Tuesday, May 31, 2011

DDI Article and 4E meets AD&D part 3

Combat Velocity

A couple things today. I haven't reviewed a Dungeons and Dragons Insider Article review in a good long minute, but there was a pretty interesting one published today behind the subscription paywall concerning some things you can do to speed up combat in your 4E game.

Wait, didn't the D&D 4E blogosphere hash this all out a few months ago? Why, yes, yes we did. All over the place! Seemed like everyone except WotC had some suggestions on how to speed up combat. It's about time they got on the bandwagon. Their suggestions are: roleplaying(!), doubling PC damage, doubling all damage, using average damage instead of rolling dice, using fewer monsters, and limiting character options. I think every single one of those options has been bandied about the interwebs at length and ad nauseum. However, there was a really interesting article over at Campaign Mastery last week where Johnn used a timer on all the participants and discovered that, by a significant amount, the DM (himself) was the biggest time-thief at his table.

My Suggestions

Referee, know thy monsters. Use simple ones. Save the one with all the fun tricks to be the boss.

Players, know thy characters. Have a plan of attack in combat. Know what the different funny sized dice are. Know how your powers work.

And here's one that's out of left field: change daily powers (class and magic item) to be 1x per encounter powers. Make red encounter powers usable twice per encounter. This will eliminate a lot of player waffling over which power to use, is it worth it to spend the daily now, should I save it, I don't know...

That was just a thought I had yesterday. Gonna playtest it soon, see how the players like it. I'll have a more in-depth article on that soon.

Now, back to the Old-School stuff.

Rulings, Not Rules

Of all the Old-School maxims, this is one I often have the most difficulty with. And not because I'm averse to making rulings at the table in any given situation. As I read through my old-school rulebooks, the rules are convoluted and often confusing. Some actions require a D100 roll, some a D20, and still others a D6!

There is no real core mechanic to the system.

For the game to work with "rulings" instead of "rules", the rulings must be able to be applied fairly to all players, given the circumstances. No DM is perfect, of course. We all make mistakes.

4th Edition's Core Mechanic, however, allows for more consistent rulings to be applied by the DM in any given situation. Understanding the rules and the system is key to making rulings. A judge in a courtroom knows the law; that's how she became a judge. Her understanding of the law allows her to make rulings that are consistent with precedent. At the gaming table, the rules are there to help the DM make consistent rulings. If you have to keep looking up rules at the table, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG! Set a level-appropriate target, have them roll a D20, add the appropriate modifer, and get on with the game. Tie goes to the players. Know (or have an easily accessed cheat sheet) for all the rules you regularly need to reference. The biggest part of that particular trick is knowing your PC's abilities and powers, and knowing the same for your monsters and villains.

One complaint I see old-schoolers make about 4E again and again is that the system limits players with set powers in combat. However, if the DM won't allow a PC to attempt something because he doesn't have the right power, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!

That's right. Now, everyone take a deep breath, and if you really want to get a firm grasp on the rules and learn how to make better rulings in any given situation, for anything the PCs want to try, go read At-Will. This website should be required reading for every 4e DM. If you haven't spent a good chunk of time reading his stuff, you are behind the curve. And the webchat there is awesome! Hope to see you there!

Spike in Hits?

So, I'm a bit OCD about keeping track of hits to my blog, and something strange happened today. Around 9:45 last night (Central Standard Time US) I had a 155 hit spike out of Russia. Seems to be primarily Windows operating systems running Internet Explorer (from what I can figure looking at the stats, anyway). This is the second time this has happened. None of the hits seem to be from links or to specific posts, so it must be just the main page. Any thoughts, apart from "Damn Commies"? 

Monday, May 30, 2011

4E meets AD&D (pt 2), or, What is Old-School?

Levels vs Point-Buy

The biggest hurdle with my D&D CCG project is the fact that is it basically a point-buy char-gen system. You spend your accumulated experience points to buy skills and feats to add to your character. Of course, this is completely opposite of the level-based system that has always been core to the D&D experience. When I was a kid, our fantasy gaming system of choice was "Dragonquest", which is a point-buy d100 system. I really loved that system, for a lot of reasons, even though at times it could be kind of clunky.

So really, it doesn't make sense to try to shoe-horn D&D's level progression into a point-buy system. It will only further encourage min-maxing, which is something I want to avoid. Granted, there is still a place for the different cards for characters, but not in the CCG-type of way I had been toying with originally.

What is Old-School, Anyway?

So just what is "Old-School Gaming", anyways? Honestly, that's a question that has been tossed around and debated for a while now. There are a whole shit-load of blogs dedicated to the topic, and I have been reading a lot of them, but from what I can gather, every one of those bloggers seems to have their own particular brand of old-school gaming, be it their retro-clone or heavily house-ruled originally D&D system, the only thing Old School Games seem to have in common is a reliance on a ten-foot pole.

Sorry, that was a cheap shot. But there is a grain of truth in there. One of the most commonly referenced documents is Matthew Finch's Old-School Gaming Primer, which I have read a few times and I think is generally pretty spot on (though I have my own issues with it). But these are the basics.

1) Rulings, not Rules. I go back and forth on this one. A good DM should have a firm enough grasp on the rules of the system that he can make consistently fair rulings. Wasting time looking up rules is not a good thing at all and needs to be avoided, but when you're just learning the game, it's unavoidable. However, 4E is actually incredibly versatile with regard to letting players try anything. Understanding how to apply the rules to different situations is key here. You cannot make a fair ruling without an understanding of the rules in the first place. 4E has plenty of rules that apply to combat, and once you know how they work, you can make fair, consistent rulings. This is how any role-playing game ought to work.

2) Player Skill, not Character Abilities. Yes. Relying on a dice roll to solve a puzzle is boring and is not what the game should be reduced to. But, giving a player a hint because they made a good dice roll on their "spot check" or what-have-you shouldn't be considered out-of-bounds.

3) Heroic, not Superheroic. Again, yes. Honestly, I'm not all that interested in epic-level 4th Edition gaming. Overthrow the evil king? Good. Save the world: well, maybe. Killing gods? A bit over the top, I think.

4) Forget "Game Balance": And again, yes. The "balanced" encounter is boring and predictable and not at all within the realms of verisimilitude. There is no reason for anyone to expect that every encounter they run into will be tailor made for their skill level. (At the same time, any DM who unleashes a Tarrasque on a group of 1st-level adventurers because a random chart told him to is just an asshole).

5) Resource Management. Players keeping track of the resources they have and making decisions based on that is a big part of the game. Do we have enough food/lantern oil/hit points to go further into the dungeon? Do we waste money staying in the Inn again?

These things are all pretty well accepted as the "Way" of the OSR, and generally consistent within the AD&D ruleset. For the rest of the week, I'll be looking at how to implement these things in your Old-School Style 4th Edition D&D game.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

4E meets AD&D (pt 1)

Over at Saveversusdeath.com, Sersa has a very cool webcast going all about his whole Fourthcore design philosophy, and the one thing that has really piqued my interest is his 4E/Whitebox game, which he was tweeting about last night. From what he has made available on his website (scroll down on linked page above for player handout PDFs), this game seems to be based on 4th Edition D&D, with some OSR-inspired modifications; specifically, the elimination of Non-Armor Defenses and the return of the saving throws vs wands, breath weapon, gaze attacks, poison, etc, and a limiting of player options to the four basic classes of fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric. From our short conversation via Twitter, it's pretty clear Sersa is bringing his Fourthcore design style to play in that game, which of course only further intrigues me.

This stuff really got me gears rolling, and I was forced to crack open my old-school books again, and the perusal got me thinking about just how the game has changed, mechanically, through the years. Now, I'm not trying to start an edition flame-war here. Instead, I want to take a look at the best parts of the New School and Old School are and figure out how to make it all work together. This can be done, it's just gonna take some clever thinking.

Both 4E and AD&D have things they do very well, and things that are a bit clunky. Let's start by breaking these things down.

What I Like About 4E

The Core Mechanic: anytime you want to do something, roll d20, add the relevant modifiers, and try to hit the target difficulty number. Regardless of whether you're attacking a gnoll, attempting to swing on a chandelier, picking a lock or negotiating with terrorists, your actions can always boil down to a d20 roll. Some people might argue that the negotiations should be part of role-playing and not subject to the roll of a die; I would be one of those people, but the fact of the matter is there are people who aren't interested in that type of character immersion, and that's okay. No, really, it's okay. We're not all playing this game so we can talk with funny voices.

Powers/Exploits/Spells/Prayers: The statblocks for your powers, generally how you attack in combat, work very well. I don't care if you think they are the "WoWification" of D&D. They help make combat a lot more interesting than "I hit it with my axe" or "I shoot it with my bow".

Codified Combat Modifiers: yes, there is a difference between "stunned" and "dazed". Having a limited set of options for status ailments in combat, with set rules for each, is a good thing. Knowing how those rules work is an even better thing. If you have to keep looking these up, you haven't done your homework. Shame on you.

Balance: Balance between different types of characters is a good thing. Simple as that. Everybody gets a chance to shine.

Power Sources: Martial, Arcane, Primal, Psionic, Shadow.

Options: Some people might call 4E's abundance of options for character generation (races, classes, feats, etc) "bloat" or "power creep". I like to call it "color". If you build a genasi swordmage because you want a magic and sword-wielding warrior-sorcerer with a fiery temper and fiery abilities, cool, play it to the hilt. If you build that swordmage just looking at the stats and concerned only with how much damage you can put out, get the fuck away from my table.

What I Don't Like About 4E

Options: Wait, what? Wasn't that up in the things I like? Well, yeah, but it also drives me nuts. Honestly, there are too many options and yes, they do contribute to power creep within the system. Certain feats become "must-haves" to be a competitive character and "keep up with the math" and therefore are deemed "feat taxes" (go search the WotC CharOp forums if you don't know what I'm talking about). There are way too many options to even begin to understand how they all work and how to make things fit together. My players are casual gamers and don't own the books. Character creation can take well over an hour of just sifting through Players Handbooks (and God only knows how long things would take if we tried to use the website). It got to the point where I asked the players what kind of character they wanted to play, and found a well-optimized build for them on the WotC CharOp boards. This has actually worked pretty well, because now, whenever they level up, it's pretty easy. The build is already planned out, level for level.

Hour-Long Combats: This goes with options, but it is also it's own special thing. Tactical combat takes forever to resolve, even when you know the rules and have your strategy planned out. I'm okay with spending an hour and a half on a battle with the BBEG. But a bunch of lackeys guarding the door? That should be pretty straightforward. I'm pretty close to using all minions, all the time, except for the Big Bad.

Balanced Encounters take the thrill away, especially when the players know that they can expect "balanced encounters".

What I Like About AD&D

Just for clarification, I own the "Black Books", and that's what I'm basing this on. I never got to play any earlier edition of the game, although I do own the 1994 box set of TSR's "Classic Dungeons and Dragons".

Short combat (although, really, the rules are just as complicated as 4E).
Iconic character types with simple builds.
Rolling dice to determine ability scores.
Prime requisites and ability score requirements for classes. 
There's no min-maxing if you're using just the basic books. 
Random monsters and treasure tables. 

What I Don't Like About AD&D

Limit on spells/day for spellcasters. 
Different level progression/experience charts for classes. 
Nonhuman level limits. 
Nonhuman-only multiclassing. 
Race-restrictions on classes. 

Obviously, I don't have as much experience with AD&D as I do with 4E, so I'm not going to bullshit you with extended explanations of my thoughts on the AD&D things I like and dislike.

Character Generation and Adventure Generation

These are the two sides of the screen, aren't they? Each edition tackles them in radically different ways. I think really what my issues boil down to are these two things. I love the simple character generation process of AD&D and the randomness of exploration and adventure and finding treasure. I love the 4E combat system but loathe the excessive option bloat, the min-maxing, and the expectation of the "balanced encounter". Gone from the table is the conversation of whether to stay and fight or run and survive. Players know they will win unless they really screw up somehow. There's no true danger in a "balanced" encounter.

In Part 2, I'm going to revisit some of my D&D the CCG ideas, and see if I can use it to bring old-school style to new-school rules.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tweets Away! oh, and a link to some awesome

Hey people, I finally broke down and hopped on the Twitter Train. Really, if I'm going to get properly involved with this whole RPG Community thing, I might as well go all in, right? Seemed like I was missing all the fun over in the Twitterverse. So yeah. Follow me, or whatever. I've only made a single Tweet so far, but there will be plenty more. Some might even be halfway clever.


There's a button over there on the right that will let you follow me, too.

Oh, and I found this awesome blogpost the other day: Labyrinth Cards!

Yeah, this is just a short update today. Got a few different D&D-related projects that I'll be working on over the weekend, and will post about them some more in the coming days.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Pack of Undead Gnolls... on Dinosaurs

What's worse than gnoll slaver pirates riding dinosaurs? 

Undead gnoll slaver pirates riding dinosaurs. 

Scratch that. Have 'em ride undead dinosaurs. Ghoulish gnoll riding a skeletal triceratops? Yessir, I'll have some more of that please. But we can't just throw these badboys in anywhere! A terror like these is just begging for some kind of horrific story and setting to back it all up. Because really, if your starting point for the adventure is badass undead gnolls riding around on skeletal triceratops, then the boss has to be the gnoll necromancer-shaman riding on the back of a ghoul t-rex. You thought a t-rex was hungry? Think about how hungry he is when he hasn't eaten in several thousand years. 

We'd need a good, wide-open, sprawling jungle temple for this one. With plenty of Indiana Jones style deathtraps just waiting to be set off. 

And a pit full of snakes. Wait... Undead snakes. 

I think it's about time I cracked open my DMG2 and started applying some monster templates.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Community is a Good Thing

One of the reasons I started blogging here in the first place was to connect with like-minded folks about my favorite hobby. When I picked up D&D again and got into 4th Edition, it wasn't long before I started looking around on the interwebs to see what other people were saying about it. I managed to avoid the Edition Wars, for the most part (although I am guilty of the occasional comment). Anyways, I discovered that there were a whole shitload of people out there writing about every possible incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons, and I started voraciously consuming as much as I could, both in an attempt to improve my own game at home, and because, well, it's just fun. It makes me think. And that's a good thing.

One of the first things I did when I started A Pack of Gnolls was to go try to sign up for the RPG Bloggers Network. Well, part of the requirements for joining the club is to have been posting regularly for at least three months. So I did my time and got my posting regular and wrote a whole lot (this being my 79th post), and once it had been three months I sent in the email to the RPG Bloggers Network about joining. That was about a month ago... and I have since heard nothing, except for the automated response.  I was a little bummed and frustrated by this, but it wasn't really a big deal. My little blog is doing just fine on its own, but it sure would be nice to have a place where all the great D&D bloggers that are out there could hang out and chat and there could be an exchange of ideas...

And then a couple days ago, at one of my favorite sites, At-Will, started up a webchat. I was suddenly welcomed into a very open, inclusive, intelligent and opinionated (in a good way) community.

So you can probably imagine my joy when I saw a post about the new RPG Blog Alliance, a blog feed aggregator and community site. Complete with forum and profiles.  With a little time, and done right, it could probably be the Facebook for the RPG blogosphere. You can also probably imagine how thrilled I was when I applied for membership and was accepted within the hour. I'm still waiting to hear back from the RPG Bloggers Network, but I really don't care about that anymore.

So, if you haven't heard about the RPG Blog Alliance, go check it out, and if you have an RPG Blog, join.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Using Magic Set Editor to create D&D Handout Cards

By popular demand...

This card is handed over to the DM when the player uses that particular power (Burning Blade, in this case), and helps the DM keep track of the status effects the power inflicts. I made it and many more with a program called Magic Set Editor.

Magic Set Editor is a program that allows you to custom build cards for a variety of Collectible Card Games, most notably Magic: The Gathering. I have found it to be very easy to create a variety of cards as handouts in my Dungeons and Dragons game, as I have talked about before. As requested by an anonymous reader, I hereby offer a bit of a tutorial on how to use Magic Set Editor to create these types of cards. Keep in mind I am not using it to make Magic: The Gathering cards but rather handout cards for Dungeons and Dragons.

First, go to http://magicseteditor.sourceforge.net/download to download the program. You'll need a printer and some heavy cardstock paper (I use the 110 lb variety; regular multi-purpose printing paper, once cut down to size, tends to roll in on itself. The heavy cardstock will last a lot longer). I also picked up some card sleeves for added protection.  Finally, a good pair of scissors or a razor blade and straightedge to cut the cards out once printed is necessary. I recommend the razorblade over the scissors. Less hand-cramps.

Now, if you've downloaded the program and started it up, it will ask you if you want to create a new deck or open an old deck. Click on the button to create a new deck. You'll notice it gives you several different types of cards to choose from.  Choose whichever one you like; you can always change it later inside the program.

If you're playing 4th Edition D&D, there is probably a good chunk of text you need to put on your handout cards. For this reason, I went here and downloaded a few additional card templates. Make sure that you save them to the same folder the Magic Set Editor program is found in, otherwise they won't be available in the program.

The "Modern Full Text" template is perfect if you need to put a lot of text on a card (such as a 4E combat power card).

Yes, these cards are OSR-Compatible

Also highly recommended is the "Ancient Scroll Style", mostly because it looks really cool as a handout and it comes with a nice font to boot.

Now I need to make a matching Hand of Vecna card...

The other one I like to use pretty extensively (primarily for PC and NPC portrait cards) is one that comes with the program, which is called "Extended Art". It's the opposite of "Modern Full Text", and allows you to make a card that looks like this:

One of our PCs

By clicking on the border, a menu will drop down to allow you to change the color. Clicking on the colored background will do the same, giving you the options of white, green, blue, red, black, artifact, land, and multicolor (note: this doesn't work with Ancient Scroll Style). Double-clicking anywhere a picture would go will allow you to load a picture from your computer and fit it into the frame

Some tips...

When you tell it to print, there is a check-box that will let you put spaces between the cards. Do NOT check that box. It is easier to cut the cards apart without the space. Without the space, if you print on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper, the cards will be perfectly sized to fit into the plastic card protectors. Also, if you do check that box, the bottoms of the lowest row of cards will be cut off.

Copy-pasting from the D&D Compendium (4E) or a System Reference Document (if you're playing 3.x or Pathfinder) will save you a lot of time. It will probably require a bit of formatting to make it look nice, but that's easier than typing everything out of a book.

If you have consumable items that see frequent use, print out several and recycle. It's a big help to have all consumable items on cards; that way, when players use them, they just hand the card in. This eliminates a lot of character-sheet scribbling and erasing. You can put the rules right there on the card, so there's no need to look it up in the book.

Google Image Search is your friend. DeviantArt is your friend. If you have a Dungeons and Dragons Insider account, you have access to all the art they publish in their books and online. There are plenty of other websites featuring fantasy art.  Finding art for the cards is probably the most time-consuming part of the process (one of the reasons I like the "Modern Full Text" template!).

It's not apparent in the images above, but it is possible to include a "Casting Cost" in the title line of most cards (again, not applicable to the "Ancient Scroll" style). I have found it useful in certain instances. For example, in my Castle Ravenloft 4E Session, I put a number in the casting cost area for monster cards to tell me how many times to roll on the treasure chart once that monster was killed. I haven't found uses yet for the various symbols that are available, but I'm sure other people will.

If you haven't already, download a program called "CutePDF" or one like it.  It allows you to "print" a document and create a PDF file from it, and it works quite well with Magic Set Editor.  In fact, when you do so and open the PDF, you can do a copy-paste on any of the individual cards in the PDF document, which how I was able to post the card images up here for all of you to see.

The program automatically sets the borders of the cards to be black. I have not yet found a way to change this, although I'm sure it is a simple fix. Change the borders to white and save yourself some ink.

In Closing...

I hope this post has been useful for some of you DMs out there looking for an easy way to produce good-looking, useful handouts for their D&D game (or any RPG, really). They come in really handy in my home games. I am also contemplating a more complete card-based system for building dungeons randomly, thanks in part to a little inspiration from this guy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Once again, many apologies for my lack of blog posts of late. I hope everyone likes the new layout of the place!

Ameron over at Dungeon's Master yesterday had a really great article on using curses in 4th Edition D&D.  His main focus was on setting up Skill Challenges as a way to deal with certain curses. I'm not so much interested in the 4e mechanics of breaking curses as I am of bringing some old school feel back to the 4E game, and cursed weapons are one of those things that are very much old school and very much missing in the 4E game.

Why No Cursed Items?

Where did the cursed items go?  Why aren't they here in the modern version of the game? It's all part of the new philosophy of the game.  In the Dungeon Master's Guide for AD&D, the DM is encouraged to create random encounter tables for the areas the players would be exploring. There was SO MUCH left to chance, to the roll of the dice, from what type of monsters might be encountered, how many, and what treasure they might carry.  The DM rolled the dice, and whatever showed up to try to eat the heroes, well, that's what showed up.  Not every encounter had to be tactically "interesting".  What made it interesting was whether or not it might kill the characters!  To hell with balance.  In these regards, it was a game. So often, what happened was random chance.

In 4E, instead of random treasure charts we have player wishlists. Characters are so complex that they have to be custom-built to be competitive. Feats, skills, item slots, et cetera. Somewhere along the line, R&D decided that cursing players with detrimental items took away the fun of the game and frustrated players. This is probably due to the power-gamer movement and all the WoW-inspired design of the modern edition. I think this takes away a big part of the magical feel of the world. Not all magic items are beneficial. It makes zero sense that they would be. So let's add some cursed items to the 4e game!

So, according to my black book 2E AD&D DMG, the following items ought to be considered cursed:

Potion of Delusion
Potion of Madness
Oil of Fumbling
Philter of Love
Philter of Stammering and Stuttering
Poison Potion
Ring of Clumsiness
Ring of Delusion
Ring of Weakness
Bag of Beans
Bag of Devouring
Bag of Transmuting
Bowl of Watery Death
Bracers of Defenselessness
Brazier of Sleep Smoke
Broom of Animated Attack
Censer of Summoning Hostile Air Elementals
Chime of Hunger
Cloak of Poisonousness
Crystal Hypnosis Ball
the Deck of Many Things
Dust of Sneezing and Choking
Eyes of Petrification
Flask of Curses
Gauntlets of Fumbling
Girdle of Femininity/Masculinity
Harp of Discord
Hat of Stupidity
Helm of Opposite Alignment
Horn of Bubbles
Horn of Collapsing (if used "improperly")
Incense of Obsession
Jewel of Attacks
Medallion of Thought Projection
Mirror of Opposition
Necklace of Strangulation
Periapt of Foul Rotting
Phylactery of Monstrous Attention
Pipes of Pain
Robe of Powerlessness
Robe of Vermin
Rope of Constriction
Rug of Smothering
Scarab of Death
Scarab of Insanity
Stone of Weight
Vacuous Grimoire
Armor of Missile Attraction
Armor of Rage
Plate Mail of Vulnerability
Missile Attractor Shield -1
Cursed Backbiter Spear
Cursed Sword +1
Cursed Sword -2
Cursed Berserking Sword
Trident of Yearning

I'm open to suggestions.  Which of these should be updated for use in the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Castle Ravenloft Encounter: In Depth

In depth: Using the D&D Adventure System components in your 4E game. 

The Dungeons and Dragons Adventure System Board Games, Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon, feature what is basically a very stripped down version of the D&D 4th Edition Core Ruleset. Gameplay mechanics allow a group of players to delve into a dungeon crawl scenario without needing a Dungeon Master to control monsters or spring traps. The games come with 40 unpainted D&D miniatures, numerous tokens, and tiles that serve as the play area, which are interlinkable; the dungeon builds itself as players explore it, and is never the same twice. 

Tiles, monsters, treasure, and events are randomized through shuffled decks of cards. 

In preparing for my 4e game's journey into Castle Ravenloft, I was able to adopt a lot of the mechanics from the board games for the dungeon. The last thing I wanted was another boring delve with preplanned encounters, and this worked surprisingly well. 

The Set-Up

I went through all the tiles for Ravenloft and Ashardalon and made a single stack, primarily consisting of tiles with doors and hallways. I left out a lot of the tiles that were full rooms. I found the Secret Stairway tile and put it in the stack about 20 tiles down. Once a character stepped on a tile, I would place any adjacent tiles in a way that made sense. 

My players are currently fifth level, so I started scouring the Monster Vault and MM3 for beasties that would fit the general undead theme, between levels 3 and 7, and found several that worked. I pared down the list to about 15 or 20. 

Then I opened up Magic Set Editor and got to work. This was the time-consuming part, but it was made easy by having the WotC D&D Compendium open. Copy and paste and a little formatting, and pretty soon I had a deck full of monsters. 

I went through the Encounters decks for both Ravenloft and Ashardalon and started taking notes for some traps and events to spring on the heroes, and made individual cards for those as well. 

I got into Adventurer's Vault 2 and picked out a dozen magic items to drop in, and made cards for those (I do that for all magic items found in-game, though), copy and pasting from the Compendium. 

Treasure drops were random, based on d12 rolls, and the amount varied with the different creatures. I placed the number of rolls on the treasure chart as the monster's "casting cost" in the upper right corner. I made cards with the random charts on them to have right in front of me. 

Print out the cards on decent cardstock paper, cut out and shuffle into a deck (leaving out the individual magic item cards, hand those out when they come up on a roll for treasure). Draw a card on every character's turn as they move through the dungeon. I admit I tended to skip the draw a few times if they were getting swamped, but as soon as they took out a couple monsters, I started drawing again. 

You'll want to have figures or tokens set aside for all possible monsters to avoid bringing the game to a halt while you search for them. Other than that, using a little common sense while you implement the results of the card draws goes a long way. Spread the monsters out around the board if you can. And don't draw yourself into a corner with your tile placement!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Islands in the Sky, Session 4: Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, or how to use the Castle Ravenloft board game in your D&D 4E game.

First of all, apologies to everyone for the slow week posting here. Real life is busy, blah blah blah.

Love Stinks

We held our fourth D&D session last night. In attendance were myself, my wife Gabby, Kevin and Curtis. Lisa and Joey were unable to make it, and we don't anticipate seeing Joey again, as he and Lisa had a nasty break-up during the week. Bah. Drama. Lame.


Anyways, in Session 3, the Heroes foiled an Arkhosian plot and recovered a magical item, a large crystal ball that was the focus of the Dragonborn spell. The ritual would have caused dragons within a certain radius to become enraged and come attack the island. Fortunately, the heroes disrupted the casting of the ritual and no dragons came to Verys Hiladian.

So, just what is this large crystal ball? It is adorned with an ornate brass dragon circling it again and again, the feet of which come down for the ball to stand upon. No one knows. They informed the village council and the Princess about the dragonborn attack, and there immediately began a debate about whether to evacuate the island or fortify defenses.

To Barovia!

However, there was a more pressing matter for the heroes to attend to: the return of the human bodies and rescued prisoners to their home island of Barovia. Khaledra, Tarak, Avenger, and the Ice Queen accompanied the airship; Ember, the genasi swordmage formerly played by Joey, remained on Verys Hiladian to help fortify defenses for the impending Dragonborn invasion. After three uneventful days of travel, the heroes arrived at the mist-shrouded Shadowmote of Barovia. During travel, one of the rescued prisoners, a young widow named Jennalynn, develops a strong infatuation with Tarak, our half-orc ranger. She tells him the story of how her husband disappeared, probably killed by monsters, shortly after their wedding. He has not been seen since. Some think he succumbed to the shadow madness and leapt off the island; others believe he was taken by Count Strahd into Castle Ravenloft for crimes unknown.

Barovia is a small island, just a couple square miles. It is dominated by Castle Ravenloft on one end, atop a large hill, that overlooks the village below. The people here are all human! They are poor, hardscrabble folk who barely survive, and there are just a few hundred of them.

The Mists part and allow them to enter Barovia, land on the island, and begin unloading the bodies, but it is not long at all before the Mists gather again and a messenger comes forth. The ship's crew and the villagers all suddenly fall asleep, all except the heroes. The messenger informs the heroes that their presence has been requested at Castle Ravenloft; Count Strahd wishes to meet them himself. With that, the messenger disappears and the Mists part, showing the heroes the path to the Castle. They follow the path up the hill, all the while feeling like they're being watched. The Castle's drawbridge lowers for them, and they enter.

Into Castle Ravenloft

Here's where the fun begins. Instead of mapping out the monster-infested lower level of the Castle, I took some inspiration (and tiles) from the Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon board games. I built a randomized stack of dungeon tiles from the board game and laid tiles out as the heroes moved deeper into the dungeon. They were searching for the Secret Staircase to allow access to the upper levels of the Castle, and presumably to find Strahd.

This entire dungeon level counted as a single encounter, no resting. I printed out a custom-made "Encounter" deck which consisted of several monsters and a number of Events (such as traps, alarms, ghostly sightings, etc). Each monster dropped treasure, which was rolled for randomly. A strict adherence to initiative was kept, and on each player's turn (for the most part), a card was drawn off the Encounter deck and applied to the board as I saw fit. If a monster was drawn, they were simply added to the initiative stack before the hero whose turn it was. The cards for the monsters had their full stat-blocks printed on them, so there was absolutely no need to flip through the Monster Manual or Open Grave books.

This wound up all working very well. It didn't at all adhere to published encounter standards, but we don't keep track of experience points anyway. Tarak was the only hero who made it to the stairway without being Bloodied. Overall, there was definitely tension at the table as they explored and never knew what was coming around the next corner.

Final Tally

By the end of it all, the heroes took out a swarm of crawling claws, three deathjump spiders, several zombie and skeleton minions, a flaming skeleton, three very hungry ghouls, a couple dire rats and a brain in a broken jar.

Final tally on treasure: 190 gold pieces, vial of Beastbane, 5 potions of healing, 5 random ritual scrolls (to be determined as yet), 5 potions of recovery (homebrewed potion which allows a character to regain the use of a spent encounter or daily power), Hero's Armor +2, Alfsair Spear +2, and a Blooddrinker Axe +2.

It was a long, drawn-out combat encounter, yes, but it was constantly changing and so it didn't get boring. The exploration and combat together worked very well, as did the randomization of the dungeon itself with the board game tiles and the Encounter deck I built. I will be more than happy to make a PDF of the Deck available for download. It contains all the monsters, magical item treasure, randomness charts, events, and character cards for a few NPCs, one of which being Count Strahd. If people are really interested in how I went about putting it all together, I'll be more than happy to do a full blog post on how it works.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Undungeon!


This is just great stuff here. I very rarely do a blogpost that just points to somebody else's blogpost, but Greywulf clearly put a lot of time, effort and thought into this, and it really set my own gears in motion. Quite frankly, I love everything about his Undungeon campaign setting. It's just a brilliant take on a post-apocolyptic fantasy setting that takes 4e's Points of Light to a dark conclusion.

Just brilliant. Posts like this are why I surf D&D blogs everyday. Diamonds in the rough.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Islands in the Sky: Session 3: An Arkhosian Plot Foiled

Tonight we had our third session of the Islands in the Sky campaign. We were short two players, Kevin and Curtis, who had to cancel last minute. This screwed up my plans a bit, as I wanted a full table for what I had prepared for this session. However, I had a backup plan and we implemented it. 

Quick recap: last session, our intrepid heroes went back into the mines to investigate the pit of dead bodies, discovered the gnoll lair, killed the gnolls and rescued the prisoners. The local priest discerned that the spirits of those killed by the beholder would haunt the mines unless their bodies were returned to their families and laid to rest. The captain of the currently docked airship, Captain Misha, offered to take the heroes, the gnolls' captives, and the bodies to their home island of Barovia. 

Yes, that Barovia. 

Also, there is the impending threat of Dragonborn Imperial invasion. 

So the plan had been to get on the airship and take the bodies to Barovia. I had an awesome adventure put together, but there was plenty of role-playing involved which means we need Kevin, as he is our big role-player. 

So, tonight, instead, our heroes foiled a Dragonborn plot to get some dragons to attack Verys Hiladian. While the bodies were being loaded on the airship, a squirrel came and informed the druid, Khaledra, of some Dragonborn activity at an old abandoned wizard's tower. They arrived and found the area crawling with them, and a pair of Dragonborn wizards attempting to cast a ritual focused on a large crystal ball. 

Long story short: the heroes managed to disrupt the ritual before it could be completed. They learned that some of the Dragonborn invaders are undead. One of the Dragonborn Snipers escaped, but the rest were killed. Khaledra, our druid, took out a level 8 brute on her own. And now they have the big crystal ball that the Dragonborn were attempting to cast the spell through. 

Next time, this coming Saturday evening, our heroes will figure out what the deal is with the crystal ball and head for Barovia. 

Yes, that Barovia. 

What worked: propped-up, folded-in-half index cards displaying enemy defenses for everyone to see helped speed things up in combat. Having monster stat-blocks printed out on 4x6 index cards completely eliminated page-flipping through the Monster Vault.

What didn't: me trying to run a missing PC. Even though I probably have a better grasp on the tactical side of things than my players. I handled Avenger for the combat, and while he did alright, I was probably missing some things. I have enough dice to roll without running a PC.

Also, I'm thinking we need to have a combat and tactics seminar of some sort, just so every player has a better idea what their powers really do and how they can work together.