Guest Post: JoJo's Deific Diner

It was with great pleasure that I sat down with Sarah Darkmagic (of the respectable New Hampshire Darkmagics) and spoke at great lengths about our plans for world domination. Fear not, we do intend to shape it into a nicer place, molded after our own glorious images. Plus free drinks. At any rate, we rambled on as future benevolent dictators do, and Ms Darkmagic touched upon some ideas she had developed with regards to gods and other deities for a cleric she once played. She jokingly referred to a lack of a “menu of gods” to choose from at the time and went on to describe the deity she ended up half-inventing as part of her cleric concept.

But I was stuck on the phrase “menu of gods.” When we gamers play “serious” DnD, a cleric's path is no light matter, and many find their calling under dire circumstances, forever after strengthened by the guiding hand of their god. However, sometimes it's delightful to say “To hell with serious!”, and for those campaigns, I might present your choice of deity like this:

Jennifer Snyder is an awesome all-around geek girl and a great proponent of tabletop RPGs. When she isn't busy playing games or wreaking havoc on Twitter as @Level30Yinzer, she works on the outstanding RPG-focused non-profit she and her husband founded in 2009. You can find more information at Level30Yinzer.com.

When the Players Forget

Last night the players presented me with an interesting dilemma. They wanted to look throughout town for a item they already possessed. The bad guys who are trying to free the shadow from its prison are searching town for the key. The players would like to find it first, only problem is, they already have it but don't know that.

I can't fault them for forgetting. Sometimes I hit them over the head with information and other times it's a bit more subtle. In this case, a group of dwarfs the PCs had saved from a watery grave presented them with the only item they had, an artifact that the ship captain had tried to smuggle out of Andernach and one of the dwarfs had snatched before walking the plank.

But they forgot about the gift last night and they determined that their next move would be to find the key in town. I know that I could have reminded them but I remembered they weren't overly interested in the key when they received it either. Besides, having them look could be fun as long as it didn't take too long.

So when they went to the one person in town they trusted and confided in him the state of affairs, I quickly formulated a plan in my head. One of my players already had taken out a book to start looking through the rituals. I decided that I didn't want to make them spend any money on this and thought something custom might be better. I remembered that the PCs in The Slaying Stone are given scrolls that will help them locate the stone in the town and decided to do something similar here.

Their contact is Sunspeaker Deldaran, a devotee of Pelor (I'm using Hammerfast for Andernach). After hearing their story, he finds one of his colleagues, a rather tall, scrawny man in long, brown robes with mussed red hair and rather large glasses. Called Boniface, he is the bookish sort.

The two of them clean off a table and place down a map of Andernach. Boniface pulled out a long string with a heavy metal object at the end and explained that he will need their assistance to perform the scrying ritual since they are searching such large an area for so small an object.

The first round goes pretty well. Working together, they try to both guide the pointer and remember information about the section of town the device pointed to. Mechanically, I made them all roll their skills checks at the beginning of the round, and then we pieced together a story of what was happening. At the end, they knew that it pointed to the lore ward of Andernach, that quite a few likely targets existed there and one of them was able to assist in the arcana check the next round (with a +4).

With the general area narrowed down a bit, Boniface moved the device so it was centered over the lore ward and they tried again. Again, I had them make the checks at the beginning of the round. I attempted to resolve the non-arcana checks first and then I had to ask the group an important question. I reminded them of the time they saved the petrified dwarfs from beneath the lake of lost memories and that the dwarfs had given them a gift. At this point, one of the players remembered the key but I asked him to hold off on telling everyone else for a moment. Eventually, it was decided who had the item and I finished describing the ritual. They did really well on their arcana check so the device pointed horizontally, right at the PC with the key.

Overall, it was a great moment and while it took a little time to play out, it didn't take so long that the players thought I was wasting their time. While not every seemingly insignificant item will turn out to be quite this significant, sometimes it's fun to have one or two items that are.

Like a Deer in the Headlights (or Spotlight)

The other day on Twitter, I confessed to a rather embarrassing incident from high school. As a freshman, I was in a "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" skit for our Christmas variety show. I played the role of Virginia, hair in pigtails, wearing overalls and skipping out to the middle of the stage, alone. After sitting down and swinging my legs back and forth off the edge of the stage, I started reciting the famous letter. At some point, I completely froze, the type of freezing where you can't even remember your own name. The audience felt it and, well, being an audience full of high school students, started laughing. I took a deep breath, stuck out my tongue like any little kid would do. Suddenly the lines came to me and I stuck up my index finger, waved it towards the crowd and said, "Wait, there's more."

Perhaps a rather extreme example of a common scenario in role playing, but a useful one nonetheless. Sometimes in the course of play, players freeze, some more than others. They will have that moment of extreme stress and anxiety and the feeling that they are failing at the game. And trust me, it's every bit as bad as doing it in front of an entire high school.

So, what do you do when a player freezes? If that player is you, remember to take a deep breath. If you have an impulse to do something, whether it's breaking eye contact, playing with your hair, etc, do it to help break the tension you're feeling. Often it's hard for the person in the midst of a freeze to do anything but wait until their brain opens up again.

If you are one of the other members of the table, especially the DM, call time out. Of course it varies from person to person, but often trying to pepper with questions or press on with the role play just makes things worse. The person who freezes feels that they are "failing" and with each question they can't answer or remark they are not able to make, they feel like even more of a failure.

During the time out, try to figure out what is causing the problem. Often, the player will feel like they have no idea of what their character would do in this situation. It might be a lack of information, if you just asked him to negotiate a contract for wages, he might not understand enough about the gold system to know what a fair counter offer would be. For me, I'm often an emotions-based player, so if I don't feel a strong connection to some part of the game, whether it's the NPCs, the setting, or the adventure hook, I'm much more apt to freeze. Telling me that the flowers are in bloom and that I can smell the sweet fragrance of lilacs might be enough to break me from the spell.

Now I have something else to confess, even though I'm prone to these sorts of freezes, I still enjoy playing charismatic characters. People often define charisma too narrowly. Not everyone with high natural charisma is in front of the crowd or on the TV screen. They are often the ones who quietly get the group together, negotiate in the background to make sure everyone's needs are taken care of, and who deflect compliments and other kind words to others. Charisma doesn't have to always be showy, just like you can have a quiet fighter.

When I play these characters, I try to make something in my background explain why I might be a little shy, particularly at first. For my first character, Sarah, I explained her as someone with front of the house looks and natural charisma but who viewed herself as back of the house material. This gave me room so that over time, as I played with the group and we got comfortable, I could mold her, and myself, into our true selves.

So the next time someone freezes at your table, particularly a new player, try to help them out. Pause the game for a moment, find out the issues, and try to rectify them. They might just need a minute to think or a better understanding of the scenario. As time goes on, they'll probably get a better feel for the game and the investment will be well worth it.

Reviewing the Lumber Mill Delve, Part 2

I'm spending some time reviewing and updating my Lumber Mill delve and now it's time to work on the second encounter. I have to admit, I love the thought of this encounter. But I'm not sure the original version gives me what I want from it.

So, what am I envisioning? I want a crazy looking gnome with the ability to direct the saw blades at the PCs but who also has a few powers to use when the blades are all gone. I also want to give the PCs a chance to play with the saws because, well, who doesn't want to play with flying saws.

Here's how I think the encounter should unfold. The PCs finish with the previous room and enter this one. In the dim light, they see a gnome standing in the opposite corner, laughing at them. That's sure to make their blood boil. Next, they hear the sound of buzzing from near the ceiling. The PCs notice the gnome pointing at them and one or more of them feel like the saws are looking at them.

Rethinking the Saws

Originally, I thought the saws would be controlled and powered by the gnome using his psionic powers. While that's cool, we can do much better. By discussing this over Twitter, I came up with a better idea. A small magical box in the center of the room powers the saws and the gnome is able to influence the power to control the saws. The box is bolted to the floor firmly and only can power the saws if they remain in that room.

This twist means that the PCs can attempt to seize control of the saws for themselves. My thought is that a PC trained in arcana, religion or psionics can use a skill check as a standard action to take control of a group of saws (the 12 saws will be divided into 4 groups of 3) if they meet a DC of 15. Since there is no psionic skill, we'll need to make one up. Characters with the psionic power source are automatically trained in it and they'll get a bonus equal to their charisma modifier. During his turn, a character determines the target for each saw group in his control as a free action.

In addition to taking over groups of saws, the PCs can attempt to disable the box using a skill challenge. They can use any combination of thievery (DC 15), dungeoneering (DC 15), arcana (DC 10), religion (DC 10), psionics (DC 10) and brute force (Defenses: 8, HP 30) to disable the mechanism. Each successful check deactivates one of the 4 groups of saws in this order, 3, 2, 4, 1. A failed check causes the current group to attack its target if possible. So if no groups have been deactivated, group 3 will attack on a failed check. If 2 groups have been deactivated, group 4 will attack on a failed check. After 3 failed attempts, the machine regains control of all the remaining buzz saws and targets the last character to fail the check. Characters can attempt to gain control of the saws at that point.

This gives the PCs a few interesting choices to make. Do they risk attacks by the saws in hopes that they can gain control over a group of them? Do they try to take over groups of the saws or do they try to deactivate all of them? Or do they just attack everything and leave the thinking to others?

Improving the Saw Master

Now that we've changed how the saws are powered and controlled, we can work on the saw master. First, he no longer needs a special power to set the targets of the saws. Let's also upgrade him to a quarterstaff instead of a dagger. I think he's a mean SOB and a dagger just doesn't do him justice. The Stinging Thoughts power is still pretty good, and since he's supposed to stand in for two monsters, I think having a recharge attack like that as a minor is fine. However, let's give him a cool at-will that he can use when the buzz saws are in play. Allowing him to give a group of saws and extra attack fits him pretty well.

So, when the PCs first enter, he'll attempt to hit them with blinding pain, point the buzz saws towards the PCs, giving preference to those who seem the squishiest, and then spend his action point to use guided strike to command one of the groups to strike at their target.

Now let's give him a little personality. This guy is actually the highest level bad monster in the delve. He's proud of what he does and takes a fair bit of joy in it, especially when it means attacking interlopers. However, he doesn't feel the need to fight to the death. When he gets bloodied, recharging his blinding pain power, he might want to run. At the very least, he might hide out and make the PCs think he ran and then rejoin the fight in the next room.

Well, those are the changes I would make to this encounter. Which ones would you make?

Also, thanks to a bunch of folks on twitter who helped me brainstorm, including @gamefiend, @rdonoghue, @WolfSamurai, @deadorcs, @Level30yinzer, @d20monkey, @tirianmal, @alanwilliams, and @Zelgadas.

My Most Important Rule - Fun for All

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.

The Importance of Baths

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?

Arcadia Preview: Watched For

"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.

Reviewing the Lumber Mill Delve, Part 1

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.

  • The saw ignores the gnomes and prone creatures only. By ignoring prone creatures, we add another countermeasure.
  • Instead of saw blades every other row, reduce to two saw blades in total, each one threatening half of the room. To take out a saw blade, the PC should do a Dungeoneering check (DC 10) to try to guess where the trap will attack on its next turn. The PC can then ready an attack on the blade, moving into position first if necessary for a melee attack.
  • Increase the attack bonuses of the saw. Any one row has only a 25% chance of being active, so this should be fine. I'm struggling with how much I should increase it, either +2 or +4. Given that it's a delve, I would probably go with +4.
  • Remove the secondary attack and increase the damage. While it's possible for the saw to hit multiple targets, chances are only 1 or 2 PCs will be in any particular row. So, let's bump it up to the new normal medium damage, 1d10+6.
  • Have a table that the DM can fill out beforehand. The DM can roll a d4 for each blade and round, adding 4 to the second die result to get the higher numbered rows. Doing this before running the adventure will help with the Dungeoneering countermeasure.
  • Unless the PCs can't see in low-light, they should see the machinery as soon as they enter the room. So have the low DC for that. Beating a moderate DC allows them to notice cut marks on the edges of the conveyor and a high DC for the control panel. Use the monster knowledge check mechanic, with the Dungeoneering skill, to allow them to figure out how the saw might operate.
  • For the skill challenge, countermeasure, lets add a high DC perception check to decipher the instructions on the machine. On failure, roll a d8 and attack all non-prone creatures in that row (including the gnomes). If they fail the skill challenge, each saw attacks an additional row per round and it attacks all non-prone creatures. On success, the saw stops functioning and the doors unlock. If the PCs decide to unlock the doors without passing the skill challenge, set it to an easy DC.
  • 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?

    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.

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

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