Monthly Archives: February 2010

Anatomy of a TPK, Addendum

I made a key dungeon mastering mistake during last week’s near total party kill in my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition campaign.  I share it here as a warning to those who follow.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m using Harley Stroh’s Dragora’s Dungeon in my home campaign; for the most part, it’s been a great success.  I have, however, had recurring challenges of information management.  Sometimes related encounter areas have key pieces of information in different sections of the book that don’t reference each other.

In the wandering monster portion of the module, there is a stat block for an elite mad wraith that caught my eye.   I didn’t want to use it as a truly random encounter because I don’t think it’s a good idea to let the dice decide encounter details, unless it’s related to a skill check or challenge.  When combined with a couple of the hastati zain-kin minions running around, a mad wraith encounter would be big fun that effectively conveyed the constant threat of life in the city.

As a part of my normal prep, I enter monster defenses and hit points into an Excel spreadsheet for tracking.  Each has its own tab that I slide around to match initiative order.  I use a simple formula to calculate hit points, because I hate doing math on the fly.  I had entered this information several weeks ago, using the module’s stats.  As I prepared for last week’s game, I started using the Monster Manual as a reference for the encounter.  The module only has a stat block, the MM has lore and tactics.

When I calculated the experience point budget for the final version of the encounter, I used the MM, non-elite version of the creature.  It hadn’t occurred to me that Stroh, would have added the elite template to the wraith.  I didn’t even really understand the difference.  At this stage of my DMing life, I shy away from adding templates or changing monsters beyond adding or subtracting a level or two.

As a result, I thought I was giving my players an encounter that ranged from very easy, with one wraith, to low level normal if they fought all three.  Instead, it was high level easy with one wraith, and very difficult if they fought all three.  It’s no wonder they wiped.

The obvious lesson is to always double check stat blocks when switching between sources.  What mistakes have you made as a DM?  What did you learn from it?



Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Play, Third Party Publishers

Podcast Round-up

Here are the gaming related podcasts that I’m following, in alphabetical order.  All are worth a listen.

  1. Atomic Array – well produced, general hobby gaming podcast
  2. Dragon’s Landing – focuses more on the creativity side of role playing games
  3. GeekNights Tuesdays:  Gaming – fun duo who talk about the gaming that interests them at the moment; mostly video games, but with board gaming (especially German Board Games) and card games too.
  4. Dungeons & Dragons Podcast – from Wizards; features interviews, product previews and the occasional live game play sessions in connection with the fellows over at Penny Arcade and friends.
  5. Open Design Podcast – focused more on mechanics and game design and making gaming better.   Includes third edition content.
  6. The Power Source – solid 4e podcast, with great guest hosts
  7. Radio Free Hommlet – consistent 4e podcast, well thought out with a focus on mechanics
  8. The Tome Show – Well produced podcast that provides a good balance of 4e product reviews, interviews and advice with frequent guest hosts.  This is probably my favorite.

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Filed under 4e D&D, Inspiration, Podcasts, Reviews, Tools

The Anatomy of a Near Total Party Kill

My players recently continued their journey through Dragora’s Dungeon by Goodman Games.  I integrated the module into a larger home-brewed campaign setting, but this section was almost entirely from the book.  With one encounter, my perspective on the game has changed:  I didn’t believe that player character death was possible within a normal strength, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition encounter, under relatively normal circumstances.  Now I understand that it is a real possibility and not only in a climactic boss fight.

From a design perspective, the encounter was pretty good:  one mad wraith was discovered in a cramped and quiet back alley.  There was a moderate amount of difficulty terrain, which favored the floating, aura-using wraith.  When a wraith kills, it spawns an additional wraith, so I included two minion NPCs with the party as ‘guides.’  If the PCs could keep the minions alive, the encounter would be worth 250 experience points, which is in the very easy XP budget range for a party of five third level characters.  Even if both of the ‘friendly’ minions were transformed, the encounter would be worth 750 XPs which is still well within the ‘normal range.’  On the other hand, mad wraiths are 6th level elite controllers, and they were on their home turf.

The first problem occurred long before the battle when the player with the invoker swapped out for a warlord.  This made sense in a general way, because the group needed more up-close abilities.  In the specific, however, it removed the group’s only radiant-keyword abilities.

Anafos, the group’s warlock has a good passive perception, so he spotted the wraith early.  They had a chance to try and evade the encounter altogether.  They chose not to hide (though I use the word ‘chose’ loosely.  I’m not sure it occurred to them).  Their religion knowledge checks are the only parts of the encounter that may not have been entirely by the book.  I don’t remember the exact rolls, but they were in the moderate success range.  Rather than following the strict guidelines in the Player’s Handbook, I gave them some broad information including some general vulnerabilities.

Shortly thereafter, one of the minions (a Zain-kin hastati) rushed into the fight and was killed by the wraith’s aura.  The second held back as instructed by Quinn, the party’s warlord.  A moment later, there were two wraiths to contend with.  The battle soon clustered around the difficult terrain in the middle of the map.  When combined with the aura’s three square dazing affect, the players’ mobility was devastated.  That aura really tore them apart, and, again, the group had exactly zero radiant based abilities to mitigate the trouble.

As the encounter enfolded, things got worse: the second minion died at the edge of the aura.  When he returned as a wraith, the group suddenly faced a battle on two fronts.  When Quinn first went down, Trackless the seeker leapt from the roof in order to provide some healing, got stuck in the honey pot of dazing aura and difficult terrain, and never escaped.

The PCs decided to flee.  Dent the fighter was in reasonably good shape, Anafos and Orsik the shaman were outside of the dazing aura, but Quinn and Trackless were pretty much toast.  Dent had to make a decision:  stay with Quinn and Trackless, or flee.  True to character, Dent stayed.  Not long after, Dent died as Anafos and Orsik fled.

This example shows that death in 4th Edition is a real possibility, even with encounters that are well within budget.  All it takes is a string of unconnected events such as suboptimal party composition, poor dice rolls and minor tactical errors to make a situation deadly.


Filed under 4e D&D, Play, Session Debrief, Third Party Publishers

Some Considerations of Polite Society

No one thinks he’s behaving poorly.  The unfortunate truth is, at one time or another, all of us has behaved poorly.  While there really is no concrete code of laws to govern behavior at the gaming table, there are some rules of polite society we should remember, and only break after thoughtful consideration.  This is particularly true with new groups.  As groups move through the forming and storming phases, and begin norming and performing, some of these rules will be irrelevant, while others will emerge.

1)      Let the host know if you’re going to be late and don’t arrive excessively early.  Often final preparations are being made during the hour or so before a gathering, and it can be a bit awkward for a host to have a guest to entertain while final preparations are being made.  Fifteen minutes on either side is a good rule of thumb.  If you are unexpectedly later than fifteen minutes, it’s polite to offer a brief, ‘Sorry I’m late’ to the rest of the group.

2)      If there’s any doubt, ask before taking food or beverage that doesn’t belong to you.  On the same note, don’t be afraid to ask:  if someone brought food for all to share, it’s a burden for them to take it home at the end of the night.  Naturally, remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you.’

3)      Sharing works both ways.  Bring chips and beer (or pretzels and soda or whatever…) yourself every once in awhile, even if it’s kind of a hassle.  While it’s true that gamers tend to already haul a lot of stuff, and it’s difficult to carry one more thing, this does not absolve one from pitching in.  Maybe that one time you drive is the opportunity to bring your share of the munchies for the next month or so.   Just because someone is generous with their snacks doesn’t mean they enjoy feeding you or that you should expect them to.  At the very least, he will appreciate when someone else pitches in occasionally.

4)      Come prepared.  If your characters have leveled in your absence, do the math ahead of time (especially for those 4th edition even levels).  Bring a pencil and a set of dice.  It’s also helpful if you review your notes or the session write-up from last time.

5)      If you are the host, let everyone know how things work, and be prepared to gently remind them occasionally.  Is your home a shoes off kind of place?  Can folks help themselves to glasses for water, or would you prefer they use plastic cups?

6)      If someone breaks a rule of polite society, don’t be a jerk about it.  Time is at a premium for many gamers, and between work, kids, traffic and bus schedules, it can be harder than it seems to get to a game and be ready to go at the prescribed time.  Be graceful.

What other rules of polite society should gamers remember?  Do you have a questionable situation that you’d like input on?


Filed under Advice, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Culture, Group dynamics, life meets game, News, Reviews & Culture

Ayn Blüd, Tiefling Paladin of Erathis Part 1

In the summer of 2008, Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was brand new.  I had stopped playing World of Warcraft a few months before and had some room in my life for some nerdly fun.  I could also use an infusion of social energy.

So, I wound up joining a newly forming gaming group.  I showed up the first night with a few characters in folder, a 4e Player’s Handbook and my set of dice.  While I had originally intended on playing the Dragonborn Warlord I’d first created, I had also created a Tiefling Paladin a few nights before, and this was the character who called loudest on that night.  In this way, Ayn Blüd was born.  From the beginning I had trouble with his last name.  The umlaut over the ‘u’, shifts the pronunciation away from ‘oo’ to something more Germanic.  It still sounds like his last name is ‘Blood’ which is okay, I guess.

From the beginning, I appreciated the tension between Ayn’s race and class.  Tieflings are forever struggling with their evil tinged heritage, while Paladins epitomize law, order and all that is right and good.  I knew this would give me some good hooks, and I saw some clear potential for a character arc involving Ayn’s descent into grim and gritty as he comes to understand the nature of evil in the world.

Ayn is more than a little patterned after Anakin Skywalker (though not Hayden Christensen), but without the unswerving destiny for evil.  I didn’t want to make his arc dependant on any specific events, so I built in potential levers from several sources.  I provided a mother and father in his back story who live hundreds of miles away.  I knew that if anything happened to them, it would affect him dramatically.  Also like Anakin, Ayn would have issues with the other women in his life.  From the beginning I knew that harm coming to a woman he loved could send him into a very dark place.

A few more foundational characteristics emerged during the first month or so of play:  I chose the base setting’s goddess of civilization, Erathis as his patron, and my DM was good enough to work her into our Forgotten Realms setting.  I like the potential for duality: civilization is often subjective and that’s a tension I could use.  After being repeatedly knocked prone in the blood of Kalarel’s victims during the Keep on the Shadowfell’s final climactic battle, Ayn went a little crazy, decapitated the villain and dragged the head back to town.  During the post-adventure celebration, Ayn started his first ‘relationship’ with Brandi the bar maid.  Apparently, Ayn was a bit of a slut back then.

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Filed under 4e D&D, Character, Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration

Cruise Ship Adventure Area

This week I’ve been on a cruise with my wife and some of my closest friends.  On a whole, it’s been pleasant, but we’ve also experienced a few surreal moments that inspired some adventure hooks I invite you to steal.

A passenger ship that sails across the ocean or through the planes already has some advantages.  It’s a contained space, so the player characters are forced to interact with those around them; yet, it can also be large enough to encompass several encounter areas, areas of relative risk, safety and mystery.

From the outset, the party must be separated from the crew and other passengers.  Perhaps the PCs were coerced into boarding the ship in the first place while the others are there of their own free will.  Is there a conspiracy among the crew, and are the other passengers active or passive participants?  Maybe something in the food has changed them.  Lucky for our heroes, they arrived late and missed the first service, or the meal wasn’t to their liking – are they vegetarians?  Those who did eat are transformed – mentally or physically – into something… sinister.

Once the ship sets sail, its passengers find that its key resources are concentrated in a few nodes.  As a result, those nodes become focal points of conflict and chaos.  Some passengers panic, others become obsessed with getting what they need.  The player characters must either fight, or find other ways to secure the supplies they need.

Another characteristic of sailing vessels is the constant motion of the ship.  This can be severe enough to cause unwanted movement if a character’s reflex (in D&D 4e terms) fails.  Over time, motion sickness becomes a concern, and a PC’s fortitude is tested.  A bad roll leads to nausea.  Nausea leads to impaired abilities and endurance checks.  Failed endurance checks lead to healing surge losses.

The ship board adventure also lends itself to factional divisions.  The officers may be in control of the ship’s functions, but does the housekeeping and wait staff share their agenda?  Among the passengers there might be a handful of cultures.  When push comes to shove, how will the Shadar-kai from deck two treat the orcs staying on deck seven?

After a few days, the ship will reach a port, but that port will not be the kind of place the PCs will want to stay.  It is, however, an opportunity to resupply (at inflated prices) and recover from motion sickness.  Port towns know that when a ship docks, tourists come, and port town inhabitants are prepared.


Filed under Fluff, Fluff/Inspiration, Inspiration, life meets game

Regret, Hobbies, Chores and Oppression

This simple graph was designed as a life comment; as with many things, the lessons of life apply to gaming.  Everything you do can be divided into four types, and each type has a quadrant.  The upper right is for “Hobbies and Meaningful Work.”  These are the things you enjoy doing and feel like you’ve accomplished something once it’s done.  This is the magical conjunction of pleasure and satisfaction.  I think crafty hobbyists spend a lot of time in this section.  I see how pleased those knitters are with themselves as they finish their scarves on the bus.

Continuing clockwise (as we do here) is the “Chores” quadrant.  These are things you want done, but you don’t want to do them.  I believe we’re all familiar with this section.

Third is probably the worst quadrant, “The Zone of Oppression”: you don’t want to do it, you don’t care if it gets done.  This is also known as the “Crap Job” zone.  If it’s not fun, and there’s nothing to show for it at the end, it belongs in “The Zone of Oppression.”

Finally, we have the great seducers within the “Regret” quadrant.  It sure was fun along the way, but looking back, you aren’t pleased with the outcome.  As with all things, there are degrees.  For example, losing an hour playing Civ IV falls into this section, but it’s not anything to lose sleep over.  Losing a week to a heroin binge is a Very Bad Thing.

It pays to think about these zones within the context of your Dungeons and Dragons game.  As a Dungeon Master, the prep for your game should exist almost entirely within that first zone.  Are you having fun with it, and do your players enjoy the fruits of your labor?  If it becomes odious enough to linger into the “Chores” quadrant, you need to find a way to make the tasks more efficient; Wizards of the Coast and many 3rd party publishers have devised many tools to help you.


Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, continuous improvement