December 21, 2009

No Post This Weekend Either

December is going to be slow, OK?

December 14, 2009

The Shark is Drawing Nearer, I Must Not Jump

Nothing this Monday. Gearing up to finish the White Plume Mountain conversion, and after that I may have some things to say about 4E Village of Hommlet.

December 07, 2009

My Thoughts on Running Skill Challenges

So I recently ran a skill challenge in my campaign. Cool story bro, but what did I learn? Well...

1) Post-errata DC:s are just crazy low. Of course I should have checked over the PC:s skills. Anyway, the usable skills need to be either limited (so everyone can't use their primary) or the DC:s might need a bump. I was using normal DC:s almost across the board, I could have thrown in more easy and hard ones. Which brings us to point 2...

2) Encouraging people to roll. One player eventually decided to pass. No skin off my back, but it's a pity that the skill challenge system as written punishes people for at least trying to roll with a sub-optimal skill. I'm thinking of throwing in a time-limit (long enough that the PC:s easily beat it if they all roll) and maybe abolish failures, like I've rambled about earlier.

3) The time limit would also limit the availability of trying secondary skills. I had a few of them in the skill challenge, which granted bonuses to some of the primary skills. (they didn't grant successes or failures.) Theoretically, the players could just have farmed them for all the bonuses before tackling the primaries. They didn't, because they're decent, but in theory it's something to watch for.

Oh, about those skill DC:s: Normal DC:s are the baseline, of course. Those skills are just kind of there. Where it gets interesting is the other two kinds. There is a school of thought that says finding easy DC:s should be a reward for "reading" the situation - Intimidate is usually hard, but it could be easy if you are in a position of power. I can dig that, but I prefer the following alternative:

Hard DC:s give you something if you succeed. Maybe it opens up an easy skill, or grants a +2 to some other skill (with a normal DC).

Easy DC:s need to be earned, either by reading the situation or by succeeding on a hard DC. Or maybe failing the easy DC has harsher consequences than usual - -2 to a few skills or something.

I don't really want to go with double failures for easy DC:s. The party is three failures from utter failure anyway, it seems harsh to make that two just because they tried a certain skill.

Stream of consciousness over, have a nice day.

November 30, 2009

Luke Skywalker Must Die

Playing in a licensed setting that you like can be fun. However, there is the problem of metaplot. If you are running a game in the Star Wars universe, there are a band of rebels running about, blowing up the Death Star, redeeming one of the two Sith and killing the other one, that sort of stuff. There's the expanded universe, but meh. It's even worse if you want to play around in Middle-Earth - the fate of the world is hanging on the shoulders of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee.

So whack those guys. If I were to run a Middle-Earth Game, Frodo would have failed (or never been born) and the PC:s have (or be able to gain) access to the One Ring if destroying it is a part of the campaign. In Morrowind, the Nerevarine isn't a separate character - it's one of the PC:s. The Zelda game I've been pondering would start with King Link's funeral, as he is laid to rest next to his beloved Queen Zelda, dead two years ago. Kirk has retired. You get the idea.

The alternative is to have the players play the actual characters from the franchise, or something very close. It can be done well. There is a Castlevania game on RPGnet where the characters are Simone Belmont and other descendants of the official families from the Castlevaniaverse. I'm not familiar enough with it to comment, but I suppose it's more of a sequel to the actual games.

November 24, 2009

Screw Initiative

So I've been running a D&D game for a while now, and I've been trying out a houserule inspired by Ars Ludi. Namely, instead of rolling initiative for all distinct monster types in combat, the DM makes one roll for his entire side. After that, the players can go in whatever order they like between the DM:s turns. (Players still roll individually.)

So what happens is this:
  • Initiative is rolled. Players roll individually, the DM makes one roll.
  • The surprise round, if one occurs, is handled.
  • Any PC:s that beat the DM on initiative can act. In whatever order they like.
  • The monsters act in one huge block.
  • It's the PC:s' turn again. With the looping initiative of 3.x and 4E, Players and DM now take turns acting.

As Ars Ludi points out, this nudges players into cooperating because it's never really "not their turn". Also, for play-by-post, it speeds up the game when players don't have to wait for each other to act. It's been working fine in the four fights we've had so far.

One downside is the potential for double-dipping: One character can go first in a round and hit a monster with an effect that lasts until the end of his next turn. Then he goes last in the next turn, letting all the other PC:s benefit from it twice. In practice, this isn't a huge deal (and monsters can sort of do this too, so it evens out), but one could enforce a policy that characters only get to benefit from such effects once. (That sounds like it would be annoying to track, though.)

Mike Mearls had a similar idea, with the added step that there is a "group cleanup phase" at the end of the PC:s' turn instead of each player's turn, where durations are tracked.

Hey, try it out. Three geniuses can't be all wrong.

November 16, 2009

Degrees of Success in Skill Challenges

Skill challenges in D&D is a nice concept, but as written, they are rather binary. You succeed or you don't. Not surprising, D&D hasn't really supported degrees of success in non-combat situations ever.

As one of my players has showed me, it's easy to fix. Post-errata skill challenges always require three failures to... fail. (Non-errataed challenges required a varying number.) That sets up a handy system for degrees of success.

  • Success with no failures: Flawless Victory! As a DM, you'll probably want to throw in some bonus if the players manage this.
  • Success with one failure: The baseline. If you are using pre-written skill challenges, the default result of a success can probably be substituted here.
  • Success with two failures: You succeed, but there is a setback.
  • Three failures: Failure. What it says on the tin. Pre-written skill challenges can have the default failure result inserted here.

The astute reader who's familiar with skill challenges may have noted that one can add "degrees of failure" based on how many successes the party got before failing. Unfortunately, the required number of successes varies, so it's not quite as straightforward. For me, four degrees are enough, but I might suggest a fifth:

  • Three failures with no successes: Ballads will be written about this utter defeat. Don't expect this one to actually happen, the probability is pretty low unless the party is taking on overleveled skill challenges.

Let's do an example. The PC:s are hitting the library books before facing down some Elder Evil which is supposed to return to the world at the next solstice (in three days).
  • Three failures: The PC:s find nothing about the Elder Evil. They'll just have to play the fight by ear when it arrives. In addition, they have drawn the attention of the Elder Evil's cult. Some cultists will interfere in the upcoming battle.
  • Two failures: The PC:s find out where the Elder Evil will arrive (near a site sacred to Dagon, which is the temple ruin outside town), and basic information about it, but draws the attention of its cult.
  • One failure: The PC:s know where the Elder Evil will arrive and basic information about it.
  • Three failures: The PC:s know where the Elder Evil will arrive, and also finds some notes by a priest who fought it eons ago. (OOC, the players get to know its vulnerabilities and resistances.)

November 09, 2009

Legend of Zelda in D&D 4E

Another of my crazy ideas for future D&D campaigns is ripping off the Zelda: A Link to the Past. It's one of my favorite games from the SNES era, and it might translate well enough to D&D. Link needs to go away and be replaced by the party, but that's easy enough. The question is whether to make them a party with the Hero of Courage (Link in the canon) among them, add in the Hero of Wisdom (canonically Zelda) or just say that the Triforce of Courage actually picked five guys when Link was AWOL.

Either way, the party is somehow pulled into a quest to gather a bunch of plot coupons in order to beat Ganon and save Hyrule. Or something, it's not like I've planned the whole thing already.

Some elements have to be translated from the SNES game, of course:

So far so good, but the most important part is... 16-bit battlemats! Oh yes.
  • Jaywalt has a great guide to editing such maps.
  • The Video Game Atlas is a great place to get the maps themselves. You could probably do worse than scrolling down to Chrono Trigger and grabbing those maps while you're at it. Similar style.
  • The Spriters Resource has all the monster sprites for you.
  • Zeldapedia should cover most other stuff, particularly the lore. Helps me, since I haven't played any of the games after Link's Awakening, and only Link to the Past extensively.
  • There's also Wikia Gaming if the former wiki doesn't cover something.

There you go. Partly a note to self, I hope it helps someone.

November 02, 2009

Ritual Availability In Towns

The availability of rituals just came up in my PbP game. What rituals are available for purchase in a given town? My answer is: All of them, up to a level limit.

My players are in Hommlet. It is a small village, but a natural rest point for caravans, and has a resident wizard (former adventurer), druid and priest. I decided that the players can get any ritual up to level 5 there. Higher may be available, but they have to go to bigger cities like Verbobonc to get them reliably.

So, something like:
Village: Up to level 5. Examples: Hommlet (Village of Hommlet), Winterhaven (Keep on the Shadowfell), most towns in "starter" modules for whatever version.
Town: Up to level 10. Example: Fallcrest (4E DMG).
City: Up to level 20. Example: Amn (Baldur's Gate II). I'd guess Waterdeep and Greyhawk too, but haven't read those supplements.
Metropolis: Up to 30. Mainly extraplanar places like the City of Brass, Sigil, etc.

Note that "village", "town" and "city" are roughly defined in the 4E DMG. "Metropolis" is not, but there are definitely places bigger than what the DMG calls a "city". Hope this helps someone.

October 25, 2009

Plane Trek, Part II - Tropes

So yesterday I posted about Plane Trek. I missed a few tropes, though:

  • Space is an Ocean: It's almost a no-brainer. Most sci-fi stories use it, and while I haven't read Spelljammer, I've seen some ships, and they look more ship-like than spacecraft-like. (Most wouldn't float in water either, but they have sails.)
  • 2D Space: Makes for easy mapping, if nothing else. I think the Astral Sea should be a few miles "thick", though, to allow for 3D maneuvering in ship battles without the hassle of mapping a spherical Astral Sea.
  • Home Is Kinda Nice: The Federation in Trek is a pretty decent place to live. Adventure is out there, on the Final Frontier.
    (I couldn't find a TvTrope on the subject. Home usually sucks in fiction, after all.)

Plane Trek

One of my crazy ideas for a future D&D campaign is Plane Trek. I'm not a Trekkie by any means, having only seen the Shatner movies and Nemesis, but the idea of a party of D&D characters exploring the multiverse, meeting strange creatures/cultures and dealing with them appeals to me.

So what would the basic concepts be for this game?

  • Diverse crew: Okay, the original movies had a bunch of humans and Spock (with other non-humans among the nameless crew), but The Next Generation has a Klingon, a half-Betazoid (granted, she looks human) and an android among the main characters. In a group of five characters, I'd probably rule that there can be no more than two of any given race.
  • Worldbuilding: Races aren't from one planet with all the PHB races living in harmony. Each "planet" (actually some sphere in the Astral Sea) has at most two races (with some interesting relationship). Each player gets to detail the planet they're from. The "Federation" of known worlds then consists of the homeworlds of the player characters, with everything else a possible surprise.
  • No material plane: The Normal World, Feywild and Shadowfell aren't their own thing separate from the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos. They're just planets among others, floating in the Astral Sea. Actually, the Elemental Chaos might be toned down a bit too.
  • Planet of Hats: As with player races, monsters live in monocultures. There's a hobgoblin planet to land on and get in trouble, for example. Next week, the crew finds a sahuagin planet...
  • Spelljammers ahoy: The high-tech of Trek becomes magitech. Spelljammers instead of spaceships, and everything else works mostly as usual in D&D.
  • Overly obvious moralizing: Er... I'd skip that part.

October 18, 2009

No Post On Monday

Aaaand is this the point where this blog starts jumping the shark? Anyway, no post on Monday, as the title says. I'll try to have one up in the middle of the week instead.

October 13, 2009

I Am A Daredevil-Seeker

According to the BrainHex test, at least. The Daredevil likes Mirror's Edge, Canabalt and just going really fast in general. The Seeker wants to find stuff, so he likes Morrowind. Not a bad fit.

I'm mildly amused that both categories list Shadow of the Colossus as a favored game. I'll have to pick up that and a PS2 sometime.

October 12, 2009

Cost of Hirelings in D&D4

Looking over the costs of mounts from the 4E PHB and Adventurer's Vault, one finds that all the mounts - with the exception of the level 1 and 2 ones - are priced like magic items. Often items at higher levels than the monster's level.

This is quite understandable, as many of these mounts grant powerful abilities. The Rage Drake, for example, give its rider a +2 to hit and damage, which stacks with every other plus. Neato. A Dire Wolf, on the other hand, is just a dire wolf with no frills, so it costs the same as a magic item of its level (5).

The interesting part is extrapolating this to henchmen. A mount shares its actions with the rider, so it's not an extra set of actions on the field, just a power boost to the rider. Buying a henchman, on the other hand, would mean that there's an extra ally taking actions every round. Which is a huge boost.

But let's pretend for a while that it works. Many mounts cost the same as a magic item of its level+2. Applying the same reasoning to henchmen would let you hire a bandit (Human Bandit, level 2) for 840 gp (a level 4 item). Mind, this is a slavishly loyal bandit. For the cost of Bloodcut Armor +1, you get an ally that flanks with you and can unleash a Dazing Strike once per encounter. That's... a bargain.

Weekly rates make more sense than "buying slaves", since your adventurers will soon outlevel the henchmen. One might want to halve the cost and make that the weekly wage. Or if you find that the Bandit is indeed even better than an equivalent magic item, make the original cost his monthly wage - he'll eventually quit.

Finally, companion characters from the Dungeon Master's Guide II are probably better balanced as PC allies than creatures from the Monster Manual. PC and monster numbers are slightly different, after all.

October 05, 2009

Alternative Skill Challenges: Combat-Style

In D&D 4E combat, the PC:s fight whatever, and either win solidly, win with relatively heavy losses (of HP, daily powers etc), or lose (which means game over, or at least "you wake up in a cell".)

In a D&D 4E skill challenge, you either win or lose. No intermediate results, except for those special "wilderness travel" challenges where someone has to make an Endurance check to avoid being exhausted. The developers seemed to want to do more, but they didn't go further with the system in the first DMG.

A system I've been thinking of using is to divide up a skill challenge in "rounds" instead. Every round, each PC does something (makes a skill check). Once all PCs have acted, the "monsters" act. What this means is that each round that ends without the PCs having succeeded, something nasty happens. This could be a fight (drains resources), or something else. Failures aren't counted, the PCs are just trying to get the requisite number of successes in as few rounds as possible.

Lacking the patience to do the statistics for this by hand, I used Scott Gray's Dice Pool Calculator. Knowing that a trained or talented character has about 80% chance of success, I just have to look for the cumulative probability of getting the requisite number of successes. At first I assumed a goal of 5 successes, because that leaves a slight chance that 5 PCs could succeed before the end of the first round. If the party is smaller or larger, the requisite number of successes should be changed to mirror the party.

As the table on the right (click for bigger picture) shows, it's actually hard to get all successes in the first round, but the group is all but guaranteed to get them in round 2. Larger groups obviously have a harder time if everyone must succeed. If you really want to prolong the challenge, require twice the number of players in successes - they have a small chance of winning in round 2, and are likely to win in round 3.

Weirdness with large groups aside, this does do what I'm after. The PCs are likely to see what happens after a round they've failed, but they have a chance to avert it, and it probably won't happen twice. It seems to work, especially for "investigation"-type challenges, where the characters do something for a day (make a skill check each) and then the bad guys send assassins each night (Fight!).

September 28, 2009

"Persistent World" Roguelikes

I really like persistent elements in roguelikes, because they give a feeling that each game is bigger than just the character and the randomly generated level.

Nethack has "bones files", where if you die on a non-special dungeon level, there is a chance that the level is saved along with your dead body, your stuff, a ghost and a tombstone telling how you died. On an active server like, you can expect to find two or three former dead adventurers during a game. Crawl does something similar, spawning badass ghosts of former adventurers as you explore the levels. Especially in Nethack, these "bones" liven up the (admittedly) rather plain dungeon levels.

You Only Live Once has a different take. You start as a small kid who's exploring the woods near his village. He finds a dungeon, goes down it, and has to fight monsters. Then he dies.

And then you get to play as the kid's (adult) neighbour, who's looking for mushrooms for his wife. Next up is the first kid's mother, who finds her kid eventually. And it goes on like that. I suppose you run out of villagers eventually - I only played through once and won as the village elder.

Dwarf Fortress takes that same concept much further. When you start the game, you have to generate a world with a few hundred years of history (or download a pre-gen). Then you generate an adventurer in that world and talk to people who have relatives and history stretching back through time. Some of them will send you on quests to kill beasts who they have legitimate grievances with, because the world generation simulated the beast's pillaging of the local countryside and all the fights it fought. Nuts.

What I'd love to see is something as expansive as Dwarf Fortress with the interaction from Nethack. Not a cooperative MMO like Wurm Online, but the Dwarf Fortress Clone would run on a server (like the Nethack and Crawl servers do) with a shared world, and finished games would be integrated into the history of the world. That could be interesting.

Something for the "someday" files. I'm satisfied with Nethack for now.

September 21, 2009

Converting White Plume Mountain, Part 2: Examining The Branches

As I said in Part 1, White Plume Mountain has three branches, each ending with a room containing one of the three major artifacts of the dungeon - Wave, Whelm and Blackrazor. Let's see what each branch consists of.

As the party enters the dugeon, they reach a four-way intersection with a gynosphinx, and Walls of Force blocking the other three ways - the three branches. Answer a riddle correctly and the gynosphinx will disable the walls, letting the party pass. After this, the three branches begin. Numbers below refer to the map:

The Whelm/Ctenmiir branch holds:
3: A patch of green slime. Probably drains some HP from party members before being cleared out.
4: A room with nine glass spheres. Each holds a key, one of the keys are needed to get out of the room. Potentially three (easy) encounters and a bunch of treasure. This room is technically optional.
5: Five flesh golems, each with a number. Say the right number or get in a fight with them. The fight is nearly assumed unless the players have heard the riddle before. The conversion should probably use at least two kinds of construct to make for a fun fight - flesh golems are Elite Brutes which looks like a grind.
6: A turnstile while only lets people further into the dungeon. Needs destroying to get back out.
7: A bridge of separate platforms over two regularly-spewing geysers. Skill challenge-ish.
8: Ctenmiir. Boss Fight, duhn duhn duhn duuuuuhn! Give the guy some Vampire Spawn buddies.

A total of four "encounters", potentially a few more in the optional room, and a slight chance of just three if the party avoids fighting the flesh golems. Decent setup, Ctenmiir can be made pretty nasty.

The turnstile is just silly, the 3.5 conversion put a mimic (disguised as a portcullis) in its stead. I like silly, though.

The Wave/Crab branch holds:
9: A pit, which is actually the entrance to the Indoctrination Center of Keraptis (the real BBEG of White Plume Mountain). Glossed over in the original module, just a pit in the 3.5 conversion.
10: Kelpie pool. The kelpies have a lair with treasure.
11-13: Spinning corridoor covered in oil. The NPC:s Burket and Snarla will set fire to the oil as the PC:s pass and then fight them. Technically optional, but Burket and Snarla could join the fights in 10 or 17 in some circumstances.
17: An underwater room. A fragile forcefield keeps the water out of this zone, which contains Wave and its giant crab guardian.

Two encounters, possibly three. Go nuts with the difficulty of the two mandatory ones, or give Snarla a key to the doors (14 on the map, not locked in the original) to room 17, so she has to be fought too.

The Quesnef/Blackrazor branch holds:
18: A pit. Whee.
19: A corridor which heats metal. The intent is that heavily armored characters disrobe, so that the ghouls in room 20 can attack a severely weakened group. Cold based spells can nullify the effect for a short while.
21: Frictionless room. The pits marked A have poisoned spikes, and an unsecured person will fall in. Flight spells do not work. Hrm.
22: A magically suspended river floats in a loop entering room 22 and 23. It can be ridden using the kayaks in room 22, to 23 where Sir Bluto Sans Pite and his henchmen wait.
26: The classic inverted pyramid room. Four levels, four monster encounters.
27: Quesnef the Ogre Mage's room, with Blackrazor. Interestingly, the 3.5 conversion gives the option of him simply accompanying the party out of White Plume mountain (which breaks the curse that makes him stay inside).

Whoa, eight encounters, not counting the first pit. Would take some good tactics, but you get Blackrazor (distant cousin of Stormbringer) if you succeed. I might want to combine two of the inverted pyramid levels into one balanced encounter - fighting the scorpions on the second step while the sea lions on the third harass you sounds fun. Of course, Quesnef is a great opportunity for a foe that can be talked down, giving opportunities to cut the fighting down to an even saner amount.

September 14, 2009

Converting White Plume Mountain, Part 1: What Level Is Appropriate?

White Plume Mountain strikes me as a good choice of an old-school module to convert to D&D4. It's effectively three separate chains of encounters, from which you choose very early in the dungeon. Should mesh well with 4E's style of adventure.

(There's a 3.5 conversion here, by the way.)

First part is to figure out what level it should be aimed at. My hunch is "somewhere at high heroic level", but a more exact way would be to look up the monsters in the adventure and see where they land at in their 4E versions. So let's go:

Existing monsters:
Black Pudding (L8, Monster Manual 2)
Bugbear (L5-6, MM1 and 2)
Gargoyle (L9, MM1)
Ogre (L8, 11, MM1)
Wight (L9, 12, MM1)
Green Slime (L4, MM2, maybe best handled as a hazard)
Flesh Golem (L12, MM1)
Ctenmiir (L13, Open Grave)
Ghoul (L5-13, pretty much every book)
Giant Crayfish (L4, RPGA adventure Village of Hommlet)
Manticore (L10, MM1)
Efreeti (L22-28, MM1)

Close enough
Gynosphinx (Sphinx L16, MM1)
Air elemental (Air archon L16, both from Manual of the Planes)
Giant Scorpion (Hellstinger Scorpion L13)
Quesnef the Ogre Mage (Oni L7-14)

Need converting
Invisible Stalker
Giant Crab
Sea Lion

Bluto Sans Pite (and henchmen)

(Level ranges have been cut after the fact, reducing them to levels actually relevant to the result. Ghouls and wights, for example, exist at a much wider level range.)

Putting the adventure at level 11 would make most encounters work, with some level-changing. (The first five existing monsters are random encounters, so it's okay if those are a little easy.) It also makes most of the classic encounters (Ctenmiir, for example) work nearly as written. Still, many of the enemies need friends to make for interesting encounters (Ctenmiir, again.)

September 12, 2009

Canabalt - My Latest Drug

Damn, I've been playing this for too long now.

Canabalt is a very simple game. You press X or C to start the game. Your protagonist starts running in a corridor in some office skyscraper. Then he bursts out through the window at the end and starts running on rooftops (and occasionally through skyscrapers). Press X or C to jump, or the little guy will fall to his death.

Meanwhile, giant robots patrol in the background, fighter planes zoom past right behind you and occasionally, a missile crashes ahead of you - necessitating a jump to avoid being vaporized. There is no explicit story, but the implied one is rather obvious - WWIII has started, and you've decided to run out of the city as fast as you can.

One button. And I've been playing this for over a week now. I can consistently get over 2000 meters as long as a window doesn't brutally stop me before that.

Canabalt is awesome and will eat all your free time. You have been warned.

September 11, 2009

Moathouse Maps, Or: So I'm Running Village of Hommlet

So I'm running Village of Hommlet as a PbP game on RPGnet. I must be mad. Reports coming later when we actually get some play in.

Anyway, a player pointed out some awesome conversions of the original Moathouse maps. They look much better than my scans from the 4E module, and since they're made in a tile-based program (Dundjinni), they should work much better with the grid in MapTool.

More later.

September 07, 2009

Sudoku Dungeons, Courtesy of Greywulf

Greywulf wrote an interesting article about generating dungeons from Sudoku sheets, so I figured I'd make a dungeon from that system. (The article is here.)

First I need a Sudoku sheet. Google to the rescue! Google finds! That was easy.

I picked an "Evil" Sudoku in order not to clutter the dungeon with too many features. There was a marked decrease in numbers between that and "Easy" (the page's default). Funny thing - an Evil sheet probably tends to give an Evil dungeon, as most doors will be hidden. Less encounters, though.

The rest is just about following the directions in Greywulf's post.

First we get a rather plain setup with large rooms surrounding a central secret room in a spiral-ish pattern (single doors are secret, double doors are plainly visible). Decent architecture! Clearly some evil mastermind is hiding in the central room.

In fact, there aren't many foes in this dungeon. Just a double encounter (overleveled + normal) in the top left room, and the aforementioned mastermind (normal encounter) in the central hideout. If I were doing this seriously, I'd probably move one encounter to another of the big rooms. The perils of too hard Sudoku sheets...

Next is Features. (I'm doing NPC/puzzle last.) According to Greywulf's table, there're rotten bodies in the lower left room (right where the PC:s enter, yay), and a barricade in the top right. I'd definitely move the monsters into the room with the barricade if I was doing this for real.

Traps next. The top left and bottom right rooms have traps. I figure the monsters in the top left room would put alarms on both doors, and the mastermind has probably trapped the visible door into the lower right room because nobody uses that room (or at least not that door - it could be a storage room intended to be reached from the central room).

Treasure is second to last. Well yeah. In D&D4 terms, treasure parcel 2 is in the central hideout, and if the PC:s rifle through the storeroom to the lower right, they'll find parcels 5 and 9. Greywulf suggests using either treasure parcel numbers, or saying that "higher is better". Funny, because the treasure parcels with low numbers are worth more (powerful magic items, as opposed to regular gold coins). Ergo, treasure parcel 2 is pretty yummy.

Finally NPC:s/puzzles. The top right and bottom left room has some. Definitely captives in the top right one, whether there are monsters there or not. The bottom room is harder - maybe the PC:s can perform some forensics on the piles of dead bodies to figure out what awaits them further inside the complex. Or maybe there's a huge symbol shaped like the map - it would look arcane, but after two or three rooms, smart players might figure out that it's a map (and start looking for a way to the center).

The result might need some tweaking, but this is how it turned out, after adding some furniture to the rooms. The bottom left serves as garbage disposal - the monsters in the other rooms eat a lot of meat and need to put the bones somewhere. The top left is elite quarters - spacey and with heating. The top right is an old mausoleum - coffins and whatnot has been layered along the walls and serves as a barricade where it crosses the doors. the lower right room is a storage room, and there is good reason to assume that was its original purpose. The inhabitants never enter through the trapped door (with a pit behind it).

The central room is the laboratory, library and sleeping room of a cunning wizard. He will escape through one of the four secret doors if he is gravely threatened.

That worked out okay. Might need an easier Sudoku if I try again.

August 31, 2009

Character Concepts From is evil, but maybe it can be made to work for good by providing character concepts? Today's trick will be me trying to make a (sorta) sensible character out of three concepts randomly picked from tvtropes. has a "random article" button, of course. Let's see where I end up...

Mythology 101 Cycle. Not a concept. Moving on...
Arrow Cam. I suppose you could do something with this, but I'll be lazy and move on.
Walking The Earth. That's better. Concept #1 is picked.
Indecipherable Lyrics. We might need a way to filter categories for this to work...
Roadside Wave. Ho hum...
Can't Stay Normal. Second concept nailed down!
Uncle Pennybags. And the third concept shows up in short order.

So in 7 clicks, we have a character who is Walking The Earth (like Banner from that old Hulk show) and Can't Stay Normal. Sounds a lot like Bruce Banner, actually, except he's also Filthy Rich and Not A Jerk About It.

I guess this Frankenstein's Character is some sort of playboy/hippie, travelling the countryside, trying to stay out of trouble as he enters a new town and blends in with the help of a sizable bank account. But then adventure happens and he has to pull out his super powers. Follow the adventures of The Incredibly Rich Hulk on channel five!

This method may or may not need polishing...

August 24, 2009

The SNES Generation And Graphics Appreciation

My first console was a NES. (Well, everyone else had one, while I had a C64.) The graphics on that ranged from "mediocre" to "quite okay". Mostly dependant on techological advances during that console's lifetime, of course.

Furry Mario aside, NES graphics got the job done. To me, there is some limit before the NES era where I just look at screenshots of games and have no idea what is going on.

But then the SNES came, and its graphics went from good (Super Mario World, bundled with the console itself) to awesome (Yoshi's Island). I'm an unashamed member of the SNES generation, so bear with me when I go on...

The Playstation was the next console of choice among my friends. I'm not a fan of the vector graphics that got common in that era. I wonder if there is a generation about five years younger than me that think the Playstation had awesome graphics, the SNES did its job and the NES and anything before it was barely legible...

August 18, 2009

Mondaily Posting

Trying a new scheme. They say people with lives don't read blogs on Sundays, so I'm trying Mondays. Not that expect a dramatic rise in readership or anything.

August 16, 2009

So What's 2011:s D&D 4E Setting?

I have some theories. In order of probability:

1: Spelljammer. It's D&D in spaaaaaace, which should be sufficiently different from the first three settings (pseudo-medieval Forgotten Realms, pulp Eberron and post-apocalyptic sword&sorcery Dark Sun), and equally importantly doesn't block out many existing character options (since it can act as a bridge between other settings). That bridge part is important too - it needs a few other settings to act as a bridge between, but now there are four, counting the implied setting of the core books. (And third-party publishers have had time to put out some 4E settings.)

2: Something original. Maybe a cop-out, but I think it's vastly more likely than any of the old settings right now. I have absolutely no guesses about it, but "generic fantasy" would compete with both Forgotten Realms and "Points of Light" (4E:s implied setting).

3: Al-Qadim. A man can hope. But seriously, "D&D Arabian Adventures" is also sufficiently different that it could sell. Some people keep saying that 9/11 made games about Arabs unpopular, but the video game industry has no such qualms.
My only misgiving about Al-Quadim is that the subject might be too thin to fill two books. Might fit better as a Dragon Magazine series, or a third party setting. The fluff would make or break it - "1001 nights" doesn't bring much new crunch.

3.1: Maztica. Same idea as Al-Quadim, minus 9/11. But the Middle East is cooler than Mesoamerica.

3.2: Kara-Tur. You get the idea.

Those are my three (point two) guesses. And now a quick rundown of what I don't expect:

Pseudo-Medieval Quasi-Europe, The D&D Setting: Dragonlance, Greyhawk, etc. Forgotten Realms needs to fade away first.

Already Folded Into Other Stuff: Planescape and Ravenloft. "Domains of Dread" is a running series in Dragon Magazine and Sigil has been cannibalized for use in both Manual of the Planes and Dungeon Master's Guide 2.

Too thin concepts: Council of Wyrms, Ghostwalk and maybe Birthright. Not enough stuff for two books.

Oh, and I hear the 2010 setting is Dark Sun. Nifty. It might be the first setting book I pick up for D&D.

August 15, 2009

Tell People About Your PC

Chatty DM and Wizards of the Coast are asking you to tell them about your character. On Twitter. One post (130 letters) per character. That's a pretty neat limitation, so I figured I'd try. I have a (rarely used) Twitter account, but I'll repost my submissions here:

Torgal the dwarf and his uncle moved to Sobanwych when his parents died in a cave-in. Now he is looking for adventure in Hommlet.

Edwyn was the adopted son of the town sheriff and a locksmith's apprentice. Perfect cover for a thief.

Chatty's contest is here (and you can post your submission as a reply to that post if you don't have a Twitter account). The submissions are here, and if you really want to follow me on Twitter, I'm here. But I rarely update - those two posts are my first.

Go! And tell people about that really cool ranger that no-one's cared about until now!

August 09, 2009

A Monk By Any Other Power Source

So it's kind of old news now, but there were some differing opinions when WOTC announced the Monk playtest, and made it a psionic class. It doesn't bother me, though. Actually, I was thinking of assigning the monk to all the official power sources in order. Let's go:

Martial Monk - Easy. The 4E Monk already looks half martial, enhancing his martial skills with latent psionic powers.

Divine Monk - The word "Monk" certainly brings the divine power source to mind. The divine Monk is a warrior empowered by her god, much like the Avenger (PHB2).

Arcane Monk - Now it gets trickier. Still, a guy with no armor, no weapons and a decent special effects budget could certainly be magical. Hadoken!

Primal Monk - Okay, this is pretty far off. Still, the Barbarian's rages channel the aspects of certain animals to give him those aspects. The Monk could do the same and be a decent unarmored fighter (but far from the "ascetic on a mountain").

Psionic Monk - Official. As I said, I don't mind the idea. I figure it's very weak psionics, only enough to enhance personal training and sometimes flip out with some kind of blast.

August 02, 2009

Premade Adventures Good? Yes, For Murder Mysteries.

One of my beefs with murder mysteries (and "investigation" adventures in general) is that the DM putting together the adventure knows the capabilities of her players' characters. This can be a good thing, but it also means that she can't truly just lay out a scenario without the nagging realization that one PC can speak to the dead, which affects this part of the scenario, or another is just really well connected to the criminal underworld, which has this effect. And so on.

The obvious solution to this is to have your mystery be written by someone who doesn't know the party layout. Then you get a truly impartial adventure, and if the guy who talks to the dead uses his power now, it at least wasn't subconsciously anticipated.

That means pre-written adventures are good, since most of us can't afford to hire a personal professional writer.

Those are my random thoughts on the subject.

July 31, 2009

July 26, 2009

Designing Settings With Carcassonne

Carcassonne is a board game in which you lay down tiles - one per player and turn - to form cities, rivers and roads. You score points depending on the number of finished structures that you put a "meeple" (man-shaped playing piece) on before finishing it.

But that's beside the point. I kind of wondered if one could use Carcassonne to make a campaign map. Well, maybe.

My first thought was to play out a game as normal and then use the result. (I'm in no way involved in the game pictured.) You'd get cities, roads, strange statues scattered throughout the landscape... and holes in reality where the players couldn't fit a tile. Maybe that's cool, maybe it's just bad. Depends on your needs.

Elsewhere, someone decided to arrange all Carcassonne tiles so that the board is self-contained - that is, nothing protrudes "beyond the board". As he shows, it's actually impossible with just the original set, but can be done with an expansion. Also a decent map.

July 19, 2009

Random Elemental Generator

The elementals in the D&D4 Monster Manual are assumed to be the "natural animals" of the Elemental Chaos. (Think of Limbo if you prefer earlier editions.) Also, they cover a level range from 11 to 26. With this in mind, four elementals seem too little. On the other hand, it should be easy enough to generate new ones randomly (which is basically what happens in the game world).

First, we need to figure out what our elemental consists of. The Monster Manual states that they are made up of any number of elements, but let's settle for two (which is what the statted ones are). Roll 2d6, the die that lands to the left is the "primary" element.

  • 1: Fire
  • 2: Earth
  • 3: Air
  • 4: Water
  • 5: Lightning (and thunder)
  • 6: Radiance

If you roll the same element twice, you have one of the rare pure elementals.

Second, make up an awesome name for our elemental. The primary element determines the prefix, the secondary the suffix. Dig out your d3:s if you really have to be random here.

  • Fire prefixes: Flame-, boil-, heat-
  • Fire suffixes: -scourge, -fire, -pyre
  • Earth prefixes: Rock-, gravel-, mountain-
  • Earth suffixes: -wall, -stone, -crystal
  • Air prefixes: Cloud-, storm-, steam-
  • Air suffixes: -lasher, -twister, -wind
  • Water prefixes: Wave-, flood-, stream-
  • Water suffixes: -swirl, -pool, -torrent
  • Lightning prefixes: Thunder-, lightning-, flash-
  • Lightning suffixes: -storm, -bolt, -spark
  • Radiance prefixes: Sun-, flash-, flicker-
  • Radiance suffixes: -beam, -glow, -ray
  • Random second noun: Ravager, dreadnought, defender

I rolled a 6 and a 2, so it's a mixture of radiance and earth. It's a Sunstone Defender!

The third step is to stat up the monster. I won't repeat the monster creating guidelines (DMG1 page 184 and onward) here, but there are some notable steps:

  • Level: Just choose, though I might roll 1d10+10 if I wanted a random level too.
  • Role and powers: Role is based on the primary element. Powers also are, but flavour one power according to the second element.

    • Fire = artillery. Build a basic ranged high-damage attack and a basic ranged normal-damage burst attack. Give it high speed, or clumsy flight. (Magic jet engines!)
    • Earth = lurker. Can phase through earth and stone, gains Earth Walk, Tremorsense, Combat Advantage vs enemies it starts its turn out of sight of, and bonus damage against enemies it has Combat Advantage against. Can meld into stone as a standard action, giving it great damage resistance (kind of like a gargoyle).
    • Air = brute. Give it insubstantial (and half HP) which explains why it's so hard to kill. Also huge.
    • Water = soldier. Can hit and mark enemies. Gets threatening reach (with it's elongated pseudopods).
    • Lightning = skirmisher. Flight is key here. Pair it with a fly-by attack and you're set.
    • Radiance = controller. Held together by the secondary element. Give it attacks that blind, daze or stun.

Our Sunstone Defender is a Controller, with a little bit of earthy lurker. I make him level 11 (to help out Firelashers), steal powers right off the Grell Philosopher and Galeb Duhr Rockcaller, give it Earth Walk and I'm done!

Sunstone Defender Level 11 Controller
Large Elemental Magical Beast (air, fire) XP 600
Initiative +9 Senses Perception +14
HP 114; Bloodied 57
AC 25; Fortitude 23, Reflex 23, Will 23
Immune disease, poison
Speed 6 (earth walk)
M Staggering Slam (Standard; at-will)
Reach 2; +16 vs AC; 3d6+5 damage, and the target is slowed until the end of its next turn.
R Bright lance (Standard; at-will) ♦ radiant
Range 10; +15 vs Reflex; 2d6+5 radiant damage, and the target is blinded (save ends).
c Rocky Road (Minor; encounter)
Close burst 1; all squares in burst become difficult terrain if they consist of earth or stone.
a Glaring Nimbus (Standard; recharge 6) ♦ radiant, zone
Area burst 2 within 10; +15 vs Will; 3d8+3 radiant damage, and the target is dazed (save ends). The glaring nimbus is a zone that lasts until the end of the encounter. Any creature entering the zone is dazed (save ends).
Alignment Unaligned Languages Primordial
Str 18 (+9) Dex 18 (+9) Wis 18 (+9)
Con 18 (+9) Int 21 (+10) Cha 18 (+9)


A sunstone defender looks like a humanoid mass of small rocks, hovering in a humanoid aura of light.

July 12, 2009

Random Replacements - What Moves Into the Dead Dragon's Lair?

Dungeon crawling is fun. Killing the dragon at the end of the dungeon is also fine, but after the player characters have looted its hoard and left, there's a fine piece of empty real estate that shouldn't go to waste. And if the players don't take precautions to secure the dungeon, someone will get just that idea. But who?

Well, let's roll for it. Makes for more surprising results than just choosing. There are four steps to check whether or not an empty dungeon gets settled, and if so, by what:

1: Each week in-game, there is a 50% chance that something moves into a lair that the party has cleared out but not settled or otherwise secured. Flip a coin or something.

2: Decide on a tier. This is very much a D&D 4E term, but it's not rocket science. Regular wilderness is Heroic Tier. The Underdark is Paragon Tier. The wilder parts of the Planes is Epic Tier - it's where you start beating up demon lords, and maybe a god or two.

Alternatively, look at what lived in the dungeon before, and check where that belonged in the table in step 2. If the party defeated an army of Githyanki, it's a good bet that Paragon is about right.

3: Roll a d20, looking up the result in the correct column in the table to the right (click for a bigger picture). Since Epic is a bit anemic, reroll numbers with no entry.

4: Some entries like "Beasts" are very broad. If you want a more specific answer, roll a d10 (adding 10 or 20 for paragon or heroic tier), to see what level you should aim at.

So, let's try it. The party has defeated an adult red dragon, which is a paragon threat, from its volcano lair. They leave, a week passes, and the roll hints that it might be time for something to sneak in.

The d20 roll is 13, which means that a group of archons or elementals move in. We could stop here and decide that it's fire archons and fire elementals, but that's boring. A roll of 1d10+10 comes up a 12, and a quick peek in the DDI compendium show that a "Fire Archon Emberguard" is appropriate. Well okay then. Of course, other fire archons can play too, as well as other level-appropriate fire creatures - the d10 roll is just to point you to specific creatures.

July 10, 2009

Your Favourite Game Sucks

I'm getting rather tired of grumpy grognards* and the crap they peddle. The latest straw was this. The good sir James Mishler made a graph with bad stuff on one end, good stuff on the other, put D&D 4 in the bad end and put it up on the Internets for the two people who thought it was funny to laugh at.

So, kind reader, I humbly submit this:

(I mean, at least Mishler's original graph was remotely intelligent.)

*) With no slight intended to the many grognards who just play their favourite game and shut up. Your edition is still associated with the Hoff, of course.

Search Terms

Just so you know, I am checking the stats of this blog with Google Analytics. Seeing what Google search terms brought people here can be funny. It's just one or two hits per term, but that makes it even funnier.

My favourite is "grimdark libertarianism". Wonder what the guy was looking for...

(I'd like to apologize to the guy/gal who came here when googling for "'encounter tables' indiana jones". I hope you found what you were looking for, it sounds awesome.)

July 05, 2009

On Worldbuilding Relays, or Five Steps to A Fleshed Out World

This RPGnet thread is splendid. The idea by Matthias Wasser on RPGnet is a "Worldbuilding Relay" game with the following rules:

  • The first person in line rolls on a bunch of tables to generate the basic assumptions about the world. How old is it, what real-world cultures does it borrow from, what is the general morality of people, what races and "classes" exist?
  • He then makes up a geographic, a cultural and a metaphysical fact, which should all tie into at least two of the results from the tables.
  • The next person details five conflicts - wars, conspiracies, personal problems.
  • Next one describes five organizations. Royal houses, armies, merchant houses, whatever.
  • Next one details five individuals. One low-level, one mid-level, one high level, one antagonist and one ordinary person.
  • Last one gives five facts of any kind.
  • Restart by rolling on the tables again.

The first mesoamerican/roman world with humans, anthropomorphic animals and planetouched waging a war between gods and animistic spirits shaped up rather nicely. Though, after writing two entries in the thread, I found that even that takes work, and others may have felt the same.

Either way, those five steps (not counting the table-rolling) would work well for fleshing out any world a GM or setting writer is making. The conflicts, organizations and people showcase the world and provide hooks for PC:s to get interested in, and the GM to build adventures around.

(I thought of adding a bullet point for "five locations", but locations show up often embedded in the other categories. The same applies to religions - if the setting has them, they'll appear within conflicts and organizations, maybe even people.)

Another thought is to have a group engage in cooperative worldbuilding before a campaign. Just roll on the tables, let everyone provide one fact from each of the bullet points, and you have the seeds of a campaign setting in 15 minutes.

For reference - the tables:

Table A: The Wheel of History
Roll 1d8:
1: Civilization Unknown. The world is young. Light huddles in points.
2-3: Civilization Ascendant. A young political body or network of such violently expands and grows.
4-5: Civilization Regnant. A golden age, marked by hubris. We can do anything we want - but what?
6-7: Civilization Descendant: The social contradictions of the old golden age and the inability of its institutions to adapt to them demand that this civilization be destroyed. Will it be in ice or fire?
8: Civilization in Tatters. The Postapocalypse. Light huddles in points.

Table B: Moral Assumptions
Roll 1d6:
1: Preachily left: Equality is good, privileges are bad. Conflicts between societies are distractions from conflicts within societies. The elites naturally desire to maintain and expand their privileges and artificial hierarchies, which makes them evil, and only the willingness of the masses to collectively organize and set aside cultural differences can destroy them.
2: Preachily conservative: There is a natural hierarchy to the world, each station having natural rights and obligations: we must care for those below us and obey those above us, so long as they too are acting justly; if not, they must be redeemed or destroyed. Some beings are naturally evil, while others are led into it by hubris, laxity, and inattentiveness to tradition.
3: Preachily libertarian: Heroes are self-reliant individuals; villains are alliances of demagogues and cowards too afraid to think for themselves. Adventuring for no purpose but treasure is perfectly moral; merchants are generally good and governments are generally evil. The prose is awful.
4: Grimdark: The setting is metal as hell. Everyone involved is incredibly selfish, violent, and cruel; but we are to approach them from an ironic distance. Atrocities pile up in the background and actual play like sand on the beach and we mostly marvel at how wicked awsome it is.
5: Pluralistic: This is a world of competing values, none necessarily greater than the other. People generally act from principle, and they're all sympathetic and shown from their own perspective, but the competing ideologies cannot be reconciled. The conflict is instantiated both between organizations and within the human heart.
6: Amoral: People generally act from their self-interest, defined broadly enough to include themselves and the people they love; they almost always have some sort of code, but no fact about the universe makes one truer than another, and they have difficulties following them in practice. No one can stand to be very sympathetic or very unsympathetic for long.

Table C: Culture Clash
Roll 2d10:
1. East Asian
2. Mediterranean
3. Mesoamerican
4. Near Eastern
5. Northern European
6. Polynesian
7. Slavic
8. South Asian
9. Sub-Saharan African
10. Roll twice more

As an introductory mental exercise, start out with the assumption that you're taking Roll 1's broad geographic or political situation and reskinning it with Rolls 2's aesthetics, culture, and philosophy; and then have them interpenetrate each other in all sorts of ways.

Table D: Races
Roll 2d10, assuming that humans already exist:
1-5. Just humans here
6. Elves, dwarves, half-elves, and halflings
7. Humanoid races
8. Planetouched
9. Anthropomorphic animal races
10. Every published race you can find

If you roll double 10s, include everything but humans.

Table E: Power Sources
Roll 2d10, assuming Martial already exists
1-2. Martial only
3. Arcane and Divine
4-5. Arcane
6-7. Divine
8-9. Primal, Ki, or Shadow (whatever seems most appropriate)
10. the Kitchen Sink

Kudos again to Matthias Wasser. It was a splendid idea.

June 28, 2009

On Anti-Abilities

This thread about D&D 3's rogues stirred an old memory about anti-abilities. Anti-abilities are abilities that does not so much give one class an ability, but takes it away from everyone else. The one being discussed in the linked thread is Trapfinding, which protects the Rogues trap-disabling ability in spite of the skill system by making every other class unable to find or disarm traps.

From the D20 SRD:
Rogues (and only rogues) can use the Search skill to locate traps when the task has a Difficulty Class higher than 20.

Finding a nonmagical trap has a DC of at least 20, or higher if it is well hidden. Finding a magic trap has a DC of 25 + the level of the spell used to create it.

Rogues (and only rogues) can use the Disable Device skill to disarm magic traps. A magic trap generally has a DC of 25 + the level of the spell used to create it.

A rogue who beats a trap’s DC by 10 or more with a Disable Device check can study a trap, figure out how it works, and bypass it (with her party) without disarming it.

In other words, a fighter who invested in Disable Device might be able to disarm a crude (DC 20) non-magical trap - but he can't find it in the first place. Since everyone gets skills, the 3:rd Ed rogue needs this rule to avoid being made obsolete.

D&D 4 solves this by making the rogue just as good at fighting as the fighter (and giving the fighter just as many skills). Earlier editions (or is it house rules) give everyone a decent chance at disarming traps, while the rogue gets an excellent chance.

The other example I saw was a discussion about a feat for D&D 3 that allowed a character to crashland into an enemy and deal falling damage. Something that people felt should be doable without that feat. Ergo: another example of an anti-ability. There are probably many more feats that do this.

Feats seem to be the problem here - or rather feats that enable too mundane things. Again, the solution seems to be to give people a basic success chance and let the feat/power/schtick improve on it. Everyone can land on other people, WWE style, but only people with the feat get to ignore the falling damage themselves.

Oddly, the powers in D&D 4 don't bother me. Probably because there are rules for improvised actions, and the actual "learned powers" can then be taken as more powerful than anything a hero at the level of a power could improvise.

Time Investment in Online Games

Plenty of online games claim to be "casual". You can just log in once per day or so, do your business, and get back the next day, and still be on par with the people who live, eat and breathe the game.

Lies. All lies. And some statistics.

Anything with production caps breaks the casualness. Nile Online caps your wares depending on how much you have upgraded your warehouse - and if you're not overleveling the warehouse, the caps are pretty close to what you need to upgrade your palace (and if you're still following me, upgrading the palace is pretty much the goal of the game). So log in often, or waste production.

Production queues are the other bugbear. Nile Online (again) only lets you upgrade one building at a time, with no queuing. In the early game, upgrade times are between 15 minutes to an hour. Log in, upgrade, log out, wait 15 minutes, upgrade. Better not have a life away from Nile Online. EVE Online players might recognize this pattern to skill upgrades, but EVE is hardly "casual".

Cantr II handles it a lot better. You log on, tell your character to pick weeds, and then he does that until you log on again (or until your inventory is full, but that takes days in Cantr II).

Kingdom of Loathing is also nice like that. You get a bunch of "turns" every day, but they stack so you can get back in everyfew days. Unfortunately, funny games suck, but KoL kept me interested a long time.

Some online games are just way more suited for casual play than others. Random thoughts over.

June 21, 2009

Wishes in D&D 4E

The Wish spell is an interesting concept. In D&D 3, it had a number of useful applications, plus anything you could convince the DM of. In D&D 4, it's just... gone.

Which is to expected. As a spell, it's just far too powerful since it literally does anything (can duplicate most other spells even from the cleric spell lists). Even as a ritual, it breaks too many potential plots (all of them).

My solution would be to make Wish rare. Incredibly rare. Like:

  • Wishes are granted by powerful beings such as gods, demon lords, lords of Hell and high-ranking efreets. Even they don't have total control of the ability - it's usually contingent on them first "granting" a wish and then having to follow the letter of the wish, making them reluctant to grant it in the first place.
  • Wish should never appear as a power or ritual.
  • A Wish can be much more powerful than in earlier editions, due to it's rarity. Wishing for level 30 items, large tracts of land or equivalent sums of money isn't out of order. Raising the dead, curing diseases or transporting the party anywhere in the Planes is almost a waste of the Wish.
  • Ironically, I also feel that the DM is more free to pervert a Wish, since the player didn't pay a spell slot and XP for it. The degree of perversion should depend on the source, of course - efreets and devils will mess with you.

Well, those are my thoughts on Wishing in 4E.

June 20, 2009

Part Of The RPG Bloggers Network...

...since over a week ago, actually, but now I've been able to set up a link and mess around with my blogger tags to fit better with theirs. All is proceeding according to schedule.

My Gygax Number? No Idea.

It was only a matter of time, of course. Mathematicians have the Erdőz number, actors have the Bacon number, Go players have the Shusaku number and now Jeff Rients have taken the logical step and invented the "Gygax number" for measuring how connected you are to the late Gary Gygax.

Gygax himself would have a Gygax number of 0, anyone who played in a game with him has a Gygax number of 1, anyone who played with any of them (but not with Gygax himself) has a number of 2. Rients is better at explaining than me. Really.

My own Gygax number? Dunno, probably pretty high since I've never gamed with Americans face-to-face.

June 14, 2009

Optimization Leading To Interesting Class-Race Combinations

Optimization leads to accusations of powergaming. Accusations of powergaming leads to flamewars. Flamewars lead to anger. Anger leads to the dark side.

Ahem. Despite that, optimization can lead to interesting things. Take, for example, the various combinations of race and class in D&D 4E. Dragonborn make good paladins, dwarves make decent fighters and good clerics, elves are good rangers. All as expected. But there are other interesting combinations. I'll just scratch the surface a bit:

  • Tieflings, drow, goblins and hobgoblins have a charisma bonus and make decent paladins. You wouldn't expect that from the average member, but it makes for interesting redemption stories.
  • For that matter, halflings and gnomes make decent paladins too. Isn't the halfling paladin practically a meme, starting with Mazzy Fentan from Baldur's Gate 2?
  • Githzerai (that's the less bad Gith, for those who can't keep track) and shifters get Wisdom bonuses and make decent clerics. Decent monks too, when that class comes out, which makes sense for the 'zerai but will be interesting for the shifters. Who knew the shifters were so devout?
  • Devas and Doppelgangers have Intelligence bonuses and end up good at all arcane classes (Wizard, Swordmage, Artificer and to a lesser extent Warlock and Bard). Lots of other races do too, but they all have some kind of arcane theme (Tieflings, Githyanki, etc).
  • Warforged (strength bonus) make good fighters, but also decent warlords and rangers (and anything else that uses strength). A Warforged leading an army! Who would have thought it? Great potential for Tin Woodsman jokes too.
  • Eladrin get a dexterity bonus which makes them good rogues. Their teleport ability also helps. High elves being good thieves kind of dates back to D&D 3.0 though, where the default elf fluff made them out to be great mages, and the crunch then scrapped all that and made them better off as rogues or rangers.
  • Finally constitution. Good stat in general, but mainly useful for warlocks with the infernal or star (Cthulhu) pact. Plenty of "monster" races have it, but half-elves, warforged and dwarves stick out. Maybe that's why dwarves distrust magic - those dwarves that go arcane tend to literally make deals with the devil.

So, is there a point to this post? Well, don't get stuck in classical archetypes when making characters. Mix it up with an elven monk sometimes. This applies to any game, not just D&D 4E.

June 07, 2009

On Empty Rooms in Dungeons

One common criticism of Wizards' D&D 4E dungeons is the lack of "empty rooms". Empty rooms are supposed to provide both flavour and a time sink so the DM can roll for random encounters if the PC:s waste time searching unintelligently. Random encounters were taken out somewhere around the 3:rd edition of D&D, but flavor is still a worthy reason to put in empty rooms.

Verisimilitude is a good reason too. Especially in D&D 4E, where there are fewer encounters, empty rooms are ofter a useful way to flesh out the dungeon without adding much effort in creation. Of course, they may still be used - as storerooms and the like.

Of course, if one grabs existing maps, the empty rooms probably place themselves. Consider this map from Wizards' Map-a-Week. (The Dungeon Level in Expedition to Undermountain, supposedly.) If one were using this, one'd probably just place encounters in a tenth of the rooms and leave the rest empty. Gives some perspective to just how big it is compared both to the party and to the inhabitants.

The other approach is of course to have an abstract dungeon. It's implied to be a vast network of caves, but only the places where anything happens are mapped, and navigating the rest is handled by skill checks. (Dungeoneering to keep your bearings, Perception to avoid roaming monsters, etc.)

May 31, 2009

Stream of Consciousness About Roles

So, D&D 4E has Leaders, Strikers, Defenders and Controllers, which are all combat roles. Earlier editions had Fighter, Healer (cleric), Skill Monkey (rogue/thief) and Holder Of Win Buttons (wizard). This is an interesting shift and I'd like to expand on it. First, what the heck am I talking about:

  • Fighter and Healer - An combat system with hit points has two obvious "roles": The guy who deals damage to the enemy (4E striker) and the guy who heals damage dealt to his allies (4E leader). 4E expands on this by adding a guy who inflicts status effects (controller). You could argue that a defender heals indirectly, because healing powers are more effective on him (they heal a percentage of his max HP, and he gets a higher total than others).
  • Skill Monkeys were taken out of 4E - or rather, everyone is a bit of skill monkey since everyone gets a similar amount of skills.
  • Holder of Win Buttons is the odd guy out. A Wizard in earlier editions get a limited number of spells that can solve problems when the party's fighting tactics or puzzle-solving skills fail. Sleep wins combats at low level, Fireball wins them at higher ones, Knock sorts out pesky locked doors if the thief is out of commission, and then there are all the divination rituals for when the party is really stumped. Of course, at high level, the Wizard get too many win buttons and goes from "useful party member" to "party leader with three pets".

Anyway, there are two oddities with the old roles, at least as they appear in D&D 3.

  • Nonstandard classes don't fill the roles well (and don't come with instructions).
    • The Druid is a worse healer than the Cleric - the same healing spells are higher level for him, and he gets no spontaneous casting of cure spells - but gets some win buttons to compensate.
    • The Bard (and Monk) can't fill in for a Rogue - at least not in the trap disarming department.
    • The Ranger, Paladin and Barbarian do well enough at replacing the Fighter.
    • The Sorcerer can blast better than the Wizard, but is out of luck when he needs an obscure utility spell.

  • Splitting of spotlight. First the rogue disarms a trap and unlocks a door. Then the fighter rushes in to kill everything, while the cleric stands by to heal him. Then more traps - the thief gets the spotlight again. Meanwhile, the Wizard is standing by waiting for the best moment to step in and press one of his "win buttons". This is a design that's worked for 30 years, but not one I agree with, and plenty of other game systems have changed it.

Of course, D&D 4E missed an opportunity too. Everyone has a combat role, and is relatively competent in skill challenges. However, there is little differentiation in what skills characters have. There is some, in that Arcane characters are likely to have Arcana, Divine ones probably have Religion, Primal ones have Nature and Martial ones get... heck if I know. Still, the roles make it easy to get a good spread of combat roles when characters are rolled up, while skills still have to be doled out manually.

I don't have a better solution. The problem with delineated skill-roles is that the obvious division - Talker, Mechanic, Athlete and Living Encyclopedia - split the spotlight again. The Talker rules social encounters while the Athlete and Mechanic disarm traps. The best is probably to focus on the skills that your stats work with - a diverse group should cover most of the stats, and that provides a natural division of skills. Watch out if everyone plays Arcane classes, though - you'll rock at intelligence-based skills and be mediocre at the others.

May 30, 2009

Circuitous Dungeons Part II

(Part I here.)

These two could also work:

Circuitous Dungeons?

Future project: Populate these two "dungeon maps":

May 24, 2009

On Roguelike-Platformers

Is that even a computer game genre? Platformers where the game utterly hates you, does not provide save states or extra lives, procedurally generates the levels and - in the case of Spelunky - has extensive interaction with the level environment. Well, if there isn't, I'm making it up now.

Spelunky (downloadable) by Derek Yu takes you, in the guise of a chibi Indiana Jones, through four different "worlds" with randomly generated levels. And it's deadly. You get a life meter with three hearts, but that's not worth much once you realize that giant boulders, bombs and certain monsters instakill you anyway. And then you restart from the beginning of the game, because Spelunky hates you.

Yet it's still fun, because the levels are new in every playthrough (though with familiar building blocks after the twentieth playthrough or so) and a game takes about 10 minutes so you aren't actually losing that much progress when you die. Much like Rogue, except as a platformer.

It also borrows the concept that everything is useful (more prominent in Nethack than Rogue), so eventually you will be picking rocks and skulls off the ground to trigger motion-sensitive arrow traps, and then tossing the arrows at enemies to kill them. More evil players do that with human corpses instead...

Tower Of Greed (flash game) isn't nearly as complex as Spelunky, but it still has a certain roguelike appeal. You jump up a downwards-scrolling level like in all those other downwards-scrollers. The twist is that you are supposed to gather gems along the way, and then you can leave the tower (through doors along the tower) when you feel you have enough gems. If you die before leaving the tower, you don't get recorded in the highscore table, and (more painfully) your achievments aren't saved. You have to quit willingly to have the game count.

Of course, there are "achievements" for both how many floors you can survive and for how many gems you gather - I haven't quite gotten to 100 floors yet.

Simplistic, yes, but the controls are close to perfect (unlike the feeling of steering a paraplegic slug I get from many other scrolldown platformers) and the levels are somewhat procedurally generated (though with big building blocks, so you end up learning how to pass certain floor designs anyway).

And much like Spelunky, a game takes about 5 minutes, so failure doesn't lose you that much game time. This... has gotten me hooked in a way no other game in this genre has before. Good job.

I'm keeping an eye out for other games in this genre.

May 17, 2009

Summon Monster V in D&D4

Summoning in D&D 3 is a tricky thing. Done right, it allows one NPC to multiply its effectiveness by spamming summoning spells and letting the beasts fight for him. Sure, most summonings (notable Summon Monster/Summon Nature's Ally) summon creatures weaker than the caster, but Gate, Lesser Planar Ally and so on can make a dedicated summoner really nasty. And if the player manage to disrupt the casting, or dispel the summoned creature, the fight just became a cakewalk (or it's balanced now and would have been a potential TPK with the summon still around).

And let's not get into monsters summoning other monsters. A D&D 3 Marilith has a 20% chance of summoning another Marilith and making the fight twice as hard. How many mariliths do you account for when figuring how tough the fight will be? (XP is easy - summoned stuff don't give XP when killed.)

This is interesting for any edition, but D&D4 focuses on balance, and having Schrödinger's encounter be potentially twice as hard as planned is outside the design paradigm for 4E.

Fortunately, D&D4 provides examples of summoning monsters, though it's just one and a half in the whole Monster Manual. The half is the Berbalang, which summons a duplicate of itself by spend one-quarter of its HP. More interesting is the Pit Fiend, who has an encounter power that summons either 8 legion devils, 2 war devils, or half of each. However, they're weak compared to the Pit Fiend himself - if he's level appropriate, the summons are cannon fodder. Which is probably as it should be.

I had another idea. Either make the summoner a solo and let it summon minions as a recharging power (the summoner should probably be a solo), or give the summoner a higher XP cost to make up for a one-time summoning power. (The Pit Fiend does not do this - it follows the guidelines for statting an elite almost perfectly.)

If I was going to make a Marut Blademaster (Level 21) with the ability to summon his debtors, I'd double his XP value (from 3200 to 6400) and give him a minor action encounter power to summon a set bunch of monsters worth 3200 XP. Say, give him these choices:
  • 4 Angel of Valor Legionnaires (L21 minions - how did these get in the Marut's debt?)
  • 4 Legion Devil Legionnaires (L21 minions - our Marut gets around.)
  • 1 Ghaele of Winter (L21 standard monster - okay, he outsmarted a noble Eladrin?)

There you go. Two monsters masked as one dude summoning another. Quadrupling the XP budget could obviously make one weak caster with the ability to summon up three times his own worth in opponents once the PC:s barge in.

May 10, 2009

XP for GP in 4E

...or how to go old-school and reward characters getting gold by any means rather than rewarding fighting. If that's your kind of thing.

In the old style of gaming, characters got most of their XP for bringing home loot (at a 1:1 gold:XP ratio) and just a little for killing monsters and rarely any for doing quests (except that quests could give monetary awards). Rewarding what you want the game to be about is a good thing, so if you want characters to be creative, sneaky and conniving, rather than show tactical prowess, you might want to go back to that scheme. Fortunately, WOTC makes that very simple in their own Dungeon Master's Guide.

Simply look at the treasure parcel tables. Yes, it's four pages of tables, but you want the headers that tell you how much gold 5 PC:s are expected to find during one level. Once your group finds this, they level up. Scale as needed if you don't have exactly five players.

(Alternatively, the expected gold is twice the cost of a magic item of the party's level, listed in the Player's Handbook.)

Magic items would still have to be scattered around the adventures. I'd spread them about liberally with some to spare - the sky won't fall if the group has one item too many or too few. One may want to make sure the group at least has the expected +2 to attacks and defenses as they leave the heroic tier (and +4 when going epic). Maybe even require such equipment as a prerequisite to going to level 11/21 or adding those items as rewards for the quests taking them to the next tier.

Taken together, this plan would promote acting like an explorer rather than a tactical fighter. It's up to you if that's a good thing.

May 03, 2009

Item-based Skills, or How I Reinvented Scrap

I was pondering a roguelike. Many roguelikes have you "build" your character over time. Even Nethack has skills, even if they're not vital in the case of weapon skills (but magic skills can make the difference between being able to cast a spell reliably and not). Incursion is based on the d20 SRD and has build options accordingly. I don't know how much ADOM's skills affect gameplay, but they're there too. Of course, most 7 Day Roguelikes don't have skills, as implementing a decent skill system takes time and detracts from the design goal of the game.

Anyway, I don't fancy skill systems. They lock you into one specific way to play the character (range vs melee vs magic vs sneak vs charm etc), and can serve as a trap for players who haven't played enough - if a Nethack player doesn't know what to spend skills on, he might waste skill slots on weapons as a wizard, or on bad weapons as a fighting class. And Nethack doesn't even deign to tell you that there is such a thing as skill slots.

So I was thinking of a system where "skills" are more fluid. Either allow generous retraining - you have X dynamic skill points that can be shuffled among skills - or base your abilities entirely on loot. An itemless character would just have the basic abilities of an adventurer - comparable to the protagonist of Rogue, but carrying a book of spells would instantly give him magical abilities - and then various implements could refine him further like in D&D4 (where staff, wand and orb wizards get different special abilities). The "wizard" could shed his magic items and grab a set of thief equipment or fighter armament instead, or even mix and match - a robe may boost spells, but real armor gives better protection in melee which is still interesting if you are carrying a Staff Of Becoming Ground Zero Of A Fireblast.

This would be relatively balanced with harsh carrying capacity rules (to prevent people from "multiclassing" too much by carrying extra items) and generous item drops (to encourage changing your setup without it taking half the game). Angband-style levels where levels vanish when you leave them would prevent extensive stashes.

Alas, Scrap already does this, but with the player being a robot scavenging robot parts. Nice game, try it.

April 26, 2009

Random Wilderness Encounters Part II - The South Marshes

Making random encounter tables was fun the first time. I think I'll continue. This table presents ten random encounters in the South Marshes, south of Fallcrest. The area is suitable for adventurers of level 4-6.

Every day of wilderness travel, the adventurers have a 50% chance of a random wilderness encounter. If it happens, roll 1d10 and consult the table.

  • 1: 2 Phantom Warriors and 3 Spectres. Long ago, a band of mercenaries tried - and failed - to build a fortress in the marsh. Invade the ruins of Blackblade Hold, put the restless spirits to rest and steal their treasures.
  • 2: 4 Orc Drudges, 2 Orc Berserkers, 1 Orc Raider and 1 Orc Eye of Gruumsh. Is there an orc camp nearby?
  • 3: 2 Greenscale Hunters, 2 Greenscale Darters and 1 Greenscale Marsh Mystic. The local lizardman tribe is usually peaceful, but reacts badly to intruders. Making friends with the tribe might grant the PC:s a safe place to camp away from home, and they can point the group to nearby trouble (read: all the other encounters in this table).
  • 4: 2 Ghouls and 3 Wights. There's an old crypt near Blackblade Hold. It's likely to have treasure.
  • 5: 1 Cave Bear and 3 Bugbear Stranglers. A tribe of Bugbears is terrorizing the area. The lizardfolk would pay handsomely for their heads, and they might have treasure.
  • 6: 2 Shadar-Kai Chainfighter, 1 Shadar-Kai Gloomblade and 2 Shadow Hounds. There is a portal to the Shadowfell in the darkest, deepest parts of the marsh. This can take the PC:s near Doomhold in that place - a fortress held by Shadar-Kai and Dark Ones.
  • 7: 2 Sahuagin Priests, 2 Sahuagin Raiders and 5 Sahuagin Guards. The Sahuagin have a lair somewhere along the coast filled with their stolen loot.
  • 8: 1 (tame) Carrion Crawler and 4 Crimson Acolytes. A cult of Orcus is holed up in a collection of rotting huts in a corner of the swamp. Find them, kill them, take their stuff. The church of the Raven Queen or Pelor might thank you.
  • 9: 1 Eladrin Twilight Incanter, 2 Fey Knights and 2 Spectral Panthers. The most vibrant parts of the marsh have a portal to near Everfall in the Feywild. It is an Eladrin city, and the Eladrin are know to go on Wild Hunts occasionally.
  • 10: 1 Foulspawn Grue and 4 Foulspawn Manglers. Where did these guys come from? Can they be stopped? Of course they can.

If a rolled encounter is connected to a "solved" adventures, it does not occur. In this case, reroll once. If the second roll also indicates a "dead" encounter, no encounter happnens. In this way, the wilderness becomes safer as the heroes finish quests.

(Here, encounters range from level 4 to 8.)

April 19, 2009

Avoiding grind in D&D4

Stalker0 on EN World posted a guide to avoid grindy combats in D&D4. All credit to him (and to Skallgrim who added some points).

(This is pretty much a "note to self", but maybe it helps someone else.)

Stalker0’s Guide to Anti-grind

A common complaint of 4e is the notion of “grind”. From the majority of discussions, grind seems to be widely defined as the point in combat where the party has effectively “won”, but have not yet beaten the monsters. Bereft of encounter powers, the players begin beating the remaining creatures down with an endless series of at will powers while the monsters continue to attacks. The monsters at this point have little chance of harming the party past anything a short rest can’t fix. In other words, it’s combat with no purpose.

I have now played and dmed in a party from 3rd to 11th, and I have seen a lot of what causes grind, and what leads to exciting combats. Here are my findings for those who are interested.

Note: My group has always had one striker. Further, we have not yet played past 11th level. If you feel your grind is due to no strikers or to very high level play, this guide may not be as much help to you.

Higher level Monsters – The Source of Grind

In some ways, 4e combat works exactly the opposite way of 3rd edition. In 3rd edition, when you threw high level encounters at your party, you often risked the chance of quickly killing some or all of your party (offense scaled quicker than defense). Such combats were often the source of great drama and excitement coupled with poignant loss and sometimes outright anger when a character was defeated.

In 4e, it works the opposite way (defense scales faster than offense). In 4e, fighting high level monsters usually doesn’t kill your party quickly as their damage doesn’t scale that fast. But the monsters have very high defenses and hit points making them hard to hit and very hard to kill…which leads to the concept of grind.

So my first piece of advice….focus your combat designs at the same level as your party. Use monsters of the party’s level (and scale other monsters into that range to accomplish the same). Your goal is to generate as much challenge to your party as you can with a standard monster group, and the rest of the guide is designed to help you do that.

Also, you may find some other pleasant side effects to sticking with standard monster encounters. My group has been steadily changing their opinion on maximizing their attack stats and damage, because the reality is 4e combats are decently quick when they are put at the party’s level, and you don’t have to be optimized to fight such encounters.

Know thy Monsters

The first tool in the DMs toolbox is his large variety of monsters and monster types. Knowing how to utilize these types can go a long way towards helping you create fun and challenging encounters…right at the party’s level.

1) Artillery – Artillery is my favorite monster type from an anti-grind perspective. They combine high attack bonuses and damage with weak defense, the perfect way to challenge your party without them having to go through hell and back to kill the creature.
a. Lower level Artillery – Artillery is the best monster type for monsters that are lower than your party’s level. Their attack bonuses are high and they often hit defenses other than AC. I often use artillery 2 levels lower than my party and they still back a punch!
b. Use focus fire with Artillery – If you think your party seems nearly invincible at times, show them fear with focused fired artillery. Two or three artillery monsters hitting the same party member can drain them quickly. Also switch targets to bloodied creatures to create a sense of excitement and fear in your players.
c. Protect your Artillery! – Artillery is frail, so give them some front line support or terrain to cover them. I find artillery so effective, that often my players will take OAs and use skills to cross terrain to take out the artillery first. It creates a great sense of accomplishment and helps to shake up the standard routine of some combats.

2) Brutes – Even though they have exceptional amounts of hitpoints, brutes have low defenses, and so often aren’t as grindy as soldiers.
a. Check your errata – The Monster Manual’s errata increased the damage of many of the brutes. Make sure you are giving your brutes their correct damage.
b. Combine with minions – Brutes have good damage but often suffer from low attack bonuses. Use minions to aid another and flank, providing +4 to your attack rolls!
c. Combine with auto damage and auras – Brutes excel in areas where everyone is taking autodamage. They can take the pain far long than anything else. Use terrain that hurts everyone to give brutes an edge and to speed up combats.

3) Controllers – Controllers can be a tricky monster type to use properly, but are very good at taking a low level group of monsters and making them more effective against the party. Anti-grind requires using control, without using too much control.
a. Watch your action denying effects – Controllers with action denying effects (daze, stun, immobilize, slow) can be fun to use and help to challenge a party, but used too often and they can create boredom at the table. (try using a well protected gibbering mouther and watch the grind begin!) Rarely use two controllers that deny actions together.
b. Spread the control around. Players might hate getting controlled once, but you can really make a player bored by controlling him the entire fight. Feel free when possible to spread your heinous effects to the rest of your party, sharing is caring after all
c. Use terrain. Controllers, more than other monster types, tend to benefit a lot from terrain. Using terrain can help make a controller effective, but also provide your party a way to use the terrain against them.

4) Lurkers – I have found lurkers to be a quirky monster types, with a lot of grab bag abilities. I don’t recommend them as a common monster, but they can be useful for their surprise factor.
a. Lurkers are mid combat fighters – There’s always an urge to get all of your monsters out on the table as quickly as possible, but many lurkers have the ability to remain undetected for large portions of the fight. Use that to surprise your players.
b. Cull the weak – Lurkers are excellent foes to take an unsuspecting party member down quickly. Wait for a player to get down to bloodied or below, and right before his cleric buddy can give him that heal, your lurker comes out and hits him hard. This can be great for shaking up a fight that the party sees as completely in their favor, and suddenly bring the drama right back to the combat.
c. Get in, and get gone. Lurkers are masters of retreat and often shouldn’t be “killed”. Use them to provide surprise damage, but don’t require your players to kill them to move on. Have them retreat, perhaps to be used again later.

5) Skirmishers – These are probably your mainstay in most fights. They have decent but not high defenses, and can provide solid damage when used properly.
a. Use other monsters to gain combat advantage – A lot of skirmishers gain their big damages from combat advantage. Combine skirmishers with minions to set up flanks, or use brutes to really provide some damage focus. Many controllers are also good at providing combat advantage.
b. Know when to fold them – Skirmishers are designed for hit and run attacks, so hit….and then run! If the fight is going badly, feel free to have skirmishers start escaping….only to join up with another encounter and fight again! This prevents the late combat grind people complain about, and hey it makes sense…skirmishers are cowards!

6) Soldiers – Soldiers are the most grindy monster type. They have exceptionally high defenses and hitpoints, and don’t have that much offense. In short….grind city. While the occasional solider is good to take hits of your brute or to protect your artillery, don’t use soldiers on mass or the fight will end in a slug fest.

7) Minions – Some love minions, others hate them, but they can be used to great effect to increase the challenge of your combats without really increasing the grind.
a. Sprinkle to taste – As many have noted on the boards, once you’re near paragon level 4 minions doesn’t normally offer the same challenge as a monster. With that in mind, feel free to just throw in some minions to a fight to bump up the challenge a bit.
b. Use flanking, and aid another to increase offense. This is my golden rule of minions…never actually attack with them. Why attack for 6-8 damage when I can flank, and then use aid another (which quickly becomes nearly automatic around level 5) to give my awesome brute a +4 to attack? If you have never appreciated the offensive power of minions…try this out, you’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.
c. Spread your minions out – Minions bunched together is just asking to get killed quickly. Attack from multiple sides and spread your minions out to keep them alive long enough to do some good (or evil as the case may be).
d. Charge the back line. Minions can often get past the party’s front line defenders more easily than a single big monster. Use that to start aiding your ranged attacks against the party’s backline.

8) Elites – Elites do get some cries of grind but generally I find them a solid monster type if you don’t overuse them.
a. 1 Elite with Party vs 2 Elites – 2 Elites often feel more grindy to a party than 1 elite with a group of monsters because it takes so long for the first bloodied and dead condition to hit the combat. 1 Elite is good as a corner piece of a group of monsters that the party can kill more easily. I often love to use brutish elites wading into the front of combat with artillery backing it up. If you are going to use 2 elites, I recommend one frontline and one ranged (artillery) type as it balances greater offensive with weaker defense. Two solider or brute elites can take a long time to beat up.
b. Save your AP for the finishing move – An elite often doesn’t have the offense of two regular monsters which can give the players a sense of security and lead to feelings of grind. Use action points to change this mindset. Instead of using your action point at the beginning of the combat (where the party’s leader can easily fix the damage), use it right after the attack that just bloodied a party member to try and knock him out. 4e characters can usually take the heat, but it emphasizes how strong an elite can be and that the party should never be too comfortable fighting one even as the fight draws to a close.

9) Solos – This creature is the hallmark of the “4e is grindy” movement. Everyone seems to have a story about the solo combat that took 4 hours and was less fun than watching grass grow (and yes, I’ve got one too). Solos more than any other monster require special handling to avoid grind, but they can be a very memorable fight when used well.
a. Never use a solo higher level than the party – This may seem like blasphemy but I think it is the greatest cause of solo grind that people experience. As I mentioned in the start of the article, higher level monsters gain a lot of defense and only a little offense. For the solo, that’s even more so. You’ll actually be amazed how quick (without being too quick) and fun a solo fight can be with a solo of your party’s level.
b. Solos don’t have to be solo. These guys are often your heinous bad guys, its okay to give them minions and other things to bump up the challenge of the combat for that epic fight.
c. Terrain and Gimmicks – Think about this, how often in fantasy when the hero encounters the final bad guy do they stand on a flat plain and just hammer away for 2 minutes? Solo fights really benefit from good use of terrain. Often your solo will have a lair, use it! Have terrain that changes as the combat goes on to keep it fresh. Also, feel free to use a few gimmicks... a ritual that the party must stop, a skill challenge that will help the party against the solo that they can perform during the combat, etc.
d. Monologue/Roleplay – It doesn’t work with all solos, but many of them are intelligent, an important plot piece, and utterly arrogant (I mean if you could take on 5 other people of your same power level wouldn’t you be?). If you don’t do it commonly, solo fights are a great time to have the villain start talking and roleplay with the party. Even if the combat lasts a long time, for the party its tempered because they are fighting and roleplaying at the same time and that can really make the fight memorable.
e. Use your AP for true destruction, or to get away – Just like elites, solos shouldn’t just blow their AP, as at the start of the fight the party has plenty of resources to take care of things. It’s at the moment when one of your players is at its weakest that using an AP can drive home a solos power. However, consider an alternate use for a solo fight that is not intended to be the last. I call this the “Recurring Villain” power. Save both AP until the solo is bloodied, and then do a full run with 2 AP worth of extra movement to leave the fight. The solo fight lasts only lasts half as long as normal, and the party now has a hated foe to finish later. This is probably the best method of avoiding grind with solos that are a higher level than the party. You can have the solo run to avoid massive grind, and eventually when its time for the final fight the party can face the solo, now having gained enough levels to be his equal.

Using Terrain and Events

There are times when I wish WOTC had put terrain as an entry in the monster’s manual. In 4e, where you fight is just as important as what you fight that if you aren’t using terrain you are cutting off one of the major tools in the DM’s arsenal. For anti-grind purposes, terrain is absolutely wonderful because it doesn’t have hitpoints. Terrain can be as heinous as you want, but its effects tend to die down the second the monsters are defeated. I could go on and on about terrain, but since this is a guide for avoiding grind and not for terrain, I will focus on effects you can use to avoid grind in your combats.

Increasing Damage
One way to avoid grind is to have things die faster, through a terrain or event effect that either boosts offense or just does damage. This category is for boosters that players (and monsters) can take some measure of control over. Some examples:
1) Square of Doom – Whether it’s a pit, a black crystal plant that attacks people and immobilizes them, or a house on fire, basically if a monster or player goes into the square, they take damage.
2) Damaging Aura – An altar giving off necrotic energy, a combat near lava, swimming in scalding water, etc. Make part or all of the combat in the aura to increase damage done. Use energy types your monsters or your players have resistance to to give one of the sides an edge.
3) Attack bonuses/Defense Penalty: A holy site that gives attack bonuses to powers with the radiant keyword, a damning curse that gives all fey creatures a -2 to defenses, or simply a +1 attack bonus to ranged attacks for higher ground.

Increasing Unpredictability
Another option is to add some surprise to your combat, so that even as the fight rounds add up, the players are always on their toes for that next effect. Or you add effects harsh enough that no one can assume the combat is over until it’s over. Once again, it’s generally useful to use damaging effects as that speed up combat.

1) Random terrain effect – A geyser that goes off every random number of rounds, lava that bubbles up in random place, a broken artifact that pulses with power and damages all around it.
2) Increase the power of crits – A black mist that does 5 necrotic damage per round, but when it infects a deep wound (person took a crit) the person starts taking 15 damage per round. Or a powerful site of heroes, crits add +2d6 extra damage.

Adding a Clock
The ticking clock can add a sense of suspense and drama to a combat, and forces players to think of ways to end fights quick.
1) The longer we fight, the more we die – A large scale damaging aura that affects the whole fight, a monster that gets stronger that longer the fight continues (offense of course, not defense)
2) Nasty effect in three, two, one… - A pit that will unleash damned souls in 10 rounds, a guardian statue that is animating and will attack.
3) We must stop the ritual! – A dark ritual will be completed in 5 rounds, a strong demon beast is being summoned and must be stopped.

Tactics to Avoid Grind
In many cases, you don’t need to change what you put in combats, but how you have your monsters act can reduce grind.

Focus Fire, even if it kills you
Characters in 4e are pretty tough, but even the most stalwart fighter can be taken down when everyone starts concentrating on him. Now its easy to do with ranged characters, but feel free to have your monsters move in to swarm a character….even provoking OA’s. It both kills your monsters faster, and puts more pressure on the party. Also, it lets defenders use some of their marking tricks. Just don’t do it to the same character every time!

Trade OA’s for Flanking
By a similar token, don’t be afraid to have a monster take an OA once in a while in order to get into flanking. That +2 makes a difference, and it helps grind. Of course, choose monsters that this makes sense for. Its unlikely that kobolds would be so reckless, but a bloodthirsty orc might.

Allies and Enemies – Kill them all!
When you have area effect users, let them attack their own comrades if it means getting more pain on the party.

Master is dead! I surrender!
In many cases, some of the monsters may work for or be slaves of the other monsters. If the party kills the leader, have the other monsters surrender.

Whoa we are getting slaughtered, I’m outta here!
Unless your monsters are set up to fight until killed (ie many undead), it’s very reasonable to have them get out of the fight if things are going badly for them.

Putting it Together

Using the guide, the goal is to create standard level encounters that are unique and challenging to the party through use of monsters and terrain. As you get better at this, you will need less and less higher level effects to hurt your party, and I have found once you get to that point grind starts magically disappearing.

I hope the guide was of use, good luck in your games!

And as I mentioned, Skallgrim spake thusly:

Really good article. I'd like to offer a few ideas which are compatible with yours, but rather different in emphasis.

The grind seems to be widely defined as the point in combat where the party has effectively “won”, but have not yet beaten the monsters.

One way of "avoiding the grind" is not to avoid this point, but to reveal, at this point, that the party is WRONG. What the party had previously thought to be "the grind" is actually the "intermission".

This can be accomplished in several ways. One of the easiest is the "wave". Simply introduce more opposition at this point. Of course, it is best if this opposition makes sense (enemy reserves, monsters attracted to the commotion). It is also important to factor these enemies into the overall encounter level. Don't add so many monsters that the encounter becomes impossibly hard for the party.

Two good options (at least) exist here. You can add Minions, which do not add substantial challenge or XP to the encounter, but can certainly spice up what had seemed to be a boring grind. This is a very good option for enemy reserves and the like. In addition, minions are a good opposition for parties which have already spend many of their encounter or daily powers, and are reduced to basic attacks and at-will powers.

The other option is the "Godzilla" theme. Add a powerful monster which attacks the party and the opposition indiscriminately. This can allow you to remove pesky "straggler" monsters more quickly (and also prevent the party from interrogating them) and lets you show off the damage potential of the elite (or solo) without wiping a party member. This is a better option when the party has husbanded their resources, and still has a substantial amount of daily and encounter powers to work with. Envision, if you will, a battle in a dank, subterranean cavern. The party has defeated the troglodytes, and is engaged in "cleaning up" the last few of the opposition. Suddenly, a giant lizard (cave drake, purple worm, whatever) crashes through a cavern wall, and devours a trodlodyte whole, pushing its bulk through the opening.

Another option, distinct from the "wave" in many ways, is the "power-up". Perhaps the last bandit is succumbing to Lycanthropy, and "wolfs out" under pressure. Perhaps the cultist has bound a demon into his own body. Perhaps the ritual the adventurers interrupted simply needed ANY sacrifices, and the slain enemies are just as good as the rescued hostages. This is similar to the "Godzilla" idea, but ideally, it should be possible for the adventurers to either avert the threat, or, at least, have some foreshadowing of the threat, so that they can see it coming and possibly postion themselves for it, or reserve some powers to deal with it. Ideally, this should basically be a much more challenging encounter than it originally appeared to the adventurers, but should still be more of a "culmination" encounter than the suprise value of a Godzilla encounter. I can just hear the party saying "Hey, this fight against the Evil High Priest is going pretty well.....Aaaaaaaaah!".

I realize this is much less intelligently written, and much less elegantly structured than your very nice article, but I do think that "re-imagining" the grind can also be a valid tactic too.

Both excellent advice. Again, not written by me, but by Stalker0 and Skallgrim.