A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, was on my reading list for a while and with the HBO series about to start up, I decided to finally read it. Most of the book is about the continent of Westeros, based on medieval Europe although it doesn't place itself in a particular time or place.

Life in this world reminds me of Hobbes' Leviathan. "Bellum omnium contra omnes" meaning "the war of all against all." The story is dark; very, very dark. It includes elements of rape, incest, murder, death and the like. As the Stark family motto says, "Winter is coming."

Edit: Some people have asked me to clarify this. I haven't read the rest of the books in the series. These are my opinions of and reactions to the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones. It's possible that some of my feelings or opinions will change as I read later books in the series.


The characters shine, even if some of them are a bit archetypal. In particular, he did an excellent job with the children, something many authors aren't very good at.

The plot is woven together nicely too. Characters have to react to the decisions other characters make in a way that feels natural. It reminds me of the military histories I read when I was younger. Often they are shocked by what close family and friends do, something I've noticed a lot of authors leave out.

His prose is excellent, although at times I feel he knew that too and wrote more than necessary. If you want a book with good descriptions, read this one.


It's a bit of a nitpick but the emphasis and repetitiveness placed on key information annoyed me a bit. Sure it helps ensure that the plot never runs away from the reader too much and, given the number of concurrent story lines, it may be needed more than in other novels, but it took me out of the story at times. I started "meta-gaming" the novel.

While I think the characters were quite good, the female characters in particular often didn't feel real to me. Of the main characters, Tyrion seemed to be the most multi-faceted. The rest of them seemed a bit too archetypal. Others may disagree with me on this one, but it is how I felt reading it.

Using the Book in a Game or Here There Be Spoilers

There's a ton in A Game of Thrones to use in a game. I really enjoyed Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. I want to steal the heraldry and house building parts of the game for instance.

Additional elements to use in your games:
* Remember to have your villains react to the plans your players make. Sometimes it's fun to have a giant chess match played out instead of a straightforward storming of the castle.
* Not all myths or fairy tales have to be true, but sometimes it's fun when some of them are.
* Named weapons are pretty awesome. In 4e we use the term magic weapon to apply to a broad range of weapons, including masterwork.

One thing the book made me think a lot about is the use of gender inequality in story telling and in role playing games. Since the book is not historical fiction, the author could have chosen to leave that part of our history out of his world. If we look at a number of the main characters, many of them are women with a fair amount of power and prestige, so it doesn't seem like he wanted to write a men-only story. Instead, he consciously decided to include it.

While I haven't read the rest of the books, my friends tell me it's important and I think I can see why. Most of the characters are a direct reaction to the world. Take Sansa and Arya for instance. They are two sides of the same coin. In a world where gender didn't matter, most of what makes them unique wouldn't be important. Catelyn's struggles with trying to remain passive in a world that increasingly requires her to take action doesn't mean as much if she has no limits on her action due to her gender. Even Tyrion and Bran's stories would be diminished in a less patriarchal society.

In this case, gender inequality is critical to understanding the characters' lives but I don't think the same is true of most of our games. Instead we often include it just as flavor. It serves the same purpose as the types of food served or clothing worn. Even worse in my mind, we include it without thinking and then wonder why women such as myself would feel the desire to play male instead of female characters. Including it in the world in such a meaningless way reinforces the idea that women are weak and means every female character must fight the entirety of a society just to be. She is instantly an outsider even if half the population is of the same gender as she. Unlike having the wrong holy symbol, it's much harder to hide one's femininity. Binding breasts is not a pleasant way to spend a morning and imagine the difficulty of performing certain bodily functions in a world with little privacy. Not only that, because it's not a main ingredient of the story, female characters don't have any hope of changing this, of fighting it.

So I would like to ask a couple of favors. First, when considering the question of gender inequality in games, try to determine if it might make any of your players uncomfortable. It might not only be women who are upset by the implications of a heavily patriarchal society. What those societies often say about men isn't kind either, at least not to the modern ear. Also, if the gender inequality is more on the flavor end of things rather than a central point of your story, consider not drawing attention to it and remember that even in these societies, some women often rose above the limits placed on them. Finally, don't be surprised if you dispense with other elements of medieval society, such as the limited social mobility and the realities of a feudal system, and people get upset about the inclusion of the oppression of women.

Announcement: New 5e D&D Setting

This article is part of an April Fool's day joke orchestrated by the Weem. To find out more information about our 5e, visit the website DnD5.com

When Weems of the Coast approached me a few months ago to work on their awesome new 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I was floored. At first I figured they just wanted to tease me about the info, knowing I couldn’t talk to you guys about it for months if not years. But then they started saying things that really didn’t make sense. “We want you to design the new campaign setting.” Wait, what? Me, design a campaign setting? Surely they were pulling my leg. At least that’s what it felt like until they told me their idea....Candy Land.

Now I’ve been interested in translating this unique and well-known world into a D&D setting, well, ever since I started playing D&D just over two years ago. What’s great about it is everyone has heard of it. We don’t have to explain what a gingerbread house is or who King Kandy is. People just know. The setting isn’t a barrier to getting new people involved in gaming.

Speaking of King Kandy, the established characters and locations are just wonderful. Who doesn’t want to go snowboarding with the Duke of Swirl or talk to the conductor on the train through the Gummy Hills. Sneaky Lord Licorice and his twisted minions are just delicious foes. And don’t let her name fool you, Princess Frostline is anything but cold to visitors.

If you’re like me, you’re sold already, but just in case you need more, here’s a few more details:


People complain about all the money they need to spend in order to play the game. For D&D Candy Land, we kept cost in mind. No need to buy set after set of dungeon tiles. If you own a copy of Candy Land, you have the game map. All you need is a copy of the campaign setting book and a few skill booster packs. We may release future variations of the core game, but then you’ll be getting two games in one.


We really listened to the community on this one. Many of you felt the skill list in 4e was just too short. For this edition, we will have 25 skills as part of the core rules and each setting will add their own. Candy Land adds 75 more skills, meaning that you have a hundred to pick from each time.

Example Skills:
42) Know It All (Int) - You have many answers, at least if you find the right questions.
69) Cunning Tongue (Dex) - Your tongue moves fast and with great dexterity. You never trip over your tongue and words sound like honey dripping from your lips.
88) Take a Licking (Con) - Even when you crash, you get up and keep on going.

While that helps the people who wanted more variation, others complained the increased list is too unwieldy and that players only pick the skills that they are good at. While we think the 100 skills helps with the former (you’re unlikely to be very good at many things), we took it a step further. Instead of training or taking ranks in skills, players buy skill booster packs. The number of duplicate cards determines how skillful they are in a particular area. When they have trouble deciding between skills, just have them draw from the deck. If they prefer to roll dice instead, no problem, just roll a percentile and count off the correct number of cards from the top of the deck.

Why go with this system? The randomness will keep the players on their toes. Besides, D&D is a game about imagination. It will always be interesting to see how players decide a skill applies in a certain situation.

Skill Challenges

We decided to go in a bit of a different direction for skill challenges. Rather than let the players decide how to deal with a problem on their own, we set up very specific challenges for the players to beat. But the DM doesn’t tell them how to solve it; that’s part of the challenge. Players just love a good puzzle and we presented a few doozeys.

Help the Gingerbread Kids Build Their House (Level 1 Skill Challenge)

Frame the Walls
The gingerbread walls look and smell so yummy, it’s hard to resist their lure.
Skills: Carpentry, Bossiness, Superhuman Strength, Gluten Intolerance
DC: 15
Special: You get a +5 bonus to your roll if you are blindfolded or you can’t smell anything. You get a +10 if both are true.
Failure: You eat the gingerbread instead and develop a tummy ache. You get a -2 to future rolls in this skill challenge.

Raise the Roof
Finishing the roof is hard and dangerous work. Don’t fall!
Skills: Carpentry, Cat Balance, Fly, Spider Walk
DC: 19
Special: You get a +2 bonus to your roll if you have a safety harness. However, if you fail by 5 or more, you have a 25% chance of getting tangled up in the rope on your way down and being strangled by it.
Failure: You fall off the roof. Roll the body damage die to find out which part of your body you break. You are weakened until you can take 2 extended rests. If you break your neck or hit your head, you are unconscious for 1d6 days.

Well that’s the sneak peek behind the new campaign setting for 5e Dungeons & Dragons. Initial playtests reveal that people love this and I’m sure you will too. Even Orcus approves.

Critical Thoughts

Today I commented on twitter that I didn't find the article how to punish kids who don't play D&D "right" particularly thoughtful and I wanted to provide more information on that lest anyone think I was just trying to be a jerk. However, I first wanted to provide some comments on the original article.

Comments on the D&D Kids: Punishment:

1. Spend a few words explaining that the content of this article was meant for the times when rewards failed to produce the desired outcome. This would have helped sidestep the issues of people complaining that rewards should be used instead.
2. Reorganize the first section. Start off with the rewards system and then follow with the punishments to use if that fails.
3. Give a bit more information about his experiences with children especially that sometimes the groups are created for him instead of him having control. People seem to assume that the kids playing want to be there or that he has control over the group composition.
4. While the tone was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, that can be hard to convey in written form, particularly online and the conversational tone isn’t the most efficient way to give this information and may lack a degree of clarity.
5. I’m not sure Punishment is the best theme for this article since very little deals with punishing players for “bad” behavior. It’s use in the title and the introduction frames the discussion in a way that does the rest of the content a disservice. Given that it’s an article on children, it’s likely to be incendiary.
6. Add a heading before the paragraph that begins with “Now, in my work...” to make it clear that this is different from mere reward or penalty. I would keep it neutral on the word punishment, perhaps saying “Common Trouble Spots”
7. Some people are very much against labeling children. Yet the subheadings/groupings make it easier for the audience reading the article. It might seem obvious to the author, but adding a disclaimer that one shouldn’t actually call children these names might help.
8. Use of the Wizards of the Coast style guide would help here. I understand that traditionally “he” is considered gender neutral, but there is enough resistance to that idea in the US that many companies, including Wizards of the Coast, has changed their style to reflect popular opinion.

Now that I've provided some comments on the original article, I'd like to discuss the response article.

Comments on the response article:

1. The tone of the response article sounds combative to my eyes/ears right from the start. For instance, she describes Uri as someone “who is apparently a professional ‘teacher of RPGs’ in Israel.“ First, nowhere in the 4 articles does he use the phrase “teacher of RPGS.” He says he plays D&D with kids in a variety of settings. He doesn’t state anywhere that his aim “to punish and humiliate children between the ages of 7 and 11 who don't fit his idea of what a roleplaying game should be.” In fact, he says that some of the issues are minor enough that a DM shouldn’t pay too much attention to them while a few deal with situations where the actions of one child make it hard to have a game at all. In other blog posts, he talks about D&D in pretty expansive terms defined by what the children want. In fact, in the first article of the series he talks about letting kids create their own races. “Another approach, one that entails much more work on the part of the DM, is asking kids to draw and describe the character they want to play and then to design—with or without them—appropriate statistics for their creations. You’ll be surprised at just how creative and original (and occasionally random) kids will be!”
2. She oversimplifies the author’s statements in an exaggerated manner. He does not say that the Antagonist type “should just be banished for being a threat to the DM's authority.” Instead, he explains that it’s very hard to get a child who takes this stance to play the game in a manner that the other kids will enjoy since the goal of the child isn’t to play the game but to defy authority.
3. She brings up the "Real Men / Roleplayers / Loonie / Munchkin" and loses me. He wasn’t categorizing all children who play but rather trying to detail some player groups that might make the game hard to play and provide some support for how to deal with the issues that may come up. He even states that “While the below archetypes are gross generalizations, they might help you to identify and solve the problem in some cases.” In the cases he mentions, these are not merely different play styles or goals, but potential trouble spots for keeping a game going. I’m sorry but I fail to see how a player intent only on proving that he or she is not subject to the DM’s authority is a valid and reasonable play style. In fact, none of these are play styles with the possible exception of the serial character changer.
4. She assumes a meaning of seriousness that doesn’t make sense to me given the context of the article and the ones that came before it.
5. She claims “the article focuses almost entirely on the idea that it's the role of the adult Dungeon Master to inflict punishment on the children.” Yet when I read it, there is actually very little punishment going on. In addition, yes the article focuses on dealing with problems at the game table, but it’s part two of a two part article, the first of which focuses on rewards.
6. Her post goes on from there with a bunch of “I’m offended” claims without any information to backup her claims other than a presumed “It’s obvious why this is an issue.”

At least those are my thoughts.

The Travel Scene

Part of Sickness in Springdale involves traveling deep into the woods to find the cure for the disease threatening the town. Adventures often handle travel in one of two ways, as an almost pure mechanical skill challenge where failure results in some sort of immediate loss, such as a healing surge, or it's just handwaved altogether since the travel isn't important to the narrative. In this post, I'm going to discuss how I handled travel, hopefully without giving away too many spoilers.

However, in this adventure, I didn't want to handwave travel because time is important, especially if any of the PCs are sick. I also wanted to make sure the travel checks happened in a fast manner at the table. The travel checks themselves shouldn't take up much time. For this reason, I limited it to 2 in the notes. (DMs should feel free to add more if they wish.) Originally I planned to handle this by averaging the rolls of the players. At first, that sounded like a great idea but then I thought through running it and realized I didn't want to average 4-6 numbers at the table. Instead, I decided to use the three highest scores to determine the level of success. It's simple and still makes sense in the story as presumably those characters would help those who didn't succeed as well.

Great, now that I handled the mechanics of travel, how do I make it fun? I determined that the travel section should be divided into 3 subsections, with 2 waypoints. Those waypoints are when they make the travel group check to see how long it took them to reach them. I added 2 additional scenes to be described as part of that section's journey, with the order determined by the DM.

These scenes are resolved mainly by role-playing, although skill checks may be useful. How the players decide to resolve the scenes determines whether or not they earn points towards the Lady's Favor and also may provide them with smaller boons such as a bonus to their travel check.

Another thing I like about the travel section is that it's a way for the DM to adjust the difficulty level of the adventure. If anyone in the party is sick, a longer travel time is not a good thing, it gives more opportunities to get worse. It also builds tension because the townspeople need these supplies soon.

So that's how I decided to address travel in the adventure. If you haven't already, I really hope you check it out. It is for level 1 characters and includes everything from tokens to maps to pregens. The PDF is available at a number of places, including RPGNow for $1.99. If you bought the adventure, thanks so much! It hit the top 5 hottest items on RPGNow yesterday which is a huge accomplishment for me. Thanks to your interest, Postmortem Studios is interested in having me write more. Also, feel free to let me know what you think, in the comments, on twitter @SarahDarkmagic, or by email tracy [at] sarahdarkmagic.com.

PAX East Recap and Other News

So, lots of stuff to share. First, I went to PAX East and had a blast. I ran over 12 hours of games for the kind RPGA folks including 2 learn to play sessions and 2 sessions of my DM Challenge entry. I had a ton of fun running them, especially the learn to play ones. Those sessions align well with my DMing style and we get to do some fairly awesome stuff like creating a focus lens out of ice and rewriting the entire adventure on the fly. I hope to write more about that later.

A few quick items:

  • Players really loved the public initiative on my DM screen. I'm pretty sure I learned that trick from @SlyFlourish.
  • Players also responded well when I asked them to describe the death scenes of the monsters they killed. That often led them to describing other things as well. That's a tip I learned from @gamefiend when I played in one of his games.
  • Minions are awesome for new players, at least some of them. They had a ton of fun trying to sneak up to them and getting the instant kill effect. It also highlighted how bad ass the dragon was. (Yes, I made them fight a dragon at first level.)
  • I've gotten to the point where I can make stuff up on the fly. For one group, I had planned to send them to the dungeon from the Red Box to deal with the kobold caravan robbers, but the group wanted to draw out the ambush instead by dressing up as merchants. Fortunately the back of the map had an outdoor scene and we were off to the races.
  • I'm floored by the number of people who took time out of their busy con to come say hi to me. You guys really help give me the energy to do what I do and I appreciate it. I can't thank you enough.

Now that PAX East is over, I'll have time to work on a few of my other projects. For those who don't know, I'm working on a project for Margaret Weis Productions. I'm really excited about it and can't wait to share it.

I also finished a short adventure for Postmortem Studios, Sickness in Springdale.

In Sickness in Springdale, the characters attempt to save their town from a deadly illness by finding a cure. To do so, they need to travel through the Lady's Woods where they will meet a series of challenges to gain her favor.

During the course of their travels, they find that their town is not the only one with the disease and there's competition for the cure..

This project is my first published adventure and I'm really proud of it. It's for 4e and for 1st level characters. Most important to me is that the characters have a number of decision points and how they decide to handle elements of the adventure, including in combat, determines their overall success in the larger story. Also, I made half of the characters female. Gender isn't important to the characters' stories but we wanted to include some character portraits for those who enjoy them.

In addition to these projects, I have a chapter in the upcoming GOLD Guide to Competitive Gaming. Mine is on finding your voice as a GM. I can't believe I have the chance to work on this project. I'll have more updates on it as things progress.

Well, that's my update.

When (Potential) Enemies Become Friends

Lately I've felt limited by the traditional tactical combat mindset in 4e. It's not that I now dislike combat or I tire of pushing bad guys off of cliffs, into fires, or anything like that. I'm just tired of pure force being the only thing that matters. I'm not suggesting that we should all start singing Kumbaya around the campfire, but sometimes I need more tools than damage and intimidation. Here are some alternatives I've offered.

Arcane-Powered Constructs

My games tend to feature high amounts of magic, and, in particular, magic constructs such as the buzz saws in my Lumbermill Delve or clockwork spiders in my DDXP game. In real life I'm a gadget nut and I love to tinker, so that's just my personality coming through in the game. Besides, it's hard to reason with or interrogate an unthinking robot. However, I love to reward players who try to take them over. I know some people worry that this will unbalance the encounter or something, but my games also tend to feature a play-style where that doesn't matter, or at least not as much.

In general, here's how I handle it. Taking over something like a clockwork spider is a standard action, hard DC arcana check set to the level of the creature. I'm contemplating giving the creature a saving throw, perhaps if it is the same level or higher than the PC. Once the PC has control, she needs to make a hard arcana check as a minor to keep it.

The rewards for gaining control tends to change with each game, keeping the same rules in a particular campaign unless the group agrees to change them. Currently, I'm considering treating it like the dominated condition but here are some of the things I've tried:

  • Practically remove it from combat although keeping it on the board in case the player loses his connection with it.
  • Allow the player to apply the actions available to his PC to the creature.
  • Allow the player to control the monster during the monster's turn.

I haven't done it yet, but I might suggest adding that if the creature is attacked by the ally of the controller, that hostile action breaks the connection. Also keep in mind that your players may want to keep their new toy with them. Whether or not to allow it is completely up to you, but if you're likely to disallow it, you might want to come up with an in-story reason why.

Natural Creatures

Even though I'm not perfect about it, I'm a big fan of giving all of the NPCs goals and reasons why they are in combat. When applicable, this provides scenarios where PCs can "defeat" an opponent without knocking their hit points to 0. It's similar to taking over arcane constructs, but I often tie another condition to this. For instance, in the game I ran on Saturday, a bunch of goblins had wolves fighting for them. These particular wolves didn't fight because they wanted to, but rather they had been abused and were afraid of the goblins. Until their "masters" were dealt with, the wolves saw them as the alphas in the situation. When that was no longer the case, a PC could make a nature check, moderate DC, to remove a wolf from combat.

In addition to convincing natural creatures to their side, I've had such creatures be neutral parties in the combat. For instance, in my Gamma World game at DDXP, the PCs need to cross the Charles River to get to Fenway Park. While crossing, they are accosted by pirates. Two rounds in, a shark starts attacking anything in the water, pirates and PCs alike. While these creatures aren't friends per se, I could see characters on both sides, trying to increase the odds they don't become the creature's next meal.

Our Interests Align

I'm on a big "let PCs make decisions that have ramifications" kick. The adventure I ran on Saturday was full of them. One of the other things I did in that adventure was have the difficult of an encounter depend on whether or not the characters decided to parley. Basically, the PCs are out to find a limited resource. They hear word along the way that others are interested in the resource as well and, in one encounter, they come upon one such group, a small elf scouting party. If the PCs decide to attack first, ask questions later, the encounter goes from being about their level to 1-2 levels above it. If they negotiate first, they at least worst remove the elves from combat and at best gain some benefits from their alliance.

At the game, I struggled to figure out the best way to handle this. I didn't want to hand them over as companion characters in this case because that would make the encounter very easy and increase the complexity of the game play. So I went with the option of just removing them from game play. After some reflection, I'd suggest providing each player with a one-time boon to be used in that encounter to represent the elves' aid, a one-time +4 bonus to an attack or damage roll.

So those are some of the alternatives I've offered in my games. What things have you tried?

Podcast: The Tolkien Professor and Faerie and Fantasy

If you're looking for a new podcast to listen to, I suggest the Tolkien Professor. As the name suggests, this podcast is recorded by a college professor. It consists of his lectures, including the questions asked by the students. Last year he recorded his class on Tolkien and this year he is focusing on his Faerie and Fantasy course.

While I enjoyed the Tolkien course, I'm really looking forward to the current one because it's a topic I know and love. So if you have some time, check it out. As an added bonus, he has the syllabus posted online and many of the stories are freely available online. Also, he recorded himself reading some of the Middle English texts. If you've never heard these spoken aloud, let me tell you, it's a delight.

If you're not interested in the podcast but enjoy fairy tales, Andrew Lang's collection of stories can be found online at mythfolklore.net. I love using old stories as building blocks to new ones so you can bet I'll be using this collection a lot in the coming weeks.

It All Comes Down to Time

In his very good post, TheAngryDM talks about resource use in 4e D&D. Today on twitter we discussed things a bit more and he brought up that the system needs to address that the players get too much of a carrot by taking an extended rest. I don't disagree, but the truth is the system does address it, just not in a way that makes many DMs or groups particularly happy. It's done by emphasizing time.

Many DMs just hand wave time. Even though a number of skills and rituals detail how much time they take, I really didn't get that keeping track of time was that important. Also, at least for me, it's hard to figure out how much time something should take in a game. Players are used to fixing a flat tire in under half an hour. In a world with magic, how long would it take to fix a wagon wheel? If we have all the time in the world, the answer to that question doesn't matter. If it means the difference between failure and success, time becomes just as precious of a resource when compared to healing surges, daily powers, and trail rations.

However, if we keep track of time in our games, suddenly we have at least a partial mechanical answer to our problems of the 15 minute workday. Here are the basics of an extended rest.

Extended Rest

Duration: 6+ hours
* 12 hours need to elapse between rests
* Light activity only, usually sleep

* Regain hit points and healing surges (Exceptions listed elsewhere)
* Regain all encounter and daily powers including magic items
* Lose all unspent action points. Gain 1 action point at the end of the rest.

* If anything interrupts the rest, add the length of time of the interruption to the time needed for an extended rest. So if a band of gnolls wakes you up and it takes half an hour to deal with them, the total duration is now 6.5 hours.
* Unless otherwise noted, characters need to sleep for 6 hours out of every 24. If they do not sleep for 6 hours, they do not gain the benefits of an extended rest.
* In an area with an environmental danger, characters may regain healing surges lost due to combat by taking an extended rest but not those lost due to failed endurance checks.

In a game where time ranks as a resource, I see right away that the rule concerning 12 hours becomes important. If you only have 2 days to stop someone, each of those hours becomes critical. They are resources you need not only to rest (6+ hours), but to do streetwise checks (1 hour), perform rituals (varies), etc.

So by ignoring time, we are ignoring a critical part of the game as intended. I'm not against that, but it's something we should keep in mind when we start changing rules. So in my mind, we have 3 options:
* Make time matter. (seemingly the default game mode)
* Give the players carrots/hit them with sticks to make them want to have multiple encounters between extended rests.
* Adjust their resource levels to account for the lower number of encounters between extended rests.

Which avenue we explore is determined by the type of game we run and how much we want mechanics versus narrative to provide the impetus. Personally, I'm not a fan of his proposals because I feel they overemphasize PC death to the detriment of other elements. Which one we pick is also determined by how much time we have to prepare. As TheAngryDM stated, we don't always have time to create super creative narrative options.

So where do we go from here? It would be great to see some articles on how to deal with time and its passage in games. I'd also love to see a toolbox full of suggestions for how to handle the issue in games, multiple tools that address particular play styles and adventure types. Together these should help the vast majority of games while not adding constraints that DMs need to pull away.

Hacking Rules

By trade, I'm a programmer, mainly in website development both front- and back-end. So to say that I enjoy hacking with systems is an understatement. The truth is game systems are no different to me. In my mind, rules often are just algorithms intended to get specific results each time. If those results aren't exactly what we need, we can modify them to produce the outcome we want.

In order to do that, we need two pieces of information. What does the current rule set intend to provide? What results would we like instead? The answers to these questions aren't always obvious, particular in a complex machine such as D&D.

For this post, I'll take a look at a potential change Rob Schwalb proposed in his article, Reexamining the Dungeon. I'll admit up front that I'm just exploring these and may well be wrong on some of them if not all of them. But if I don't put out my thoughts, I'll never improve. So let's look at part of his proposal.

The “tactical encounter” begins when the PCs enter the dungeon sector. The PCs don’t roll initiative yet as they are in exploring mode. As they move through the sector, they might encounter the smaller groups, at which point they could roll initiative and fight, sneak by the enemy, or talk their way through the monsters. A party might roll initiative two or three times before they complete the sector. For example, the heroes come upon the orcs. They botch the parlay. Combat begins. The PCs fall back and stumble into the gelatinous cube and so on.

In this particular case, I'm a bit worried about initiative. First, let's try to understand what this mechanic attempts to do.


  • Determines the order of characters' actions. This abstracts readiness. Some classes have a higher initiative bonus, such as the thief with his +2 due to combat readiness. It also adds some randomness to it, meaning even the character with the slowest reaction time might still go first.
  • Helps the DM manage the table. If we don't have an agreed upon order of action, the DM can have a hard time managing people's actions.
  • Moves the spotlight. Players each want their time to shine. Moving through initiative order ensures that the get it.
  • Provides a trigger state for some feats, magic items and powers. For instance the Warlord's Battlefront shift triggers on an initiative roll.

Now that we have a handle on initiative let's look at what's going on in this proposal. My understanding is that the larger goal of the article is to give players a goal to a combat encounter that isn't tied to killing all of the monsters in an area. Schwalb suggests that we shift granting XP from being a reward for monster murder to a reward for meeting the encounters objectives. This frees us from the typical way of running an encounter, which, in turn, should free us from having to run the entire encounter in initiative order. Instead, we should use our encounter XP budget to buy a series of challenges for the PCs to face in completing their objective. Only if they decide to fight a NPC group (or if that decision is made for them) should they roll initiative and they should do it each time that decision is made.

However, I'm worried that this suggestion causes other problems. First, I'm concerned that by increasing the overall number of rolls, we will be over-rewarding those who invest in high initiative at the expense of those who don't. I particularly worry given how we're working with the encounter math to increase the number of potential combats. Each mini-encounter might be a half, or even less, of a regular encounter. If there aren't enough hit points or monsters to consistently give the players who have a lower initiative bonus something to do each combat, that might annoy them a bit. Having all the NPCs defeated before your turn in round 5 is much different from having them repeatedly defeated before your turn in round 1 or 2.

Triggers also concern me a bit. Fortunately, I only found one at-will power that is tied to initiative checks and that's the Ranger's "Aspect of the Pouncing Lynx." However there are a number of daily and magic item daily powers that trigger on it, so we should keep in mind that we're increasing the likely number of triggers.

Also, by treating it as a hybrid of one encounter/many encounters, we are more likely to trigger "target has not yet acted" abilities. While that's not tied explicitly to initiative, since there's a chance they wouldn't have acted before either, we now have fewer targets for PCs with those abilities to target.

Now, I’ll admit it’s totally possible that my worries are a bit too extreme. Even if they get fewer turns per session, maybe it wouldn’t be enough to notice. Or players with a lower initiative bonus tend to not care about combat as much anyway and so it doesn’t bother them. And since so many of the triggers are encounter or daily based, maybe it’s a rare case where someone gets too much of a benefit from the switch.

So that’s an example of the sort of thinking I put in before messing with the rules in any major way.

Review: Soldiers of Fortune

War. Mercenaries. Both are often a part of the very stories that provide the foundation of D&D yet usually not addressed by the rules. Soldiers of Fortune aims to address that, at least for 4e play. The kind folks at Open Design/Kobold Quarterly were nice enough to give me a pdf copy to review.

Soldiers of Fortune packs a lot of information, providing paragon paths, rituals, feats, powers, monsters, NPCs, magic items and seige engines, to name a few. Just as importantly, it provides an introduction to the art of war, called the "The Midgard Stratagems." Many forget how important water and supplies are to an army and a few even ignore the importance of terrain. Instead of going through the entire book, I'd like to provide some highlights.

A few quick notes. The book is set in Midgard, Open Design's campaign setting. The author, Matt James, is a decorated Army veteran and the recipient of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

Skill Challenges
Soldiers of Fortune contains a number of skill challenges. One, "Besieged", details how the characters attempt to fortify and hold a keep against an enemy's siege. Another, "Command the Legion" chronicles the PCs' attempt to earn the command of the legion. One thing I love about these skills challenges is that they are well integrated into the story. Certain skills are more useful or are only useful at the beginning of the skill challenge and other skills rise in prominence near the end. This fits in with the strategy approach of newer skill challenges as well. At the beginning you might need to show that you and your group are strong enough to lead but at the end, you have to convince the higher ups that you are just as good at politics.

Another part I like is that the consequences are often tiered, to give more than just a binary outcome. The only downside to these skill challenges is their organization. The skills are listed in alphabetical order instead of the order they might be used during the challenge. As a DM, I would just create a little chart in my notes giving the proper order.

As Detailed as You Like
The entire book left me with the feeling that you could make the game as detailed as you wanted. Some players might care about supply lines or the tactical decisions a commander might make. Others might want to concentrate on a few key scenes that showcase their war efforts but really are just encounters with a story of war surrounding them. This book aids with both of these and the many variations. Matt even suggests that if a group wants to play out the larger scale battle, why not pull in another system, such as Warhammer Fantasy, that handles that sort of play already.

I also like that the powers, feats and magic items are tied pretty closely to the themes of war. While I understand why the typical D&D sourcebooks are vague with details, since the campaigns they are meant for are so varied, a book such as Soldiers of Fortune really shines when it can tie everything together.

Skill Combat
In his section on how to run the best possible game, Matt provides a rule system called Skill Combat. Basically it's a drop in mechanics system for abstracting the defense of an entity. To be honest, I'm not sure I really get it but I'm very interested in hearing more about it.

Overall I really liked the book. The copy I received had a few see page $$$ errors, so if that's something that is likely to annoy you, that's something to keep in mind. That said, I know my husband can't wait to for his character to get his hands on some siege equipment and I'm interested in playing with the skill challenges and skill combat sections.

If this topic appeals to you, a great additional resource is the Paksenarrion series by Elizabeth Moon. It has lots of great details about the life of mercenary soldiers, particularly of the type who consider themselves professionals in every sense of the word.

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