Conditions and You, How to Not Kill the Fun

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

  • Dying
  • Unconscious
  • Helpless
  • Petrified

Group 2: Use with Care (removes all actions)

  • Dominated
  • Stunned

Group 3: Somewhat Harsh

  • Dazed
  • Blinded
  • Restrained
  • Weakened
  • -5 to attack

Group 4: Fair

  • Prone
  • Ongoing Damage
  • Immobilized / Grabbed

Group 5: Annoyances

  • Slowed
  • Deafened
  • Forced Movement
  • -2 to attack
  • Marked
  • 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.

Other Places to Find Me

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.

Providing Challenge

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.

The Promise of Fantasy

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.

Rough Attempt at a Lumber Mill Delve

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.

Hook:

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

Setup
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.

Tactics
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)

Setup
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.

Tactics
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)

Setup
Lumberyard Foreman
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.



Two Characters for The Slaying Stone

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.

I created these two characters to fit into the adventure, The Slaying Stone, by Logan Bonner. They fill two of the backgrounds Logan provided in the adventure.

Meredith Greenhall

Race: Human
Class: Fighter (Battlerager)
Age: 18
Background: Citizen of Kiris Dahn
Ability Scores: Str 18, Con 14, Dex 12, Int 11, Wis 13, Cha 10
Fighter Talent: Battlerager Vigor
Combat Superiority
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.

Lillian Moonbow

Race: Half-Elf
Class: Cleric (Devoted) (Sehanine)
Age: 22
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.
Heav

A Map to the Minefield - Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume 3

As someone who blogs about RPGs, especially from a new person's perspective, I constantly feel like I'm navigating a minefield without a map. Like any industry, it's filled with its own language, customs and tribes. If you have any opinion at all, you're likely to upset someone.

So what does this have to do with volume 3 of the Kobold Guide to Game Design? Like the other volumes in the series, this one helps to demystify certain dark elements of the game design world, the parts that create the wall between the producer and the consumer. For this reason alone, the series is an important read for anyone who wishes to participate in the discussion of game design.

A few sections of this volume really stand out for me though. In particular, I loved the section on Collaboration and Design. Wolfgang Baur takes on the tricky issue of ego in game design. Ego is necessary to design worlds and games. Without it, we couldn't create and put forth our ideas; we couldn't be gods in our lands. The tricky bit is acknowledging that and knowing how and when to turn it off. For collaboration, learning that skill is a necessity.

Another great section is the Gamers' Social Contract on p. 67. The whole chapter, Myths and Realities of Game Balance, is quite good, but every player and GM should read that section. No amount of rules or guidelines can create a balanced game the way a trusting group can. It's a position I've been advocating since I started playing, but I could never put it as well as Monte Cook.

As with the previous volumes, I learned a lot about the industry by reading this work and they have made me a better DM. I highly suggest it to everyone out there with even an inkling of desire to participate in the industry, whether actively designing or joining the conversation.

Know When to Fold'em

This is going to be the first post in a blog carnival. The rules are simple:

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

As a DM, I don't like the restriction that creatures above the level of the PCs can't exist or be known to players and PCs alike. It stretches the imagination and story beyond reasonable breaking points. What happens as they level, do the appropriate monsters just spring into existence when necessary, with no history or connection with the current location? How do players and their PCs set goals, experience the bitterness of defeat and the joys of a hard-fought and unassured victory?

On the other hand, I know that as soon as many players hear about a big bad guy, they want to go after him. To quote Jim Darkmagic, "Can I roll to kill Irontooth?" Some players are going to be drawn to the creature, regardless of the likelihood of success, and are going to be frustrated if they can't defeat it.

So what does this mean for our worlds? The answer is that we have to change our definitions victory and defeat. For many of us, the iconic victory is one of defeat in battle, the blood of our enemy upon our sword, the triumphant final blow that tells the world that we are the winners. After all, that is the heroic way, right?

While the decisive victory can be exciting, if it comes too easily, the satisfaction is short-lived. Besides, some players enjoy a good bit of intrigue as much as a hard-fought battle. Perhaps the beloved nephew of the big bad guy just joined the lower ranks and the PCs hear about his location and can kidnap him. Maybe the PCs learn of a nearby brigand weapons cache and steal the goods and lay waste to the plans of a surprise attack. Through these story lines, the PCs can win smaller victories against their enemy and make him weaker as they get stronger.

So, fill your world with monsters of all levels, don't hide them from the players, but be sure they have plenty of level-appropriate victory conditions. Acknowledge that they will transfix on whatever you tell them, so be clear when something might be above their heads and give them the tools that will lead to success down the road. Not only will your stories seem richer, the satisfaction of the win will be longer lasting.

Posts related to this Blog Carnival.
never fear! sandbox vs. safety rails.
Phelanar’s Den
The Daily Encounter
Dkarr
Adam Dray

Announcing the Unofficial Monster Builder Manual

As a DM, I use the Monster Builder quite a bit, for everything from searching for the perfect beasties to put into my encounter to changing a monster's level. In the past, I've been frustrated by the lack of information and guidance on how to use the tool. Heck, it took me awhile to figure out how to add the powers from one monster to another. I figured I couldn't be the only person frustrated and some of my recent conversations confirmed my suspicions. So I decided to fill that void and my unofficial Monster Builder Manual is the result.

I'll admit, it could use some more work. However, I also wanted to get the information out sooner rather than later. So feel free to give it a read and let me know what you think. I'd also like thank some of the people who helped provide support, review and editing assistance during the project.

My hope is to keep this updated whenever changes are made to the Monster Builder and to add more guidance about the art of monster creation. Maybe, if this gets good enough, we can convince Wizards of the Coast to host this, or something like it, in a more centralized location where everyone can easily find it.

Pre-Gens and Reskinning

Yesterday, I came across an article called Is D&D Encounters Sexist? Intrigued by the article title, I read it and agreed with most of it. However, it was one of those moments of, "Well, yeah, that sort of thing bothers me too, but I understand the economic and social realities Wizards of the Coast has to work within." Then I made the mistake I often make and read the comments. The comments riled me a bit and when I was still upset a few hours later, I decided to tweet about it. I tried to be as level-headed as I could and wrote, "Ugh, saying the lack of female pre-gens isn't a problem because you can reskin them misses the point."

A fair number of people noticed and spoke about the lack of female pre-gens, and that was to be expected. I heard lots of reasons why there would be a lack of them, everything from the low percentage of female players to the social and economic realities Wizards of the Coast needs to work within. As a woman who both works and plays in male-dominated industries and hobbies, I've made my peace with most of these reasons. That's not to say that I don't get upset by them, but rather, that I'm intimately familiar with them and try to ignore them. What really bothered me, were two things, the remarks about feminism and reskinning.

When I bring up issues like the lack of strong female characters, or in some cases, any female characters, it's not part of some big feminist agenda. I understand that political correctness has quite a few people, especially men, on their toes. But when I mention these things, it's in hopes of finding books and games I might enjoy, commiserating with allies and, perhaps, indicating to others that there might be a market for such things. Stating that including more female characters isn't what feminism is about seems dismissive of my feelings. I really don't care about feminism in this case. What I care about is showing up to the table and having a good chance of picking up a character that I will feel a connection with. If I can do that, you are more likely to have me return. And since gender is one of the primary ways we identify ourselves, if not the primary, the lack of female characters is going to make people like me feel a little left out. I'm used to that feeling but please don't make it worse by talking about feminist theory.

The other part that really bothered me was this comment:

D&D is also a game run by a DM, not by a corporation. Your DM has the ability to change whatever she wants. Make the story your own; make the characters your own.

While I agree that DMs and players should feel empowered to change the characters however they wish, saying that it's no big deal to reskin our characters misses the point. If reskinning gender was a true neutral, then the addition of more female characters to the mix wouldn't be an issue. If there were more men in the group, then they could change some of the female characters to be male or decide to play them as they are. But the reality is that, at least in the U.S., gender identity is a huge deal and asking men to reskin characters is not ideal. As a result, female gamers are asked to do the work instead, largely because they are both a minority and less likely to complain about the situation. These are the real issues at play, either consciously or subconsciously, and acting like they don't exist feels like a slap in the face to me. I don't expect a big company like Wizards of the Coast or even my DM to cater to my every whim, but please, let's at least acknowledge the realities of the world.

So, how can we make things better? For a program such as D&D Encounters, providing more characters with a greater variety would be great. I know in Season 1 they allowed people to create their own characters as well, and they hinted they will do that in the future, but this solves only a small part of the issue. Part of D&D Encounters is about bringing new people to the gaming table. Many of these new people will be the ones relying on the pre-gens so not having interesting and diverse pre-gens for them to play will still be an issue. Another possibility would be to leave age, name and gender blank for some if not all of the characters. This means the cards would not look as cool as they do now, since character portraits would be hard to do, but it might help make some groups feel more welcomed.

As a side note, I know this is a controversial topic and extends beyond gender into other issues of identity such as race and sexual orientation. As a white, heterosexual woman, I only feel comfortable discussing matters of gender. Also, I want to acknowledge that every woman is different and I, by no means, mean to speak for my gender. I'm just a girl, with a blog, who loves to play D&D. :)

Edit: The author of the module responded on his blog.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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