Minions on the Table

In my last miniony article, I wrote about tinkering with minions mechanically to come to the flavor you really want from them. Now it’s time for your minions to meet the consumers, your players. A lot off cooks say that a big part of the experience with food is presentation. It’s the same with encounters in general and minions in specific. The tastiest minions might fail if you give them poor table presence.

A Nice Spread

Monsters can lose a battle before it begins if they have bad tactical positions. This is even truer with minions. Even if we assume, narratively, that your minions have no way to know they’re little competition for the characters, the creatures have a reason to seize tactical advantages. Beasts do so by instinct and natural ability, and smarter creatures do so through cunning, inclination, and planning.

Consider where the minions might want to be on the battlefield, just like you would for a monster of similar role. Assuming the monster has the ability to choose its lair or the fight’s locale, you can even build the encounter area to accommodate such a minion group’s terrain needs. Any artillery monster, as an example, seeks favorable terrain that allows it to shoot without direct melee confrontation. They favor high or protected places, such as a ledge or a window, that are hard to get to.

Speaking of hard to get to, movement modes can obviate the need for specific terrain while allowing a minion longevity and some narrative coolness. A movement mode—burrow, climb, fly, or swim—can allow minions to have the run of the combat zone. Skirmisher or lurker minions, or those designed for a specific narrative effect, might even be able to disengage with little risk, and then return to battle when they choose to. Such movement modes also make it easy to fill an encounter area that seemed empty when the characters entered. (Ambush!) The arrival of new monsters during the ongoing fight is also easily explained. In the previous articles I talked about myconid gas spores and kruthiks, both of which can use specialized movement modes to appear in combat from unusual angles.

When designing a space for your minions, take cues from cinematic video games, especially high-action games such as Borderlands. In Borderlands, some creatures (skags) emerge from burrows to join the fight, while others (spiderants) emerge from the soil in ambush. (It’s easy to see kruthiks as spiderants.) Still others (rakk) dive in for a flyby attack, then retreat. You often encounter an interesting array of creatures, weak to strong, that have varying powers despite physical similarities.

Consider that what’s good for the characters is also good for the monsters. Terrain powers add to a combat encounter interesting effects that the characters can exploit. A minion or group of minions might become particularly effective if they try to make use of the terrain powers, too. It’s all fair if everyone has an equal chance to use the terrain. When the kobold miners push the fiery brazier over on the characters, the players might just start to value terrain powers more. Just be sure to adjust the difficulty if it seems likely a terrain power might really favor the monsters.

Ingredients List

Food labels normally tell you what you’re eating so you can make informed dietary decisions. Gamist transparency is the same. It’s telling the players what the characters are facing so smart choices can be made. It’s called gamist because it’s more about the mechanical side of the game than the narrative side. It’s called transparency because the players are allowed to see through the game’s narrative reality, or what the characters might know, into the mechanical reality.

Transparency is a controversial subject. Some DMs prefer to tell the players everything, even if doing so requires giving out metagame knowledge—information the characters can’t really know. Such a DM allows players to act on this metagame knowledge. The DM justifiably assumes the characters are way more competent and informed than the players, so giving the players a little gamist leeway is harmless. Other DMs are stricter. They provide only information the characters have a way of really knowing, allowing knowledge and perceptual skill checks to expand the available data. As with other aspects of the game, the “right” way is what works best for you and your players.

Let’s face the facts. Minion, like any other role, is a game term the characters don’t know in a narrative or in-game sense. The characters can, however, sense whether an opponent looks less competent, poorly armed, or less prepared for battle. A fighter should easily notice that the fighting technique of an opponent is amateurish. An arcanist might note that the arcane power in a magical creature is weak, just like a cleric could be able to sense that an undead minion’s ties to the Shadowfell are tenuous. A ranger surely knows whether an individual beast is too feeble to be much of threat to the characters.

I favor some generosity in the realm of transparency. Sometimes I assume the battle-hardened characters can just tell when a creature is a minion. Other times, I use passive knowledge to determine what the players know. Every once in a while, I require an actual check or wait for the players to ask for such a check. (This is most true when the minions are considerably higher in level than the characters.) I have called for a check when a player is about to use an encounter or daily power on a minion. My inconsistency on this subject is due to conflicting desires, unique situations, and differing narrative needs in a given encounter. I prefer for the players to be able to use their resources as wisely as possible, but I also want to minimize the use of metagame knowledge. It can be an immersion killer. A decent level of immersion is required for me to have fun as a DM.

Robert Howard—a friend, player in my game, fine DM, and master of Pen & Paper Games—has a different perspective. He sees at least some of his minions as fully competent monsters that the characters can’t tell from the mechanically superior counterparts. The characters just happen, in cinematic fashion, to take out some of the fully competent monsters with one shot. Robert is using such minions to create an illusion of the characters’ badassery. To a character in such an encounter, he or she just took out a dangerous opponent in a single, gruesome blow. My difficulty with this tack is that the players see through it too easily; the mechanical reality is usually apparent.

Matters of Personal Taste

The point of all this is that minions, along with the other monsters, can be used in a variety of ways. You can create countless game experiences and stories by carefully employing minions, by manipulating their mechanics, and by engineering the encounter—XP budget to terrain—to accommodate them. You can even control transparency in varied ways, like Robert and I do. The process is more art than science, so experiment and have fun. You are the (evil?) mastermind and these minions are all yours.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.
Dragon illustration appears in
Sly Flourish’s Dungeon Master Tips.

Minions of Differing Flavors

Last time, I talked about how minions spice up encounters and what they’re meant to do in the D&D game. But, just like the epicure needs new and exciting experiences, numerous DMs among us need new ways to mix it up with minions. This is especially true if you feel your minions disappear too quickly to be interesting or seem to be no added challenge. I’m going to attempt to, as an infamous chef might say, help you to kick it up a notch . . . sometimes.

I already suggested that you take some care in using minions to create a specific flavor when you’re brewing up encounters. You can take it a step further by creating or altering minions. Several methods can be used to change minion effectiveness and flavor. Used cleverly and in the right amount, these schemes can make minions a tastier addition to some encounters.

Spice to Taste

Let me reemphasize the use of minions as a form of encounter pacing and narrative flow. When you design an encounter, you can make up storyline reasons why the minions show up in intervals—or show up, then disappear. then show up again. When you design the pacing this way, only a portion of the minions is on the battlefield at one time. The characters can kill only what’s there at the time. The arrival of new combatants changes the course of the encounter.

As an aside, I never roll initiative for new minions. They appear and go on the same initiative count as the initial minions in the encounter did. Doing this keeps the game rolling. (I actually rarely roll initiative for any monster, but that’s a topic for another day.)

In my Gen Con Dark Sun game, as an example, the characters were the fuel for an evil ritual in which a dray (dragonborn) sorcerer was turning himself into a kaisharga (lich). They were far from alone in this predicament, but they were the only individuals with the fortitude and influence of other forces to awaken during the ritual. Each round, the ritual dealt damage to the characters, and some of the other unfortunates being used for arcane fodder died. A defiled spirit, like a weak wraith, rose from the remains of each NPC who perished. These minions, appearing two or three per round, harried the characters as they tried to unravel the ritual. In fact, the minions caused some nail biting, since the defiled spirits were in a position to take out a character or two who had to choose between attacking the minions and continuing to oppose the ongoing ritual.

Long Live the Flavor

If minion survival is a goal, it’s fair to carefully fiddle with what keeps a minion alive and in the battle. At the heroic tier, you might need to be cautious with such tinkering. At higher levels, minor survivability changes to minions rarely matter much. Just make sure the narrative quality of a minion fits with its longevity.

What happens if you change “HP 1; a missed attack never damages a minion” to “HP 1; this minion takes damages only when hit by an attack”? You’ve just eliminated automatic damage, such as from rain of steel, and attacks that require no attack rolls, such as the new magic missile, from possible damage sources for this minion. Hazardous terrain effects that require no attack roll can’t take this minion out, either. That’s good for some minions, as long as you mean to remove the effects of some powers, such as cleave, when making such a change.

Again, use these techniques with care, avoiding thwarting character abilities just because you can. Single encounters with unusual creatures are fine. Repeatedly being faced with monsters who are immune to aspects of your powers is frustrating.

That’s why traditional immunities aren’t great options for normal monster design. They can thwart a character too much, and they can eliminate certain character themes as viable builds. However, immunity to a damage type or two can work well for minions. Resistance does little for minions, since only 1 damage has to make it through. A fire minion with fire immunity makes perfect sense, though. Fire never deals enough damage to kill such a creature, but it still takes only one solid hit with another damage type to kill it.

You can make it so that one solid hit isn’t enough to kill some minions. Two-hit minions come in various forms. Insubstantial, like most resistances, does little for a minion. However, it’s easy to imagine an insubstantial minion being allowed a saving throw against taking damage from an attack once per encounter. In fact, the fell taint drone from Dragon 367 does just that. I’ve also made minions I wanted to appear tough or heavily armored, such as dwarf militia warriors, that receive a saving throw against the first hit. The narrative tells the players and characters why the minion is hard to kill.

No hard-to-kill minion discussion is complete without mentioning zombies. To me, zombie minions are almost required to give any horde of shambling corpses the right feel. Further, as my players know, I like for zombies to get up again after they seem dead. Some of my regular-monster zombies rise again as low-hit-point monsters, and others reanimate as minions. Zombie minions can also be two-hit wonders, because they might stand back up on their next turn if not dealt with appropriately. It works even better if you make the ability to rise again unpredictable. You can probably think of reasons for non-undead minions to behave similarly—elementals, demons, primal spirits and so on.

Savor the Subtle

Minions are meant to deal damage and worry the characters enough to change party tactics. Consider, though, the countless ways a minion might deal its damage. It need not have an attack to do its dirty work.

Like a warlord granting the barbarian an extra attack, a minion can simply stand around and benefit the stronger creatures in the fight. I’m not talking about resorting to Aid Another, although that can be cool in an all-out kobold free-for-all. What I mean is a minion that provides openings, hinders enemies, and/or damages characters just because it’s there.

Imagine a minion that has an aura to make enemies vulnerable to other damage, less effective at defense, or something else insidious. It might deal automatic damage—what’s good for the players is good for the DM—impose a condition, or alter terrain around it. The players will want those minions gone, believe me. All the better if you decide to add new ones over the course of the encounter.

The fire sinks from Seekers of the Ashen Crown are this type of minion. They don’t attack. Instead, a fire sink moseys up to you and eliminates your resistances to fire. Then it burns you if you end your turn next to it. Hello Ms. Tiefling, it’s time to get out of the kitchen or taste the heat. New experiences are fun, no?

Consider the Aftertaste

Speaking of tasting the bitterly unexpected, I’m no fan of gotcha powers on monsters. You know the ones. When the boneshard skeleton blows up all over the whole party, that’s a gotcha power. Such powers are the worst when they have large areas, like the boneshard skeleton’s boneshard burst. A close burst 1 allows the characters to pull out forced movement powers to move the foe away before the gotcha power goes off. Close burst 3, though? Not interesting, so no thanks.

For minions, however, I don’t mind gotcha powers so much. If a minion does something funky and fun when it dies, and it makes sense for the creature’s nature, that’s fine with me. Even so, minions don’t need to be too gotcha to be effective. I still favor small areas and powers that require attack rolls, or powers that affect the minion’s allies for a time.

A myconid gas spore (from Underdark) is much more fun if its spore burst is small enough that pushing the creature 1 square away saves you and your buddy from the damage. Then it becomes a tactical puzzle rather than a situation that no amount of careful play can help. Making the players interested and wiling to adapt is the point. That’s why I changed the spore burst to close burst 1 for my game. The players started pushing the spores around rather than shrugging and taking the original burst-3 spore burst.

In this vein, I also like powers such as Monster Manual 2‘s rupture demon’s demonic infestation, at least in spirit. A minion that dies, and then it gives its buddy a few hit points and more melee effectiveness? Nice! More, please. What I dislike about the power is its duration. I’d rather see a bigger damage boost, like the rupture demon’s normal damage, for 1 round. The cumulative, whole-encounter effect is too much.

What I’m saying with all this is: Rather than increasing a minion’s survivability, consider giving it some aftereffect, like those above, when it dies. Once again, make sure you’re creating a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Watch the area on exploding minions and the duration of lingering effects. What’s amusing or tactically exciting for a round might become tedious in the long run. Play it out in your head or even with a grid and minis to see if your imagined effect is really what you’ll see in play.

A Third Course

I’ve reached the limit for this article’s digestibility, methinks. A few elements remain on environment and narrative roles (illusions) for minions. It looks like I’ll have to give all that to you next time.

For now, share some of your minion ideas in the comments. Let’s see what we can stir up.

Illustrations by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

2010 Gen Con Schedule

Maybe you’ll recognize me . . .

I’m going to Gen Con for the first time as a civilian, and like Chatty DM, for the first time as part of the Critical-Hits team. Here’s my planned schedule. We’ll see if it survives contact.

Wednesday

4:30 PM
I arrive at the convention! I’ll be hungry. I hope to see you. I’ll be hanging out with as many folks as I can.

8 PM: DD&D with Phil
Location: Tbd, so look for it on Twitter.

I’ll be playing Shard in’Nay, shardmind wizard. Audience encouraged!

Thursday

Early in the day, I’ll be in the dealer’s hall and hanging out.

1 PM: 4e Tips Panel
Location: Westin Caucus (sold out, but come anyway)

I’ll be stealing tips and tricks from Dave and Phil, and pretending to give out DMing advice. Shhh! Don’t tell Dave.

Look for the signs of your demise.

2 PM: Welcome to Dark Sun, B!#&@$!
Location: Convention Center Sagamore Ballroom. Look for the sign. You’re welcome to watch.

Players: Critical Hits Crew—including The Game, TheMainEvent, Bartoneus, Vanir, and ChattyDM—and e of Geek’s Dream Girl.

Wherein we learn that life is hard.

7 PM: Roleplaying for the Severely Disturbed
Location: Westin Caucus

Players: The Game, Bartoneus, ChattyDM, Me, Obsidian Portal Micah, ve4grm, E, and Vanir.

Can Doctor Dante cure Kuang (my character) of his Spotlight Hog mania involving climbing to high places, compulsive stripping, and spontaneous public singing? I mean, he’ll be dealing with real wackos, too. It’s really bad when you have this much yang blocking your yin.

11 PM: Mouse Guard – Deliver the Mail
Location:
Tbd

I’ll be playing a mouse that apparently guards something, which I can only guess is being mailed. Phil’s running the show.

Friday

Morning shenanigans I can’t talk about, really.

1 PM: Welcome to Dark Sun, Too, B!#&@$!
Location:
Convention Center Sagamore Ballroom. Look for the sign. You’re welcome to watch.

Players: Jared Von Hindman, Arthur Wright, Julie!, World Famous Game Designer Robert J. Schwalb, Wes “of RPGA LFR fame” Robinson, Newbie DM

Wherein we learn that life is not fair.

8 PM: ENnies
Location: Westin Grand Ballroom

Critical-Hits is up for an award. I won’t be on stage, seriously.

After-ENnies Fun
We’ll be up late doing something. Join us.

Saturday

Morning shenanigans, again. You might be invited. Invite yourself, in fact.

1 PM: Welcome to Dark Sun, Three, B!#&@$!
Location: Convention Center Sagamore Ballroom. Look for the sign. You’re welcome to watch.

Players: Sarah Darkmagic (Tracy Hurley), Fred Hurley, Daniel “Highmoon” Perez, Matt “Loremaster” James,  Craig “That Freelancer” Campbell, Scott “Bad Weather” Sutherland

Wherein we learn that no amount of sunscreen will do.

8 PM: Media Meet and Greet
Location: Union Station

Where I get to hangout with people who are much cooler than I am.

9 PM: Playtest Vampires
Location:
Tbd

Highmoon teaches us about blood types.

12+ AM: Party
Back to Media Meet and Greet or to some other party/gaming.

Sunday

Free until I leave around 2 PM, at which point I’ll be sad.


Sunburn is the Least of Your Worries

Right now, I’m caught up in general work and Gen Con preparation, and you benefit. I’ve decided to kill two proverbial birds with one metaphorical stone. I’m using my blogging time to prep for Gen Con! Did I mention you benefit? My minions shall return in a couple weeks.

At Gen Con this year, I’m running a few D&D game sessions set in Athas. This Dark Sun game, known affectionately as Welcome to Dark Sun, B!#@&s!, is a version of the campaign opener for my Dark Sun playtest campaign that started when I still worked for Wizards. It’s still going strong. I’ve been making pregenerated characters, refining my encounters, and having a good time. I’m showing my work and, well, here it is.

The benefit is that this is somewhat of a Dark Sun preview. It also includes the characters, in a form I’m experimenting with. I have some caveats for you, though. Some of what you’re going to see here works according to my house rules, some is my creation, some is reskinning, and some is bona-fide Dark Sun content. I’m not going to tell you which is which. You don’t have to wait much longer to look in the Dark Sun Campaign Guide and find out. My aim was fun characters for the players to use. They’re not totally finished, either.

I’m hoping this fires you up for Dark Sun. My players and I sure have been enjoying it.

The Hook

King Kalak is dead. Tyr is free. Slavery is illegal. Life goes on as usual in the city’s seedy underbelly, and rumors persist that a slave-trading underground still exists. As an auxiliary unit of the Crimson Legion, your party of ex-gladiator slaves and other unusual folk is investigating the problem. Asking around, you’ve already tracked some disappearances to the Cracked Jack, a watering hole in the city slums, and a gang known as the Red Hands. It’s as good a place as any to start.

The Cast

Part of this content is based on the characters, most of whom still live, my friends created for my Dark Sun campaign. Another aspect of my challenge and my content comes from Sarah Darkmagic. I designed these characters and their stories to work without much gender bias. The players will be able to take as much or as little as they want from the stories to form party relationships. They’ll be able to name and personalize these Athasian heroes. I’ve done some for the sake of easier writing.

Malamac
You’ve been a disappointment all your life, to yourself and, you thought, your relatives. Born into a family of dwarves closely tied to the ancestor spirits, you never showed any ability to tap the spirit world. Everyone else could, at least to an extent, even your younger brothers.

When your folks finally settled in the mining town of Kled, they and your siblings became heavily involved in unearthing an ancient site thought to be a dwarf city of old. You took the chance to make yourself scarce. Instead of helping with the pet project, you took to roaming the road with traders.

Your mother and father must have uncovered something in those ruins. The templar, Veermas, who oversaw the Kled excavations for Tyr, accused your family of blasphemy against Kalak. The death sentence was swift.

You were away at the time, but the templar’s agents caught you on the road. They beat you and, thinking Veermas would never know, sold you into slavery. Surely you’d die in the arena, anyway.

Only you didn’t. Your amicable ways won you a few friends in the pits. Then, one day, when you were cornered, standing over Iaran’s unconscious, pale, and changing form, you cried out to your ancestors. They listened. The power came. Iaran returned to normal, and you both lived another day.

When Durroth came to lead your gladiator band, you saw a kindred spirit. The wrathful spirits around the mul spoke to you. You taught Durroth to tap into this primal force and gained another friend.

Joining the Crimson Legion seemed natural after Kalak’s fall. Your family is dead, or so you suppose, and a new family exists here in Tyr. A hunger for vengeance gnaws at you, though. Perhaps a trip to Kled can quench that thirst. Is Veermas even there anymore?

And what was it that happened to Iaran in the arena that day? Is Iaran human or not?

Iaran
Firstborn in House Kliethra, a small merchant house, you spent your early years used to more than the commoners of Tyr hope for. Your mother, Ayleen, doted on you, and your father, Klellen, spared coin when he could not spare feeling. That was most of the time.

Neither he nor you knew that you were no child of his. Your mother, as neglected by your father as you were, had indulged herself with a gladiator named Graxus. She and he shared numerous secrets, but Graxus kept one.

That secret revealed itself as you approached young adulthood. First, your skin and eyes went pale. Then your hair turned white. Finally, your features became plainer, less distinct. Most thought you afflicted with some disease.

Klellen learned the truth from an old sage. The old man told Klellen to watch you sleep. He did. Before his eyes, you took your old form and others besides. You were a changeling, one of the strange mutants the weird magic of the world causes, or so the tales went.

What plans your father then hatched for you. Would you be a spy for the house? An assassin? Whatever the case, you had to be trained and kept out of the public eye.

Your mother wanted none of that for you. She took you from House Kliethra, and through Graxus’s contacts, got you out of Tyr. It was then that you learned who your true father was.

Klellen’s wrath knew no bounds. You heard that he killed your mother and Graxus, or had them killed. You remained beyond his reach.

You spent your teenage years with a nomadic tribe that wandered the outskirts of Tyr’s territory. Chandra, one of the nomads, became like a sister to you. Olbast, an old mul, became a surrogate father. He and a man named Iaran taught you how to fight and fight dirty.

Slavers bearing the Kliethra banner came out of the dark one night as your tribe camped. They killed many and took several prisoners. You, in Iaran’s form, were among these.

The next months were filled with spurts of blood and the roar of the crowd. You did the best you could, but you would have died had Malamac’s power not come to the fore.  Another gladiator slave, Tcha-ti, became part of your fighting group. Durroth later joined the circle as a trainer and combat leader.

When Tyr’s slaves were freed, you followed Malamac’s lead in joining the Crimson Legion. But what happened to your tribe? Might living in the city anew attract the attention of Klellen Kliethra? Would you or your blades mind if  he did?

Given your changeable physical nature and past losses, is anyone among your trusted allies someone you see as more than friend? Or do you fear future pain too much to make any such strong connections?

Durroth
Bred for battle they say. Halfbreed they call you. You knew no parents except the gladiator masters and their whips. No siblings had you besides those who shed blood and sweat with you on the merciless training grounds. Unlike many of those brothers and sisters, you survived.

Your owner and master, Lutus, was cruel. He wanted only ruthlessness and strength, and your flesh to rent to admirers for a time. You learned to show no affection for anyone you didn’t want to have to face in the arena and slay. Intuition and fierceness won you countless bouts in which skill did not, could not, save your foes. Brutality became your reputation. “Devastator” they named you.

Devastated might be more true. Grief broke a part of you. Hopelessness threatened your soul. That’s when you began to see and hear them.

You endured because, as you now know, they had always guided you from within the wind. Spirits angry, fierce, and eternal. Before they revealed themselves in full, you supposed your mind had broken with your heart, all the juices of your brain having leaked out your eyes when you were alone in your night-shrouded cell.

Now you have no more tears. Like the beast spirits that swarm about you, you have no desire but to protect you and yours. They lend you their aspect, and you willingly give them expression through your body.

You were brought into Tyr’s grand stadium to train and oversee a few slaves who had shown themselves to be able fighters. The teacher became the student, however. Malamac, awakened to a family legacy of spirit talking, gave a name to your fearsome companions. You helped Malamac live through the arena. Perhaps Malamac gave you back your life in silent thanks. He has said that the spirits work in such mysterious ways.

When Kalak died, you paid little heed. But when the new king’s edict freed the slaves, you followed Malamac. Freedom is strange to you. You have never made your own way, your own decisions. On the face of it, a focus on ending slavery seems to drive you.

The truth is you need a distraction. Malamac stirs feelings within you that you thought were dead, and with them arise old fears. What now?

Tcha-ti
Months ago, you wandered the deserts near Tyr alongside your clutch mates. Your pack revered the primal majesty and severe judgment of the wastes, as well as the simple creatures that endure there. Among your clutch mates, and under the pack’s influence, you meditated the Scorpion Way. You honed your mind to be as focused and quick as the scorpion’s, your body to be resilient and fast. You strike quickly, and then move out of harm’s way.

When dra slavers ambushed you three months ago, you were not fast enough. Your attackers dragged those who survived the battle away in nets. All of you were forced to fight in the arena of Tyr for the amusement of the dra crowds. You were the last among your clutch mates to survive this brutality. So it is, the will of the desert, the Scorpion Way.

Then you were placed among the dra—those creatures that look and act somewhat like people but have no carapace and little knowledge of true ways. Malamac, Durroth, Iaran, these arena warriors became your new clutch mates, protecting you upon the blood-soaked sands as you protected them. In the gladiator pits, you witnessed Malamac’s awakening to the whispers of the ancestors. You saw Durroth emerge from darkness. You watched Iaran come back from the path of death.

Then King Kalak was assassinated. You found freedom and another road to walk for a time. Your new clutch mates and you joined the Crimson Legion as auxiliary troopers. New people joined the clutch to hunt hidden slavers in Tyr’s slums.

You long to be back out in the wastes, but the dra are showing you a new aspect of the desert’s eternal voice. What does this maze of stone have to teach you of the Scorpion Way? Who among your clutch mates is strong and wise enough to lead you?

Elyna
You were born in the Warrens, the slums of Tyr, to a clanless elf woman and human man you never knew. Among the free laborers and gangs of the city, you learned the ways of want and of taking. The streets took your birth mother before you had seen ten years. You were clever and sly, and tough for a small, underfed thing. Your imagination contained sounds that could hurt and influence when unleashed. What a criminal you might have made.

One day, running the Iron Square markets with your mates, you spotted a good mark. She was richly dressed and wouldn’t miss a few baubles. You went for her purse, and without looking she dodged you. You hummed that little tune you knew, the one that made people forget you for a moment. She simply said, “Stop.”

Freedom ended that day, as did privation. Your new mother, Gyd, took you into her house. She tutored you in the Way, the arts of the mind. The tones in your head became fine as blades. Gyd also showed you the weave of the arcane, a source of other fine sounds. You learned to weave this secret art—for it must be kept secret—carefully and slowly, so that it appeared to be another trick of the Way.

You never forgot the streets of the Warrens. Suffering, apparently, never forgot you. The templars raided Gyd’s estate just after you had come of age. They slew your mother and all who opposed them, and then they burned the house. You still don’t know why.

Kalak perished while you were still held in the slave pens, drugged and awaiting sale. All slaves were freed. During this process, your history and skills with the Way became known. The newly formed Crimson Legion recruited you as a liaison officer.

Your first task took you back to the Warrens, looking into underground slave trade. The mastery of sound places you in a unique position among the warriors you serve with. How does it feel to be back to your roots? Does compassion stir within for the lowly who still suffer in Tyr’s streets?

Taewyn
You were born to privilege in a second-class way. Your mother, Nans, was the mistress of Hurus Dericles, a Tyrian noble. You are, technically Hurus’s firstborn, but you have never lived within House Dericles.

Hurus looked after you and your mother well enough, though. You always had what you needed—food, shelter, entertainment, and education. Hurus kept no secret about his mistress. Nans hid behind Hurus’s reputation for protection.

You learned much Hurus did not know. Your mother was a wizard, an enchantress of some skill. She liked Hurus well enough, but she also used him. As his mistress she enjoyed much of the privilege of nobility, but little of the responsibility or scrutiny. With Hurus’s money, she could practice her art and teach you.

Hurus’s wealth also bought you tutors in the Way. Nans emphasized the importance of practicing magic carefully. Knowledge of psionics helped you learn to disguise your powers.

The cushy life ended when Kalak perished. Hurus died in the upheaval, supposedly the victim of vengeful slaves. You know that your half-brothers did your father in, because they also tried to have you and your mother killed. They succeeded at half that task.

Now you’re in hiding in Tyr’s Warrens. You crave the power to burn your brothers to cinders and claim your father’s estate. For the next little while, though, staying alive will do.

Might you be able to find some allies in the city? Your mother always promised to introduce you to her “alliance of peers.” Who might they be?

Closure

Well, there you have the rough story for the beginning of my Dark Sun campaign and its characters. If you see anything you think I need to fix, email me (link in my bio) or comment. We’ll see how my Gen Con players like the introduction to Athas. If you’re at Gen Con, I hope to see you, too.

I’d like to give special thanks to my Dark Sun players, Adam Wojtowecz (Iaran), Brandon Lee (Korrin, halfling storm sorcerer), Cal Moore (Tcha-Ti), Darrell Dunning (Durroth), Ed Robillard (Corvas, deva avenger), Jonathan Pumphrey (Thomm aka Taewyn), Robert Howard (Malamac), Spring Pumphrey (Voston, half-tarek rogue). I might have changed your characters to suit my evil purposes, but you were the inspiration. Also thanks to Tracy Hurley, Sarah Darkmagic, for the idea for Elyna, whose name belongs to a special NPC in my home game.

Logo from Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Minions Are Spice

(c) 2010 Chris Sims

A minion is a tiny onion used for flavor, especially in soups. That’s what my father told me when I was a kid. Even then, though, the D&D game had imparted enough for me to see the lie and the humor. In fact, if analyzed closely, this quip from dear ol’ dad, and my assimilation of it, might explain a lot about me. Talk about analysis paralysis.

But that’s not why we’re here, all thoughts about narcissism and social media aside. No, this isn’t about me. It’s about our D&D games and the cute little minions in them. Dad’s pun is right about D&D minions. They are, in fact, for flavor, especially in the best and tastiest soups.

D&D encounters are metaphorical soups of mayhem and roleplaying, escapism and illusion, bloodshed and heroics. Like spices change the flavor of food, minions change the flavor of encounters. Used well, they enhance consumption and digestion. Employed poorly, they can make the experience a little off or worse. It’s all about perception and taste.

Simple or Complex Tastes

In its most basic form, a minion is a zing in the player’s perception. A character zaps, punches, slashes, or whatevers a minion in the face, and the minion goes down. Splat! The character strikes a badass pose, the player smiles, and the encounter continues. Minion mission accomplished . . . to an extent.

Minions are also meant to deal characters damage and to balance an encounter. Dungeon Master’s Guide says so. That book tells you what a minion of a given level is worth in your encounter XP budget. It even gives you exact numbers of minions to use at different tiers. This stuff is basic information, general guidelines such as an amateur cook might find in book such as How to Boil Water.

That’s fine. Dungeon Master’s Guide is the basic DMing book for the 4e D&D game. Minions were brand new D&D technology when that book came out. You have to start with the basics.

The basics start to fail, in food and in gaming, when your tastes outstrip them. Sophisticated DMs and sharp players need refined ways to use and encounter minions. Common are the cries that minions die too quickly or are otherwise ineffective.

I agree, to a point. Minions can disappear quickly, and they might do so without so much as a whimper from their enemies. But if you have minions that started the battle still on the battlefield at the beginning of a normal encounter’s third round, then your minions have probably done their job. However, if you’re really feeling like minions aren’t pulling their weight, as I sometimes do, then it’s time to roll up your DMing sleeves and use a little more strategy.

Layering Flavor

Minions, like spices, combine with other encounter elements to create a whole that is very different from its parts. They provide two basic illusions in the game. The first illusion is that aforementioned burst of “my character is awesome” minions can impart to the player, especially when the character is a controller who clears the field. Second is the illusion of the heroic few against the hordes of evil (or whatever). Add minions to battles not only to emphasize these illusions, these flavors, but also to change player tactical decisions and encounter pacing.

In any encounter, you have to decide how you want the minions to perform. What taste are they supposed to leave in each player’s mouth? When cooking, you could just throw all the ingredients together in a bowl, stir them up, and cook them. Haphazard mixing rarely works out well. You concoct carefully, based on what you’re trying to make. In encounter design, your intentions determine the amount, placement, and timing of minions.

Add minions to an encounter deliberately, not by some by-the-book formulation. How few or how many you use should depend on the encounter’s an story’s needs. If your war campaign calls for troops of goblin conscripts, more minions might be better. Fighting in kobold mines might call for a few kobold miners in every clash.

Chunks of spice can be good or bad, depending on the flavor you’re looking for. Clump minions together at the start of the encounter only if you want the wizard to blow them all up quickly. (Although I might be repeating the obvious, it’s perfectly valid to add minions to some encounters just to make the players feel cool or smart.) Otherwise, you can probably think of plenty of good and fair reasons for minions to be dispersed or even out of sight when combat begins. Then you can reward careful tactical play or good skill use.

Similarly, based on the creatures’ intelligence and self-confidence, use tactics with minions. If the minions see everyone who starts a turn adjacent to the fighter becomes hamburger thanks to that awesome stance the fighter has, then maybe they’ll avoid the fighter. Or maybe they’ll rush in and die. Again, it depends on what you, the head chef, want the taste to be. In this example, you can have the best of both worlds by forcing the fighter to chase down those minions he wants to make into chum. You could even make that a poor tactical decision . . . .

I like to disperse my minions by adding them to an encounter after it starts, like one might add salt and pepper to a dish after it’s cooking or cooked. You might do the same. As long as the appearance of new monsters makes sense, and the XP reward is on the money, the players won’t mind. Another way to add minions is to have a creature that summons or creates them intermittently. Heck, you can even “cheat” by adding minions on the fly to turn up the heat on an encounter that seems too easy. New monsters change the pace of any combat, making it more exciting, especially if those monsters can’t last too long.

Full Flavor

Late in playtesting the 4e D&D game, I ran a few encounters using kruthik minions to reinforce the bug-hunt feel I was looking for. A conclusion I came to then was that minions should not actually be part of an encounter’s main challenge unless the DM wants an encounter that’s slightly easier than the XP budget suggests. When used conscientiously, such a tack is another fine tactic in encounter design, but it’s neither obvious nor spelled out in any D&D rulebook.

When I created my bug-hunt encounters, I wanted the minions to create harder encounters. I used tactics I have already explained, especially adding on minions as the fight progressed. (“Just when you thought the fight was in hand, more kruthiks pour out of these tiny holes! Bwahahaha!”) Another scheme I used was to put most of or all the kruthik minions in what I call “the gap.”

The gap is that magical zone between the XP budget total for one level and the XP total that pushes the encounter level to the next highest one. If you build a solid encounter of the level you’re shooting for, use one or more of the strategies I’ve already mentioned, and then place the minions in the gap, you might find your minions work out a little better. Even if the minions don’t last long enough to suit you, the encounter should still challenge the characters.

Where does black dragon breath come from!Savoring It

In my campaign, the characters recently fought myconids. Myconid gas spore minions spontaneously popped out of surrounding mushroom terrain througho ut the fight. This pacing changed the dynamic of the battle in a few ways. The spores showed up from unexpected angles. A few times, one thwarted a player’s preplanned tactics for a round. Once the players figured out that killing the death-bursting spores could be bad, the characters started looking for ways to be far away from a spore when it died and exploded.

The result was I was after is what I got. Gas spores added a weird flavor to the fungal rumble. They mixed it up and made the whole scene more fun. To me, fun is the point of an encounter. Fun can come from the challenge, the scene and story, or both. I like both.

Admittedly, though, the gas spores had one advantage over typical minions. The death burst added a level of threat some minions lack. It’s true that some minions are harder to use effectively because they lack effective mechanical advantages. Numerous older minions deal too little damage, as well. These facts can become more problematic as level increases.

Next time, I’ll talk about tinkering with minions and their environment on a mechanical level. We’ll see if we can make them not only more effective, but also more fun for you and your players. I’ll also touch a little more on illusions minions can create in the game, as well as issues related to gamist transparency.

Fiasco, It’s Not

Critical-Hits has run a review of Fiasco and an Origins report that included it, but I’m here to report as a Fiasco player. I played with four other veteran gamers, a few among us industry pros. Logan Bonner got us together and learned the rules with us. For the record, I have read on bits of the Fiasco rules, so this report is purely experiential and relies heavily on my memory of events. I’m also trying out a Chatty DM style post for a change. (Mimicry is flattery, Chatty.)

The Setup

First, we chose the “Tales From Suburbia” Playset. Guided by that, we had to make up characters and their related accouterments. Here’s a sketch of what we came up with.

Toby Grace (Logan Bonner)
The teenage Toby is gaining some fame as YouTube’s Bat’leth Boy, filming and uploading his mad Klingon sword skills. (I liken him to Kazookeylele.) He’s, more or less, a typical teenager, shy, with a part-time job at Max Reginald’s women-only costume shop, the Well-Dressed Lady. He dislikes his stepdad, Gerry. Toby desperately wants to be famous. Although he has no girlfriends, past or present, he’s pretty sure he’s not gay.

Gerald “Gerry” Grace (Derek Guder)
Gerry is a self-loathing gay man who married Toby’s mother, Bethany, for the money and a life of leisure. He drinks way too much, and he acts out of desperation and instinct more than reason. (Read: He’s an idiot.) Toby is the object of Gerry’s idle ire, because Gerry hates himself and suspects Toby, who has never had a girlfriend, is gay.

Alex James (Chris Tulach)
Alex is Gerry’s former lover. Impeccably dressed and groomed, Alex drives a black Cadillac and has all the latest gadgets. Something suggests he doesn’t really need money—maybe he made some cash in the 90s dot-com boom. He wants Gerald Grace out of suburbia and back in his arms, so he has gotten involved in a plot with his cousin Rory James.

Rory James (Chris Sims, me)
Rory is fresh out of the army and the Middle East. He’s a young, ex-military anti-tax Libertarian radical educated by conspiracy rags, first-person shooters, and Fox News. Rory believes not only that certain liberals are leading this nation to ruin, but also that the government is against the people. The IRS is after Rory, who needs money quickly to stay ahead, collect guns, and keep his jacked-up 89 Bronco running. Rory has a single usable grenade.

Max Reginald (Andrew “Doc” Cunningham)
A community activist and local Freemason Worshipful Master, Max Reginald owns a women’s only costume shop (the aforementioned Well-Dressed Lady) in the heart of the historic downtown area of this suburban town. He seems to have a penchant for teenage girls, which he hides behind a mask of overzealous vigilance against pedophiles. He knows Rory James through the local Masonic Lodge.

Other Characters
Here are a few important non-player characters that made their way into the plot.

Bethany Grace: Toby’s mom, who’s dying of cancer. She’s bedridden and lives upstairs in the old Grace house, a historic site on the edge of downtown. She’s also addicted to pain meds.

Randy James: An aging hippy lawyer who lives on the outskirts of town. He works for the Graces, and he’s Rory’s estranged father.

Holly: The teenage grocery checkout girl whom the younger Toby has the hots for.

Mister Bubbles: Rory’s yellow lab, named for the character in Bioshock.

Act One

The movie opens in the morning with Gerry—half naked, and carrying an adult toy like a weapon in his drunken rage—berates Toby while “Bat’leth Boy” meant to be filming his kick-ass moves. Instead, he gets the indelible record of his inebriated stepfather’s tirade. Toby uploads the film. Was it a mistake or fate?

Gerry later sits by Bethany’s bedside, failing to notice she drops a syringe on the floor. He hears a noise and goes to the window. A black Cadillac drives away from across the street. Gerry thinks nothing of it.

Alex drives away from the Grace house, a medical phial rolling on his floorboard. He receives a phone message from Rory and pulls over to catch it. It’s Bat’leth Boy’s latest film, starring Gerry Grace. Then Alex calls Rory, cryptically saying, “It’s done.”

In a rented house bereft of much in the way of furniture, Rory is sitting—barefoot and shirtless, in camouflage pants—at his computer after talking with Alex. Mister Bubbles scratches at the door to herald the coming of the mail and all Rory’s past-due bills. Rory gets the mail and curses at the Mexican gardener across the street.

Meanwhile, Max comes out of his house and notices Alex parked in front, just across the street from a playground. Max confronts Alex, accusing him of “watching the children” because “nobody parks to take a phone call.” Alex drives away. Max notes the pedophile danger for later.

Each of the above represents a player’s first turn, with that player setting up the scene for other players to resolve or resolving a scene others have set up. The outcome is good or bad, success or failure, for your character, resulting in you taking a white (good) or black (bad) six-sided die. In Act One, you give the die to another player. You keep it in Act Two.

Without telling the whole story, the rest of Act One played out. Salient details include Toby finding out Holly likes him. Gerry discovers Randy James is helping Bethany write Gerry out of her will. He doesn’t know James is also working for Max. Rory and Alex are working for Max to ensure Bethany dies shortly after her will is changed. Max alone knows that the Grace house is the final point of a geographic pentagram he is building. He needs to own to property to seal his occult power over the entire historic downtown area.

Tilt, Act Two

Elements of the plot go awry, of course, in what the game calls the Tilt. Randy James, pothead that he is, was lackadaisical in making Bethany’s will official. He hadn’t finished finalizing it by the time Rory and Alex manage to kill Bethany. Gerry finds Bethany dead at the same time he finds the new will. Smart guy that he is, he attempts to eat the document. Max becomes infuriated when he learns Randy James failed, and Rory and Alex were a bit too efficient. Alex discovers that the money envelope Rory provided is stuffed largely with grocery coupons. Toby, it turns out, stole the money from Rory to help Max buy the Grace house.

Like a film that Tarantino directed the first half of and Rodriguez directed the second half of, the character development and interaction degenerated into bloody conflagration by the end. All the main characters, in one way or another, end up in a serious confrontation near the Grace House. Mayhem ensues.

By the end of Act Two, Alex is wounded at the hands of bikers who are helping Max (it’s complicated). Half a dozen bikers are dead or dying. Mister Bubbles has given up the mortal coil, along with Rory’s Bronco, thanks to that grenade mentioned earlier. A flying tire from the exploded Bronco hit Toby’s new girlfriend, Holly. Toby is unconscious on the street, Holly’s d’k tahg next to him, thanks to Rory hitting him with a shotgun butt. Gerry, half-naked again, is bleeding on the street. The Grace House has been blown to cinders. Rory is speeding out of town on a stolen chopper. Max turns into an occult master right before everyone’s eyes.

Aftermath

Each player has a small pile of dice by the end of Act Two. Turns out you use these dice to find out what happens to your character in the end. This was the most confusing and unexpected part of the game to me. See, you roll the dice, subtracting the black form the white. The result determines how well it goes for your character in the end. I expected that my small “white” result to mean a minor victory for my character. Nothing to the contrary prepared me otherwise, but as is common when one is first learning a game, especially without having read the rules for oneself, my expectations were wrong.

It turns out that the closer your result is to zero, black or white, the worse it is for your character. Had we all known that, we might have played differently. We stacked a lot of negative results on Gerry, thinking he’d pay for his idiocy in the end. He didn’t, as you’ll see.

As an aside—reminding readers I’ve read only portions of rules, such as in this preview, because I don’t own the book—I wonder why lots of black  dice result in a positive outcome for the character? It seems counterintuitive to me, the uneducated novice player. Maybe it makes sense for genre reasons or something else, but I still fail to get it.

So I was expecting to tell the story of how Rory rode that stolen Harley, eluding the cops, all the way to Central America. Maybe he spent the rest of his days in Paraguay as an American exile. His views on American politics became irrelevant. Maybe he married a nice mestizo woman and got over himself. But, no!

Instead, my low white result meant Rory fled the scene only to attract the attention of a traffic cop on a motorcycle. Rory took a shot at this “fascist,” and the officer jumped clear of the bike as it flipped and hit Rory’s cycle. Rory died in a blaze of glory, the last thing seen of him being his burning rank patch. Good night, sweet corporal. I like to think life would have been too dismal without Mister Bubbles anyway.

With a similarly low result, Alex died at the end of a Bat’leth in Max’s hands. All the other players got high black or white results. Toby, with Logan’s higher result, goes to physical therapy with Holly, and they later start a costuming company together. Bat’leth Boy becomes famous. Gerry’s wounds cause him to need organ replacements, including his suffering liver. He survives, accepting himself and his stepson, as well as enjoying the provisions of Bethany’s older will. He also sells the Grace house property to Max, who gets away scot-free and completes his pentagram.

After the Aftermath

Fiasco sells itself well and truthfully. We five newbies played a highly entertaining game in about three hours, some of that spent stumbling around the rules clumsily. (The rules aren’t clumsy. We were a little.) The outcome does depend heavily on who you game with, though. It seemed like we all enjoyed the darkly ridiculous nature of our imaginary movie. We were all up to the freeform nature of the roleplaying and storytelling.

Either of these elements might turn some off. For instance, my wife enjoys playing a barbarian in D&D 4e, but she dislikes Coen brothers’ films (okay, she dislikes sad endings, full stop) and is new enough to roleplaying to want some guidance. She’s also not partial to dark stories and foul language. Fiasco is definitely not a game for her or someone like her. Part of the book I did read (“One Last F[edit]ing Thing”) spells this out, which is a fine bit of honesty.

For me, despite my feelings about the resolution system in the aftermath, it was a cool way to spend a few hours with buddies. Fiasco tests your spontaneous imagination and invites you to take chances. It rewards player trust and going with the flow. I can’t help but wonder if it could be a useful tool for honing roleplaying skills for players of other games that have more structure. It could work well as a team-building exercise.

It’s certainly worth a look-see . . . if you have the stones.

Canon Fodder

Yeah, that was an easy pun, but it’s in stride with my opinions on this subject and has a deeper meaning in this essay. Based on discussions I’ve had with various colleagues and friends, I decide to put my viewpoint on display here. Hopefully, it’ll give you and me some clarity. First, though, we need to define terms.

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting context, canon can be defined as imagined world history up to just a moment ago. This can consist of an overarching metaplot, as with White Wolf’s 90s and early 00s World of Darkness games. It can also encompass dozens of smaller stories, as with the Forgotten Realms setting and its embracing of novels as canon. Game setting canon can also include differences from core assumptions, spelled out or not, in a game’s implied setting, as it is in the core 4e D&D game. For instance, Eberron has different deities and styles of magic than those assumed to exist in the D&D game’s implied setting.

Canon Aims

Defining differences can make a game world stand apart from its peers. The myriad gods of the Forgotten Realms help make the world seem different. Highly organized kingdoms, complex politics, and large areas of known territory also distinguish it from the core “points of light” assumption. Eberron is similar. It’s not as wild as one might assume the implied world of the central D&D game is. In Eberron, most deities have no physical manifestation in the known universe. Magic is used much like technology might be in a Wild West or Pulp Era setting. In the history of Dark Sun, the primordials defeated the gods, driving them into hiding, imprisonment, or death. Divine power is hard to come by in Dark Sun, to say the least. Misuse of arcane magic led to the ecological collapse of Athas, Dark Sun’s world. With unnatural devastation and the absence of divine power came significant changes to the cosmology.

Differences that really define a campaign setting are cool. They help shape the image of the setting in the minds of the game’s players (including the DM). Such broad strokes also help the players understand mechanical divergences that might be in the setting. For instance, a player in a Dark Sun campaign assumes he or she should play a divine character only if a compelling reason exists as to why the character has access to divine power at all. Most players probably presuppose the divine power source is off limits, but they shouldn’t.

You see, setting changes that mess around with default game elements, such as whole power sources, should avoid absolutism. At least, their creators should avoid absolutes. Rather than writing in a Dark Sun book that you cannot use the divine power source, a designer should teach you how to use the divine power source in out-of-the-box ways that make sense on Athas. (By the way, I’m not saying whether the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting is absolutist in the use of divine power. This is just an example.) Any given DM can choose an absolute stance for his or her campaign, although even that is less than ideal.

Also less than ideal are trivial changes that fail to define the game world in a meaningful way. The worst among these are absolutes that some designer or novelist added without much thought. Dark Sun setting material from older editions read that kank meat is inedible. So what? Does that small fact help you tell a story set on Athas? Or does it make you, like I did, question why anyone would herd these beasts over the delicious, egg-laying erdlu? Sure, kanks produce an edible honey, but a herder can use everything an erdlu produces, down to beaks and bones. If I lived on Athas, I’d herd erdlus and hunt kanks, or at most, keep small herds of kanks for work and riding.

I’m waxing pedantic there, which is something trivial changes can almost force you to do. Requiring and encouraging detail-oriented attention, especially in a game’s official product line, is far from good for the game. In another instance of this, the older Dark Sun setting had Cleansing Wars in the past, wherein powerful arcanists attempted to wipe certain species from the face of the planet. Taken on its face, this fact is fine. A story of racist sorcerers slaughtering certain folks can make for good history and an excellent basis for current politics and superstitions. But when you start listing races the Cleansing Wars wiped out to the last individual, when that fact is not important to the design or story, you’ve gone too far. Why? Because DMs don’t need to be told they can’t use a particular monster, and players don’t need to be told they can’t play a certain race, just because a novelist or designer arbitrarily decided to wipe out a particular creature.

It’s better to create tension, saying the arcane pogrom targeted gnomes, than to create absence, saying the arcane pogrom wiped gnomes out. In the former case, those who want gnomes in their campaign can have bitter, furtive gnomes that dislike human arcanists. In the latter case, those who want gnomes have to break with the official position on the subject. In both cases, those who want no gnomes can use the historic massacre as an excuse. Which tack is more flexible? Isn’t more flexible better for the game?

Canon Damage

As hard as it might be for veteran game tinkerers to believe, it’s difficult for some players, especially new ones, to break free of the official position on a subject. The official position is “the rule,” after all. Taught by the example of those in lofty official positions, newer players might also start to think absolute positions are right and good. I’ve met players who believe these points, who believe that changing what you don’t like about a game is something one does not do. That’s breaking the rules.

To use older Dark Sun material as a reference point again, some of the adventures and the second edition of the setting were less than popular among fans. This was with good reason. At least a couple adventures place novel characters in the central roles they had in the novel. They do the cool stuff while the players and player characters watch or take up secondary roles. Fun, eh? The whole second edition of the setting assumes the Prism Pentad novels have happened—have become part of the canon—and that the world has changed. A number of defining elements from the original setting are gone, because the novel protagonists removed them, usually bloodily. Allowing the novels to interfere with the game material did the fans no favors.

This is one reason why it’s insane to use novels as canon for any game setting. Another is that a roleplaying game is about interacting with an imaginary world as a potentially important imaginary person or as one who directs events set in that world. The game is not about merely consuming someone else’s narration or spectating at historic events. Further, as the number of novels increase, the canon becomes increasingly unwieldy until it’s overwhelming for normal players. Most people avoid playing cumbersome games. Enforcing novels as canon from an official position also, eventually, makes it a nightmare to design game material and write shared-world fiction for that setting.

This was a very real problem that faced the Forgotten Realms setting when the 4e D&D game came on the scene. Keepers of the Forgotten Realms went even further in the past, actually. Just about everything with an official seal on it is canon for the Realms—games, video games, novels, and so on. Now that’s crazy and limiting. However, it could have all been solved by hitting the reset button on the Realms the way Wizards did with Eberron and Dark Sun. Back to 1357 DR, anyone?

Some novels or other non-game setting materials do more or less harm to games that exist alongside them or follow them. The Forgotten Realms setting is indeed a place where thousands of stories can happen. It is more tolerant to canon because of this. On the other hand, Middle Earth really has one ultimate task that needs accomplishing. If you ain’t a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, pal, you’re nobody.

A rich media environment is still good for a game. Novel and such serve the game and their own purpose when they tell what could be or might happen in a game world without enforcing that reality, as canon, on the game. Such stories then become great territory for DM looting, for adventures and NPCs, and player looting, for character concepts and backgrounds. They retain their value as entertainment, as well. No one can stop one DM or another from making a novel’s story canon for his or her game. That’s fine.

Canon Misfires

The point is, as my friend Stephen Radney-MacFarland liked to point out when I got too serious in some meetings at Wizards of the Coast, we all just make this stuff up. I’m just saying that what the official source makes up and peddles as canon needs to be defining and flexible rather than trivial and absolute. Trivial absolutes are the worst. They’re hard to remember, and often not worth remembering. (Oh, yeah, I can’t use trolls here because the trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars. There goes my adventure idea. Bleh.) They also give those who can remember such trivialities a way to choose against being immersed in the distinctive world an individual DM wants to portray. Sure, that’s jerky, and we should avoid playing with jerks, but it happens. Put simply, trivial canon and absolutes, especially arbitrary ones without guidance on how to make exceptions, just make the game harder to play.

For the record, a lot of game material contains arbitrary absolutes that make the material harder to use. Take any monster that doesn’t play well with others, a prime reason why 4e monster entries try to give you reasons to mix and match. Look for any statement with a never or an always in it. When I edit, I kill such absolutes with wild abandon. I want to avoid making the game harder.

Final Volley

Game world canon can and should make the game better and easier to play. It should be defining rather than trivial. Setting material should teach you how to make a game of your own, instructing you on how to make fitting exceptions even to defining canon. What I’m really saying is that you can portray a unique and interesting game setting, and at the same time, make that setting easy to play. You have to be careful with your canon.

Just don’t point it at me.

Illustration for Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

Mailbag 8—All By Myself, Part 5

This final piece is all about the competition for your solos—the players and their characters. You design encounters to challenge those others at your game table, so almost all of this series has really been about them anyway. Rather than the mechanics of making and using solo creatures, this section focuses on engaging players, and keeping them that way, and allowing characters to shine against a solo.

You probably already know it, but if you’re a good DM, you’re probably having the most fun when the players are enjoying what you’ve created. That’s one reason why DMing is so great. You are able to work on and take pleasure from both sides of the game’s interactions. Hopefully, some of the stuff here helps you do that better.

Informed Opposition

The characters have to earn their glory. It’s true. You’ve created a dynamic scenario for the monsters, but you need to make sure the scenario and encounter have elements that make them the most fun for the players. Make sure the players have the opportunity to play creatively.

An informed player is best suited for fun and success. You need not just give the information away if play demands otherwise. The truth is, though, that stumbling into the dragon’s lair is a lot less fun than anticipating the terrible battle bound to occur there. Running into any solo unexpectedly can leave players at loose ends, and the characters might suffer for it. Then your game will suffer, too.

The players also need the skinny on the environment. Your description of the surroundings is more than an imparting of setting detail. It should always hint at, if not directly convey, what’s possible in the area. What casual observation fails to reveal, judicious skill use should. If you want the characters to interact with some part of the location, don’t hide the information about that encounter element behind a hard skill check DC. In fact, if you want to be sure it’s used, don’t hide it at all. It’s okay to give away some information for the sake of fun. Besides, our characters are way more competent than we are. Just ask my characters. They’ll tell you.

It’s hard not to bow to the feeling that players should earn the lore they and their characters learn, but I’ve seen more than one encounter go off the rails because the DM wasn’t clear or hid needed details behind a bogus skill check. If player knowledge of the situation is important, but the player’s fail to ask for that necessary skill check, let the characters suffer only for a little while. Then do the hard part. Ask for the check. It’s okay to lead a little. Again with character competence.

Once combat is joined, the players need to know how the battle is progressing. Be explicit about state changes in the monster and alterations to the environment. Ask for checks or use passive skill checks when the characters might or might not notice a change. Be descriptive and informative about how the monster uses powers, and why certain results occur. If you catch signs that the players don’t really understand what’s happening fully, make sure they grasp what you think is essential and that the characters should know. Repeat yourself if necessary. You’re doing everyone a favor, believe me.

That’s because knowing the situation is central to the players’ ability to make informed decisions. A dynamic encounter demands that players change character tactics based on what they know or learn. Solo encounters should be among the most dynamic in design, since the monster doesn’t always provide the needed dynamism. If the monster does, then all the better.

Providing Tools

Information and its exchange are the primary tools in a cooperative game such as D&D, but we’ve talked about those. Environmental elements, skill uses and challenges, and calculated advantages can help the characters out and liven up a solo encounter. Give the characters cool toys.

Add terrain effects and terrain powers that the characters can use to gain an advantage. One such environmental power might even be a deal changer in the battle. Think about how Conan dealt with larger, stronger creatures or how Wulfgar finally slew the white wyrm Ingeloakastimizilian (Icingdeath). The ability to drop a huge stalactite on a dragon can be a cool event in the fight, especially if the characters discover the option when their normal resources are dwindling. The dragon might even make such a choice available after it uses a terrain power to cause a minor cave-in during a state change or pacing change in the confrontation.

When it comes to skills, not only should you let players use checks to gain advantages in a combat, but you should also encourage it. Little boons—from hidden clues garnered through shrewd use of knowledge skills to unexpected benefits gained by boldly seizing good terrain with physical skills—are the spice of a tactical game. To me, the game is a fantasy action movie slowed down into digestible gaming bits. Such bits even tastier when they allow a character to accomplish action-hero tasks or one-up the badass monster.

Skill challenges, especially those that can help mitigate a state change in the solo monster or an advantage the monster has, are doubly useful. They can give an encounter pizzazz, as well as adding to the challenge. Maybe those versed in Arcana, Nature, or Religion can work to unravel the field of unfathomable geometry defending that Far Realm entity (Thoon!), while those with Insight and Endurance can ignore the worst effects for a while.

When you use skills, I recommend taking a page from D&D editor Greg Bilsland’s blog. Try to keep the action cost low, allowing checks with minor actions. Limit each character’s check to once per turn if extending the tension is an issue. Standard-action checks should have effects at least as significant on the encounter as a hit with an at-will power. I say that such willingness on a player’s part to break out of a normal combat mode should be more rewarding. Giving up a standard action can extend the fight, but if you make the effects of that standard action worthwhile, the player should feel it. Solo fights need no help in the length department.

If the battle starts to drag, and the characters are down to at-will attack powers, be brave. Employ the next big disengagement as an excuse to allow a brief short rest that allows the characters to regain the use of some or all their encounter powers. (Greg Bilsland also points out how the time for a short rest is ambiguous. Use that for added excitement.) It might be okay for the monster to recover a little, as well, but that’s a decision you have to make on the fly while eyeballing the encounter’s pacing. Err on the side of allowing the monster to recharge some interesting powers during the pause, rather than allowing healing. If you do allow healing, give the monster back what a normal monster might regain from the use of a healing surge—do not give it back a quarter of its solo hit points or, gods forbid, more.

Acting in Good Faith

You need to avoid a few potential pitfalls when designing and playing out an encounter with a solo monster. Use certain conditions judiciously, play dramatically even if that diminishes optimum monster performance, and steer clear of thwarting the characters too much. These mistakes can grind the encounter to a messy end even if the characters win.

When I design encounters, I shun what I call one-hit weakened and stunned conditions. I also minimize one-hit dazed conditions. A one-hit condition is one that an attack imposes on the first hit with no other circumstances required. I instead place these conditions in cascading effects—effects wherein a character who has one condition worsens when hit again or when hit by a specific power, or fails a save or two. Multiple hits or save failures are required to impose progressively worse conditions. Why? Stunned, weakened, and dazed conditions not only diminish fun, but they also add to grind. Conversely, when placed in cascading effects, the potential of facing the worsening of a condition can change tactical choices and add tension to the encounter. The gameplay result is positive instead of frustrating or grindy.

It’s important, if you diminish serious conditions such as these, that you increase the monster’s damage at least a bit. This assumes the attack deals damage, of course. Some don’t. In that case, you might consider adding damage or tinkering with the action cost the way I did on my copper dragon’s version of frightful presence. Simply eliminating the serious condition without upping the damage can make the power flat.

Dull is what you want to avoid, and that can mean playing in ways that are less than truly optimal or strategic for a given monster. We’re playing a game here, and cinematic value has to trump strategic play at times. Sure, it’s best when the two mesh, but that’s an ideal situation. If less than ideal is the situation, change that situation. Further, let players feel the difference in power, and let characters trigger some of their powers. Solo creatures know they’re mighty, so provoking a few opportunity attacks and ignoring marks from the puny characters might be okay a few times.

Take the Monster Manual black dragon. It could hide in its cloud of darkness, and certainly might do so in a “realistic” situation, but how is that fun for anyone? Change monster elements like this when you find them while you’re preparing. Be prepared to make alterations on the fly if you see a monster’s power having a negative effect on the game. Thrashing the characters isn’t essentially negative, but frustrating the players is. It’s better if the dragon uses the cloud to gain clear advantages, such as choosing its targets without regard for the defender or covering its disengagement.

Disengagement powers, similarly, must be used wisely, or the players might start to feel like the characters just can’t gain an edge. A recharge, such as my copper dragon’s twice-per-encounter frightful presence, can help to control disengagement. So can player choice. For instance, maybe one of a solo monster’s disengagement powers works only if the creature is flanked. As long as you’re clear that the power has that limitation—probably after it goes off once, and then you fill the players in on what’s happening in game terms—the players choose whether their characters flank the monster. If the players refuse to change tactics, the characters suffer. Too bad for them.

Closure

While I was writing this, I realized that these play strategies apply to general encounter design, especially important encounters, in numerous ways. You probably realized that before I did. I’m not going back and making this a general article, though. Nope.

Anyway . . .

Players always need to be informed or to have a chance to be so enlightened. Terrain and other extra encounter elements can make any encounter saucier. Skill use is fun and makes a player feel smart for having chosen a skill. (Remember, what’s good for the characters is good for the monsters. Lead by example with skill use. Make them pay!) You owe it to yourself and your players to tinker with the game, before or during play, when frustration seems to be a likely result of a given mechanical element. D&D is an evolving game, and even official material has flaws. Drama and fun are always more important than rules or realism.

You won’t get it right every time. Don’t sweat it. Neither do I. But we can all aim high, and learn from each shot that misses the target or hits it dead center.

We’ve also come the conclusion of my series on dealing with solos in your game. Thanks for coming with me on this journey. I can only hope you learned as much as I did while thinking and writing on this topic.

If you’re just joining us, you can read the first, second, third, and fourth installments if you like. You can also see the other solo articles in the rundown of my Analysis Paralysis column from the Columns menu. Updates on the column can be had by selecting Analysis Paralysis from among the available RSS feeds.

D&D Trivia Archive May 2010

On Twitter, I give out little tidbits about D&D history as I know it or experienced it. This means I might not always be right, but at least it’s interesting.  You can challenge me on twitter or by email.

Here’s the May 2010 D&D trivia archive.

  • Even the greatest DMs, such as Monte Cook, fail to keep it all straight sometimes. Ask him, and he’ll tell ya. Relax and enjoy.
  • My understanding–D&D R&D DMs identify minions as such in some way. The assumption: skilled combatants can identify mooks.
  • Minions had higher HP, near PC at-will damage, at one stage. Development shaped the 1-HP minion for easier tracking.
  • D&D trivia tells us that trolls always follow string because they know every string ends in meat.
  • D&D trivia also tells us you can only make chewing gum from troll flesh. Tastes like chicken.
  • My defiling design for Dark Sun was meant to be as (or more) tempting as the force’s dark side. Hope the final version still is.
  • The convention previews of Dark Sun might not be the final version. The books are just wrapping up preprint production.
  • I helped make the crazy D&D editing test @loganbonner took to hire on at WotC, and I helped evaluate those tests.
  • When @loganbonner started, I was happy a new person (like me!) entered the industry. Weird we both got laid off the same day.
  • Aside: @gregbilsland is another new game-industry person.
  • Eric Holmes, the author of the the first D&D “blue box” basic set, passed away on 3/20 at age 80. http://bit.ly/cmD2K0
  • 3e Monster CRs (as much art as science) are still in 4e. The design team just decided to use “level” as the 4e word.
  • Level was the default for anything related to level for powers, items, and monsters. Smart choice IMO, and one I wasn’t part of.
  • The powers of 4e were in the earliest playtest I was in (early 2006?), but I wasn’t there at the beginning.
  • Powers evolved from Heinsoo crazy (6d12? Really?) to the versions you see today. The early mandate was to push limits on design.
  • FYI, Heinsoo crazy refers to wild-man designer Rob Heinsoo, and his sort of design crazy ain’t a bad thing in early stages.
  • The Ki power source was going to be home for classes such as the ninja, samurai, and so on. Then @aquelajames and others realized we were about to isolate those classes.
  • The team decided that the monk, samurai, ninja, and so on, could occupy neat spaces in other power sources, such as the psi monk.
  • Or that it’s possible that those classes already exist. @aquelajames didn’t want another Oriental Adventures.
  • I doubt you’ll see a whole book just about Eastern fighting techniques. It’ll be integrated with a D&D spin.
  • Monsters evolved to be simple to run and easy to design for flavor. R&D intentionally ditched the PC-like 3e design framework.
  • It’s a mistake to rely on play feedback only from extremely sharp players. They outperform normal players, skewing perceptions.
  • The initial 4e Monster Manual draft had more fluff. It was cut, I guess, to fit more stats. But monster powers alone are often evocative.
  • I’ve had players attest to the evocativeness of monster powers. One even asked me to tone down the evil critters.
  • Each good player power was similarly designed to tell its story with mechanics and brief flavor. Is it enough fluff? IMO, yes.
  • Many D&D R&Ders boggled at brand policy, but D&D and MtG worlds are kept strictly apart. Lorwyn campaign for D&D? Made of win!
  • 3e D&D crit confirmation rolls had obscure mathematical reasons, but we R&Ders and players saw it as post-crit denial. No fun.
  • 4e was also built to better control PC and monster crit ranges.
  • A discussion was had in D&D R&D whether the revenant would be a bloodline, like the dhampyr by @brianrjames. I still think so.
  • The view that won out, based on desire to do revenant minis, was that the revenant should be a unique Medium race.
  • The D&D world is not our world. Some aesthetic choices were made based on that idea. Take the assassin. The invoker, too.

Mailbag 7–All By Myself, Part 4

Now we come to another piece on managing your solos. If you’re just joining us, you can read the first, second, and third installments if you like. It’s probably not necessary. I’ll reiterate a little before we start.

DMing a solo is at least as rewarding as running encounters with more monsters. It can be even more satisfying, since a solo can and should evoke strong reactions from players as it deals out destruction. But running a solo requires extra care, especially if you’re using the creature as the lone menace in the fight. Make sure your aware of what your solo can and can’t do, then prepare for it.

Work Environment

In any encounter, you need to provide your monsters a good workspace to spice up tactical play and the narrative. This is even more true for a solo. The most memorable encounters are a magical mixture of monster, terrain, roleplaying, and story.

It’s your job, as an encounter’s designer, to make sure the environment is working for the solo creature, but not necessarily against the characters. (I’ll elaborate on this latter point in the final installment.) A flying monster can use some open space. If the creature climbs and has good ranged attacks, think about including ledges and similar high terrain. Any monster that relies on stealth needs places to hide.

Terrain effects, such as those found in Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, can benefit the creature, shoring up its weaknesses. A monster’s strengths might also be emphasized, such as how a flying creature’s aerial capabilities are highlighted when it has space to take wing. A creature that can use forced movement might have hazardous terrain in its lair, especially if the monster itself is highly resistant to the given hazard. Terrain can also be used as a story element—it makes sense for a red dragon to live in a volcano, for instance.

Terrain can provide the monster special powers, one or more times. A Huge creature might knock down walls or cave in a passage. Intelligent critters can also plan ahead for advantages with this type of terrain. A dragon might have dammed an underground river to use against intruders on one level of its lair. What if the volcano-dwelling red dragon unplugged such a dam to allow water  into a chamber that has lava pools? Steam bath!

This last example also shows that creatures might be able to create terrain or other environmental effects. The ability to do so might be a power in the monster’s statistics or a terrain power you situate in the environment. Quinn Murphy’s Worldbreaker rules provide one a neat way to do this.

In any case, if the characters have little chance to gain a benefit from the terrain, be sure to consider it to be part of the encounter’s difficulty. Neutral terrain benefits those who occupy it, so terrain that helps only one side or the other isn’t neutral. If the terrain is an advantage only to the monster, it’s more or less a trap or hazard. Traps and hazards, as well as monster-favoring terrain and terrain powers, are fine supplements a solo’s ability to work well, as long as they’re part of the XP budget for the encounter and thereby fair to the players and characters.

A solo doesn’t care about being fair to its attackers, though. The best terrain features, in its mind, help it hurt or otherwise hinder its enemies, as well as disengage and reenter combat effectively. Terrain features like these also work to add movement and excitement to the battle. If the archlich can teleport to a ledge, forcing the characters to reengage on his terms, that can be cool. It starts to be uncool, however, if the archlich does that in a way that costs the characters whole turns to catch up to him. Smart monsters should be played as fun and smart, in that order, as I’ve said before.

Smart monsters, and even critters that are merely cunning beasts, have fallback plans, or positions, and escape routes. If the dragon becomes bloodied, it might withdraw to another area of its lair. An animalistic creature could simply flee until cornered in a new area. This requires a little more preparation, but it has the effect of changing up the battlefield, adding novelty to the ongoing combat. The Angry DM’s second article on D&D boss fights also talks about this.

Coworkers

Some DMs I’ve talked to take the solo label a little too literally. Although a solo is meant to challenge a party like five monsters might, the creature needn’t be alone. Whether it’s unaided is entirely up to you, your adventure’s story, and the XP budget you choose.

Good coworkers for a solo help the monster perform better or in ways that are more interesting. Allies might tie up attackers, allowing the solo freer movement during the early battle. They could impose effects and conditions on the characters that are beneficial to the solo. The combinations are limitless.

I like minions for this role, especially those who enter the fight in a paced way. A young dragon’s kobold minions might come in waves, especially to cover their beloved master’s strategic retreat. The solo creature might create minions intermittently, like Mike Shea’s dracolich.

Minions that impose effects on the characters, or aid the solo creature’s attacks, instead of attacking are even better. For instance, I created fire sinks in Seekers of the Ashen Crown. These creatures each have a 1-square aura that not only deals a small amount of fire damage but also negates fire resistance. The sink just moves to keep characters in its aura, and it never attacks. Such minions are easy to use and track, and they’re less time-consuming than minions that require attack rolls. Now, consider if all the fire sink’s aura did was negate fire resistance and grant vulnerable 5 fire in that red dragon’s volcano lair. Maybe the dragon’s breath even creates the sinks. Burn, baby, burn!

Pacing

A poor work environment and poor coworkers can make for a poor encounter, solo monster or no. But solos have staying power, so standing in one place beating away on such a monster can become tiresome. Terrain solves some of the problem. Movement creates some sense of pacing, as well. Proper planning and pacing can do more.

I’ve said that my theory on disengagement powers on a solo is that such powers help the lone creature gain a tactical advantage every once in a while. Disengagement powers also allow you to change the rhythm and/or location of a clash. Like any movement, these tactics increase the freshness in a fight. They force the characters to revamp their tactics.

You can purposefully use pacing in any encounter, even without disengagement powers. Monsters attack, retreat, regroup, attack again, surrender, or flee. You decide if and when the critters take these actions when you design the encounter. They look for tactical advantages and a way to put enemies on the defensive. You do this during play. Pacing for a solo is different only in that involves keeping a battle interesting with, ostensibly, only one enemy on the field.

Usually, a solo creature is so much more powerful than any one character that it might be bold while it’s not bloodied. Maybe disregards opportunity attacks to move and attack as it likes. When it becomes bloodied, it might become more cautious. As the DM, your roleplaying like this can keep the conflict interesting. As we’ve discussed before, a solo could also have a state change when it becomes bloodied or meets some other trigger, altering how its powers work. That’s another form of pacing.

The Work Environment section mentioned fallback positions. This is yet another tool in your pacing arsenal. The creature withdraws, giving itself, and the characters, time to regroup. Maybe it then attacks again, but from a different angle, or forces the characters to pursue it into unknown territory. Both options change the feel of the fight.

If the monster flees for a short time, be sure the characters lack the time for a short rest, unless you intend for them to take one. Allowing a short rest can make the finale a little more interesting, however, since the characters recharge their encounter powers. But what’s good for them is good for the monster. If you do let the monster heal, grant it no more than a quarter of its hit points, no matter how many healing surges it has. This break in a combat encounter can be especially useful if the characters are slightly outmatched.

Healing or no, give the poor solo creature a break. If it’s clear to the monster that it’s going to lose, it should retreat or surrender. Newbie DM had a fantastic idea about applying the rules for subduing a dragon from Draconomicon to use for other solos. (You could use those rules for attrition in any encounter, really.) Basically, the creature unleashes all it has, and it stops fighting when it’s bloodied or reaches some other appropriate measure you choose. Then the monster acquiesces to character demands based on how badly it was beaten. As a designer, I wholly endorse this intuitive application of the rules. Monster surrender is also a roleplaying opportunity that is not to be overlooked. It can tell you a lot about the characters.

Competition

Next time, we’ll take a look at solo encounters with the characters in mind. The focus, of course, is fun for those on the other side of your DM’s screen.

Mailbag 6 – All By Myself, Part 3

Dragon (c) 2010 Chris Sims
Click to Enlarge

In this installment of the exploration of solos, we have two statistics blocks based on what we’ve been talking about in the first and second installments.

Brand Power

First is a dragon. In or out of the dungeon, this monster has to leave an impression.

I envision many dragons as a little brutelike, along with another role in most cases. What I mean is that I like to see most dragons acting like the big, strong creatures they are. The solo role determines how they finesse the badass creature role.

The statistics here depict a copper dragon, as I might make it up to fit what we’ve been looking at. The dragon is built like a very strong elite, but draconic alacrity gives it two turns and two immediate actions each round. Draconic resilience is the way the dragon shakes off effects that are too effective against a single creature.

For an elite, the dragon has normal attack features, with two basic attacks for variety befitting a dragon. Its double attack maintains variety of choice for the DM, and its flyby attack does the same while playing up the skirmisher role. This dragon’s fly speed is a little lower than might be expected, because the two turns it receives make it a quick flier in combat, despite its speed.

You might notice this dragon pushes enemies around, knocks them prone, and slows them on occasion. That’s not only the emphasis on the brutlelike quality I was talking about, but it’s also another way this dragon skirmishes and disengages. If it’s marked, or otherwise wants to get away from a target, it uses its attacks to push and knock prone. It also punishes a flanker, but only twice per turn and only after the flanker hits the dragon. (It’s fun-killing and combat-lengthening when you deny a character a hit with a power such as tail slap.)

Frightful presence is a special case. I hate stunning powers, for and against monsters, because they diminish fun by denying someone the ability to play for a while. Typical frightful presence on 4e dragons is right out. Therefore, I made frightful presence a good minor-action disengagement power. The dragon has a decent chance to push creatures away so it can use the rest of its actions to resituate itself or even flee.

Dragon breath weapons are a racial shtick. They need to be felt. I believe dragon breath weapons should always deal half damage on a miss for this reason. Breath weapon’s slow effect is another stay-away aspect to an otherwise damaging power–the half damage on a miss is a must for me on dragon breath. It also harkens back to the earlier-edition versions of this dragon. Bloodied breath has one minor and subtle change from default 4e dragons: it says the dragon can use it. That means the DM can save the free recharge for later use if using the breathe weapon immediately is suboptimal or worse, as it can often be.

Berbalang (c) 2010 Chris Sims
Click to Enlarge

Photocopy Guy

Next we have a third-party-refurbished berbalang. This version jettisons all the complexity and confusion of the original. It’s relatively straightforward. It also acts like five monsters over the course of the battle.

Sure, it creates duplicates, which can be confusing even in this version. Here’s the simplified one: once per encounter, on its turn or when it’s hit with an attack before its first turn, the berbalang creates four copies of itself. Reactive projection, the triggered version of the psychic projection power, works even if the berbalang becomes stunned or dazed before the power goes off. (Technically, it’d also work if the berbalang died from the triggering attack, but given the context, that outcome is highly doubtful.) Although it lacks projection powers, each projection is otherwise considered to be a berbalang. That fact is key when reading the other powers. A berbalang projection is a berbalang for the purposes of the other powers.

To keep track of which berbalang is which, simply color code each marker. You can use file label dots on a miniature’s base or on a counter’s face. If you make your own creature tokens, you might give each one a different border.

Each berbalang resists 10 damage from any attack that has an area of effect. Although that might seem low, since the berbalang might take a lot of damage from such attacks, I’m inclined to leave such resist numbers low. That’s because seeing all your damage disappear to a resist trait is no fun–it’s hit robbery. (Another solution is that the berbalang takes damage from such powers only once, even when multiple berbalangs are hit, but I prefer some player satisfaction from the use of area powers.

I’d rather leave resist low and give the monster a payback power of its own. That’s when psychic backlash comes in. When a bunch of the berbalangs in the battle take an area hit, they retaliate with mind war. Psychic backlash also comes in handy against those pesky defenders who don’t want to let a monster move freely. On occasion, a player is going to decide to forgo an opportunity attack, area attack, or similar attack to avoid the chance of the damage from psychic backlash. That’s the point.

Move as mind‘s point is to be a simple disengagement power. Each berbalang–the original and two projections at the point this power can be used–can use this power to move without much regard for enemies. Or they can all flee to a more advantageous position or location. You need only keep track of which berbalang has used the power, but that should be simple since you’ve differentiated each one on the battle map.

Otherwise, the berbalang is a claw and bite machine. You have to watch for specific hit point counts, but you can pretty much ignore its projection powers once one or the other has been used. You needn’t worry about move as mind until the berbalang is bloodied, and you can forget about it as soon as each berbalang on the field has used the power once. Other than that, it’s move for combat advantage, rip, and chew with a few leave-me-alone or think-twice moments provided by psychic backlash.

Improving the Culture

I’m not positive everything is perfect with the samples here. Feel free to playtest and critique, or just critique. This is the internet, after all.

My biggest ambition with these samples isn’t perfection, however. I hope to improve the fun you and your players have interacting with monsters such as these. I also want to give you, the DM, food for thought for creating or adjusting your own solos.

If I’ve succeeded at those ambitions, you’ll let me know. Won’t you?

The next article in the series appears here.

Mailbag 5 – All By Myself, Part 2

"Solo Scale" (c) copyright 2010 Chris SimsSubtitled: “All By Yourself, Part 1”

It ain’t easy DMing, and solo monsters heap some responsibility on your shoulders. You might think that one monster on the field is an easier management task. Sometimes you’re right. But good management starts well before and proceeds throughout an engagement.

You have to be adept at recognizing weaknesses in an encounter before play starts. Then you have to plan. After all that, your plan will–will–fall apart when the players come in using their characters like wrecking balls.

In this article, we’re going to start talking about setting your solos up for success. You can see the first article here. Another article is on this one’s heels.

Assessment

The first article discussed what a solo needs to do its job. An awful lot of solos fall short, and it can be hard to tell this at first glance. To briefly repeat, a solo needs to attack, move, disengage, and shake off effects more like the five monsters it’s meant to replace in an encounter. (But follow along for more on this point.)

As reader PinkRose reminded me (thanks PinkRose!), some solos are different. Take the berbalang (Monster Manual, page 34). This monster is solo by virtue of splitting into multiple duplicates. The duplicates provide much of what a solo needs: multiple attacks, multiple turns, mobility, different targets for effects, and so on.

The berbalang fails to function ideally for a few reasons. It’s too complicated for easy assessment, for one. As written, it’s also too hard to run for what it’s trying to evoke. It can heal itself and hurt itself, and it’s overly vulnerable to area effects. The descriptive text is unclear on whether the PCs know which creature is the original. A berbalang is just too darn easy to kill if the players can tell which one is the real deal and focus fire on it. Not good.

I’d make several changes. Instead of charging the berbalang minor actions to create duplicates, I’d allow it to create five as an encounter power that triggers when the berbalang rolls initiative. Then I’d track a single pool of hit points for the creature and the duplicates. That’s simpler. Every time the new berbalang loses one-quarter of its hit points, it loses one duplicate–its effectiveness declines as its life force diminishes. Lost duplicates could pop, kind of like the sacrifice power. The duplicates should be able to flank with the creature and one another. Area effect damage should be applied to the creature only once. In this design, it’s a flavor distinction as to which berbalang is the real one–the duplicates deal psychic damage, but the ability to distribute damage is implied rather than actually tracked. I’d play up this damage distribution in the narrative of the encounter rather than the mechanics of the monster.

A berbalang could be changed in other ways, but this way seems simplest. And that’s the point. You want effectiveness while you retain simplicity. Keep the parts that work, and make sure anything you change lives up to what we already said a solo needs in the first article.

The diminishing damage capability of my impromptu berbalang redesign brings up an important point about solos that’s easy to overlook. Over the course of a normal battle with multiple monsters, especially with sharp players who focus fire, the damage the monsters can dish out decreases over the course of the battle. A solo that attacks like five fully effective monsters for the whole fight is going to devastate the characters.

This is why some solos look like they deal too little damage from round to round when their damage is actually fine. It’s also why action denial on solos isn’t always as bad as it seems. Only detailed math can tell you if a solo is doing its work in this way, and that isn’t always easy to evaluate. When in doubt, lean toward lower damage rather than risk raining inadvertent ruin on the party.

Work Honest, Work Smart, Work Fun

Whatever you do, make sure you play a given solo not only as an adjudicator and roleplayer, but also as an entertainer. All these parts are in your game-management job description. Sure, you want to follow the rules, and you want the monster to use its abilities in the best way possible within the limits of its cunning. If pregame assessment or in-game circumstances show that playing honest and smart isn’t fun, the two former have to give way to the latter.

The young black dragon (Monster Manual, page 75), for example, can be a fun killer if you play it like it’s written. As Jon Hixson pointed out in his question, a smart black dragon turns out the lights, and then tears its blind victims apart while sustaining its cloud of darkness. It rarely takes any injury, because the poor sightless saps fighting it cannot land hit one. None of this sounds like fun to me, from either side of the screen. If you’re a DM and this scenario sounds fun, you just might be too cruel for your own good. (Just saying.)

A fix is relatively simple without changing much else about the creature. The dragon uses a standard action to bring down the blindness. Fine. Then, like other lurkers, it should move with impunity and receive two turns worth of potential damage on its next turn. Cloud of darkness goes away as the dragon makes those devastating lurker attacks, leaving it exposed to retaliation for a round. Then it repeats the tactic as soon as the flow of battle calls for it. The darkness also works great for covering disengagement or even an escape to a new battle zone.

The black dragon’s lurker roll brings up another unusual element of solo design. A solo’s role is more of a theme than a strict job description. Normal monsters need to fill roles as part of a team. Not so with a solo. An artillery solo might have more ranged attacks, and a skirmisher might be more mobile, but a solo often has to do without help. It can’t afford to hold fast to a single ideal that could leave it lacking on its own.

Even so, the black dragon, as presented, is not so much lurking as it is just holing up. The dragon also has other minor problems as a solo. Those claws and the tail look a little light on damage to me, and I want it to bite sometime other than opportunity attacks. Having been on the receiving end of that breath weapon with my druid character, though, I’m tempted to say the acid breath weapon’s damage is fine.

Thinking Ahead

That’s about all for this time. Next time, I’ll look into the work environment for your solo. If not then, later we’ll also discuss pacing and coworkers for solos. Maybe I’ll even get around to some stat blocks for my modified monstrosities.

D&D Trivia Archive 1

On Twitter, I give out little tidbits about D&D history as I know it or experienced it. You can get yours quickly by following me on twitter or emailing me with a question. I’ll also be archiving each month’s tweets here on Critical-Hits!

Here’s the April 2010 D&D trivia archive.

  • Tiamat is one of the major gods in the core D&D pantheon; she’s a “god” rather than “greater god.”
  • As Splug’s creator (in a 4e playtest, actually) @mikemearls must join #TeamSplug!
  • Rich Baker did a lot of work on the warlord, with power names such as “Feather Me Yon Oaf”–any guesses what it did?
  • One piece of #dnd trivia some folks seem to doubt is that all the peeps in (and once in) D&D R&D play and love D&D in multiple editions.
  • I created the Worm of Ages (E1 Death’s Reach)–a solo + encounter environment–but it’s based on the original 4e purple worm.
  • Vedic spirituality (and its heir Buddhism) and cross-cultural animism/ancestor reverence mix in “Ecology of the Deva” article.
  • Trivia with @gamefiend’s diversity theme: Feudal Japan mixed with a li’l Rome and Vedic warrior ways helped form my take on dragonborn.
  • Rich Baker created much of the Nentir Vale and Fallcrest in the 4e DMG. His hand-drawn map of Fallcrest was amazing!
  • “Lord of Battle” was Combat Challenge’s working name. My group pictured a well-armed warforged on a Riverdance-like t-shirt.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian novels influenced Dark Sun back in the day, as did Richard Corben’s Neverwhere (Den).

Mailbag 4 – All By Myself, Part 1

"Solo Scale" (c) copyright 2010 Chris SimsMike Shea asked me how I’d handle solos at upper levels so that they shine against powerful characters and skilled players. In a similar vein, John Hixson asked about the infamous black dragon, a solo notorious for its cloud of darkness power and associated grind. A lot of people, in general, think solos are a great idea but that they often fail to live up to their intended use.

I have similar feelings.

Mike believes the problems with solos are exacerbated at higher levels. I agree. Where my thinking might diverge from Mike’s is my observation that solos can perform poorly all the way to the lowest levels.

Over multiple Mailbag articles, we’re going to talk about solos, as well as what they can and should do for you. We’re also going to talk about what you can and should do for them in your encounter design. Wrapping up, I hope to touch on how to properly inform and engage the players when you make your solos truly solo.

This article assumes you’re already using the updated rules for solos found in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, page 133.

Job Description

When you grab a solo, you’re often saying, “Wanted: Badass Monster to Challenge Whole Party.” Dungeon Master’s Guide says a solo is supposed to challenge the characters like five monsters. The design of numerous solos actually fails to live up to this expectation, though, likely because the original intent was to also to make solos simple to run. The concepts of simplicity and badass monster can fail to mesh.

As I see it, our task here is to figure out how make solos perform better, in general, preferably retaining as much simplicity as possible. To do that, we need to make sure our solos not only attack and deal damage like five monsters, but also move and shake off effects more effectively than normal monsters. These latter two points are, in my mind, how solos fail most at any level.

Why Are You Hiring?

How a solo should perform depends on how you’re planning on using it. A lot of DMs use solos mostly as the central figure in what some call “boss monster” fights. The final confrontation with the rampaging dragon or the demon lord fits here. But solos can also be used to up the challenge in a given encounter or to simulate the power of a particular creature compared to that of the characters. Typical solos can perform well in such circumstances, because they’re usually part of a larger array of encounter elements. Solos most often need help when they actually appear alone.

Task Assignment

Solos present an encounter-building challenge because their statistics can lead to design that violates a simple rule: novelty breeds interest. In this case, interest is equal to fun at the game table. (Even for non-solo encounters, always remember this rule.)

A fight with a single monster that has a limited array of powers can lack novelty because not enough changes in round-to-round give and take. Further, as a battle moves forward and resources dwindle, the rounds of combat start to look and feel the same. This is what we need to avoid.

We need to train our solos to do their job better.

Retraining

The basic solo needs rethinking with an eye toward keeping complexity in check. When designing your own solos or checking an existing solo for suitability, you might consider a few elements of the monster.

At the most basic level, make sure the solo is dealing enough damage. It should be dealing as much damage each round as do five monsters of equivalent level. In fact, a true solo can stand to deal a little more damage than that. A small damage increase accounts, over time, for some action losses the solo suffers and conditions the characters inevitably impose on the creature.

Solos also need a better action budget than any normal or elite monster. What if the typical solo were initially designed like an elite monster, including all normal elite statistics except that a solo has fourfold normal hit points? Such a solo’s second rules exception to being elite would be that the monster receives two turns each round–two places in the initiative count with a full array of actions in each turn. Thirdly, the solo should recharge its immediate action at the start of each of its turns, granting it two immediate actions each round. (This might be where a little extra damage lives on your solo, since the characters can trigger an immediate action twice a round.)

Make the most of this action economy. Even a normal 4e solo should have a triggered action that lets it take advantage of conditions in combat that would normally hinder a lone creature. It should also have other useful triggered powers and a minor action power or two.

A solo such as this also rolls recharges and saving throws differently. For simplicity’s sake, the creature rolls recharges only on its first turn each round. It rolls saving throws at the end of each turn with a +2 bonus. Being able to roll twice in a round more than makes up for the other +3 in a normal solo’s +5.

These few changes make the solo more mobile, action-oriented, and resilient.

Durations can be a little tricky when the solo has two turns. If a solo’s power has a duration of “until the end of the creature’s next turn,” the duration is the end of the next turn during which the condition was imposed. In other words, if on its first turn during a round the solo slows a target until end of the solo’s next turn, that target is slowed until the end of the solo’s next first turn. Enemy-imposed effects that use the solo’s turns to determine duration (unusual) should, on the other hand, remain normal. This latter situation favors the solo, which is intentional.

That’s because all conditions imposed by character powers usually favor the characters. They’re too effective against a solo. Some easy fixes exist for this problem, too. Each dazed, dominated, or stunned condition should affect only one of the solo’s turns, but the solo can be affected by such conditions multiple times like a heroslayer hydra (Monster Manual 2, page 151) can. So a solo has to be stunned or dominated twice to lose a whole round’s worth of actions. Further, any movement-hampering effect that has a duration that lasts until the enemy’s next turn should end on a successful save or normally, whichever comes first. Essentially, the solo can make saving throws against slowed, immobilized, and restrained conditions that should last until the end of an enemy’s next turn.

Performance State

Changing how the solo performs over time in an encounter is essential. Such modifications to performance are commonly called monster state changes. State changes can create a narrative flavor such as a desperate or enraged foe, or whatever else you might want to evoke. They also change the encounter, and at their best, change the combat’s shape enough to refresh the novelty.

State changes as the solo takes damage are common and good, particularly those keyed to the bloodied condition. As page 133 of Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 suggests, a bloodied solo might lose access to one power and gain another. It could trigger a recharge power immediately. The solo might change the terrain or encounter environment, permanently or until the characters can overcome the change.

You can and should create monster state changes for your solo. Triggered actions can be good locations for creating small state changes. Such changes last a short time and often exist to give the monster some room to work. Encounter and recharge powers are fine places for big state changes. The best large changes last for the rest of the encounter, until the characters change the state, or until another state begins for the solo Especially appropriate are state changes that are also effectively disengagement powers or . . .

Termination Clauses

Especially when alone in a fight, a solo needs ways to end one board state–the arrangement of the elements of the encounter–in favor of another that gives the solo a temporary advantage. Especially at higher levels, a solo must be able to disengage to seek favorable fighting conditions. Being able to do so not only keeps the monster from getting dog piled and locked down, it also keeps the flow of the encounter interesting. Interesting is what we’re after here.

Having two turns during which the creature can move helps, but it’s not always enough. A mere increase in defenses against triggered-action attacks, such as opportunity attacks and mark-triggered attacks, help a solo escape being cornered, especially a flying solo. The solo might alter the terrain and move away, summon or create minions that hinder its attackers, and so on. What’s essential is that the creature can, at least sometimes, get away from an adverse tactical arrangement. Care is needed here–player/character tactics must still matter, so the solo shouldn’t be too slippery or seem like it escapes every bad situation.

An example of a simple termination clause is the young red dragon’s tail strike power. The dragon punishes an enemy that moves into a flanking position, and also throws that enemy back. It might be better if the dragon reacted to being hit by a flanker (so it doesn’t cancel an attack) and/or the tail strike were stronger in its effect–maybe just adding knocked prone would work.

The bloodied breath power of dragons is an illustration of a state-change power that could become a disengaging power. It’d be better if it allowed the dragon to do a lot in its increasing desperation. What if a dragon had the following power instead?

Bloodied Rampage • Encounter
Trigger: The dragon is first bloodied.
Effect (Free Action): The dragon ends all conditions currently affecting it, and it gains a +4 bonus to defenses against opportunity attacks until the start of its next turn. It can move or fly its speed. Breath weapon then recharges, and the dragon uses it.

That power might be too good, but if it is, it’s only just so. If we left off “and the dragon uses it,” this power is definitely fine. It’s also fine for illustrating the point.

Advancement

Higher-level solos need more ways to deal with powerful characters and the high-end effects such characters can impose. Having more actions helps this, for sure. Beefy state changes and good disengagement powers are also vital for high-end solos.

More action points might suit higher-level solos, too. Vecna (Open Grave, page 212), for instance, gains an action point every time an enemy uses an action point. He’s a god, though. One extra action point per tier is good enough for a typical solo. Restricting the use of half those points, round down, until after the creature is bloodied is even better.

In the action-economy department, a few other options exist beyond action points. You can simply give an epic-level solo another full turn. Doing so can be complicated, because you still have to watch out for damage balance and immediate actions, as well as how durations function. Easier to implement is giving an extra attack or two on the creature’s regular turns, such as how the heroslayer hydra operates, along with minor action powers that allow small attacks or limited movement/disengagement.

You might also increase the likelihood of a higher-level solo escaping hampering conditions. At the simplest level, its saving throw bonus could be higher. Its disengagement powers should also be more reliable in function and meaningful to the state of the encounter. Whenever such a solo disengages, the characters should feel it.

Players also feel it when a monster does something surprising or recognizable as belonging to epic tier. Acknowledging this, another way I’d consider altering the state of an epic solo is allowing the creature to do what epic PCs can often do: come back from the dead. You have to play this carefully and balance hit points to account for the state change.

Even though it’s elite, the firbolg bloodbear (Monster Manual 2, page 109) shows what I mean. In its initial state, the bloodbear has two-thirds of the normal hit points for an elite brute of its level. When it first becomes bloodied, it heals completely. You could place a similar state on the 0-hit-point end of the spectrum. The solo has two-thirds normal hit points, but being reduced to 0 hit points the first time in the encounter is merely the trigger of another state change.

For an epic-level solo, especially named threats such as Orcus, I recommend that this state change also involve disengagement and/or environmental change, as well as something that removes all effects on the solo when it “died.” The solo then returns to combat at the start of its next turn, likely in a new position. It’s still bloodied, but it’s back in the fight and probably has a temporary advantage.

Management Training

Later, I’ll expand on this topic and see if I can show an example or two. Plenty of good stuff exists out there for you to gain inspiration from in the meantime. Here are some of my favorites (which I’m trying not to duplicate in this series).

Background Check

"Background Check" (c) 2010 Chris SimsI’ve talked about investing some emotion in your character and, thereby, the game. As a follow-up, I suggested you seize the game by the horns. The “Play Boldly” article seemed more concrete, more useful, than the first. I thought about it, and I have more to say about giving your character traits and a history that make up a backstory.

Before I start–like I mentioned in “Become Emotional”–you don’t need to invest a huge effort into this task. (See the Short But Stout section.) This is especially true if you’re playing a casual game and/or one that focuses on defeating the bad guys and taking their stuff. Sometimes you’re just at the table for the slaying and the looting, and feeling badass. That’s fine. But if you want a background, or your DM wants you to craft one, just think about a few aspects of your character that pique your interest.

Ask Yourself

I have a lot of warmth in my heart for backgrounds in the D&D game. They’re helpful for character creation, and they offer you a little boon just for bothering to think about where your character comes from. The best ones not only place your character in a game-world context, but they also offer you some questions about your character’s life choices.

You can turn any game element–ability score, race, class, build, power, skill, feat, weapon, item–you choose into an element of character background. You just have to make up the questions. What does this feat say about my character’s training or upbringing? How did my warlock end up in an infernal pact? What does low Charisma say about my character? Why is the desert background my primary choice, and why did I choose +2 to Endurance over +2 to Nature?

Reverse Psychology

When you’re thinking about your character in this way, you’re bound to come up with traits that interest you but have no mechanical connection to your character. You can change that, too, with a little reversal. Turn your personality or story element into an actual D&D background.

Suppose you’ve decided that your character is refined and courteous. You can settle on what made him or her that way by making up a few questions and answers. Then create a background based on this polite manner. If you created it for repeat use, it might look like this:

Well-Mannered
Others see your sophistication, graciousness, and empathy your defining personality traits. What made you this way? Did you take after someone who raised or trained you? Were you schooled in courtesy? Did someone require (at least the appearance of) such manners from you? Do your manners mask any passions or darker parts of your nature?

Associated Skills: Diplomacy, Insight

Crook or Hook

When you start asking yourself questions about this imaginary person you’re creating, consider crafting the answers so you create a few roleplaying hooks and a few character hooks. A roleplaying hook informs you how your character interacts with the world. On the other hand, a character hook tells the DM how the world might interact with your character. Both are valuable, but a few character hooks can go a long way toward helping the DM personalize the game.

Imagine our example well-mannered character grew up in an orphanage and took after the kindly monks who ran the place. This one point offers several possible details about the character. He or she is not only polite (roleplaying hook), but is also connected to an orphanage and its orphans (character hooks), as well as, perhaps, a religion noted for kind monks (roleplaying and character hook). A soft spot for orphans and priests (character and roleplaying hooks) might be part of the character’s personality, too. These details lead naturally to defining a few friends, mentors, or even enemies (character hooks) for the character.

Don’t be afraid to create a few NPCs who are relevant to your character’s life. Such people add depth to the game world and act as character hooks. In so doing, they give you and the DM more toys to add to the game. More toys are more fun.

Making this stuff up should be fun, too. You can probably easily think of more outgrowths of the example. That’s why just a few details like this can make for a rich character background.

A Little Help . . .

You can craft details about your character even without knowing a lot about the game world or your companions. It’s easier if you have help, though. The DM can lend a hand in giving your choices a framework specific to the campaign. Fellow players might assist by playing off your ideas giving you similar fodder from their backgrounds.

This is why it can be good for the group members to create characters in collaboration with each other. You can make sure to fill in background details at the same time you’re filling roles. The personal game of creating your character then becomes a shared experience such as a normal DM session.

Short But Stout

Can I give you a sample from my Dark Sun D&D game? If you prefer not to hear about someone else’s character, skip this part.

My friend Robert, a fine player and DM, as well as head honcho of penandpapergames.com, created a dwarf shaman named Malamac for the campaign. He made some basic choices.

• Malamac’s family was part of a dwarven nomad tribe that eventually settled in the dwarven village of Kled.

• His family has profound ties to the primal power source and ancestor veneration. Malamac learned of the spirits and ancestors primarily from his mother.

• Kled is the site of the excavation of an ancient dwarven city. (This actually part of Kled’s story in the world.) Malamac’s family was deeply involved in this heritage project.

• The templars overseeing Kled destroyed Malamac’s family for blasphemy and heresy. Artifacts discovered in the ancient city suggested the sorcerer kings of Athas are not the immortal god-monarchs they claimed to be. They also indicate the world was not always as it now is. Malamac’s mother spread these “lies.”

• Robert chose the Desert background, and he gave Malamac +2 to Endurance from it.

Expanding on all this, Robert then decided that Malamac, at least for most of his life, possessed not even an inkling of primal power. He grew up ashamed of this lack, thinking he would never amount to much. Malamac, therefore, looked for any excuse to get away from Kled and the source of his shame–his own family. He took regular trading missions to a nearby merchant outpost (Endurance). There, he found love (a woman named Ilyna) and a measure of success. He was on the road when his family fell to the templars. Instead of perishing with his kin, he was captured later, told of his family’s fate, and sold as an arena slave in Tyr. His enemies expected him to die on the arena sands, but a losing battle instead quickened his tie to the ancestors and the spirits of the earth. Then King Kalak of Tyr fell, and all slaves were freed . . .

Malamac’s story has a little more to it involving other characters in my Dark Sun group. However, most of the pertinent details are above. It’s simple yet loaded. With it, Robert told me a lot, such as that he’s interested in the legacy of the ancient dwarves and that Malamac has some great character hooks to explore or exploit.

I’ve used those hooks extensively. Malamac, alongside his comrades, recently put down one of the templars involved in his family’s demise. This was a happy side effect of freeing Kled from that same templar’s black magic. The scenario of opposing that evil templar could have been played without any emotional involvement on the part of the characters. Robert’s short background for Malamac just made it more poignant.

Your background can do the same for you and your gaming group. Here’s hoping this article is clearer on that point. If you found it useful, let me know.

Mailbag 3 – The Pitch

Few people know this, but I came up honest in the roleplaying world. Trained as a graphic artist, admittedly with a minor focus on writing, I never expected to be writing and editing for the Dungeons & Dragons game. I got hooked back into the game when 3e, a marvelous update, appeared. I started talking on forums, writing my own stuff, reviewing products, and entering contests.

Long story short, my reviews got me some editing work for third-party companies. That landed me some writing work. Eventually I landed the big break–Wizards had an open call for freelance editors. I had honed my skills, so I got in on that call. After determined applying to various jobs, I ended up working at Wizards.

I did my share of pitching to Dragon and Dungeon magazines, to Jesse Decker and Chris Youngs (although his name was Thomasson in those days). I remember how nervous I was. You wonder if you did it right or if some blunder will get you blacklisted. The pitch can be nerve racking, but it shouldn’t be. If you follow the guidelines and contributors’ etiquette, you might not receive a contract on the first pitch, but you are headed in a good direction.

One thing that almost got Chris Youngs to forget about me was confusion about adventure work I was doing. I had entered a contest with some adventure ideas, and won. After presenting the ideas to Dungeon, and getting the thumbs up, I decided that I wanted to do full-length treatments. I declined the Dungeon offer and pursued the projects with Monkeygod Enterprises. Chris suspected I had submitted my ideas to Monkeygod simultaneously with my submission to Dungeon, which is a breach of author’s warranty. Turns out that this wasn’t true, and Chris cut me some slack. But few breaches of contributors’ etiquette will land you in the “this writer can’t work for us again, ever” category. I’ve seen it happen.

Enough about me, though.

A lot of people want to see a sample pitch, and like you, I’ve had to do plenty. The online writer’s guidelines for D&D Insider spell out how to do one. I can understand the desire to see one, though. Here are a few detailed examples.

Dungeon–Ecology of the Rakshasa

This feature-length article will contain:

History
• Appearance of rakshasas in the world
• Involvement of rakshasas in destructive historic evens, such as the fall of Nerath
• Recent rakshasa schemes

Physiology
• Bestial appearance as a primal mark (related to deva ecology)
• Illusion as a spiritual manifestation
• The cycle of reincarnation

Psychology
• A long view
• Goodness is a path to oblivion
• Self image as messengers of suffering
• Evil is necessary
• Gods are worthless, coupled with a god complex

Culture
• The natural world and its spirits should be dominated through magic.
• Wealth, luxury, and decadence as status
• Scheming as art

Enemies and Allies
• The insidious patron
• The thorough destroyer
• The returned avenger
• The careful manipulator
• Devas and good angels
• Devils and demons

Encounters
• Three new rakshasas

Word Count: 3,500 words

Dungeon–Temple of the Yellow Skulls

After the events of the “Storm Tower” (Dungeon 166), the characters discover the location of a haunted temple in the Ogrefist Hills. The temple, once the home of demon-worshiping gnolls, now shelters the remaining Yellow Skull bandits and their fearsome leader, the half-orc death mage Kaglosi. She plans on expanding her powers by using the demons trapped in the temple’s gold-plated skulls. This delve-style adventure will contain:

Encounter 1: Camp Among the Ruins
Bloodthirsty bandits block the way with violence. Characters might discover none of the bandits is willing to enter the temple.

Encounter 2: To Eat Only Dust
Descending into the temple, the characters run afoul of the first line of defense. What seems like a simple battle with undead guardians turns into something more. The characters and monsters have to deal with a trap that cascades dust into the room, forcing everyone away from the exit doorway.

Encounter 3: Seat of Power
Characters confront Kaglosi, along with her demons and undead. The mage is in an altered state of mind, allowing for roleplaying to alter the course of the encounter. In battle, Kaglosi calls forth unnatural creatures to aid her. The characters might find their own perceptions altered. If the characters slay Kaglosi, they gain control of three more golden skulls.

Word Count: 5,000 words

Dragon–Channel Divinity: The Traveler

Eberron’s deity of change offers characters numerous options. This short feature will contain:

• A background for those truly devoted to the Traveler.
• A few feats for the Traveler’s worshipers.
• A paragon path allowing a Traveler disciple to become as changeable as his or her deity.
• Hints for using these character elements with changeable deities from other settings.

Word Count: 1,500 words

Now my hope is that you come up with some pitches of your own. My examples aren’t the only way you might go about doing so. But when you do pitch, I hope my samples help. I look forward to seeing your articles in publication.

PS: See my comments below for a little more. I should have said some of that here, but I didn’t.

Play Boldly

Following up on my last post, I intend to disparage no one, including my players past and present, but a malaise sets in on me occasionally when I’m playing a D&D game. Players seem lethargic. They don’t respond to the information given to them. Their characters act far different than the intrepid adventurers those characters should and must be.

Players should be as bold in game action as their characters are in the game world. Why? Because it pays off in fun and energy at the table.

I don’t mean that you should be the type of player who opens a closed door in the middle of combat or pushes every shiny, red button. Don’t go your own way at everyone else’s expense, despite what a certain famous D&D-playing author has said to the contrary. That’s jackassery rather than boldness. (Rule X: Don’t be a jackass!)

Instead, decide how the happenings in your game present opportunities for your character. Can you take cooperative actions that also work toward your character’s goals or display your character’s personality? If not, might you help further define the narrative or push the game onward? This can be as simple as making a deal with another character in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way. At other times, it’s a no-brainer how your character acts. Although some events in a game might fail to fit your character’s aims, think of how the smaller picture of the current situation might fit into the larger frame.

Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to take actions that make for a great game. Several bits of boldness follow.

Have Fun

Playing a D&D game is all about having fun. If you’re not having fun, say so constructively. Try to help figure out what’s going wrong. Maybe the subject of the game makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps play has bogged down. It could be you just crave some action. If you do say something (again, constructively), the game can be altered to accommodate your desires. A good DM wants you to have fun.

Ask Questions

Whenever you want more information, ask. A detail might be important to you or your character, and that’s fine. The game is about exploration and investigation, as well as fighting and character interaction. If you fail to ask questions, you might not receive some information you want or, worse, need. It’s not the DM’s job to give you every bit of information—sometimes you have to work for the goods. Further, detail should be built based on player interest rather than dumped by the DM in a way that slows the action. The DM is justified in assuming no one’s interested in details if no one asks any questions. By asking, you’re also telling the DM what you’re interested in.

Use Powers, Rituals, and Skills

Be familiar with your character’s abilities, and then use them whenever it seems appropriate. Suitability of use can be defined tactically, like the right spell for the right moment, or by roleplaying, such as how your character reacts to a situation. Most adventures are constructed assuming that a party has particular skills and abilities. If you have those abilities but don’t use them, the game might just go nowhere fast. Think about problems in terms of how your character’s abilities can solve them. It’s not the DM’s job to remind you of a ritual you have or to make sure you use your other abilities wisely. Know then do, bold one.

Have a Hunch

It’s the DM’s job to provide a situation, but few complex situations have clear-cut answers. Maybe you have an idea–it’s out there but it seems like a possibility.  You might just be right, even if evidence suggests otherwise. Sharing your idea is always good for the game. If you have an opinion, then, voice it.

And don’t keep ideas to yourself just because your character might not know. Although your game might vary from mine, I see player discussion as the collective cleverness of the party. It’s fine to roleplay, after out-of-character discussion, that the wizard came up with the idea. It’s also possible that your barbarian just had an amazing flash of insight. (That could even become a permanent and regularly appearing character trait. How does she do it?)

The caveat here is that you avoid using knowledge the party has no way to know, such as verbatim attributes from Monster Manual. In my games, especially, relying on such player knowledge is a sure way to end up in trouble. Instead, use your player knowledge as a reason to use character skills and other abilities. It’s fine to ask for an Arcana check to learn about a monster, even though you, the player, think you already know some of the creature’s attributes. Perhaps it’s even fine to roleplay what your character assumes about a monster from details the DM has given. (“Careful with fire around this beast . . .”) Such roleplaying might even lead the DM to grant a bonus to your skill check.

Ham It Up

We all game to have fun creating a story about a group of awesome characters in fantastic situations. Part of the fun is the personalities of characters and how they interact with their world. As a DM, I use accents, changes in voice, scare tactics, and all sorts of theatrics to get across the situation or person I’m portraying. I do the same with my PCs when I’m on the other side of the table. You can too. Don’t be shy. Only a jackass would ridicule you for increasing the fun. (Rule X.1: Don’t game with jackasses.)

When in a game situation, consider how your character might react. Even if you try to focus on the cooperative alternatives, this can result in actions that seem inappropriate to the situation. Don’t worry about what other players think, unless their characters have a chance to react. (Try not to coach others on their own actions, as well.) Sometimes, however, your portrayal will rub another character the wrong way. This can lead to appropriate drama as long as everyone’s comfortable with that course of play.

A druid I play is very bold with her sense of righteousness and proper authority, and she also refuses to take any crap. She has to back down at times to please or appease her comrades. Her boldness has become part of the way the whole group plays. Something happens, and everyone wonders how she’s going to respond. It adds fun.

In all cases, though, it’s important to distinguish between what your character says in a scene and what you, as a player, are saying at the game table. It’s remarkably easy to become confused. (This is why I, as DM, try to use accents and voice changes when speaking as a non-player character.) One misunderstanding in this vein can send a whole scene awry.

Repeat: Be Bold

It happens that all it takes to get things going in a game is bold action on the part of one or more players through their characters. Player characters are supposed to be heroes, after all. Although the DM does provide the scenario, background characters, and plots, the game requires player (and thereby character) boldness to keep things moving. Like in life, timidity or inaction can be the worst choice. Lack of boldness can leave you with little but regret to nurse your wounds. Regret is a terrible bandage and a bitter medicine.

In a recent game, one player decided her male rogue character was too wounded to go toe-to-toe with the villain. He timidly hid, taking pot shots with shuriken, sans combat advantage. But he could have taken his mace, the clever strike power, and a little boldness to hit that guy dead in his face, with combat advantage, ending the battle dramatically and covering his wounded self in the glory. Instead, he just made me (the DM) sad and seemed a lot more like a punk than the tough guy he really is. Circumstances dictate that this might be the character’s final impression on the game. Double sad.

Don’t play to make others sad. To adhere to this point, you have a simple creed: when in doubt, just do something. Whenever possible, make that something audacious, cooperative, and entertaining. You won’t regret it.