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.

Looking Back, Sarah's First Appearance

With a year under my belt, I've been looking back at my blog post and game session notes from my very first D&D game. It's been interesting reading them, as both were the first things I had written for approximately 8 years. My blog post seems so strange to me because I remember that I had curtailed my writing for fear that I would just appear to be silly on the Internet and my session notes lacked the sort of flowery and descriptive style that I love. Both speak volumes about how nervous and unsure I was of myself at the time, as I tried to do something I had never done before in front of people I really like and respect.

Due in large part to my insecurities, my prep for that first game was intense. During work, I listened to first series of the PvP/PA podcasts again and again. I would highly recommend them to any new players since many of the basic rules are explained as they come up during the game, making it a great tutorial as well. Since I wanted to surprise my husband with my character, I spent lunches and breaks reading the Player's Handbook. Fortunately, I worked from home at the time, so hiding my activities wasn't that hard. Even with that preparation, I remember how intimidating the character sheet appeared. I'll be honest, I could not figure the darn thing out. I finally found a spreadsheet online that made things a ton easier as I tried to figure out AC and basic melee attacks and the like.

Beyond creating a character sheet, I knew I also had to create a character. This part was really easy for me. I decided that since the podcasts were the reason I would start playing, that my character would be a cousin of Jim Darkmagic. I also knew that our particular party needed a rogue as they had been begging me to play one for a good month or two. Ok, maybe not begging, but I think at least one member asked every week or two. And after thumbing through the Player's Handbook, I really liked the half-elf race. So now I had to draw together Jim Darkmagic, a half-elf, and a rogue. For me, this part was rather easy. I love creating stories, songs and even silly rhymes. If you're interested, I wrote a bit of Sarah's background here.

With the background story items done, I asked my GM for a few special mundane items for character flavor and created stories for the rest of the items Sarah had on her. The first special item was a Locket of Everlasting Warmth. Mechanically, it does nothing, but storywise, the locket was created by her father Stephen. Whenever she clasps it in her hand, Sarah fells surrounded by the warm love of her family. It seemed perfect for an insecure woman out on her own for the first time. Her second item was a never-ending journal so she could write and write without fear of running out of pages or having to get rid of older journals. Beyond that, she had a set of fine clothes, a going-away gift from her parents so that she would never encounter a situation where she lacked the proper dress, a henna kit so she could reapply her tattoo of Sehanine, and a long sword, from the wife of the missing Douvan Staul, in hopes Sarah could use it to help find him.

Finally, the big night came. I was so incredibly nervous. Two of the four people at the table knew of my plans and my husband was not one of them. I did my normal wife of the host chit-chat before the game and settled down on the couch to "read" while they started their game session. I impatiently waited for my cue, the time I was to come and introduce myself to the party.

Fortunately, they were in a position where such an introduction was easy to do. They were running through Keep of the Shadowfell and were currently waiting outside a waterfall. The elven ranger, Lucan, heard Sarah's approach first, and warned his party. Once the GM described the situation of a young half-elf woman appearing from the wood and announced that it was Sarah's turn, I approached the table. Many of the players were a bit confused by this announcement. Trying to project but failing terribly on the account of nerves, I said "Damn, looks like I missed all the action again." My husband turned to look at me with a bit of a blank expression, as if I was there to get a hug or to tell him I was going to head to the store. I let it hang in the air for a beat or two and then said, "Sorry, where are my manners, my name is Sarah." With him still a bit shocked, I pulled my chair up to the table with my character sheet and pencil in hand (I hadn't had the chance to get some dice in the mean time).

With hasty introductions accomplished, we turned our attention on the waterfall. I don't want to spoil the fight for anyone who has yet to play Keep on the Shadowfell but let's just say it's a pretty hard fight. I rolled initiative pretty well which was a blessing and a curse. As a rogue, going first gave me some bonuses, but it also meant I got myself into trouble pretty quickly. Soon Sarah was surrounded with no easy way out. At first, I panicked a bit, which is exactly what my character would have done. Eventually, I gathered my wits and begin using her powers that pushed enemies around. That enabled our paladin to get close enough to heal her and then switch places with her. From there, the tide began to turn and I'm pretty sure I was able to bring down some more of the enemies. Perhaps just as important, my crazy defender-like antics meant the ranged striker and wizard were able to get some great shots off without being harassed.

Although it may sound strange, my first game wouldn't have been as exciting to me if it wasn't for that encounter and my mistakes. Likewise, if the GM had pulled his punches and gave me a free pass instead of having the enemies surround me, there is a good chance I wouldn't have continued with the game. When that situation happened and no one rolled their eyes or made fun of me, I knew that I had found my group and that I would be back to play. And well, you guys know the rest.

Hammerfast, Hammerfall, Hammercrest, Hammertime...

One of my rewards for DMing some games at PAX East was a copy of the Hammerfast rules supplement. Since it was on my list of things to buy, this was a real win for me. Now that I have some time to relax and am feeling a lot better after my battle with PAX Plague, I've been flipping through it and, I have to admit, I really like it. There is a lot of detail with all sorts of buildings and shops, NPCS, and lots of flavor. To be honest, it feels a bit like the old adventures I've been reading, since the pages are in black and white with line drawings and there is a lot more intrigue and connections. And the included map is great, with the entire town laid out on one side. The scale on that side of the map is a bit smaller, so you might want to use something other than minis to mark your parties' progress through town.

Ways to use Hammerfast:

  • As the home base of a new campaign - There is a lot of detailed information packed into this slim volume, everything from history to buildings to holidays to NPCs. You can easily find an adventure hook to get the thing started and make it come alive with some of the background description. Personally, I would be tempted to start an adventure on the Seige Day holiday. There's just something stunning about the spectacle of a horde of orc ghosts running down the street, reenacting their attack.
  • As the basis of a city in a homebrew - Have a homebrew? Why not steal bits and pieces of the city for your world. Many of the villain groups could exist anywhere or maybe you just want the map. I'm probably going to use the city as a whole as the dwarven city in my campaign.
  • As a learning tool - I'll admit, this is the main reason I wanted to get this book. I really like the similar town treatments given in other books, including the Dungeon Master's Guide, but those were still fairly limited in scope. I'm going to be studying this book along with the DMG suggestions for world building to see what I can do better in the future.

Now I just need to sell my players on the wonders of the dwarven city of Hammerfast, I mean Andernach.

Maps from the DM Challenge

In addition to completing my personal challenge of writing an Underdark adventure, I participated in the DM's challenge during PAX East. Since I'm going to rework parts of that adventure, I don't want to post the story yet. However, I'm more than happy to post my map notes.

The first encounter occurs when either the party stumbles upon a Quaggoth hunting party or the hunting group stumbles upon them. The area is a pretty decent camp site, with fresh water and it's a bit easier to guard than an open area. The small circles on the right denote Sporecloud squares, which provide concealment once engaged. There is also a nice fire pit, probably created over time by wandering adventurers.

Next up is the old dwarven outpost which marks the entrance to the mine. Quaggoths have taken the thing over. Archers and a chanter guard the front door from above while two berzerkers watch from the campfire below. I had a skill challenge at the end of the earlier encounter, and groups that pass that challenge are given information about the secret passage. That gives them a slight advantage in the hardest fight of the adventure.

This map encompasses two adventure areas. The first is a small cave filled with myconids and geonids. Only fairly perceptive players will notice the latter, as they look a bit like the other boulders dotting the area. The second area is the home of a dark creeper necromancer and his zombies. The zombies have been taking the bodies of Quaggoth's victims and dragging them through the myconids' territory, so the two groups aren't exactly friends. Insightful adventurers might be able to use this fact to negotiate with the myconids for safe passage. The main terrain elements in the first area are the waterfall that leads into a pool and the slime between the two geonids. When I ran it, the slime became difficult terrain but if I ran it again, I would probably make it slippery and require an acrobatics check to avoid ending up prone. In the second area, there are blood soaked squares that award critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20.

I'd love to thank the people who give me some hints and advice in regards to this adventure: Phil, Randall, Jonathan and Jason. They are all great guys and I wouldn't have had the confidence to run it without their help.

Interrogating Your PCs

During my normal game brainstorming session, I had a skill challenge idea that I honestly had no idea how to implement. My players love to keep one of the NPCs alive so that they can interrogate him or her later, but what if I could turn the tables on the players? What if the players had the valuable information someone else wanted? The older mechanic of fort/reflex/will saves thematically works well with this type of tactic, whereas it feels a little less obvious in 4th edition.

Of course my brain kept going round and round the problem, trying to find that little crack that would allow me to flip it around to something more approachable. This morning my brain finally rearranged the problem into something more approachable. Stop thinking in terms of 4E vs. older editions. Skills become their defenses, just like fort/reflex/will saves, with some providing a primary defense and others bolstering it. Of course, the players are free to take proactive steps as well, trying to escape or control the conversation. While the main and secondary skills will change depending on the story line, below are some ways you could use the skills. Have your players describe what they want to do first and figure out what skill best matches it later and remember to reward creativity.

Acrobatics
Slip out of the restraints while the guard is out of the room.
Arcana
If the NPCs are of an appropriate origin, you might learn something about that race that gives you and advantage in negotiations.
Athletics
You might be able to intimidate the NPCs to gain an advantage or bring certain types of restraints if you want to make a run for it.
Bluff
Give the interrogators wrong info but have them believe it or catch them off-guard with a remark giving you an advantage for your next remark.
Diplomacy
Bargain with the captors.
Dungeoneering
Aides in finding an escape route from the prison or knowledge about an NPC to aid you or your group.
Endurance
Determines your ability to withstand the harsh conditions. (Thanks to @Level30yinzer and Thadeous Cooper). Failures might mean that you lose hit points or healing surges.
History
Some bit of knowledge about the history of the area, people, etc, gives the PC an upper hand in the interrogation.
Insight
You might be able to sense the NPC's motives or attitudes and whether or not there is an outside influence.
Intimidate
Could be used as proof of the ability to care out threats of physical harm to the interrogator and his/her family.
Nature
Perhaps you could use it to handle a small animal in the prison or to find out information about NPCs of a natural origin.
Perception
Maybe you notice that the interrogator cares greatly about his appearance or that one of his allies flinches every time something hits you.
Religion
You spot that the guy in the back, who also tends your wounds, wears the symbol of a god who would be against the treatment or something else that might help you negotiate with one of the NPCs. Also helps identify immortal creatures.
Stealth
One of you hides when the guard comes to check on your party.
Streetwise
Remember a bit of gossip about the guard(s) which can help you tailor your story for what they want to hear, make them more inclined to believe you, or to go easier. (Thanks Aaron)
Thievery
Escape the bonds that hold you or perhaps lift the keys from your captors.

A bit of sensitive subject, but for darker games, it might be interesting to use The Colossus of Laarn as the basis of a physical torture session. As players are harmed, they might be willing to give up a secret against their will. This is probably something that should be done with the agreement of your group as it might make some players understandably uncomfortable. Also, it might be a good idea to make it so your players can undo the damage of a loss by giving them time to do things like warning the intended target, setting a trap, etc.

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

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