Tome Show Special: Skill Challenges

The Tome Show released a special episode on skill challenges last Friday and everyone should check it out. Not only will you get to hear my lovely voice, but the episode is full of great ideas. Quinn ( @gamefiend ) is an animal when it comes to these things and he provides tons of great tips. Jeff Greiner ( @squach ) and Mike Shea ( @slyflourish ) are awesome as always. My husband plays but doesn't DM and he really enjoyed the episode as well. If you want more information about the skill challenge I ran, you can find it in my post Random Rumor Tables FTW. I'm hoping to do more of these things in the future, so keep an eye (or ear) out for me as I shake off my inexperienced title.

Experimenting with the Players

Sometimes D&D sessions aren't going to go the way you like. Even if you run a published module that's been extensively play tested, there are going to be off nights. Wednesday was one of those nights. Part of it was we were feeling a bit of the tension from the week before. In addition, some of us were feeling the stress of work. Another part was all of us, including me, were having a hard time getting into "character." So we got off to a rather slow start.

Eventually we all settled down into the tale of a haunted ship. The Captain Torend was quite beside himself due to the strange happenings on his ship. Being relatively new to the boat and the command, he had no idea what was causing the wind to leave the sails on a windy day or the strange noises in the galley in the early hours of morning. He offered the PCs free passage to Andernach, if they would help him with his problem.

With this information, the PCs decided to spend the night in the galley. They soon were awakened by four ghosts. Over time, the ghosts told their story. The former captain, Capt. Malloc, had made them walk the plank. Their captain claimed it was due to the liberal rations of ale the group availed themselves to, but the ghosts say it was because they knew his secret. Malloc was smuggling priceless artifacts out of Andernach. All they wanted was for someone to retrieve their bodies and give them a proper burial.

When the PCs agreed to do this, the ghosts made sure that the wind always blew in the needed direction and the PCs made sure the rudder was pointed in that direction as well. Once they arrived, the PCs went to work figuring out how to get the bodies out of the water. A few of them swam beneath and immediately saw that the bodies had been turned to stone. One of the adventurers went right up to the stone "statue" and tried to move it with her hands. She was instantly shocked by the Petrifying Coral and became a bit dazed as a result. Some of her friends saw this as well and worried about her health.

This is the point of the game where things started to really break down. The players had rushed into this a bit. Part of the problem was in running this like a combat encounter even though the only "combat" was disabling the hazard and freeing the statues. A number of the players admitted afterward that being in initiative order made them less likely to work together as a team. Because they didn't go down, assess the situation and then come back up to plan, a number of the party had a few rounds where there wasn't a whole lot they could do. Another issue was that I had made it a bit too easy to work around the coral. This was our first underwater encounter so I was a little afraid of making it too hard for them. In addition, I was really hoping to avoid normal combat. But, if I had to do it again, I would have added a natural creature whose only ability is being able push the PCs around, and potentially into the coral.

While I can't say it was the most fun we ever had at the table, I'm glad I decided to experiment with my group (not on them). They learned a few things about how to approach different sorts of challenges and working together as a team. For me, I am now able to more clearly explain why I don't like running role-playing and/or skill challenges in anything resembling initiative order and why skill challenges are a great framework for running certain non-combat encounters. Not sure if I'm going to do it right away, but soon I'll experiment with them on ways to create a great teamwork experience at the table while still dealing with environments where rounds matter.

Besides, it wasn't all bad. After they retrieved the bodies and started sailing north once again, I regained control and teased the next part of the adventure. Somehow I found enough courage to change the tone of my voice slightly to that of a story teller. From there I was able to set the ground work, spinning a tale about mist covered islands in the center of the lake which appear only to those who are in need and a tower, built by Lilith, the protector of the powerless. As the boat approached the center of the lake, the mists did part and the islands appeared. I left the group there and ended the session.

[Edit: The petrifying coral is a based on the elite hazard Gorgon Mud DDI]

A Game for Two

This past weekend I quickly designed and ran an adventure for my brother and husband. A number of people on twitter expressed interest in running adventures for small parties so here are some of the things I learned from the experience.

Know the Characters in Advance
Two-character parties will have weaknesses. They might lack a controller who can take out large swaths of minions or a defender who can stand up to a big brute. Unless you want to risk the game ending early, craft your encounters, traps and skill challenges around the characters, even more so than you would with a full party.

Player Level
For a number of reasons, we started off with 1st level characters. In this case, my brother is new to 4e and a first level character is easier to run. However, if that is not a concern, start them out at a higher level, perhaps at least 3rd. This gives the DM more flexibility in monster choice since he now can pick creatures a level or two below the PCs instead of having to pick everything at the same level or above.

Traps and Puzzles
One nice way to add encounters to the adventure is through the use of traps and puzzles. For older traps and hazards, be sure to double check the DCs to ensure they are using the newer DCs from the errata. In this game, we had one room that was nothing but flamejet statues. Fortunately, the rogue did pretty well, and the party got through unscathed. But it was a nice way to add drama and tension to the game while limiting a fair amount of the damage.

Player Class Synergies
Certain player classes work particularly well together. For instance, a player who chooses rogue may want to pair with a defender instead of someone squishy. My players created a fighter and rogue tag team, although they mentioned they might want to try again with two rogues instead.

Speed and Detail
With fewer players and monsters, the game can go by pretty quickly. However, the smaller group might encourage greater immersion. If they have the time, DMs should plan this in and add lots of little detail to the world. My planning time was a bit too short to full develop a lot of these things, but my game would have been much better with them.

House Rules and Gifts
The DM can always give them some companion characters to help round out the party. However, sometimes it's just better to make a couple of house rules and gifts. In this game, we house-ruled that anyone can spend a healing surge as a minor action and they found some healing potions and alchemical fire. The house rule and healing potions would help not having a healer and the alchemical fire could be used as a burst attack since they did not have a controller. Another thing to think about is ignoring certain conditions, such as dazed, immobilized, dominated, etc.

Overall the session went pretty well. They started off with no gear and equipped as they went. Given this, I made sure the first encounter was pretty easy, 2 minions with some gear, a warded door, and an armory just on the other side of the door. They had a lot of fun as well and cleared a pretty stocked dungeon. I'll write the dungeon up later as a downloadable delve.

Story Weavers

I've always had a soft-spot in my heart for story tellers. I grew up on stories. My parents are quite imaginative people and they shared that ability with my brother and I. Many a summer weekend was spent camping, fishing and hiking. We would build "bows" out of sticks and yarn, "boats" from bark, twigs and seaweed, and forts from couches, chairs and blankets. Everything was possible. Sure, sometimes it might seem pretty silly to an outside observer, but to us, these things became real.

With these tools, my brother and I would tell epic stories. Our swing set often became the sole means of crossing a fast moving river or a stream of magma. Other times, it became a military training ground. A rope tied to the top of the slide let us "climb" when we were too young just to run up it. The double-seated swing became a space ship that we could make move faster by our ability to move it faster. A few packs full of supplies and some water guns made us into soldiers. Many a war was fought in our backyard. We created our own games and just had a ton of fun.

While we always were readers, as we got older, our appetites became insatiable. The town library became our favorite destination of choice. By this time, my brother had discovered D&D. Some of his friends had the books. He read them and then did his best to invent his own version of the game. So many of our excursions involved looking through books of ancient and medieval weaponry for interesting ideas to add to his game. My time was spent on a variety of subjects, everything from Native American culture to the geography of Africa to Greco-Roman myth to how to dress well. I still haven't figured out that last one. However, I spent less and less time writing stories during this time, even though I wrote a lot. I just didn't think I was as creative as my brother and so much pressure was on me to do well in school so I could get into a good college. It was bit of a difficult trade-off to make but I did succeed in getting into a wonderful school, Dartmouth College.

As for many geeks, college was a magical experience for me. One my favorite random experiences occurred relatively early in my college career in the basement of a fraternity. I've romanticized it a bit by this point, but a stranger appeared one weekend. I could tell that he was not used to chatting up random strangers, particularly girls, but we somehow hit it off. Pretty soon he was telling me all sorts of fantastic stories. Instantly, I was smitten. I spent most of the night listening to whatever stories he was willing to share until sleep's sweet lullaby wore down my will. Unfortunately, this was in the time before Facebook and I quickly lost touch with the stranger in the tavern. It was a while before I was able to surround myself with my own band of storytellers, but eventually I joined a coed fraternity and met a wonderful bard who became my husband.

While I gained this vast reservoir of other people's stories, I never felt comfortable with my own. Part of it is that every time I write, I put a bit of my soul into it whether it's the story line or word choice. Even today, sharing what I write is a bit of an intimate act, a baring of my soul. This anxiety was further amplified by the feeling that I could never organize a story the way the professionals do. I lacked a framework for my stories, something I never needed as a child when things were just about having fun and something that is hard to understand with a blank sheet of paper in front of you. This is where starting to play D&D comes in. Sharing my experiences, good and bad, serious and silly, have given me a bit of my confidence back. But beyond that, being able to study and interact with a ton of great people has increased my knowledge both of writing and game design and has helped me get a feel for this strange land I find myself in.

Often I hear that people are afraid to take the leap, just as I was. I think this sort of leap is something that seems to be much simpler to do as a child, where play is an acceptable activity and there is so much less to lose. But the truth is that all of us need some play time and we automatically lose when we bottle away those parts of us. So, please, don't let fear hold you back. Find a group of close friends, get some good food and beverages, and go for it! You have nothing to lose except your fear.

Random Rumor Tables FTW

Given my nature, it's really hard for me to withhold information from my players. This leads me either to share too much or too little with them. Either way, the end is the same, the players aren't quite sure what to do and I feel the need to nudge them in a particular direction. For this week's game, I wanted something a bit different. During the previous session, the players revealed that a character they had heard very little about, Robert Haskins, was pretty deeply involved with the kidnapping of the Darkmagics. Hoping that he would have information on where to find Sirius Darkmagic, the PCs wanted to track Robert down and interrogate him.

This sounded like a perfect skill challenge to me. Fortunately, Jeff from the Tome Show already had asked me to do a segment on skill challenges with him and Mike ( @slyflourish ). The thought was that they would help me build a skill challenge for my game. So I sent them a quick update on where we were in game terms and we recorded a 15 minute conversation about the topic on Monday.

Originally, I was thinking there would be one, well-prepped, event where the PCs could run into Robert and attempt to capture him for interrogation. At some point, someone, I believe Mike, suggested that maybe there would be multiple opportunities and the other skill challenges would help decide which of those opportunities the PCs took. This would help the whole challenge feel a bit less linear. With that in mind, I came up with a list of three possible end scenarios.

Depending on which rumors the PCs get, they may attempt to talk to the different NPCs to gather more information/develop a plan. There are three main ways the PCs can attempt to accomplish their goal. The first, and by far the hardest, is to break into Robert's study during the party and attempt to find information about Sirius' location in Andernach. They can exploit the information about the cake, extra staff and special delivery in order to get themselves into the party without trouble. What happens once they are inside is anyone's guess.

The second, would be to leverage the information about the mistress to either extort Robert or get her to set up a meeting with Robert. Since she operates out of the seediest part of town, if it's the latter, he will have a fair number of his guards on him, but not as many as the 1st possibility. For the former, who no one ever goes to these sorts of meetings alone.

For the third, they can attack the night of the guard's birthday bash. If they get too rowdy, the town's guard will probably deal with the drunken ones, leaving just Robert, the disgraced guard and perhaps 1 or 2 more guards in the house. To help make sure the party doesn't end early, they can help the distributor get more beer.

Right away I thought it was a really good idea but I also wanted to give it a twist. Why not start off the night with a random rumor table. They were going to be seeking out information anyways and the information in the rumor table could help me show, not tell, them their options. So I thought about some rumors that could help them figure out the scenarios and easily came up with 10 of them.

1. Robert's 10-year anniversary is coming up soon and he has the finest baker making him and his wife a cake.
2. Robert has been seen leaving his home late at night and heading to the Pete's Tavern, a tavern in the seedier part of town..
3. The head of Robert's guard has a birthday coming up soon and his friends are planning a huge bash.
4. Robert and his wife's anniversary is coming up soon and his staff will be hiring some extra help for the festivities.
5. Robert's senior guard have a weekly card game at the Painted Pony.
6. There are whispers that Robert has a mistress who works out of Pete's Tavern.
7. For their anniversary celebration, Robert's wife is having a gift brought special from her homeland.
8. Robert's guard own the Painted Pony because they've been thrown out of every other bar in Newham.
9. Robert's wife is highly jealous of her husband. While Robert's family may be the richest in Newham, her family in Jesery is far richer.
10. The last time the head of Robert's guard had a party, the whole group of them ended up in the brig after drinking their favorite drink, BlueMoon Ale.

From the rumor table, I created a list of likely NPCs. I tried to give them some very basic background and traits to cut down on the amount of improv I would need to do at the table.

Aiden - Being an arrogant SOB, Robert hires his guardsmen based on friendship rather than skill. His head guard has been his friend since childhood, as have most of the rest of them. He's not incredibly bright but he is overconfident in his abilities. (Easier to bluff than intimidate)

Lady Alexa - Known more for her "specialties" rather than her looks. (Easier to bluff than intimidate, although she's quite "knowledgeable")

Horace the Black - Robert isn't completely stupid. One of the Darkmagic's former guards was fired when Aurora Darkmagic went missing a few years ago. It wasn't the guard's fault and he's been looking for a way to get back at his former bosses for years. He's an excellent guard even if Robert keeps him in the lower pay grades. Knowing Robert's plan to get back at the Darkmagics is payment enough.

Merton - Robert is ordering a rather large cake. Ordering is not quite the right word for it, a better word might be extortion. The flour alone is putting the poor guy out. (Easy to both intimidate and bluff. Oh and easy to bribe)

Gordon - The distributor of the (in)famous BlueMoon Ale. He is low on product however, and needs more if he's to fill the order for the big birthday bash the guardsmen are having.

To start of the session, I had them do something slightly different. Everyone got to roll a d10, with those trained in Streetwise rolling an extra d10. After giving them the corresponding entries from the random rumors table, I told them that they could additional streetwise checks if they wanted. Finnan, the halfling rogue decided to go for it. His check was over 30 so I gave him 3 more rumors.

With the rumors passed out, the players started planning how to use them. This put the story in their hands which was great. Like any group would, they went through several versions of the plan before settling down on something they felt comfortable about. They really liked the idea that most of the guards would be at a birthday party and drunk and/or locked up for the night. However, they put their own twist on the story, saying if most of the guards were off-duty for the night, Robert was more likely to visit his mistress, the Lady Alexa. I had not thought of that option but it made a lot of sense so I went with it.

From there, they decided to do a few little tasks that would make success in their overall plan a bit more likely. They forged a letter from Robert to include with the beer encouraging the celebration. One of the party, the male dwarf paladin, played by my female coworker, went into the den of iniquity to convince the mistress to help the party. In the end, the paladin convinced Lady Alexa, with money and diplomacy, to tie up Robert and leave him for their interrogation.

As a whole, they did really well with their skill checks and the skill challenge wasn't that challenging. To be honest though, that wasn't the point. We had a night where we spent 2.5 hours gaming and 1.5 of them were spent role playing. The loose framework of skill challenges in general but of this one in particular gave me easy tools to organize the game and keep it moving along. The small mini-challenges provided a way to spotlight a few of the characters while keeping that time fairly brief. Overall, it was a huge win and everyone, including myself, had a ton of fun.

Oh and they thought of the perfect end scenario for themselves. They left poor Robert tied up in the tavern, bereft of possessions including his wedding ring. That they sent to his jealous wife with a nice little note on where she can find her husband. Then the party decided it was time to leave Newham.

A Rose by any Other Name

Figuring out character names is really hard for me. The problem is entirely within my own head too, which makes it even more difficult. Somehow, when I was a child, I got this idea that the name needs to mean something. Not the sound of the name or how it rolls off the tongue, but the names themselves. When I would try to write fiction as a teenager, I would sit there with baby book in hand and..still come up with nothing. First, I would page through the book, trying to find a name with a meaning the conveyed some extra understanding of the character, a bit like an artist who puts little hints about their work in the background. I would then try to randomly pick a name, but I was never really happy with the outcome. Eventually, I would just give up on the act of writing itself, frustrated that I couldn't even do something as easy as name a character.

Even then, this importance I attached to names seemed silly, but I was stuck. Fast forward about 20 years and the problem remains. Not only that, but now I get to name even more characters. So, I've come up with some coping mechanisms.

  • Do the rest of the planning first. Sometimes as you plan, the name will come to you. This is how I came up with C.C. Clementine and her brother Darius.
  • Steal names from other places. The ruling noble, Sirius Darkmagic, was named for Sirius Black. He is a great-great uncle of my first character, Sarah.
  • Name them for what they do. I was having a hard time thinking of a name for Sirius' wife. Then I decided she had the old blood of Arcadia in her veins and often sang songs of the fabled land. It may be silly, but naming her Melody helped reinforce that connection. Similarly, two Dragonborn blacksmiths became Hammar and Anvil.
  • Be random. Not every name needs to mean something.

While it's not a perfect fix, these guidelines help me a lot. Sure, sometimes I'll pick a really stupid name and break the suspension at the table. But most of the time, my players are more than happy to just roll with it.

Gender and Gaming

Yesterday, one of my gaming friends pointed me to an interesting series of posts on a meetup group forum. He told me how a woman posted that she was looking to start a gaming group made exclusively of women and/or homosexuals. The overall response was less than positive with people confusing comfort with maturity. To be honest, I've thought of trying to do a girl's only session myself but haven't tried partly because I'm worried about a similar reaction.

First, a little background. At least 75% of my friends are male. I've always enjoyed doing activities that are seen as boyish: playing sports, spending hours outdoors, woodworking, etc. When I was in middle school, the joke among the adults was that if you ever needed to find me, just look for the large group of boys, I would be in the middle. (I'm still not entirely sure what that means.) So being around a group of guys is second nature to me at this point.

One might think that, given all that experience of just being one of the guys, I would be perfectly at home in all male gaming groups. Unfortunately, that's not entirely true. If I know the guys really well, like my current group, I feel comfortable and am willing to rib and joke with the best of them. For instance, I knew that I would be fine gaming with my regular group when I was willing to joke back about strippers. And one of the things that made me feel comfortable the night we played at Asgard was that I quickly discussed with one of the guys at the table whether or not to cock block one of my players. Those exchanges signaled to me that I was seen as a peer and instantly made a bunch of my anxiety go away.

When I don't feel that levelness, it's really hard for me to game. Gender roles and politics come into play, if only in my own head. I worry about seeming bossy or bitchy or stupid. In terms of decision making, I defer to the guys until I get more comfortable with the group. In addition, I get really quiet and focus on things that are "safe" like tactics. The guys often go through a similar feeling out period. There are fewer swear words and jokes and, to me at least, there is a sense of tension.

While these sorts of things happen in every gaming group, to me they feel amplified by the gender dynamics. That uneasiness sometimes makes me wish I could find a group where I would not have to worry about gender roles. The maturity of the group isn't really the issue, but rather the whole list of things I have to worry about in mixed group situations. Sometimes I want to bypass the whole issue and just be myself right away. I don't want to worry that I'm not fitting into some neat little stereotype of how a woman is supposed to act or talk or that my character's exploits are going to get me a reputation. The thought of gaming with fellow women just seems...simpler.

Obviously, I don't speak for all women. I just wanted to share some of what goes on in my mind when I play in case someone finds it useful. In the end, I love playing with guys and I don't think that's going to change any time soon.

Spring is for Lovers

I admitted it on Twitter and I'm more than willing to admit it here. The mention of sex and romance in RPGs on the cover of Kobold Quarterly 13 is why I finally subscribed. I've been flirting with this topic since I started playing, in large part because I often become bored with stories that don't feature at least some degree of romance. And since I play, in part, as a creative outlet for things I keep bottled up most of the time, there is no chance that a little of both isn't going to make it into my games. In my campaign, we've had a smattering of suggestive scenes, a satyr playing for dancing wood nymphs, a female halfling in a bar with a twinkle in her eye, two young Lizardfolk sneaking into a back room, but pretty standard and relatively low key stuff.

But the truth is I'm just one person at a table of 6-7 and bringing up the subject can be awkward for both sides of the conversation. In addition, the only previous source I had on the subject was the Book of Erotic Fantasy and, well, people often think of the more extreme parts of that book instead of the PG-13 stuff. Now that this article is out, it will be much easier to approach the table and say, "So, I've been reading this great article from Kobold Quarterly and I want your thoughts on the subject."

In addition to making it easier to mention the topic, the article itself is full of great advice. I will definitely use the "boots" story mechanic, lest the game become a challenge of how much my players can make me blush. Also, while I'm willing to be open about a ton of things, the dynamic can get a bit strange when having a mostly male table and a female DM. Since one player has already expressed interest in having a love interest, at least now I have a better idea of how to frame that discussion. But enough about me. What about you guys? Have you brought sex and romance to your tables and, if so, how?

Designing a Street Fight

When I design encounters, both story and tactics come into play pretty heavily. Since I'm running a homebrew campaign right now, the base layer is always the story. Where do I think it's going? Who might have issues with the PCs actions? For instance, last night's encounter involved a street fight between the PCs and henchmen of a man in town by the name of Robert. Their recent activities have put Robert's plans in jeopardy and he told his men to be on the look out for the group. Since I knew that my group would be shopping, having the encounter occur near the shops made sense both in game management terms, only one map was needed, and in story terms, a back alley behind a bar and shops seems the perfect locale.

When picking the monsters, I try to visualize the scene. For last night's encounter, I also had 2 new players new to town. I figured a few medium level henchmen might approach them and attempt to recruit them to Robert's side. For this, I picked the King's Sword fighters. Figuring that was a good start, my next thought was that the would probably have some lower level guys there as additional muscle to help the process along. A few minions coming in from the outer fringes of the map sounded like a good idea so I chose some human thugs. Wanting someone who was a bit more of a leader, I then chose Rolf the Butcher as the boss. I figured that the swords and the thugs would be able to help give him and each other combat advantage during the fight. Worried that this group would be ineffective against our swordmage and to give our psion some of his favorite enemies, I added a human hexer into the mix. Finally, I added a few archer minions to the roof tops as further support. I won't lie, running this many different monsters is difficult. However, I knew that there were going to be some new people in our game and I wanted to provide a bunch of different monster types to make for a challenging, potentially scary, but winnable encounter.

With the monsters chosen, it was time to draw the map. From my story, I knew some things that would have to be there, a bar, some shops, an alley way and from my monsters, I knew that I needed a place for the archers and entry points for the monsters that would show up in later rounds. Once I added those elements to the map, I started thinking about things my players might want to do. For instance, I could totally see our halfling rogue wanting to go up to the archers and take them out. So I added some crates to make it possible for him to pull an acrobatics stunt to do that.

So there you have it, how I went about designing a street fight scene. I know there is a ton more that I could have done but I think it came out pretty well for the time I had to spend on it. How do you guys do it?

Blogs I Love: In the Eye of the Beholder

Recently I wrote about asking a player to tone down a feat that I felt was a bit broken. I'll admit, while I definitely recognized the problem on my own, I had asked a few people about it before talking to my player. One of those people is the author of the great blog, In the Eye of the Beholder, Greg Bilsland. For his day job, he is a game editor at Wizards of the Coast. He obviously knows his stuff. But, like many DMs I know, he cares more about the rule of fun than the particular rules of the game, and that really comes across in his blog.

In particular, I really like his idea of a defense audit. While I love to give my players a hard challenge from time to time, I'm still nervous about making monster choices that will just outright devastate them. On top of it, I hate picking magic items for treasure because since I never seem to pick what they can really use. A defense audit would not only help me (and them) figure out where their characters are a little weak but would also help me with picking treasure bundles. It might also help soothe one of our optimizers since he's always afraid his swordmage doesn't have a high enough AC and other things.

I hope you check Greg's blog out. Besides all the great information, he's a really nice guy. Oh and he's on twitter as well, @GregBilsland.

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