D&D – Non-combat encounters

All right, it’s time to talk about D&D 4th edition non-combat encounter rules – also known as skill encounters.

4th edition is just plain wacky. At it’s core, I understand the desire to make everything approachable and easy to understand. Simplified and antiseptic. Clearly that’s a good way to approach combat, as having clear rules makes the chaos of combat more controlled and easily executable.

But the funny thing is that the designers totally failed on both fronts of their quest to make things simple and approachable in two very different ways.

First of all, combat in 4th edition quickly became the most complex, unapproachable combat in all of D&D history. The amount of shit going on in combat and the amount of customization available for the combat aspects of a character quickly outpaced any previous edition. And when Wizards of the Coast adopted a sort of Magic: The Gathering mentality for making money off of their product (keep releasing more and more shit so that players have to keep buying the latest thing to stay competitive), making an optimized character was nearly out of reach without a monetary investment (a model many would call highly unapproachable). I’m not saying I’m upset about this. As I’ve said many times before, I love 4th edition combat and the infinite customization of characters available, but it is a clear departure from their original model of simplicity.

And then on the other side of things, the simplified model of non-combat encounters, which was largely ignored by designers over time in order to complexify combat, fundamentally does not work. When players are out of combat, they’re wandering around town doing whatever the crap they want. You can’t try to structure and restrict that without rendering the whole tabletop experience wooden and uninspired.

I dunno, it’s sort of hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it, but the descriptions of non-combat encounters in the 4E DMG just make me mad, like the designers were invading my head and killing all creativity they found.

Maybe the best way to describe just how fundamentally wrong the 4E mentality is is to just do a quick rundown of the creative process involved in making 2 separate non-combat encounters – one from my previous campaign where I didn’t give a flying crap about non-combat stuff, and one from my new campaign.

I’m not even sure why I started throwing in non-combat encounters into that last campaign. I think it was some mix of just giving my players extra experience so that they could level up faster, and storytelling aspect of my brain screaming vainly to be released from its shackles. But, anyway, there they were, official Non-Combat Encounters, which I would insert in between combat encounters in order to break up the pace a bit.

So one involved escaping from the snake people and their arena which I talked about in a previous post. (I think…hmm, looking back I never did. This was stuff that happened right before I rebooted the blog and it wasn’t very interesting anyway.) Either way, the basic idea was that they escaped an arena and then knocked out a pursuing troll who was in charge of the arena prisoners (kind of like the illithid subplot of Baldur’s Gate 2), then they found an exit to the city that led to an underground crypt.

ENTER NON-COMBAT ENCOUNTER! The goal: escape from the snake people down a tunnel and block any further pursuit by collapsing the tunnel behind them.

The DMG advises us to pick a handful of skills that would pertain to such a situation (let’s say acrobatics, athletics and dungeoneering) and decide what the complexity of the encounter is. The “complexity” is basically how many successful skill checks denote a successful encounter, but really what does success or failure even mean in the context of a non-combat encounter? “Oh, your random number generator didn’t generate high enough random numbers. The snake people catch you and eviscerate you. Time to reroll you characters.”

Anyway, deciding on a complexity before outlining the encounter seemed completely counter-intuitive to me. I want to paint a scenario with this encounter and however long it takes to do that is how long it takes.

So, anyway, let’s just outline the encounter, shall we? They’re running for their lives down this tunnel, when suddenly the troll warden reappears behind them and attempts to ensnare one of them with his whip – acrobatics check. And if they fail, then they or someone near them has to make an athletics check to free them. And maybe this whip thing happens a couple more times until they decide they need to knock out some tunnel supports to collapse the tunnel on the troll behind them to stop their pursuers and get away. So, dungeoneering check to select a proper support or two and athletics to knock them out. Depending on how much they were delayed by the troll and knocking out the right supports, some more acrobatics checks might be in order to dodge falling debris. If they fail those, they may lose some surges (oh no!).

So how it plays out is a short description of what’g going on, then a check, then the consequences of that check, and then another check. And this repeats until you finish the encounter as quickly as possible because no one is having any fun. Right? You’ve accomplished your goal, but the journey to get there was mundane, overly structured and no fun. The only excitement comes from the stakes of the encounter, but obviously I’m not going to kill my players over a couple bad dice rolls, so the worst thing that will happen is that players lose a couple surges. And I cannot stress enough how little players care about losing a couple surges. They have way too many as it is.

The better way to do this, obviously, is not care so much about the structure of encounter or the artificial stakes, but just focus on making the encounter itself enjoyable by allowing players the freedom to dick around and do whatever they can think of to work toward solving the problem. Obviously they’re going to succeed the challenge. Most of the time, it’s a necessary part of the story (though obviously having the flexibility in your campaign for multiple disparate outcomes would be better and is something I’m working towards), so they kind of have to. But you want to make it a challenge to succeed not by challenging their dice, but by challenging their brains.

One of the most aggravating things about the description of non-combat encounters in the DMG is when it tells DMs to subtly discourage players coming up with their own solutions to the highly structured problems DMs present them with. “If they can come up with a reasonable explanation for why a different skill check would work in the situation, sure, let them do it, but make the difficulty class of the check harder and only let them do it once.” What the crap? Encourage your players to think for themselves and play outside the box! Why would anybody want to play a tabletop game where they are discouraged from thinking freely?! I don’t understand this mentality at all!

All right, so how do we accomplish this? We set up a skill encounter that doesn’t feel like a skill encounter at all. In fact, even calling all the stuff that happens outside of combat a “skill encounter” makes me feel dirty. Basically drop your players into a non-combat situation. Give them goals to achieve (or, where possible, let them come up with their own goals). And then, when those goals are achieved, give them experience comparable to a combat encounter. Occasionally, a player will have to do something difficult for their character – something they may not be able succeed at automatically – and at this time you tell them to make a skill check against a difficulty class, depending on how hard it is. Really, if you’re great at improvising situations on the fly, as a DM all you really need is the range of difficulty classes appropriate for your players’ current level. For instance, level 5 skill checks should range from 18 (fairly easy) to 26 (very difficult). So you quickly think about how difficult doing what the player wants to do would be, and then assign a number on the fly and run with it. With that rule of thumb and a little planning, DMs can run out-of-combat stuff in a much more fluid, free, engaging and collaborative way.

For our second example, the better way to do things, the idea was that the players had to investigate a series of mysterious kidnappings in the town they all lived in. The campaign started with them all attending a town meeting called to discuss the disappearances and what to do about them. To start designing the situation, I had to start from the beginning and answer some basic establishing questions: Who was doing the kidnapping and where was their base of operations? Who was kidnapped, when were they kidnapped and where were they kidnapped?

Then it was important to establish how the players would actually solve the kidnappings. I gave them two main options, though I was always open to opening up new avenues of investigation if they were more clever in solving it than I was in designing it. Anyway, the two options were that: a) The kidnapper was shot by a city guard during the last abduction and left behind some very hard-to-find clothing fibers. Inspecting the fibers led players to believe that a blue dye had been spilled on the kidnapper’s otherwise black cloak, and some interviewing in the market district would eventually lead them to a dye stall in another part of town that sat adjacent to a secret door leading to the kidnapper’s lair. b) It was also possible to zero in on the kidnapper’s location by looking at the spread of abduction locations and assuming the base of operations was somewhere near the center of that. Streetwise checks to gather local rumors would also yield information about questionable activities in that specific area. Investigating those questionable activities could lead to an encounter with the maid of large estate neighboring the dye stall who has information from her boyfriend about some dark figures moving around that location at night.

Then it’s just a matter of filling in the details, mostly with the town meeting, where most of the information could be communicated to the players through various NPCs involved in the situation. So I wrote down some basic information about the victims and their families and friends (i.e. who would show up to the town meeting) and what the people who showed up would know and how willing they would be to share the information. Then I outlined a schedule for the meeting, who would arrive when and when they would get up to speak. It’s important to keep all this stuff rough, though, because players have the opportunity at any time to interrupt the flow of events and it’s important to allow that to happen and not get into a mentality of stifling that so that you can act out your plan.

I also threw in a couple of red herrings for good measure. The boss and wife of one of the victims were acting suspicious because they were having an affair. Two women came along claiming their husbands had disappeared in order to get handouts from sympathetic rich people. Also, there was some extra information to uncover during the investigation that didn’t directly help the players but would give insight into the motives of the culprits, which might be important later in the game when the culprits are actually confronted.

So, anyway, that’s what we spent most of the time doing in the first official D&D session of the new group last week. I think the “non-combat encounter” played out really well and it seemed like everyone was having a good time immersing themselves in their characters instead of just rolling dice. They did eventually find the hideout and get into the first combat encounter, which was a purposefully basic affair that I could use to sort of gauge how powerful the group was and how they worked together in combat. I don’t know, they seem a little light on hit points and healing, which can be kind of dangerous, but now I have a better idea of what exactly I can throw at them, so the next couple of combats should get a little more lively.

And I think that’s about all I have to say about non-combat encounters. Stay tuned for the big combat encounter I have planned for the end of the quest, which involves a pretty ridiculous setpiece that may work well or may not work at all. Yay!

Non-combat encounters part 2 and part 3.

D&D – The Fiasco in Coilforks

I guess I never updated the blog on how exactly I planned to change my DMing to achieve D&D 2.0. Or, well, you know D&D 4.2.0…or something like that.

Anyway, I’ve always loved dicking around in D&D. Back in high school when I rocked out with advanced second edition, I got my hands on a book called The Complete Book of Humanoids and I spent the next handful of campaigns playing half-crazy fanciful beasts who sort of went out of their way to be more entertaining to the party than useful. There was the centaur warrior with an English accent obsessed with military formalism, the wemic (sort of like a centaur, but with lion parts instead of horse parts) witch doctor with multiple personality disorder, and the aarakocra (large humanoid bird) who just went around yelling at people in a shrill voice.

I dunno, it seemed fun at the time.

The point is that I love the aspect of D&D where you’re able to just hang out with your friends and have fun, much like any game experience should be. And, I dunno, maybe that was the fun part of D&D to me back then because combat was so inherently boring in AD&D2. You got into combat with something and everything just sort of ground to a halt and became a unengaging roll-fest.

Eventually my tastes evolved, however, and a good time with friends became playing some complicated board game (which, incidentally, is not considered a good time by that many other people). So when 4th edition came around, I was eager to try it out because combat seemed like it could actually be fun. It seemed like a board game, and maybe I could trick people into playing this board game with me by telling them it was D&D. I mean, it wasn’t really malicious or anything, and I think everybody had a good time (except maybe my hot wife, who only lasted a few sessions), but I wasn’t really giving them a full D&D experience. I was just exploring the intricacies of 4th edition combat and enjoying myself. I learned how to make compelling encounters, gaining a lot of experience about what worked and what didn’t.

But while creating complex encounters was very much an aspect of creative expression I enjoyed, I was sort of suppressing other creative needs I have for storytelling. I mean, I love being creative, so why not allow myself to create complex stories and interactive environments in addition to complex monster encounters and give my players a more complete and fulfilling D&D experience?

Well, okay,the obvious answer is time commitment. Once you get the hang of it, you can create a session’s worth of monster encounters in an hour or two. Less, actually, if you just want to pull some shit out of the Monster Manual. It takes significantly more effort to create a really great out-of-combat experience for the players.

I mean, look at it this way: in combat, players always want to do one thing – subdue the monsters. You set up pins in front of them, and they knock them down. When your doing something other than combat, like, say, dropping your players into a city and asking them to solve a string of mysterious disappearances, you have only a vague sense of what they will want to do. They are in the middle of a city, and they can do anything (maybe not anything, but the closer you can get to allowing them to feel like they can do anything, the more immersing the experience will be). This means that instead of creating a handful of monsters, you have to create an entire city, which, admittedly, is a little bit more time intensive. But if you can pull it off, which a lot of the time can mean a lot of off-the-cuff improvisation of characters and location descriptions, then the results can be well worth it.

So that’s what I tried to do in my second campaign – attempt to harness the full force of my creativity and experience to produce a story that has engaging combat and non-combat elements.

All right, so where to begin? The inspiration for the start of the campaign actually came from a completely different game I started getting into about a month ago – Fiasco. Fiasco is pretty cool. It is essentially a game where people sit down and talk to each other, acting out scenes that generally lead their characters from bad situations to worse, usually resulting in their death or humiliation at the end. It’s pretty simple, but surprisingly well-developed, such that the few rules it does have function really well in ensuring a great game experience where people get to be highly creative and act out all sorts of interesting and intense scenarios.

So, anyway, there’s a fantasy-specific playset for Fiasco where the elements you establish at the beginning of the game are all lifted from the sort of pulpy swords and sorcery adventures one would come up with playing D&D after school in one’s halcyon days of youth. And somewhere in my Internet perusal it was actually recommended as a starter for a D&D campaign, which made a whole lot of sense to me.

Here is why:

First of all, D&D is very much a 2-way street. For all the effort a DM puts into creating a good campaign, the players also need to be receptive about what the DM is trying to get done. They have to get involved in the story to fully experience it and enjoy it. Just look to my last post for what happens when you have a DM willing to put in the effort and a bunch of players who don’t. (Did I mention in my last post that the DM seemed pretty competent in his DMing skills? Because he was. It looked like he was trying really hard, but couldn’t stay afloat above this tsunami of a “let’s-just-dick-around” attitude.) This can sometimes be pretty heartbreaking for someone like me, who actually gets very emotionally attached to the stories I create. I then try to share them with others and the stories are met with nothing but indifference, the campaign peters off and I don’t even get to finish the stories.

So, anyway, there are, in my opinion, three main obstacles that keep players from engaging in campaigns. The first is a lackluster job from the DM in making the campaign itself compelling. And I’m not saying I’m above this at all. In fact, this could possibly be the main problem with why some of my campaigns have failed in the past. When I sit down and start thinking about where I want to take a story, I tend to get super-complex pretty quickly, and before I know it, I’m throwing in time travel and parallel dimensions. Which may not necessarily be a bad thing, but it could be because it tends to make the plot convoluted and unintelligible, basically amounting to a lot of mysteries that keep piling up with no pay-off. The thought of “what the crap is going on?” can quickly make the players stop caring altogether. So I’m trying to reign myself in this new campaign, telling more self-contained stories within a larger, more straight-forward over arching plot – something that is always in the background and only comes to the foreground when it needs to.

I’m thinking more along the lines of The X Files instead of Lost.

Other than that, players can simply feel uncomfortable engaging in a story, especially if they’re not used to D&D. Should they talk in character? How seriously should they take all of this when it’s only a silly game that doesn’t mean anything in the real world?

And the other obstacle is that players may not be invested in the story. After all, it’s my story, not their story. I strong-armed them into playing D&D with me, and now I’m talking to them in weird voices about a giant psychic bug terrorizing the townsfolk.

The point is that I think Fiasco works really well at overcoming these second two obstacles. The idea is that at the start of the campaign, there is zero preparation: no character creation, no DM designing encounters or NPCs. Everyone just sits down and plays a game of Fiasco, not even thinking about the D&D campaign to come. Only at the end of the game, once the players have fully fleshed out a group of characters, some of which who may have died through the course of the story, do the players and the DM sit down together and think, “Okay, how can we make a campaign out of this?” They start thinking about which characters from the Fiasco game could be playable in the campaign, which characters might be good villains or quest-giving NPCs. Obviously there won’t be a 1-to-1 transfer of Fiasco characters to playable D&D characters, so you might have to flesh out the world a bit more to include players whose characters may have died or been particularly evil. And once the characters have been established, then the DM does his thing to make a story to continue the tale kicked off with Fiasco.

What this does is make the players at least somewhat invest in the story. Now it is their story, and the DM is just taking it and running with it, allowing their continued input along the way (in a more controlled, limited manner, but still). And Fiasco also forces people to talk in character, to really go balls-to-the-walls in being the person that their playing and getting into their skin. Yeah, that character may end up dead, but at least you’ve communicated to them through the game that it’s okay to engage. We’re all nerds here together, man, so really get into the mind of your character and act it out like you think he would.

So that’s what my group did last week for the first game. It didn’t go perfectly, but it was still a fun time. There was a point at the end where we realized only 2 of the 5 characters could actually be carried over to the campaign and the only villians that emerged were drawn and quartered at the end. Everybody was sort of stuck on what character they could add to the story and how these additional characters could get hooked into an adventure with the current characters. I sort of had to pick up the slack and add more of my own initial ownership to the story than I wanted to make everything fit and get a better transition into an actual D&D game.

Essentially the Fiasco story revolved around two werewolf twins trying to rob and kill a powerful sorcerer in his tower, aided by the sorcerer’s apprentice and a local brothel owner. But both werewolves died at the end and the sorcerer we sort of decided was too powerful to be a playable character. So the others decided on classes and races and then I went home and wrote them all a small hook that more-or-less got the old characters and the new characters to the same place with the same goal. I had to fast forward a bit to 4 or 5 years after the Fiasco game, where people in town had started disappearing (possibly related to the fact that the werewolves had bit some people before getting torn apart by a mob) and everyone had at least some investment in finding those who had disappeared. It worked well enough, I think, and I would definitely do it again. There’s a huge amount of randomness to Fiasco games, so I think it could have ended up working out a lot better than it did, but it probably could have been worse, too.

I wanted to get to the first skill encounter and combat encounter we went through yesterday during the first official D&D session of the new campaign, but I have really rambled here for quite a while, so that will have to wait. I’ve got a lot of strong opinions about how horribly designed out-of-combat stuff is in 4th edition, so I’m sure that will emerge in the upcoming post, as well.

D&D – The Return

My D&D group went defunct a few months back. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, just 2 of the principle players went out of state, and we didn’t really have anybody to fill their shoes. So it went away, but the desire to play never did.

I thought a lot about joining another group in the area. There are some groups that play at local bookstores and game stores on Monday nights, but I didn’t want to just show up without prior notice, and it was difficult getting in touch with the organizers beforehand. But eventually I made my way to a game last week, and, well, it was horrible to say the least.

Horrible.

So beforehand, I had gotten in touch with the game organizer to get a better idea about what to prepare, though the only real information I got out of him was that the group was 16th level and there were about 8 player characters. Now, 8 players is a red flag. Because that is just way too many people. Even in a solid group, if there are 8 people, that means enough monsters to challenge 8 people, and that’s just too much going on in a single encounter. It will take forever to get through the encounter, and it will just take a damn long time in between any one person’s turn. But they were 16th level and that seemed good. Assuming it had started at some point back at level 1, it meant the group had some amount of focus, despite its size. I mean, meeting every other week for about 2 years only got my group to around level 7 or 8 by the end.

So I decided to at least give it a try. Knowing it was a large group, I figured a warlord would be a safe bet as a class to make, with a focus on granting as many attacks to other players as possible. I mean, with 8 other people, surely some of them had good melee basic attacks? And if they all had to wait forever between their turns, I figured the best way to ingratiate myself with the group was to make that wait time sort, not longer. Plus, with all the buffs a warlord doles out, the larger the party, the more effective his buffs are.

So I spent a lot of time making the ultimate lazylord (a warlord who doesn’t bother increasing his primary stat and never makes a physical attack himself, instead using all his actions and ability points to give powerful actions to others). I had a good time figuring out the greatest possible synergy between powers, feats, equipment and paragon paths. Character creation, especially high-level character creation, is highly enjoyable to me. There is just so much information and interaction between all the various facets, character optimization is just a wonderful mental exercise.

So naturally I just kept making characters after I was done with my warlord. I mean, maybe they didn’t need another leader? I mean, I should probably just make a character of each type (leader, defender, striker and controller) just in case they are hurting for one in particular, right?

So I took my invoker and leveled him up to 16, which was nice because I got to play around with paragon paths. Then, I thought, what if they don’t have anyone with good melee basic attacks for my warlord to use? Well, then I should make one! So made an avenger who focused on melee basic attacks, and getting crits to get more melee basics. That character in particular was pretty ridiculous.

And then there was a goliath warden, where any enemy within his reach 3 was pretty much completely shut down. But, anyway, the point is that it didn’t even matter.

Not at all.

I got there totally prepared. There were indeed 8 other player characters. Of the 2 that actually talked to me when I addressed the question for the third time of what role they wanted to the group, they really didn’t care. “Does anybody have good melee basic attacks?” Silence… I decided to go for the warlord anyway.

Did I mention that, apart from the DM, who was totally cool, only 2 people at the table acknowledged my presence? Yeah…

Okay, so the first 45 minutes the DM stopped everything to help some other new guy create his level 16 character from scratch, because apparently he had never played 4th edition before and just decided to show up. Which is fine, except you should just get the materials for character creation and then sit back and watch everybody else play for that session and then go home and do it in your own time. Creating a level 16 character from scratch at the table while everyone else is just twiddling their fingers waiting for you is completely insane. I’m surprised it only took him 45 minutes. While that was going on, the talkative nerd sitting next to me (every group has one – the guy who dominates the conversation so that he can feel important) made a constant stream of jokes with such diverse topics as Hitler and women’s anatomies. Classy stuff.

And then, only once other new dude was totally squared away did the DM turn his attention to finishing an encounter held over from the previous session. He kept assuring us that we would be able to jump in once the encounter was over, which wouldn’t take very long at all, as the monsters were almost dead. He assured us this through the unabated stream of talkative dude’s bad jokes. Yes, he was finally able to play, but that didn’t mean he was going to stop talking.

And then, of course, the encounter took another hour to finish. The new characters were briefly introduced.

And then it was over. Apparently this group only plays for 2 hours every other week. Doing a little math, that appears to boil down to a single solitary hour of D&D per week. And our time was up. I didn’t even get to roll a single die.

Wooooooooo.

I guess, as a consolation, it at least felt like I was sitting there for more than 2 hours.

So, yeah, thus ended the worst gaming experience of my life. Obviously that wouldn’t work out, but I had had such a good time actually creating the characters and thinking about playing them, I realized I needed to get back into D&D. I really just wanted to play and not DM, but I figured the only option in front of me was to form a new group. So I asked on the message boards of the board game group I frequent, and reached out to the old players of the defunct group, and found myself at the helm of a new D&D group in a matter of days.

And I was done with 4th edition DMing 101, where all we did was encounter after encounter. I needed to graduate to the next level and inject some actual story and creativity into the game.

So that’s what I’m working on now. I have grand plans, of course. Plans that involve not making any plans. But that will be a story for another time.

D&D – The Secret of the Ooze

So I returned to the DM’s seat one more time with the challenge of creating a small adventure even more crazy and ridiculous than blowing apart zombies with shotguns.

I was thinking about doing something with Gamma World, which I had been interested in ever since Penny Arcade talked about a game they ran with the setting a while back. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find free versions of the 4e Gamma World mechanics, so I had to scrap a full-on dive into that. What I did find was 3.5e rules, so I looked through that book and thought about what I could use. Most of the stuff wasn’t super exciting, but the mechanic of mutations was very intriguing.

Essentially, in Gamma World you can start out as a mutant, where you forego the benefits of other races to gain somewhat randomized properties that could range from having gills to spinning spider webs to storing and discharging solar energy. But why start a new campaign in a new setting with new characters when I could just give these mutations to the characters the players were already familiar with? After all, these adventures are non-canon, so why not really shake things up?

I created the following mutation table, borrowing some particularly interesting mutations from Gamma World and adding a lot of my own. Very simply, when players mutate, they roll a d100 and see what they get:

01-04: Scorpion Tail – resist poison 20, gain ‘scorpion sting’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, melee, +14vAC, 2d4+6 and ongoing 5 poison.
05-08: Flaming Lungs – resist fire 20, gain ‘fire breath’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, close blast 3, 12vRef., 2d6+3 fire.
09-12: Frozen Fist – resist cold 20, gain ‘cold punch’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, melee, +14vAC, 4d6+4 cold and slowed until end of next turn.
13-16: Booming Voice – resist thunder 20, gain ‘sonic blast’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, close blast 3, +12vFort., 1d6+4 thunder and deafened (save ends).
17-20: Static Charge – resist lightning 20, gain ‘discharge’ power once every 4 rounds: minor action, range 5, +12vRef., 4d4+2 lightning and charged effect (first time adjecent to another create, causes 5 to target and creature adjecent).
21-24: Psychokinetics – resist psychic 20, gain ‘mind spike’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, range 15, +12vWill, 3d6+3 psychic and immobilized until end of next turn.
25-28: Prehensile Tail – +4 dexterity or can use tail to wield a weapon with -2 to hit.
28-32: Super-Sized – +4 strength and grow one size larger (i.e. medium grows to large).
33-36: Hyper Intelligence – intelligence set to 24 and head becomes bulbous.
37-40: Enhanced Pheromones – +4 charisma and +10 to diplomacy.
41-44: Wings – gain ability to fly (hover) your speed at-will.
45-48: Teleportation – gain ability to teleport your speed at will.
49-52: Powerful Legs – gain ability to jump your speed at will and this movement can be used as a charge attack for a +3 to hit.
53-56: Shapeshifting – similar to doppelganger’s racial ability.
57-60: Invisibility – can become invisible as a minor action.
61-64: Foul Stench – gain an aura 2 stench: all creatures starting their turn in this aura are dazed during their turn.
65-67: Solar Beacon – resist radiant 20, -10 to stealth checks, +2 all stats while in direct sunlight, gain ‘solar flare’ power 2x per encounter: minor action, close blast 3, +12vFort., 1d4+2 radiant and blinded (save ends).
68-70: Dehydration, gain ‘horrid wilting’ power 2x per encounter: standard action, range 5 or melee, +12vFort., 4d8 and dazed (save ends).
71-73: Spontateous Regeneration – +2 constitution, gain regen 5.
74-76: Beastly – +2 strength, dexterity and constitution, thick hide also gives +2 AC and resist fire/cold 5.
77-79: Mind Control
80-82: Steel Skin – +4 AC, resist all 2.
83-85: Formless – resist melee/ranged 5, vulnerable area attacks 5, gain ability to move through any opening, no matter how small.
86-88: Accelerated Movement – double move speed, extra minor action every round.
89-90: Shadowy Form – resist necrotic 20, vulnerable radiant 10, insubstantial, +10 to stealth checks, gain scorpion ‘shadow tendrils’ 2x per encounter: minor action, melee, +12vWill, 3d8+3 necrotic.
91-92: Atomic Rearrangement – gain ability to dissolve matter at the rate of 1 cubic foot per round, and this can be used as a unarmed melee attack v reflex of 4d10 damage.
93-94: Quantum Control – 2x per encounter, maximize any die roll before it is rolled – a significant die roll must be minimized before this power can be used a second time.
95-96: Rewind Time – Force a reroll of any die roll once per round.
97-98: Mind Reader – +20 to diplomacy, intimidate and bluff, gain ‘anticipate attack’ power at-will: minor action, range 20, gain a +4 to all defenses versus target of power.
99-00: Drain Power – gain the ‘mimic mutation’ power at-will: minor action, ally in melee, gain a mutation of your choosing that the target possesses until the end of your next turn.

The idea was to make the mutations significant, but not completely game-breaking (at least in the short-term). Basically, the best part about rolling new characters is about trying out all your new abilities, so I just gave them a bunch of new abilities without taking all the time to restart everything.

I gave each player 3 mutations to start with and a 4th one after the first encounter, because, you know, why not have fun with it?

The encounters themselves weren’t really that great. The star of the show was clearly just trying out all these new abilities. The first encounter was an arena-like battle against a super-sized cyclops with regen (mostly just taken out of the monster manual and tweaked to be a level 10 elite) and a moth-woman sort of modeled on Battleguard Sartura from WoW AQ40. She had a whirlwind ability where she moved her speed and anyone within melee of her at any point in the movement was attacked (players could also make OAs against her, but her attack would auto-hit and cause an extra 4 damage). She also had the ability to create 2 mirror images around the battlefield to confuse opponents and a close burst attack that weakened. There were also some mutated humans (loosely based on pirates from the monster manual with a randomly rolled mutation – I think I got stench, which was really fun, and accelerated movement). And a few minions that created an area of anti-mutation when they died (essentially, if you stood in the area, it was like you no longer had your mutant powers).

The second battle was too gimmick-heavy and nobody really had a good idea of what to do. There were multiple phases where they had to strip a super-mutant of its powers. At one point, it does a lot of time-traveling to essentially create 6 copies of itself, all of which attack the players at the same time. If players did damage to the first guy in the chain of time travelling copies, they damaged all of them, though my players never really quite grasped the mechanic. In fact, the striker novaed the last copy in the chain, making the fight last much longer than it should have.

In the end, in order to avoid going back in time and dying in the previous phase, the super-mutant unleashed his ability to travel between alternate dimensions and escaped to a parallel universe. Of course, the players followed, and I left the adventure there. If I am ever called-upon to DM again, I figure parallel universes is a good place to start when attempting to one-up this last adventure in terms of craziness and ridiculousness.

D&D – Zombies and Shotguns

Our new DM just bought a house – some multi-bedroom monstrosity in which you actually have to mow the lawns surrounding it and do repairs yourself. While its basement will provide a nice large space for getting some gaming done (and the low ceilings make at least half of the “Dungeons & Dragons” moniker true), he does, however, have a long list of things to be done before he can move in. You know, small things like repaint almost every room and turn almost every carpeted floor into hardwood. Just basics things that become very difficult once actual furniture is added to the equation.

The point of this story is that he seemed a little distressed about all of this, so I offered to help him. By DMing our next session if he didn’t have time to put together an adventure.

…Okay, I also helped him paint.

Anyway, so last week I sort of came up with a little side-adventure and hastily scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope in preparation. It was actually something I had wanted to do years ago back when I briefly DMed a 3.5 campaign. I had formulated a ridiculously awesome story full of plot twists and craziness and then my motivation quickly got derailed by the combativeness of my players (not the good kind where they like fighting monsters).

The basic idea was that in their first adventure, they storm this large drug den to rescue a kidnapped girl. They find lots “zombies” inside that seemed to be transformed into that state by the overuse of this drug, which was being brewed in the basement. They rescue the girl, but sort of end up burning down the house in the process, sending up all this drug-laced smoke up over the rest of the town. They go do a couple of other adventures to advance a crazy time-traveling plotline, and when they come back to town, they find it infested by zombies. So they get some shotguns from an NPC inventor and get to work participating in their very own zombie survival adventure.

So, yeah, the idea of zombies combined with shotguns in a D&D setting has always intrigued me.

So this time, true to my new philosophy of “as little story as possible” (which was largely inspired by the disappointment I suffered after coming up with my elaborate time-traveling plotline and never getting to execute it), it was a very basic story of some dude showing up at the bar where the players were staying, saying he needed some help with a strange visitor causing a weird sickness in his village and, oh, here are some “boom barrels” our blacksmith made in case things get bad for some reason. They show up at the town and start blowing the crap out of a horde of zombies, much to the poor NPC’s horror, because, you know, that is clearly the solution to the problem.

The first encounter was an introduction to the mechanics more or less. Where the players were surrounded by a horde of zombies (I think 18 in total, whose appearance was scattered out over many rounds) and found that shotguns were super effective against them.

The zombies weren’t typical Monster Manual zombies. They were essentially lvl 9 half-monsters. Having, like, +12 v AC attacks but only 36hp. They had a claw attack, where a successful hit caused a secondary fort attack to grapple. And they had a bite attack, which did more damage and cause exposure to the corpse plague disease, and they got a +2 to their bite attack if their target was being grappled. And they had bad initiative and a speed of only 4.

So the corpse plague disease’s initial effects were that all healing effects on the player were reduced by half. And a second effect that went unstated was that if a player was reduced to zero hit points and failed a death save, they would themselves become a zombie, rising 2 rounds after the failed save. I stressed at the beginning that this adventure was non-canon (we were using the same characters as for the other DM’s campaign for the sake of convenience, but I didn’t want to mess with his campaign by doing things like, say, introducing over-powered shotgun weaponry), so I didn’t really care too much if I killed some players off in a horrible fashion. In the second encounter, I did manage to drop the infected wizard, but then he rolled a 20 on his death save and I was disappointingly unable to turn anyone into a zombie.

Anyway, shotguns (range 5 2-handed weapon) were over-powered and super effective against zombies, because, in addition to doing 4d8 damage (on average, 2 shots should do a zombie in), on a hit players also got to roll a d6 to see where the zombie was hit. 1 or 2 blew off a leg, halving the zombie’s movement (a zombie with no legs could still crawl at a speed of 1), 3 or 4 blew off an arm, reducing the attack bonus and damage of a claw attack. 5 hit the torso, causing an extra 3d6 damage. And a 6 blew off the head for an instant-kill. A critical hit was also an automatic head-shot. The shotgun could carry 6 ammo at a time. 1 shell could be reloaded as a minor, or a full reload could be done as standard action. And the clincher was that firing the gun was a move action, so they could take two shots a round.

After fighting off the horde, they found some basic clues that led them to an ominously glowing farmhouse on the outskirts of town. There they fought more zombies and a giant, pulsating flesh sack. It was suspended from the roof of the barn by 4 nodes, which had to be destroyed by shotgun blasts. But they were protected by chitinous worms wrapped around the node, which upwrapped and assualted the players after any attempted damage of the nodes. The worms were similar to the zombies in that the did not like shotguns. They had 120hp divided equally among 3 separate eyestalks. 1-3 on a d6 roll for them hit their body and did nothing special, but 4-6  hit a corresponding eyestalk, blowing it off and doing an immediate 40hp damage, plus half of their normal damage roll. The worms had a recharging stare attack targeting will that did damage and stunned until the end of its next turn. This stare attack became much more powerful the more eyestalks the worm had intact. They also had a standard tail lash attack against AC for high damage. They also had a utility action where they implanted an egg into a corpse, which spawned a 1-eyestalk (40hp) worm 1 round later. And the sack itself had some defenses: a recharging range 10 area attack that created a cloud of immobilizing gas, and some tentacles that could throw players in range (or other random farm objects lying around) at other players. Unfortunately, no one ever got close enough to the tentacles to find that last one out. The battle ended when the 4 nodes were destroyed and the flesh sack was sent tumbling to the ground, bursting open to reveal…

…Nothing, apparently. We ran out of time. There was going to be a third encounter against the mysterious stranger, who was getting his crystalis on up in the flesh sack, but oh well, it was still a good time.

And what’s that? You won’t be able to host next week either? Oh, very well, we can continue this story and turn up the ridiculousness another 100%. Tune in next week where I introduce they players’ poor non-canon characters to the horror of Gamma World-inspired mutations. Scorpion tails? Super-size? Precognition? Yes, yes, I think we can do that.

D&D – The other side of the table

Now that the DM role in my group has been transferred, I finally had the opportunity to approach 4th edition as a player, and, well, it was fantastic.

I don’t really want to gush on and on about this, but a little setup: I was playing an invoker (controller role) with 3 others: a melee striker, and two leaders – one optimized to support me and the other optimized to support the striker. We all started at level 6, sort of continuing the power progression of the previous campaign. And the synergy between our abilities was just sick. As this was his first time out, the DM’s encounters landed a little on the easy side, but we quite simply obliterated them, waltzing through one without taking a point of damage.

I encountered joy of a different variety than I usually do sitting on the other side of the table. As a DM, I love to create. I love engineering encounters that really make the players think on their feet and then watching them try and do so when we actually sit down and play. But I design my monsters to be defeated. If my creations turn around and start obliterating the players, that makes me sad. I’m playing a game that I have set up to lose every time, so it is beneficial that I simply enjoy having other people experience my creativity.

I mean, I’m not creating an epic Flash RPG and giving it away for free solely so that I can play it. I’m doing it because I want others to experience the joy of playing a great game.

And so let me tell you, there is joy in simply sitting back and playing, even if the encounters are relatively mundane. Having a whole host of abilities set out before you and figuring out which are the best to use in conjunction with the powers of your teammates to achieve maximum effect…well, it was a glory to behold. The highlight was when I used a minor to pull the shaman/warlord closer to me so that he was in range to use a move action that allowed me to shift closer to the striker so that I was close enough to him that the shaman could drop an encounter that let us both use basic attacks. I attacked first to slide a monster in range of the striker’s blade, which he used to mow down the foe. It wasn’t a tremendous attack that destroyed everything in it’s path (though I did have some of those, as well), but it was enough damage to drop the foe and the choreography of it was just beautiful and highly satisfying.

Obviously playing anything new for the first time is going to get your brain excited. We were all happy to be trying out new characters. But I think there is a real draw in the dynamics of the game when it is played with the in-depth thoughtfulness that my group plays with (most of the time). All I can say at this point is that I am really looking forward to sitting down and playing again this Saturday, and if the DM follows through on this threat to ramp up the difficulty, I think I’ll be looking forward to games for a long time to come.