Monthly Archives: March 2010

Experiments in Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition

Yesterday I dungeon mastered the start of a new campaign after a near total party kill last month.  I used the same setting (advanced by about a year to reflect the previous failure), but my players wanted to try new characters.  We also had a new member join us.  This time I’m instituting a few new curves, all borrowed from other sources.

The first idea I noticed from Gabe over at Penny-Arcade.  I simply drew the map of the campaign world onto the hex side of my battle mat.

There isn’t much detail because it represents knowledge owned by the characters.  Since it’s early in the campaign, they have a general awareness of the geography, but not much more.  In the top pic you can see the original map that I drew using Visio.

After over a year and a half of play, we’ve found the pipe-cleaner method for indicating marks, bloodied and similar conditions works best.  This was validated yesterday.  We’ve tried a few different kinds of office supply post-it type flags, and none have come close.  Pipe-cleaner hoops slip on and off easily without having to lift the figure, and they’re easy for players to self manage.  My biggest challenge is finding a store who sells them.  The DM in my weekly game wound up hooking me up, since he has leftovers.

I really like to involve players with the creative aspect of the game, and yesterday I did two things to encourage this.   At one point, the players decided to set an ambush for their pursuers.  The warden (who was coincidentally the new player) rolled well on her nature check to find an optimal ambush location.  I started drawing a fairly improvisational battle map with difficult terrain and concealing brush, rocks of varying heights, logs and water.  Then I handed her the pens.  Since it was their ambush, and she’d rolled so well, she’d earned the right to dictate its terms.  It soon turned into a collaborative effort among the players, and I only gave them about as much time as it took for me to use the restroom.

Last but not least, we trialed a house rule add-on similar to what’s common indie games such as Primetime Adventures.  I brought four Sacajawea gold coins to the table (equal to the number of players -1, though I would probably keep the number of coins at four for six players).  Whenever a player did something Cool, like a fun role-play or tactic innovation, they got a coin.  They could use those coins before any dice roll for a +2 bonus.  Once a coin is used, it returns to the pool and can be awarded again.  If all the coins are out, no more can be given until one is used; players may not pass coins among themselves.  If coins are available, they can (and should) award coins to one another.  Next session I plan to add a prohibition to adding more than one coin to any single dice roll.

The modern era of gaming is filled with great ideas and wise learnings, but the only way to take advantage is to learn, try, learn more and try again.


1 Comment

Filed under 4e D&D, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Game Design, Information management, Session Debrief, Tools

Super Heroes and Character Tiers

The three tiers of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition seem a little artificial in the context of a team of characters ascending from the merely heroic to godlike over a compressed time frame, especially if the campaign takes place over a compressed period of time.  The strength of the Heroic, Paragon and Epic tiers is that it allows players to tell stories featuring characters of varying power levels.  These stories have precedents in super hero comics that might help one think about play in the tiers.

When characters begin the game, they start as heroes with remarkable abilities and the will to change their world.  On the other hand, they don’t have political influence or renown and might not be trusted by those they want to help.  While they’re probably the toughest on the block, they aren’t the toughest in the city.  This tier reminds me of the X-Men from Marvel Comics, especially during the mid to late 1980’s, when Professor Xavier and Jean Grey as the Phoenix weren’t around.  Storm’s weather control was a little overpowering at times, but mostly they were a group that was on the run and got beat up a lot.

The Avengers remind me of a team in the paragon tier.  These are characters that have been around the block; while Captain America (a warlord if I’ve ever seen one) doesn’t have any extra super powers, he can hold his own in any situation.  Aside from a few exceptions (like Thor and Hercules), they aren’t at the epic power scale, but they can stand toe to toe with nearly everyone.  They have fame, popularity, wealth and a lot of control of their own destiny.  That’s what the Paragon should feel like in most D&D campaigns.

The epic tier isn’t something that Marvel Comics does very consistently.  Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer are good examples of that power level, but the best place to look is in DC comics.  The Justice League of America is the team to look to when considering the epic tier.  Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern and the Flash… these characters defend the world and the galaxy on a regular basis.  They are more than powerful heroes; they are heroes who symbolize power.


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

Excel is this Dungeon Master’s Friend

I probably have an above average comfort with Microsoft Excel, but I’m no expert.  While wrestling with how best to track initiative in my monthly game, I thought I’d try using Excel.  After a few sessions, I’ve made some adjustments, added a few things, and am happy with it overall.

Here is my standard template, and every participant in the battle gets one, except for minions.  They usually have to share.  The top half is for key information.  For the player characters I document defenses, passive perception and insight, character name and a note about the mini.  When battle begins, I’ll enter the initiative into the appropriate box.  I don’t track PC hit points.  If this were a monster, I would enter the damage as it is incurred, and Excel does the subtraction.  It’s important to note that when I set up those formulas, I didn’t tell the ‘bloodied’ and ‘surge value’ cells to round.  In standard math ‘16.5’ rounds up to 17, but, as we know, in Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, we always round down.

After all the initiative values are entered, I rearrange the tabs accordingly.  When a monster dies, I can either delete the tab or shuffle it off to the side.

Here is what it might look like during a battle.  The green tabs are the PCs, the black is a dead monster.  The Zain-kin Centurion has taken 12 points of damage, which happens to equal his surge value.  Trackless went first, then Anafos, then the Centurions etc…

Another advantage of using Excel is that I can insert other DMs helpers into some of the other tabs.

This tab helps me track my experience budget, so I can adjust to player absences or additions on the fly.  I often paste in images of information from the Monster Builder, especially if I’ve customized them for my game.

On a whole, I’ve had great success using Excel, but I only recommend it for those already familiar with the software, and to those who don’t have to pay for it.  How do you track your encounters?  Do you use index cards or other software?  What ideas for improving my system do you have?

1 Comment

Filed under 4e D&D, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Information management, Play, Tools

Hallowed Halls Dungeon Tiles

I have a pretty sparse set of dungeon mastering supplies.  Since I’m only on that side of the table about once a month, I’ve devoted my gaming resources in other other directions.  I do, however, have the basics:  a Dungeon Master’s Guide, both Monster Manuals (plus Dungeon Denizens by Aeryn Blackdirge from Goodman), a few modules, plenty of dice, a battle mat and a small to moderate collection of miniatures.  The battle mat works fine, for the most part, though there are a few times I wished it were larger.

My regular DM, however, has a few sets of Dungeon Tiles from Wizards of the Coast, and I must admit, that there is an added fun factor to maneuvering our minis over the cardboard grids.

A few days ago, I splurged a bit (though around $10 per set, they aren’t tooo expensive) and came home with a set of the Hallowed Halls Dungeon Tiles.  I didn’t know that this set includes a three dimensional element.  There’s not much mention on the outside of the package, and there are no real directions inside.  After punching everything out, I spread the pieces across my table and started playing.  It took me a bit to understand how they fit together, so I’m including some pictures that may help the rest of you along.

To make this table...

Use the round top and middle two, lighter pieces shown here.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4e D&D, Third Party Publishers, Tools

Ayn Blüd and the Silver Order

The mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition are very tactically oriented, and some argue that this comes at the detriment of the role-playing elements.  However, the game’s crunch can add to a rich role-playing experience when used as guidelines and inspiration for character development.  In my regular game, the game’s mechanics helped guide my character (Ayn Blüd, Paladin of Civilization) through some key growth choices.

I first witnessed an avenger in action during a one shot for a group of friends last summer.  The Batman-striker flavor is fine, but I was blown away when I saw my player roll two, TWO D20s using Oath of Enmity.  Dungeons and Dragons is a D20 game, so the ability to roll two feels very powerful to me.  A month or so later, the “Hero of Faith” multi-class feat was included in Divine Power.

Ayn was on a track of increasing grimness from the beginning, so the Avenger element was a nearly perfect fit.  I ret-conned some experiences with the “Silver Order” (that I had also just invented) into his days in the Paladin academy, reworked a few powers and feats, and announced to my group that recent events in the campaign had motivated Ayn to swear an oath to the Silver Order.  This also levered his alignment from ‘good’ to ‘unaligned.’  In order to protect civilization, sometimes tough decisions must be made for the greater good.

I found a mechanic that looked fun and was compatible with my character in both mechanic and narrative.  In collaboration with my DM, I added elements to Ayn’s background to explain his new ability.

Footnote:  while writing this post, I learned that the Hero of Faith feat was nerfed back in the fall.  As originally written, it allowed a target to remain subject to the Oath of Enmity until killed or until the end of the encounter.  Using a pair of D20s on attack rolls started feeling normal, and I was wondering why everyone didn’t take that feat.  Now, the oath remains only until you hit the target, or until the target is killed.

I’m a little bummed, but there is a silver lining.  Now I don’t need to obsess as much about singling out an enemy.  I had also taken the “Oath of Urgency” feat which allowed me to shift my oath of enmity to a new target.  I won’t need (and can’t use) that anymore, but I’m sure there’s something else out there that will add some fun to Ayn.

Leave a comment

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

Photo of Fantasy Wargaming by Bruce Galloway

Here is a picture of my copy of Fantasy Wargaming, The Highest Level of All, which I wrote about a week or so ago.

Leave a comment

Filed under Legacy D&D, Other Systems, Third Party Publishers, Uncategorized

First Who, Then What

Not long ago I came across the audio version of Jim Collins’ Good to Great.  While the focus of the book is to understand the difference between truly great companies with great leadership and enduring growth from the merely good companies who’ve experienced brief periods of strength, many of its themes apply to any group of people assembled for a long term purpose.  For example, great companies first assemble key leadership teams, then they decide what roles team members should hold and what the strategy of the company should be.  This applies directly to gaming.

Games are often formed from a hodgepodge of available players.  Perhaps someone posts an online ad, perhaps it’s an assembly of friends.  Whatever the case, some attention should be paid to the type of player one invites to the table.  In gaming it isn’t as crucial to assemble great people, after all, we’re all here to have fun.  It is crucial, however, to assemble gamers of compatible temperament and style.  One really bad player can spoil the entire group, just as two diametrically opposed players can.  Ideally, the bad eggs and troublesome relationships should be identified before they’re allowed into the group.  If someone already in the group consistently spoils the fun, it may be time to have that difficult conversation and disinvite them from the game.

The uncomfortable truth is that troubled players tend to hang around for too long because few people are willing to have that difficult conversation.

Once the right players are at the table, and the wrong players are away from the table, a group can decide what it wants to do a the table.  While many dungeon masters do much of their campaign planning before they’ve gathered their players for the first time, there are hazards here.  It’s better to adapt the campaign to the strengths and interests of the players.  Similarly, it’s best to hold character creation until all the players are identified and can participate.  Creating after the sharp minds have been assembled will lead to more interesting origins and sharper character builds.  Most importantly, this should lead to increased fun of the entire group.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4e D&D, Advice, Advice/Tools, continuous improvement, Group dynamics, life meets game, Uncategorized