Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Dungeon Tiles

As a Dungeon Master, I have a love / hate relationship with Dungeon Tiles. I love the simple fun they add to an encounter, and the detailed artwork inspires encounter design. I love how my players interact with the artwork, and I love the nice clean surface they provide. There are no odd curls for miniatures to get stuck on, and they typically make it very clear which squares can be occupied and which are blocked.

I hate preparing dungeon tiles. It starts with a box of randomly disorganized tiles which I have to fidget with until I put together something suitable for the encounter I have in mind. Often this leads to some mix and matching (which I also dislike). I try to minimize mixing dungeony tiles with village or foresty tiles, because that just looks janky, and if you’re using dungeon tiles, it shouldn’t look janky.

When possible, I try to have the tiles laid out prior to the session; I then cover them with a wet erase map to preserve the surprise. That works pretty well, but sometimes I have to move the tiles in when an encounter begins, or else build the encounter anew, in the moment. Either way, there is a disruption of play that I don’t love.

Later in my 4th edition campaign I started using poster maps more often (following Michael Shea’s advice from Sly Flourish.), and I always had my trusty wet erase map at hand. When I had a specific vision for an encounter, I found the wet erase map, sometimes combined with tiles, to be the best tool.


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Magic Item Resource Management

I take a decidedly lazy approach to magic items in my monthly Dungeons and Dragons game.  I award the player characters gold, and let them buy what they like off screen.  The economics are standard; they can sell existing items at 20% value and they get the appropriate parcels of value for their level.

While there is something lost for the players since they are never pleasantly surprised when a sweet item comes their way.  On the other hand, they aren’t disappointed either.  They can simply get the item that best suits their character without the roundabout ritual of giving me a wish list.

A controversy arose during last session about the best way to manage the financial resources:  one player suggested that the group pool its money, in order to get higher level items quicker.  The other player wanted to divide up the gold evenly and let each player manage his character’s finances separately.  None of the other three players expressed preferences.  Since I had abdicated magic item control to the players, I very intentionally stayed out of it.

I wonder, is there an advantage to giving one character a high level item rather than a few characters something of lower level?  I have contrary intuitions:  on one hand, it seems that you should get powerful items as quickly as possible.  On the other, the economy seems designed to work out evenly.

Am I (or my players) missing something?


Filed under 4e D&D, continuous improvement, Group dynamics, Play

Last Session’s Nuts and Bolts

June 2010 Session

Days have passed since the attack of the Shadar-Kai.  The PC’s can spend the time as they wish.  Presumably they found the camp, gathered the loot, got their reward and have arranged for re-equipping and upgrading.

One midnight, Nightcloak escapes and his group kidnaps a child from the village:  Jeff’s daughter.  The sheriff puts Drale on the case.

Shortly after, Clintok sends a messenger – a crow-mask wearing halfling.  He would like to see the group immediately concerning the missing child.

  • Fortified, wooden wall, stone building
  • Salvador Dali art
  • Everyone wears a mask, Clintok wears the Ibis

Clintok wears an Ibis mask – “what did you do before the Zain-kin came?”  “Before we talk business, let’s have refreshment…”

  • Gives exotic fruit, liquor, lemon water.
  • Warriors draw weapons and attack – See Clintok’s Rangers Encounter
  • Clintok does not engage unless absolutely forced.

“Congratulations, you passed the audition”

For parcel 1&2 and whatever salvage, pursue the bandits and bring their treasure to me to examine.

They’ve gone into the 100 Acre Forest, you’d best leave immediately.

Gives a magic compass that will track The Egg.

Arcana check to use the compass
Any Point in direction
Medium success or better See through eyes
Hard  success Know limited thoughts of Egg’s owner

  • Shadowcloak has The Egg
  • Hates the PCs
  • Hates Westfall
  • The new boss will give him new power

The woods are dark, weird, sprites flitter about 15 miles (three hexes) from town, the sprites coalesce into a swarm and Doc and his pets attack the intruders.  See Outside the Hag’s House Encounter

The thick forest leads further to a house of gold, platinum, copper, jewels, magical knowledge – all of the dreams of player characters.  When the PCs approach the door opens and a beautiful, elderly elven woman in a fine gown appears.

Clintok’s Rangers

XP #
1250 1 Clintok
38 5 Burly Halfling Sellsword
38 5 Halfling Slinger


Outside the Hag’s House

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More about the Game within the Game

At last, I used folded index cards to help track initiative.  Or, rather, I used the cards to communicate the initiative order to my players and they used a bottle cap to note whose turn.  Players’ names were in pink, monsters in green.  I kept my own electronic tracking in the Excel spreadsheet I wrote about previously.  All in all, it was a great success, and I understand why DMs swear by the method.   Since I only use my DM’s screen as a reference, I set the cards in front of me, as table tents.

The other fun experiment arose when my sprite swarms used their rechargeable, close burst Darkwave to create a zone.  We’ve struggled with the best way to mark zones with mixed results.  Pipe cleaner boxes get tangled with the minis; placing a dice in the middle of the zone works reasonably well, but feels unsatisfying to me.  I don’t like having to count to remember the zone’s size, even if I only have to count to one.  We’ve also placed small stones in the zone’s corners.

The battle had begun in earnest, my monsters were getting busy and I had to hurry and figure out what all the power does in addition to creating the zone.  I glanced around my living room frantically when my eye fell on a small dish of toothpicks, probably left over from a recent dinner party.  Eureka!  I bent four toothpicks in half and placed one at each corner of the zone, like little brackets.  Since toothpicks are small and discrete, they don’t interfere with the minis.  They visually contrasted nicely with the battle map, and bend into the nicest 90 degree corner that I can remember.

Here is a pic from our recent game.  You can see the things I wrote about above, plus the world level hex map, our robust use of pipe cleaners and the map tiles, all fully in action.  You can even see the gold coins that we use to incentivize good play.

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Self Grading

I know that I’m stronger in some areas of my Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition playing and dungeon mastering than others.  In the pursuit of continuous improvement, I’d like to share some recent reflections on my strengths and weaknesses.

I’m a good role-player.  I really enjoy crafting characters and sticking with their personalities during a game.  When fellow players or the DM provide story or character hooks, I try and grab them in order to expand the story.

On the other hand, I’m pretty average with the mechanical parts of the game.  After nearly two years, I still only vaguely understand the stealth and jumping rules, and I’m not particularly great at min/maxing during character creation.  I don’t often embarrass myself, though, and when I regularly play a character, I usually stay on top of what he can do:  I can’t remember how stealth works because I’ve been playing a plate mail wearing paladin since nearly the beginning.  Ayn couldn’t hide from a deaf, sleeping and blind mule in a snowstorm.

I’m not very good at adding numbers in my head either, especially after 10 p.m..  Since we normally quit around that time, I’m usually okay, but I have been caught accidentally cheating on to-hit rolls during the closing rounds of a long solo battle.  I wonder how many other times I cheated without realizing?

As a dungeon master, many of these strengths translate.  I think my players find my NPCs interesting, and I think the game’s story is reasonably compelling.  I feel good about my ability to run a typical combat (though, again, there’s always room for improvement), and to provide meaningful decisions throughout a game.  We aren’t a sandbox play group, but no one wants to ride on a single set of rails.

I do have a history of getting too cute with the difficulty of my encounters.  I once put my party of first level characters up against a vampire lord.  That wasn’t a badly designed encounter, but it was not a good fit for my group of mostly new players, and I was still a rookie DM myself.  Then there was the accidental near-TPK when I forgot to factor in a wraith’s ‘elite’ experience point value to the budget.  I won’t even mention the two close-call encounters…

On a few of those occasions, the encounters were more challenging because of decisions made by the players, and/or would have been easier had the players made different choices.  Lucky for me, my current D&D group is pretty forgiving of my mistakes.

As a D&D player or DM, what are you good at?  What are you trying to improve?

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Communication’s Golden Path

There are a few seemingly simple habits that are easy to forget, and make any Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition game smoother and more fun.

Role playing comes easily during skill challenges and between encounters, but it’s very common for combat to devolve into an exchange of numbers, with little or no narration.  It makes for a richer experience when players and dungeon masters keep narrating and role-playing during combat.  Instead of simply calling out “23 versus AC, 32 fire damage” include the fluff: “I summon a wave of fire energy through my sword, that’s 23 versus AC and the waves of flame surround him for 32 points of fire damage.”  The flavor text included with player character powers provide a nice aid for describing those abilities, and can simply be read if you have trouble of articulating the story.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is best when players and DMs are transparent and mechanically precise when describing what is happening.  Many key words have mechanical connotations that aren’t always intuitive.  For example, when a character ‘runs’ it allows two extra spaces of movement and grants combat advantage.  Should that same character simply move their full normal speed or take a double move, there are no such negative consequences.  While it seems accurate to describe a double move as a ‘running,’ this can create confusion.  ‘Shifts’ and ‘moves’ are similarly hazardous when described imprecisely.

It’s also best when players and DMs include the details of what is happening when it comes to who has attacked whom, what the ‘to hit’ total was and what defense it attacked, even when it seems obvious or inconsequential.  D&D is a complicated game and many powers have unusual triggers.  It’s certainly not reasonable for any one person to keep track of every detail; instead, good, clear communication allows the entire group to use its collective mind to manage it all.

As in all things, the key is to find and walk the golden path.  Include the crunchy details, so everyone can track the mechanics, but wrap the crunch within the context of the story in order to make the experience one worth tracking.


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

For the Cat

“The first pancake is for the cat.”  I first heard this saying from a podcasting friend of mine as he described his initial production effort.  It was a new format for him, with a new team and new equipment.  While he wasn’t especially pleased with the outcome, he also wasn’t that disappointed or surprised.  The first pancake of the batch is never quite right, so you just plan it as a write it off.  Do cats even eat plain pancakes?  Bing and Google both failed to connect me with the original saying.

This sentiment holds true on both sides of the dungeon master’s screen in Dungeons and Dragons.  The most obvious example is in character creation.  Whether you use the DnD Insider’s Character Builder or stick with the books, there’s no way to really know how it’s going to come together until you play through an encounter or two.  Many powers have nuances that are easily overlooked; others work best in conjunction with the abilities of other characters or against certain monsters.  Sometimes things seem more fun on paper than in actual play.  For this reason, in my games it is common for new player characters to experience some retooling after their introduction.  Just last night I realized that my new druid’s magic staff’s item daily only works with arcane magic.

There are many analogous elements on the DMing side of things.  Describing environments, running encounters and negotiating the rules are skills that get better with use, and no one is as good at it initially as they will become with practice.  At the same time, most players are usually just happy to have someone DMing the game, just as cats are happy to get that first pancake.  This is what makes the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle so attractive.  Nothing is ever perfect at first, and almost everything has room for improvement.

With that in mind, it’s wise to focus on expanding a few skill sets at a time.  If you’re brand new to D&D, consider using a pre-published adventure initially.  When you start designing your own encounters, keep it relatively simple at first by limiting the number of different creature and terrain types.


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