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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Newham Shire Recap: Chapter 1 - Hallomak's School of Agriculture

My players asked for a bit of a recap of their current adventure. I thought I would share it here in case anyone wants to steal one of my ideas for their own campaign. I have a few notes I want to share, so I'll append them to the end of each item.

  • The crew started off at Brock's Bar and Grill run by Adeliz and Raymond Brock in Barmouth, Newham Shire. A favorite among the sailors in part because just about anything one wants can be obtained there. Barmouth itself is a rather thriving port city and its wealth is causing some tensions between it and the capital, Newham. They find a job posting from one Hallomak Stromm. They travel north of Barmouth to meet him. On their way, they are attacked by some undead outside a temple to Melora.

    [DM Note: Yes, you can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant, excepting Alice. This starting sequence is the beginning of the long list of reasons I hate starting adventures in taverns. But I was brand new and didn't know any better. :-) Hallomak Stromm is a name mentioned in the 11th level Dungeon Delve. We had started that one as a one-shot when my brother was in town and a number of my players were very interested in who the character was. Also, the players found the concept of a temple to Melora strange. The encounter was adapted from the Graveyard Exterior encounter from Keep on the Shadowfell Side Treks in Dungeon 155.]

  • After defeating the undead, they meet Hallomak. His office is full of very old things including a set of books on the History of Arcadia. When they look at the books, they get the feeling that the information in the books is much older than the handwriting and the handwriting in the books change. He also has a globe on his desk that looks a lot like the current world but the names are all different. The halfling, Finnan, sort of recognizes the name of Arcadia, but he knows it as the land of milk and honey. Hallomak asks the group to retrieve a ring from the ancient tomb of a tiefling empress. He fears that a necromancer is searching for the ring right now and that is causing the undead attacks on the local people. They go and retrieve the ring, killing the necromancer in the process.

    [DM Note: I just ran them through the level 5 delve from Dungeon Delves. The players wanted to know what sort of evil ring it was. I decided that it bolstered one's confidence without increasing one's ability. As for the books, I was going for the flavor of how books were copied and preserved before the printing press. In this case, the Stromm family hired scribes who would copy the books over and over again to make sure none of the information was lost. They also tried to make sure no one person copied too much of the books to make it harder for someone to figure where Arcadia was and return before the appointed time. Unfortunately for them, their system did not work. A scribe with the last name Darkmagic was able to gather enough information from the other scribes to determine where Arcadia was and bring a group of humans there to found a town.]

  • Returning with the ring, they talk to Hallomak. He invites them to stay for a while especially since school is not currently in session. He has some business to attend to in Barmouth and leaves his right-hand-woman in charge, Hannah. The adventurers spend some time looking around the dormitory and find a secret door triggered by the book, The Owls of Newham Shire. When the bookshelf moves, they hear rattling from below. After killing the a large rattlesnake, they continue to explore the underground area. Their exploration reveals that the tunnels lead from each dormitory to the main house.

    [DM Note: I created the snake encounter so they could learn about the tunnels to the house, hopefully in a fun and interesting way.]

  • That night, their sleep is interrupted by the sound of someone moving outside. They find people attempting to break into another one of the dormitories. The gnome leaves to warn Hannah in the main house while the rest attempt to take down the robbers and their ravenous attack dog. They are able to knock out the would-be burglars but the dog got away.

    [DM Note: While it made sense story-wise for one player to run off like that, his decision hurt the party quite a bit. I felt a bit stuck on how to make the experience better. My hope had been that the players would think that perhaps the burglars knew about the tunnels as well and would try to head the off down there. I know I made it way to complicated. But the snake and the robbers were the first encounters I ever created on my own.]

  • Some friends of Hallomak's show up. They all decide to try to find the dog lest it harm some of the other locals. Its trail leads them to a hideout in the woods. Upset that anyone would starve a dog, they decide to attack. Eventually, they knock all of the enemies out, including the brutes Hans and Franz, the sorceress/cook, Sabrina, and the leader, Reginald. They interrogate Reginald and find out that he is part of the Free Arcadia Now (FANs). The organization is attempting to overthrow the Darkmagic regime, in part because of the laws restricting access to ironwood in the forests to the north. Currently, ironwood is important to the ship building enterprises of Barmouth and provide a fair bit of income to the loggers in the north. Unfortunately, it is also a source of tension between the humans and the elves, gnomes and other woodland creatures. When they bring the FAN members back to Hallomak's, they find out that Reginald is his son. Upon Hallomak's return, they also find out that according to an ancient accord, Hallomak is the human protector of Arcadia. His son thinks this means that Hallomak should also be the ruler, but Hallomak doesn't see it that way.

    [DM Note: Finnan decided to make the attack dog into a pet and named it Chompers. They have great fun together with the halfling performing acrobatic stunts with the dog from time to time.]

  • With the necromancer dead and the local FANs defeated, there isn't much for the adventurers to do around Hallomak's. Hannah tells them that she is worried about her niece, Margaret, who is expecting her first child. The soon-to-be mother seems sad of late. To cheer her up, Hannah has crocheted a baby blanket made from special wool from the north. The sheep there drink from springs fed by glacial lakes filled with the water left by the magical glaciers that once covered the land. She hopes the blanket will provide comfort and protection to the mother and child. However, Hallomak offers the gnome artificer a chance to stay. Currently, Hallomak is developing an alternative to ironwood and he really could use the gnome's help. Given that the gnome's home was destroyed by loggers because it was made of ironwood, he is more than willing to stay and help out.

    [DM Note: The blanket is a magic item based on the amulet of protection. I created the story line about the ironwood alternative because the group felt a bit uneasy with the gnome. Between the gnome leaving to warn Hannah during the encounter and his attempt to coup de grace one of the robbers after being insulted, there was a lot of tension at the table surrounding the character and it was decided that it might be best to retire the him in a respectful manner.]

  • As a further note, those of you who read my description of the Earthen Guard paladins on the Dungeons & Dragons community blog might notice a resemblance to Hallomak. I based the Earthen Guard on him although he is much more moderate in his outlook and he uses diplomacy in a proactive manner rather than destroying things in reaction.

Announcing Downloadable Delves

Building on my adventure finder idea, NewbieDM asked if I would be willing to host the downloadable delves. I'm more than happy to create a home for this project. While I hope to add things like the ability to rate adventures in the future, for now I just want to get the ball rolling.

NewbieDM's Original Posts

To make things as easy as possible for the start, people can email their submissions to adventures@sarahdarkmagic.com.

Submission Format:
Title
Description
Level
Author
System (e.g. D&D 4e, Pathfinder)
Setting (e.g. Generic, Eberron, Forgotten Realms)

Copyright Policy (e.g. Reserved Copyright, Creative Commons Non-Commercial, etc)

Link(s) If applicable, where the GM could go for more information

In addition to the above information, you should provide a PDF of your adventure/encounter.

Submission Guidelines:

  • All maps and artwork must be your original work, either hand-drawn or created without third-party copyrighted images. By submitting your adventure, you certify that you are not violating copyright law.
  • If you are using a monster straight from a Wizards of the Coast product, please reference it by DDI url and/or book where it can be found. Please do not include the full monster stats. If you are using a modified monster, please use the stat block from Monster Builder with the copyright notice attached. If the monster is completely your own creation, just format it nicely.
  • All submissions continue to be your property. However, you give us license to display and distribute them through our site.

The DM Giveth and the DM Taketh

I love giving to my players whether it's working with them to tell great stories or providing challenging encounters that let them shine. There are few things I hate more than asking them to give up something. Unfortunately, I found myself asking one of my players to do just that. Like many groups, I allow character builds as long as they count as legal. This means all of the books and Dungeon and Dragon magazines are allowed. For the most part, this has worked really well. However, we recently found a build/feat combination that made my job really hard.

Our group had gone defender-less for awhile. When it became clear that the gnome artificer wasn't working well with the party, the player decided to switch to a Shadar-kai swordmage. Eventually, he asked if he could use the White Lotus Riposte feat from Dragon 374. Not knowing any better, I gave it a cursory look and agreed.

I didn't notice the problem immediately, but over time I found the battles less fun for me. It took me a while to figure out the source. Large encounter groups can be hard to run at the table and often take a bit longer. To help with this problem, I focused on using fewer monsters in general and no more than 2 or 3 monster types in a particular battle. Also, the story required that they be introduced to a couple long-term villains, so I used a fair number of elite and solos. The problem became the combination of the Aegis of Assault [DDI] and White Lotus Riposte [DDI], which sets up a bit of a "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. I felt this particularly hard when the swordmage went after the ranged controller rather than the melee monsters. However, it wasn't purely the double "mark" that was the issue, but rather the amount of damage and the fact that it was not limited to once per round. His attack bonus was 5 which meant that any time White Lotus Riposte was in play (and it often was) and the creature attacked him, it had to take 5 points of damage. And if it had an attack it could do as a minor or an action point and it chose to attack him again, it would take 5 points of damage for any additional attacks. Unlike the Aegis power, the damage was automatic and, well, added up pretty quickly.

For a while, I was at a bit of a loss about what to do. I know this particular player enjoys finding the special combo that makes for particularly devastating characters but designing encounters was becoming less and less fun for me. I didn't want to take the passive-aggressive way out and design every encounter to make it so this particular character would fail or have rocks fall or any of those DM tricks we joke about. So I took the advice from the Save My Game panel at PAX East and talked to my player. We worked out a couple of options on how we could modify the feat in case he still wanted to use it, but, in the end, he decided to go with a free retrain. While I can't say he was ecstatic about the change, he did admit that it was a bit broken. He was doing more damage, more often, with the white lotus feat than his similar encounter power.

Since my players just made level 8, I know that there are a whole bunch of adjustments I'll have to make to my encounter design habits. For now, I'm really looking forward to going up against the new swordmage. Hopefully my monsters can take it, at least for a few rounds.

Something More Personal

I'll state up front, this post has little to do with D&D or role-playing or even geek affairs in general. It's just something I felt compelled to write after Chatty made me cry for the second time this week. Both times it had to do with the subjects of intolerance and hatred. If you haven't had the chance to read his latest blog entry, Full-Spectrum Thoughts: The Traitors Among Us, I urge you to go read it now.

Like many geeks, and most people in general, my childhood was not always an easy one. I couldn't accept what society wanted from me, a girl. Part rebellion, part love, I wanted to play sports. This desire was particularly hard on my parents as I had been born with a hole in my heart and playing sports could be quite dangerous for me. Of course, this made me want to play all the more.

While I was eventually able to win them over, the rest of my town was much more difficult. At least two of my elementary school teachers told me that playing sports was just a phase I was going through. They told me that I would be happier when I realized this and stopped playing. Not only that, they told me it was the only way the boys would like me.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the recess aides weren't much better. Once, when I expressed my desire to play basketball during recess, I was told that since the boys didn't want me to play, my choices were to be a cheerleader or go elsewhere. This just led me to get my work done earlier so I could be the first to get the classroom ball and insured a chance to play, or so I thought. A year later, the boys again did not want me to play even though I had brought out the ball. They tried to grab it from my hands and, when I would not let go, dragged me all over the school yard. Instead of yelling at them, I was told that as a girl, I should have known better.

Unfortunately, middle school was not much better. There were constant comments about my orientation, often made by my current crush. And two-hand touch football often became tackle football, at least when the aides weren't around. For me, they made it into a game of seeing who could drive me into the ground, perhaps making me bleed or even cry. Not fun stuff.

So you may be wondering at this point why I am sharing this. Well there are a few reasons. First, as soul crushing as these things could be, I had a lot of really good people out there serving as my points of light. Obviously, my parents and brother were big supporters. Then, there were the people who talked my parents into letting me join the town softball league. And the coaches who made sure I had everything I needed to play even though my parents didn't have a ton of money to spend on sports accessories. And there were friends who let me be my crazy self around them and accepted me for who I was. The one thing these people all had in common was their ability to see what is most important in life, do what makes you happy. It's way more important than money or power or fitting in.

In addition, these events shaped who I am today. They informed most, if not all of the decisions regarding the type of person I want to be. And sometimes, you just need to share that part of your soul in hopes of making the world a better place. I long ago came to conclusion that even when there is nothing I can do to help my lot, being strong might help others. Also if you ever wonder why I can be so shy in public, you now have your answer. You'll also know why I don't back down from a fight.

It's too easy to tear each other down. Even worse, it leads to scars that would take generations to heal. I've seen too many people I love and admire feel the need to retreat from a world they love because there are some people out there who refuse to just by happy or, even worse, find their happiness in inflicting pain on others. I hope you'll read Chatty's blog and join him in his endeavor. Let's stop tearing down and start building up.

Doors, Double-Hinged for Your Pleasure

You have memorized every detail of the map. You know that the floor is made of blue-green stone with the slightest grade towards the drain in the center, the intricacies of the stained glass windows above and all the corners with dim light where your lurkers can hide. Heck, you can even describe, in vivid detail, the tapestry of the gnome and dwarf getting it on and, behind it, the bugbear [im]patiently waiting to kill the PCs. Now all you need is for the players to open the door.

Your most detail-oriented player turns to you and points to the door. You anticipate a question about the door's description so you queue up that information in your brain. Then he asks, "So, Mr. DM, which way does the door open?"

Success, he asked about the door. You start describing the door, its time-worn wood, well-oiled iron fittings and even how one of the knots resembles Gandalf on a bad hair day.

He persists, "That's great but which way does it open?"

It takes a moment but you realize you don't have an answer. It's not in your game notes or on the map. Panic sets in. You're flustered and you can no longer think clearly. It takes a few moments, but you decide that the door opens towards the PCs. The player who asked looks a little sad, he was really hoping to kick in the door. Losing confidence, you race through the rest of the description, worried about the next question the players ask.

If this happens to you, take a breather and think about a few things.

Does it matter to you?

Is it important to your monsters that the door open a certain way? Do they have a bucket of acid perched carefully above the door? Is an enemy waiting behind the door, hoping to use it to stay hidden? Have the monsters gathered themselves into the basement, scared of the blood-thirsty PCs and waiting for the shadow of the door as it swings in? If having the door open a certain way will make running your monsters more fun, have it open that way.

Does it matter to your players?

If your monsters could care less about which way the door swings, find out if it matters to your players. Maybe they really want to kick in the door or, perhaps, they want to seal it shut. If their story idea is cool enough, go with it. They may just be telling this story for years to come.

Roll some dice or make up a rule

Rolling some dice buys you time to think. You can even use the result to decide the answer for you. It may also help increase the tension a bit. Another solution is to come up with a rule beforehand about how to handle which way doors open. Maybe they are all swinging doors or all doors in hallways open inwards. Whatever you decide, make sure it's something you can remember the next time the pressure is on.

Video: RPG Heroes Are Jerks

In case you are in need of a diversion this fine Monday.

Little Touches Can Make All The Difference

I borrow from older modules to add interest to my game. One of my favorites is L2 The Assassin's Knot. In addition to having a lot of great description and fluff for a small to medium sized city, it contains a few nice, highly-detailed items. These are concepts one could use in any campaign either as they are or modified to fit your world better.

Top on my list is the "racist" doorknocker. The front door to the castle has a carved lion face holding a door knocker in its mouth. When certain races approach, namely dwarves, elves, or halflings, the magical spell activates and the door starts crying out, "What are you doing here? Guards! Guards!" When the door first did this, my players were pretty surprised. They had a good laugh when the lord of the castle apologized and explained that the door was made during a different time and place. They are trying to fix it, but just haven't had time yet. It set the tone of the campaign area as one where the characters have gotten past most of those sorts of superficial issues even though there was real strife over limited resources.

Another great item is the Statue of Kord. Inscribed into the base of the statue are the following words, "Bring not might of arms to the door of the fortress lest I strike you down." The statue means what it says. Passing by this statue with weapons drawn means chancing an encounter with a watcher. Characters get one warning to put away their arms or they risk getting hit by a bolt of fire. None of my characters caused the statue to arm, so I didn't get to use it in the current adventure.

Besides physical items, the detail of the town's social scene is quite intricate. One nice element is the existence of a "retired" adventuring party in town. This group gave me a lot of tools to use in helping my players accomplish their goals without taking the spotlight off of the PCs. The PCs didn't have to go and convince every member of the group to help them with their quest. Once they had one or two members on their side, getting the others to help was easy. Members of this group also could be sent off to perform more mundane tasks which would otherwise require splitting the party and might seem boring to the players.

These types of details make all the difference in giving players what they need to role play. Even a few minor items can provide a fair number of cues in social interactions.

A little fun

Sometimes, you just need to have a little fun with your game. I posted this to my gaming group back when I started playing.

Tommy: We now go to street reporter Nancy Nochers. Nancy, how are
things in the streets of fair Winterhaven.

Nancy: Tommy, not well. A malaise has crept over the town. It feels
like the day after Carnival, only I didn't wake up wearing a ton of
beads. For more information, let's talk to some of the locals.
Sammy, what do you think is going on?

Sammy [surrounded by a cloud of smoke]: I don't know man...it's just
so...heavy...you know?

Nancy: Sadly Sam, I do know.

We are now in front of Ol' Saul's house, better known as that crazy
guy up the street who goes outside in his boxers and yells at the
kids. Saul, have you ever seen anything like this?

Saul: Get off my lawn!

Nancy: Um, ok. Wait there is Pete the Priest. Father Pete, what do
you make of what's going on?

Pete: The end times are upon us. Only by giving everything you own
to me, I mean my church, will you be saved.

Nancy: Well Tommy, there you have it, the word on the street.

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