Thursday, March 31, 2011

Making Magic Magical Again

So I just acquired a copy of Adventurer's Vault 2 (a completely redundant buy, considering all the items are in the DDI online Compendium, but still...) and as I peruse its contents, and that of the first Adventurer's Vault, and the magic items in the various Player's Handbooks and supplements, I find myself completely underwhelmed. 

I blame the statblocks. 

I recall being 12 years old and having this amazing sense of wonder as I paged through the back of my AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, having found the magic items. Simple, one or two paragraph descriptions was all that was needed to inspire my imagination. So much was left to be a judgment call on the part of the DM, and the items were ripe for customization. Hell, even the finding of a magical item or weapon was cause for cheering from the players. 

In 4th Edition, magical items are an integral part of the game, and are key to maintaining balance between the PCs and the encounters they face as they level up. Items all have specific levels, prices, and stat-blocks. Magic items, weapons, armor, everything are so common that several are found in every adventure. This definitely has the effect of causing magical items to become mundane. 

So the question becomes how to keep the game balanced while making magical items the wondrous, rare items (I feel) they should be. It's tricky. The DMG 2 has guidelines for using boons to boost PC stats in place of magic items, but a DM has to be crafty to provide in-game story reasons for why these boons exist in the first place. Ideally, what we need are better guidelines for where the bonuses need to be applied as characters level, and then they can be house-ruled into the existing leveling scheme. I have been unable to find such guidelines. Anyone got any pointers here? I was contemplating replacing the 1/2 Level mechanic with a straight 1Level mechanic, but I worry it will become too overpowered, especially at higher levels. Maybe I'm worrying too much about balance. Not sure. Any tips out there in the interwebs? 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ravenloft-Ashardalon Mash-Up

In my last post, I talked about some of the mechanics behind Monster deck construction for homebrewed adventures with the D&D Adventure System Games, Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon. Today, we’re going to look a little closer at just what our options are.

As I said before, you want 12 1xp monsters, 12 2xp, and 6 3xp, for a grand total of 30 cards in your deck.  There are three of each monster in the decks that come with each game, so you really have 4 1xp monsters, 4 2xp, and 2 3xp.  

Castle Ravenloft Monsters
Kobold Skirmisher, 1xp (Reptile)
Zombie, 1xp (Undead)
Wolf, 1xp (Animal)
Rat Swarm, 1xp (Animal)
Spider, 2xp (Vermin)
Blazing Skeleton, 2xp (Undead)
Skeleton, 2xp (Undead)
Ghoul, 2xp (Undead)
Wraith, 3xp (Undead)
Gargoyle, 3xp (Elemental)

Wrath of Ashardalon Monsters
Human Cultist, 1xp (Human)
Orc Archer, 1xp (Orc)
Kobold Dragonshield, 1xp (Reptile, Sentry)
Snake, 1xp (Reptile)
Orc Smasher, 2xp (Orc)
Cave Bear, 2xp (Animal)
Duergar Guard, 2xp (Devil, Dwarf, Sentry)
Grell, 2xp (Aberrant)
Gibbering Mouther, 3xp (Aberrant)
Legion Devil, 3xp (Devil)

So we have 20 monsters to fill 10 spots in the deck.  The first and most obvious cross-platform scenario that jumps out at me is something involving Kobolds, and I would construct the deck like so: Kobold Skirmisher, Kobold Dragonshield, Orc Archer, Snake, Spider, Orc Smasher, Cave Bear, Grell, Gibbering Mouther, and Gargoyle. This combination of monsters provides more of a feel of an abandoned mine-complex that has been taken over by some feuding Kobolds and Orcs.  

I would use the Ashardalon Encounter and Treasure decks.  

The goal of the scenario could be as simple as killing a certain number of monsters, or getting deep enough in to find a boss (possibilities from the official material include: Klak Kobold Sorcerer, Kraash Orc Storm Shaman, Meerak Kobold Dragonlord, the Rage Drake, and the Beholder Gauth.  There’s no reason deeper role-playing elements couldn’t be used, such as a negotiation of some sort between the Orc and Kobold factions (although the Rules as Written don’t provide much support for anything like that; we’d have to come up with something based off the 4e ruleset... Skill Challenges for the D&D Adventure System, anyone?).

For the more undead feel, Ravenloft plays quite nicely with a couple substitutions from Ashardalon.  Trade in the WoA Human Cultists for the CR Kobolds, the Duergar for the Spiders, and the Legion Devils for the Gargoyle.

I’m pondering a variant ruleset that would feature a Dungeon Master to run the monsters and support more role-playing and puzzle-solving elements for the games. I’ll have a post on that up in the next few days.  I’ve been painting minis, too, so I should have some pics up of my work pretty soon.  I’m no expert (actually, I’m colorblind with shaky hands, so I’m starting at a handicap) and haven’t painted minis since I was 10 and got a little crazy with my Heroquest set.  The ones I’ve done so far look good enough to use at the table, though, that’s for sure.  

Thursday, March 24, 2011

D&D Adventure System Customization!

So, this blog has apparently been getting a number of visitors who found me on google while searching for content related to the Wrath of Ashardalon and Castle Ravenloft D&D Adventure System board games. Cool! What people seem to be looking for are ways to put the two games together into a singular experience, either through mixing the games together for a single delve, or through a longer, tied-together campaign. I'm going to start working on some custom homebrewed adventures using both games together, but in the mean-time, I offer up some guidelines for crafting your own. 

First, start over at The forums there for Wrath and Ravenloft have a lot of custom goodness, from adventures and heroes to additional cards and guidelines for campaign-play. Wrath of Ashardalon, out of the box, does support "mini campaigns", which allow you to keep treasure and boons between adventures, but the heroes are still limited to 2nd level. There are a couple different offerings on the forums on how to handle leveling up past 2nd level without breaking the game. 

When mixing the games for a new experience, one thing to remember is to not just shuffle the monster decks all together and see what happens. The 30 card monster deck is key to the feel of an individual adventure. Construct your monster deck with 12 1xp monsters, 12 2xp monsters, and 6 3xp monsters. I would select one or the other of the encounter decks to use. 

The treasure deck can be a little tricky. Wrath of Ashardalon treasures have prices on them, while Castle Ravenloft treasures do not. Ninjadorg ( has a list of suggested prices for Ravenloft treasures, which I would just go ahead and write directly onto the Ravenloft treasure cards. 

One of my players biggest complaints about the D&D Adventure System games versus full-on 4e play was that he "missed the talking." The games are not designed with role-playing in mind. However, next time I'll take a look at how to add some more role-playing elements to the games, along with campaign play and leveling past 2. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wrath of Ravenloft... Erm, I mean, Castle Ashardalon

We finally gathered a couple friends for some expeditions into Castle Ravenloft on Saturday night, and we had a pretty damn good time. We played the adventure with the kobold sorcerer Klak, who is an obnoxious, cowardly villain, as he regularly explores more of the board, which spawns more and more monsters to get in our way. We did eventually defeat him and his chaos-inducing artifact, though. 

The second adventure we played was the revenge of the Night Hag, and we managed to handle that one pretty well. Good rolls helped a lot. It was definitely an interesting one, as each of the players start play at each of four corners of a five-by-five tile grid, and often got teleported around the board by the Night Hag. 

In the morning, we played a Wrath of Ashardalon adventure with our two boys, aged 6 and 9. The goal was to sneak into Ashardalon's lair, recover a certain treasure, and then escape with it. We had to use three healing surges, but it worked out at the last second, as Gabby found the treasure and we escaped by the skin of our teeth. It was definitely a tense few moments there, especially as the monsters ganged up on Gabby in the turn before she could escape, and the Rage Drake, the Cave Bear, and Ashardalon himself ALL missed! Whew!

On another note, my friend Kevin, who joined us for Ravenloft last night, came bearing a gift: the World of Warcraft board game. He apparently got it on sale over a year ago, at half-price, played it once, found it to be entirely too complicated, and never did much with it since. So he brought it over and gave it to us! While it is definitely a complicated game, with a lot of moving parts and stuff to keep track of, it does come with a SHIT-TON of miniatures! Good God! Over a hundred monsters and a dozen heroes and villains! Some are perfect fits for custom homebrewed Heroes and Monsters for the D&D Adventure System games, and most of them will get extensive use in our regular 4th Edition game, whenever the hell we actually get to play again. There's like 18 Gnolls, so I'm thrilled, not to mention great figures for elementals, wraiths, sahuagin, demons, younger dragons and drakes, werewolves, human bandits/warriors... The heroes and villains are also all very nice, and I think several of them will find use in Castle Ravenloft and the Wrath of Ashardalon. I used one of them for the Ranger in the game this morning with the kids! The wife and I are fixing to start painting a lot of the figures this week, and I'll be posting up photos of the final products as we finish them. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Good Stuff

I know, I know, posting has slowed down of late. This is primarily due to working overtime and children's activities keeping me pretty busy.  So, this will be short, but hopefully sweet.

First, I found what seems to be a pretty helpful site for 4E Dungeon Masters: allows you to do three things: build custom monsters, build encounters, and string those encounters into full-on adventures. The monster builder seems pretty robust and easy to use.  The encounter builder allows you to use those monsters and create a (very basic) map. Building adventures seems mostly limited to a few text boxes and links to the aforementioned encounters.  If you have an Android phone, this guy has built a free app that pulls up monster stat blocks from the DDI Compendium (assuming you have a subscription, of course!), which is called KMonster.  I would assume that KMonster and AdventuringKit work together pretty well, but I have yet to test that theory, as I do not have any Android devices.  However, I will be throwing together some encounters and monsters using this software and I will post them up here when I have them completed.

Secondly, I found some really awesome stuff for the D&D Adventure System board games, Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardlon. These are Dungeons & Dragons games, and like every iteration of D&D, beg for houserules and customization.  What is really awesome about these games is that it is incredibly easy to maintain game balance, once you've played the game a few times, while introducing new, custom, homebrewed goodness.  Here is an article by Ninjadorg on the merits of solo play with these games, but really I'm pointing you to this article because of all the linkage to an abundance of additional material that is very easy to use with these games.  In my opinion, a lot of the suggestions fix some things I didn't like about the games (such as monsters always winning initiative). Ravenloft and Ashardalon have been filling my D&D void lately, and I have been very excited to see so much homebrew stuff for these games, especially so much stuff that looks as good as the official WotC product.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ashardalon's Wrath

So, as it turns out, the day following St Patrick's Day festivities is not a good day to try to get people to show up for D&D. Three out of my five players cancelled. The fourth doesn't drink. The fifth is my wife. 

However, yesterday I did pick up the D&D board game Wrath of Ashardalon! That was $65 very well spent (just for the minis, as far as I'm concerned!). I was a bit apprehensive going in; our two forays into Castle Ravenloft had been unsuccessful and generally frustrating, as opposed to fun. Tonight, my beautiful wife and I ventured into Firestorm Peak and came out successful! We took a full complement with us. I played the cleric, the paladin, and the wizard, while Gabby handled the fighter and the rogue. We played the second adventure in the book, with the simple goal of defeating twelve monsters. We had an initial spat of very poor dice rolls, but soon got some good luck, including a free pass at leveling up the wizard. The game is pure, random chaos. More so than an old-school dungeon foray, because something bad pretty much happens on every character's turn. The constant onslaught of monsters, traps and pitfalls makes the finding of good treasure that much more of a relief, especially when it's just the thing you really need (like the Tome of Experience). 

For next time I'm thinking of bringing along a character or two from Ravenloft (like the Ranger). The heroes are all interchangeable, so why not? I also am looking forward to trying out some of the homebrewed characters that are floating around the interwebs. I'll let you know how those playtests go for sure. 

In the meantime, we'll probably be playing more of these games in the near future, so I'll hopefully have some more in-depth play reports soon. I'm thinking we will play a couple more one-shots and then give "Campaign Mode" a shot. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Wha? Some Actual Gaming?

Finally! We have plans to actually get a game half-way up and running on Sunday!  Islands in the Sky will get its first test-flight.  I'm letting the players start at level 3, just because.

My beautiful wife will be playing Khaledra, Eladrin Druid who's all about her Ferocious Tiger Form.

Hopefully Kevin will have his character all built up in the Character Builder, so we will see what he comes up with.  Also hopefully, he will bring Curtis along, and I will have Curtis' old character Thrack the Half-Orc Ranger leveled up to 3rd for him.

We also have Drew and Paul along for the ride. Drew has gotten the hang of D&D pretty quick in the few times he's played.  Paul is a n00b and I have no idea what kind of character he's going to come up with.

I have a pretty good idea of the adventure I'm going to send them on. We're starting on the island of Verys Hiladian.  I have plenty more prep work to do here, so this blog post will be short. I will be posting a full accounting of the session on Sunday evening.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Islands in the Sky: Verys Hiladian

First of all, allow me to apologize for my lack of posting of late. I try to be a daily poster to this blog, but this past weekend I found myself to be quite ill and so this is the first I have been able to get much writing done.  I hardly picked up my D&D books I felt so poorly!  Anyways, allow me to introduce you to the Island of Verys Hiladian...

Verys Hiladian is a smaller island in the sky, although it is a bustling, busy one.  Roughly 2 square miles of terrain on top, which slopes from one side to the other.  The higher side is rocky, rough land, and is home to an elemental crystal mine. The lower side is where the town is situated, and it is home to some five hundred souls.  Thirty people work in the mines, and another thirty work at the town's docks.  There are some fifty talented people who create all manner of generally mundane items imbued with the magic of the elemental crystals that are mined up the hill.  Everyone in town is skilled in some way; most are artisans but many others are capable constructors and smithies, and several others still have a high degree of competency in magical arts.

First and foremost, the aforementioned Elemental Crystals. These are found in great abundance in the ground of Verys Hiladian. Individual crystals contain the essence of some specific type of magic, be it fire, ice, thunder, or other, darker powers (basically, every damage type in 4E D&D will have a corresponding type of Elemental Crystal associated with it). They require careful extraction from the rock surrounding them. These Crystals are never sold or traded, and always used by the artisans in town in the crafting of their wondrous items.  

These wondrous items account for a wide variety of magical enhancements to everyday life.  One of the most popular are the Beacons that allow airships to find certain islands. Long-distance instant two-way communication crystal balls are also in high demand.  Cooking aids, farming tools, alarms, locks, enchanted books and pens and paper, toys, bags of holding and boots of speed, cloaks, gloves, rings, goggles and glasses; all manner of magical items are produced here on Verys Hiladian.  

Magical weapons, however, are another matter. There is a single smithy who will enchant weapons on Verys Hiladian, and those are strictly for the defense of the Island. Magic weapons are never sold here. Several years ago, someone began illicitly producing and selling enchanted weapons. It was not long before he was kicked off the Island... in a most literal sense. 

Verys Hiladian will be the starting location for my upcoming Islands in the Sky campaign. As such, I will soon be posting up information on various NPCs about town. Verys Hiladian is home to people of several different races, and even a number of humans are found here!  There has been peace in town for many years, but all that is soon to change... 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Return of the Iron Lich

Save Versus Death has published the first of his Saturday Night Delves with an incredibly vicious dungeon: The Return of the Iron Lich. Let me tell you, for starters, this is way more than any mere delve. It comprises several keyed locations, which feature nefarious tricks and traps, haunting images, and terrifying monsters. Oh, and as the heroes progress through the dungeon (IF they progress!), we learn more and more about the history of the eponymous Iron Lich. Holy moly Batman, there's actually a story hidden in this adventure!

I'm not going to give away any details of this adveture except this: you get exactly 4 hours of table time to complete it. If the 4 hours are up and the Iron Lich is still floating around, the PCs die.

Needless to say, this module is not for newbs. Any DM running it had better know it backwards and forwards and have an excellent understanding of the 4th Edition game mechanics. If your group typically gets bogged down in single combat scenarios for an hour or so, you don't have a chance. But if you have a group that's looking for a truly unique challenge, this monster of a dungeon is for you!

Seriously, WotC, take notice. This is the way that truly challenging 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons adventures should be written. If I were running things there, Sersa, the guy behind Save Versus Death, would have a very good-paying job.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Top 5!

I know I'm mostly focused on 4e D&D here at A Pack of Gnolls, but I try to put out a lot of material that is primarily system-neutral, ie, mostly fluff that can be easily adapted to any D&D-type campaign. I definitely get a lot of inspiration from my old-school AD&D 2e books, and I suppose, because of that, I've earned an honorary place in the OSR community.

Cyclopeatron has been keeping tabs on us all, and I made it into the top 5 of his list of hottest old schoolish blogs (on blogspot) (gauged by growth in number of followers over the past month)! Woohoo! I must be doing something right. Uhh, I would like to thank the academy, and by academy I mean all 30 of my awesome followers.

As an aside, I was fixing the plumbing in my house after work today, and haven't had much time to get any D&D work done. Tomorrow I hope to have up a review of Save Versus Death's Revenge of the Iron Lich. Seriously. Go download it. Now.  It's amazing.  And by amazing I mean it will make you want to TPK your friends again and again and again.  His whole Fourthcore thing is definitely getting my gears in motion.  I'm not sure if I'm really up to the task of crafting a Fourthcore adventure, but I will be giving it a shot.