgotten treasures may be stashed there. She's been looking for a reason to get back at the goblins that forced her family to flee, and if she can search the house, all the better.
Raised on tales of her family's honor in combat, she has more trust in her mace than her words. She will often throw herself in the middle of the fray, her confidence buoyed the more she is surrounded. She was raised to continue in the family tradition and is well versed in basic combat and guard duties. However, she feels the need to prove her worth as well as that of her families, and will get herself in trouble with her brashness.
Class: Cleric (Devoted) (Sehanine)
Background: Redeemer of the Desecrated
Ability Scores: Str 12, Con 13, Dex 13, Int 10, Wis 16, Cha 16
Channel Divinity: Healer's Lore
Skills: Diplomacy, Heal, History, Religion
Languages: Common, Elven, Giant
Feats: Ritual Caster, Holy Dilettante
At Will: Lance of Faith, Sonnlinor's Hammer
Encounter: Divine Glow, Divine Fortune, Healer's Mercy, Psionic Shield
Daily: Shield of the Gods
Rituals: Gentle Repose, Brew Potion
Equipment: Adventurer's Kit, Ritual Book, Chainmail, Quarterstaff, Holy Symbol
For her entire life, Lillian's dreams have been a blessing and a curse. Given the gift of prognostication through her dreams, many of her classmates and neighbors grew jealous of her power especially when she refused to clearly align herself with good. When her father won the annual hunting contest for the fifth year in a row, they refused to award him the prize, claiming she must have told him the location of the prize-winning buck. She ran away from the judge's stand, and curled up in an alley, her eyes full of tears of shame and anger.
In that alley is where the two members of the Dream Seekers found her. They told her that her ability was a gift from Sehanine and invited her to join their order. Sensing that the situation in town was impossible, her parents gave her their blessings and she entered into training as a cleric. Her final test, before she is accepted fully into the order, is to reconsecrate a shrine of Sehanine. She heard that there is one in Kiris Dahn. In the end, she cares not who owns the shrine, only that it is purified. She cares greatly for her companions, but the greater questions of good versus evil mean little to her. Rather, she seeks the balance of all things and accepts that brings great joy as well as great loss.