Monday, December 28, 2015

An Alternate System for Handling Proficiencies

Most d20-based D&D-related systems give out proficiencies in blocks based on classes or groups of weapons. Some use feats and even races to augments this. While effective, this sometimes pidgeonholes characters into using the same sort of weapons over and over again. It also limits the number of weapons available, because any clearly better weapon will overshadow lesser alternatives. To add some useful detail to this part of these systems, I am proposing an alternative system using proficiency points. As with all ideas, it probably has been considered by other folks before (though I have found no discussion on the internet of it). Still I throw this idea out as one whose time has come.

Proficiency points are granted to allow character to gain proficiency in specific weapons. Common, less dangerous weapons require few proficiency points to learn to use. Complex, exotic, dangerous weapons require more proficiency points to learn to use. This can be expanded to include siege weapons and even magical weapons.

This does a couple of things. In Pathfinder, the magus class, for example almost always ends up using a scimitar because it is the best mechanically for that class. However, with the addition of proficiency points, a character may need to save up points to even gain proficiency in the best weapons, now making other weapons a better choice at lower levels. By building magic item proficiency off of non-magical weapon proficiency, it might make more sense to expand a less optimal weapon choice into magical weapons rather than saving up for the better weapon, resulting in a greater diversity in weapon use. Proficiency points can reduce the cloned character problem in terms of weapons used.

Allocation of proficiency points should probably be class based, but will depend on the system used. For example, fighter classes might gain a lot of proficiency points so they can use lots of different kinds of weapons. Arcane classes might gain only a few proficiency points at lower levels for things like daggers and quarterstaffs. Some classes might gain only the proficiency points used to cover their primary weapons and an occasional backup weapon. Because choices are made dynamically through the game, they can even be made based on what weapons the GM has made available.

Because of the new tradeoff in choosing weapons, there is now a new reason to add new weapons. Also, old exotic weapons that were rarely used can now come into play more often without weird proficiency feats or built-in class limitations. Proficiency points breathe new life into old items.

I am throwing this idea out there in a very raw form, in hopes that some GMs might pick up this idea and give it a try in their system. If you do try to use it, please drop a line back and let me know how it goes. I will be adding provisions for it in my cyberpunk game to see how it works, and report back in a future post.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Pacing 101: Getting Your Game Moving

How do you keep players engaged? How do you keep players off their phones and in the game? How do you handle the game when the party splits? How do you keep tension high? The answer to all these questions is pacing, and that's what we're covering today.

Pacing is about 2 things: how long progress takes, and how much time there is between direct interaction with a player.

Generally, a good GM will move the story forward quickly enough so that the players aren't doing the same thing over and over. However, the story pace can't negate the players ability to make decisions and deal with consequences. The story isn't something that happens to the PCs; the PCs are the story.

Interactions with the players should happen often, but quickly. Why? Because the time it takes to get from one turn to the next is the sum of all player interactions in between. Don't give players time to get bored; keeping the game moving.

The first key to pacing is to set expectations properly. Let players know they are going to need to be prepared to act on their turns. If they are away from the table or AFK, they get skipped. If they don't know what is going on, they get skipped. Encourage your players to start their turn by asking questions when they are uncertain, because it keeps them engaged. Also, set the expectation that the players need to know how their characters work. If there is some piece of information needed for a ruling, make sure they keep it on their character sheet. For my 5E games, this means the exact text of every spell and special ability must be available during the game. None of these rules are personal -- they help keep the game in motion.

The second key to pacing is getting rid of the obvious time wasters. Keep the turn order posted where everyone can see it and tell when their turn is up. Ban distractions from the table, like phones, if they become a problem. Start each turn and end each turn with the same verbal cue to make sure the player knows it is their turn, and that the GM is sure when it is over. Discourage the "I forgot actions" after their turn is ended.  Consider setting limits on the number of combatants allowed per player (I usually set it at PC +2), so a necromancer with 15 zombies isn't taken up all the time. Consider having everything controlled by a player act on a single initiative. Consider having all of the NPCs and foes act on a single initiative for the GM too. Where possible and where it makes sense, use average numbers instead of rolls.

The third key to pacing is to maintain control and/or presence. The GM needs to be the voice at the table that everyone listens to. Many groups have problems with everyone talking at once. When this pops up, designate an item (I used a stuffed d10) as the speaking item and hand it around. Only the GM and the person with the item is allowed to speak. A few sessions of this usually gets the group into the right rhythm for then playing without it. Also, maintain control over when the dice are rolled. Have players focus on telling what character are doing, and if a dice roll is required, call for it. Otherwise, give success and drive on. Similarly, don't call for extra rolls -- let the roll stand until something changes. As a GM, speak only when necessary. It does nothing for the game to be talking all of the time for no reason.

The fourth key to pacing is compelling action. The game is about what you and the players want it to be about, and what this is will change over time and level. Don't feel the need to add in random encounters or tracking of mundane details unless it adds to the experience. Personally, I don't like being asked after every battle if the ranger can recover arrows, so I make them all recoverable. I don't like tracking different kinds of currency, so I make all of the currency gold pieces and we ignore the weight. I might make the party track water and rations at low levels, but as they get to higher levels, I consider the problem solved and move on to other challenges. Simplifications like these keep the story focused on the good parts. Compelling stories keep players engages and the game moving.

While in game, keep things moving by actively engaging players. When out of turn order, always ask each player periodically what they are doing, especially if they aren't actively engaged in what is going on. Don't ever go into a potentially dangerous or interesting situation without knowing exactly what every character is doing. By keeping characters tied into play, players stay in the game.

Handling split parties follows a similar pattern. Switch between the two groups as soon as a key decision is made, and wait to return to the group to unveil the consequences. These keeps interest high. This switching should be happening often so they other half of the party doesn't lose interest. Balance the action between the two side, if necessary, by adding other complications to deal with.

Everyone now and then, the action will stall. In some cases, this is good, like when players are strategizing (i.e. figuring out what their characters already know) or roleplaying. In these cases, stay out of the way. However, sometimes the stall is just a stall in thinking on how to move forward. In these cases, I take a page from Numenera and insert a GM intrusion. The intrusion is some immediate and urgent problem that the party has to deal with to keep them moving. Should we go left or right?  Can't decide? Now there is a charging rhino coming from the left. What do you do? Sometimes it takes a little push to get the party unstuck.

Working on your pace can greatly improve you game in a number of way. Increasing player engagement and avoid distractions certainly helps. Ultimately though, it is about making good use of the limited time away from real life that we all have for enjoying our hobby, and we could all use more game.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Top 10 Things to Know for the New Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master

There is no doubt that D&D 5E is pulling in a lot of new players. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the problem of needing more Dungeon Masters (DMs), and luckily more players are jumping in to be new DMs for games. If this is you, then this article is for you. Let's cover the top ten things to know as a new DM for 5E, well, besides the rules, which come in convenient book form.

  1. You need 3 books: The Players' Handbook (PHB), the Monster Manual (MM), and the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG).
    You can get started with just the first two, but the DMG will teach you a lot of important skills and give you a lot of needed advice.

  2. Learn the rules, but don't sweat it when you get them wrong.
    Learn the rules as best you can before hosting your first session, but don't feel bad when you don't know a rule. Even experienced DMs take many session over months to learn a new rule set. Ask your players for help, make a ruling, and make a note to revisit it after the session. Keep reading the rules between sessions until you feel confident.

    Let me repeat, keep notes and revisit them after the session -- that helps a lot.

  3. Play with your players, not against your players.
    As GM, you provide meaningful settings, scenarios, and challenges for the PCs. You do not play against them. Choose your language, posture, verbiage, and attitude to show this. Don't try to kill the PCs; try to build a good story where the PCs are the heroes that have overcome their weaknesses. Don't ever try to punish players or characters -- it is not your role. If you abuse your "power", your players will stop playing with you.

  4. Mostly say "Yes" to things players want to do in game.
    When a player comes up with something to do in game, say yes, unless it is just not possible. That doesn't mean it will be easy. Try to figure out how it would be done within the rules, or in a matter that is consistent with the rules. Some things are not possible, like the dumb barbarian suddenly discovering how to make gunpowder. In those cases, say no, and give solid reasons why.

  5. Keep character creation rules simple.
    If you aren't comfortable as a DM, keep the rules for character creation as simple as possible. Consider staying just with the PHB. Consider disallowing multi-classing. Consider using the standard array instead of rolling for ability scores. Consider not using feats. Throw out all optional rules. The depth of the story and fun does not depend on adding extra rules, so make it easier. This is where you can say "No" to keep things fun.

    Set the rules in the beginning and stick with them. Don't change them after the characters are made. Generally, if one characters seems greatly overpowered, it usually means that the rules aren't being played properly.

  6. Keep the choice to roll with the DM
    Rolling the dice outside of attack rolls is pretty much your call. Try to call for rolls instead of having your players say they want to make them. When it makes sense, give them success without a roll. Try to let your players state what their character is doing and you tell them when a roll is needed. Keep players focused on the scenario and what is happening, not character sheets and dice rolls.

    Rules are not the thing; the story of the players' characters is the thing.

  7. Have your players help.
    You don't have to do everything. One player can write the turn order down so everyone can see. One players can look up rules in the PHB. One player can move tokens on the board. Do whatever you can to make things easier on you, so you can focus on the part you must do.

  8. Roleplay.
    This is the hardest part of playing and DMing -- learning to be the character you are playing. When the party encounters someone or something to interact with, you are it. Talk as them, use appropriate mannerisms, use a different voice or accent if you can, and speak to the player's character. Have the player speak as the character they are playing too. The only thing to do is to jump in and do it. Over time, you will get better at it. Practice makes perfect.

  9. Prepare.
    For every hour in game, your are going to spend some period of time in advance preparing. In the beginning it may be quite a bit. As you gain experience it will become less. Prepare locations and people/creatures in those locations to interact with. Get the material you need for roleplay and combat figured out and organized. Understand who the characters in the story are, what they want, and how and why they interact with the players' characters. This goes for adventures you invent yourself or for premade adventures. As you get more experience, you will get better at preparing what you need for whatever crazy idea the players come up with.

  10. Grow.
    Don't get discouraged when things don't go smoothly. Take each mistake as a learning opportunity. Look for resources to help you grow. Talk to other DMs. Watch game recordings online. Check out my twitter feed with #GMTip. Leave me a comment below with your questions or drop me a line on twitter. Continuously improve and know that along the way, you are going to have a lot of fun, tell some great stories, and enjoy a wonderful hobby.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Rails and Bumpers: Designing for Free-Range PCs with Invisible Fences

Every GM struggles in the beginning balancing between authoring a compelling story and giving players freedom. Go too far into authorship and you start railroading players and denying player agency. Swing towards giving you much freedom and there will be a lack of cohesive story and a big problem with trying to prep for the game. To cover this were going to use an analogy of trains versus bumper cars.

Trains are a pretty simple idea. You connect major points via a path. There is no deviating from this path. Anytime anything stats to lead us off the orphaned path, something pushes back in the right direction. This is the perfect model for describing how not to put together a campaign, hence the name railroading. Railroading can deny entire potential plot lines. It can also deny actions that players want to take because they lead off track. This is very frustrating to players who want to be driving the story.

Still, we need a way to keep players in some rough limits so we can prepare for the game and knit together subplots, plots, and overarching storylines into something epic. If we let players just wander around randomly, rolling for encounters on random encounter tables, there won't really be a story. Instead of letting our players go free-range and wander off into the weeds, what we're going to do is add some bumpers. Then the players can go on their merry way until something is going to give them a shove to get them going in the right direction in our defined plot region again. PCs become bumper cars in our little plot region.

So what is a plot region? Plot regions are areas where motivation, conflict, locations, and characters converge. For example, if I put the sister of a PC as a hostage in a tower, I have a motivation and a location. If I now put that tower in a neighboring kingdom that is warring with the kingdom where the PCs are currently located, I have added characters, locations, and conflict. Together these things form a plot region that I prepare and add detail to. I don't have to define how the PCs will interact with these things, but I can be assured that a story will arise from it. The PCs control that story.

Bumpers, in this case, are the plot points we add to keep the PCs "in bounds". For example, if the PCs try to run away from the scenario, we might have them captured by one of the kingdoms and pulled back in. We aren't dictating at all what the PCs do or how they react, but we are giving them continual motivation to get involved however they choose. Some of these bumpers may give them biases that we can later break. Everything is dynamic as it plays out.

Preparation of plot regions is actually pretty simple. Assume that the PCs can do anything they choose. Now prepare for it. This ultimately means fleshing out the locations, placing people / creatures in these locations, giving these people / creatures motivations and information, and stat everything out for combat and non-combat encounters.

This is surprisingly easy in most cases. After all, we are GM, and we don't need to follow all the details of a PC stat block or even a full monster stat block. Stats for a creature might be copy/paste or even just jotting down a Monster Manual page number. We don't need to build a full character for the evil necromancer king -- we can give him some cool spells, some minions, and some basic stats. I even use libraries of character sheets to grab stats from so all I need is to paste a link.

Motivations and information are by far the most important party of the whole build. After all, the motivation and knowledge of an NPC dictates how they act, how they negotiate, and how and when they will fight. The challenge for the GM is being able to take a few words about motivation and knowledge and turn them into effective roleplay. Often adding some notes about inspiration (This character is Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman".) or about the voice used ("Use the shrek voice.") can help you a lot in remembering where to go with a character.

In the end, bumpers have their limits in these plot regions. The game is always about what the players and GM make it about, so sometimes you have to throw the bumpers away and start a new journey. They key with this is to never get too far ahead with your prep that you feel like you can't throw something away. Besides, nothing every truly gets thrown away -- you can always recycle it and reuse it later. After all, there is no guarantee that everything in a plot region is going to get used. Just build and save the unused for the next one.

Bumper cars are the way to go. Save railroads for Monopoly games. You and your players will be happier.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Go To Starter Adventure: Pink Dice's Version of "A Dark and Stormy Knight"

"A Dark and Stormy Knight" is a 1st level adventure written by Owen K. C. Stephens. It was released by Wizards of the Coast for d20 aka D&D 3.5.  It is one of my favorite starter adventures because it covers all the major bases for a starter adventure -- introducing characters to each other, introducing some lore, hitting all the major rules, and teaching many beginner lessons of D&D. I personally have used this adventures in different forms for D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, and D&D 5E.

The adventure takes place in a tomb covered in a large hill, often called a barrow.  As the story starts, a squall sets in from the coast that is throwing heavy rain, wind, and deadly lightning at the PCs. They are traveling through the woods on their own, unconnected, when the storm hits. One of the lightning blasts cracks open the doors of this tomb, and the PCs take shelter there one by one.

In this part of the country, which I usually set on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms, ferocious storms hit often. As a result, people follow storm peace. It basically states that travelers caught in a storm agree to peaceful coexistence while taking shelter. As a result, all of the PC travelers feel reasonably safe to take shelter together, even with strangers.

Arriving in the Main Entry

I have the PCs roll initiative (often the first roll for new players) and arrive in the order of their rolls. I have each player describe what their character looks like as they enter. I usually give each PC some time to explore before others arrive.

The door of the tomb has been recently blown open by a near lightning strike, perhaps seen by the first PC as they approach. The interior, beyond the stone double entry doors, is very dark except for the occasional strikes of lightning outside. The room is perhaps 30 ft square with 3 sets of double stone doors leading further into the tomb to the north, east, and west. There is a decorative stone border about the top of the room which will reveal when it was built and who built it, for those that know those sorts of things.

The stone doors to other areas cannot be forced opened. There are no traps and not much in this main room except for some debris. With little effort, one of the PCs can start a fire for warmth and light. The fierce storm will build as the PCs start to chat by the fire (or in the cold, I suppose) until water will start seeping into the room, especially in the back corner (farthest from the fire). Water will pool and rats will start to crawl into the room, escaping the flooding. The party will most likely engage the rats, but if not, the rats will attempt to take food and perhaps bite at the PCs. This is a good first level combat that introduces not only the mechanics, but how each of the party members fight.

If you are using sounds effects, the raging storm is nice to have in the background.

It is also very good if you give the PCs a plot hook for the campaign before they get here. If they are all going to the same town or to see the same person, they can talk about that. Essentially, this mini-adventure can form the party for whatever lies ahead in your campaign.

The storm will continue to get worse and worse until another lightning strike will blow open the doors to the east and west.

The Statue to the West

To the west, the corridor bends left then right and leads to a wooden door. The door is locked. Upon opening the door, the party will see a small pedestal across the room. On this pedestal, at first glance, sits the statue of a small fiend.

With a really good perception check, one of the PCs might notice that this is in fact a living creature. Idenitfying what kind of creature and what they know about it is a good thing to cover. I typically use a quasit for this little guy. His name is Merf. Merf can fly, can turn invisible, and can scare the party. His motivations are to 1) get out of this tomb and 2) to get something to eat. He might also have a tendency to look for a "bigger" creature to protect and direct him. This is very much meant to be a social encounter.

If the party tries to hurt him, Merf will scare the attacker and turn invisible.  The party cannot hurt Merf -- he is too empowered for them. He can fly almost silently, but the slight flutter of his wings can be used to taunt the party. He will happily engage the party in conversation. If the party gives him food, he will trust them. He knows about the spiders later in the tomb and the mage knight and will offer the party this information freely to help them.

Merf will also tell the story of being summoned to be the mage knight's familiar, about how evil and mean the knight was, and how he got locked here when the mage knight died.

Merf is a great future story hook. If the party sets him free, he may wreak havoc in the world nearby. If the party ask Merf to join, he will do so. Merf adds a bit of comic relief to the party. He often will try to help, but really has no idea about adventuring and will often to the wrong thing.  He also likes to fly in loop-de-loops.

Inevitably the paladin always gets one whiff of Merf, thinks he is evil, and tries to kill him. Merf is an evil creature, but is essentially an innocent. Make sure you use this distinction to engage your expectations with the paladin about how good, lawful, innocents, and other alignments play out in your campaign.

The Chest to the East

To the east the corridor bends and winds to a wooden door. Behind this door, in the center of a small room is a chest. The chest is locked. The thief or similarly skilled PC in the party will be able to open the lock. However, inside the chest is a trap that has only slight tell-tale signs on the outside, making it difficult to detect. If it is detected, the exact nature of the magical trap will be unknown. (It can also be detected as magical.) This is a good time to cover your expectations for active and passive perception, and how you treat magical traps.

If the chest is opened, the trap will go off and everyone within 20 feet will get hit with a fireball. This should do more damage if the PCs don't take cover or hide under the edge of the pedestal. This may result in the chest-opening PC getting downed, which makes for a wonderful discussion of death rules. No one will die, because of the loot contained therein.

Inside the chest are healing potions to help the party along. This helps reinforce the fact that the party doesn't need a dedicated healer. A magical light source is a good thing to add here too.

Further into the Tomb

As the storm continues to pelt the barrow, another lightning strike will blow the doors to the north open in the main room. There is a very dark corridor leading to a large room (40 ft square) lit by smoldering embers. In this room are 3 hobgoblins with solid armor and weapons that don't recognize storm peace. Successful stealth will allow a PC to sneak into range. Two foes will be near the door and attempt to surround and gang up on the weakest combatant in range, once they notice the PCs. Across the room the third hobgoblin will be using a ranged weapon like a crossbow or bow.

The hobgoblins are meant to be really tough in melee. This is the scenario where the party learns who has characters that can engage effectively in melee and who can't. More times than not, the first character into the room is the rogue / thief / sneak who is woefully outmatched in melee by two hobgoblins.

This fight also gets to show that not all fights end in everyone dead. Once the first two hobgoblins are defeated, the third will make a quick escape by the north hall that goes deeper into the tomb. After a moment, the party will hear the hobgoblin's scream as he meets his unfortunate end.

The party also gets to loot a couple of corpses, which is always fun.

The room itself contains the fire made from pieces of broken furniture. There is also a rope that leads up to a collapsed portion of the ceiling and presumably to the surface of the barrow where the hobgoblins got in. Water dripping down from here has caused the fire to smolder.

Webs and Corpses

North, down the corridor where the hobgoblin fled, is nothing but pitch black darkness. This is a good time to talk about who has darkvision and who needs a torch. It is also good to describe how bad a torch is for stealth. I also like to describe the light blindness caused by the torch.

Heading down this corridor leads to a T. The whimpering screams of the hobgoblin will be to the right, often leading the party in that direction.  Down this corridor will be an increasing number of webs. The corridor ends in a web infested room with a number of web-wrapped corpses. If the party approaches, a spider on the ceiling will attack with webs to attempt to entangle the PCs. Two other spiders lurk in the room.

Poison and webs make this an interesting fight, but it isn't really hard. Still, it is the sort of fight that feels dangerous, so definitely play it up. Getting caught in existing webs is a real danger, so tell the PCs when there are webs before they move, so they understand what happened when they get stuck.

Raiding the web-wrapped corpses will provide some loot, including that of one recently-killed hobgoblin. A PC may also try to harvest poison from the dead spiders.

The Knight

The final room of the barrows is the tomb of the mage knight which can be found by taking a left at the T. The room has two large stone doors at the entrance. If you want to enforce play order, hide the key for these doors in the spider room loot.

In this case, I usually use a zombie / skeleton of a large creature like a troll or ogre for the knight.  Merf, if he is with the party, will be scared and refuse to enter this room "with the mean master". Upon entering the room, the PCs will find a sarcophagus broken open. Once one PC gets within reach, the knight will stand up and attack. I usually make sure the knight has a reach weapon to illustrate that in combat. I definitely make it so the party has to fight for a few rounds before taking this guy down.

The sarcophagus in this case makes a nice piece of terrain to play around with. With it and the reach weapon, you can make the PCs have to attack from odd locations, resulting in more interesting combat.

Of course the loot for this room should be the best. By the time I get here, my party usually levels up to 3 with their final victory.

Summary

So, in summary, this is what you can get out of this little 6 room dungeon covering levels 1 and 2:

  • Introduction of the party
  • Lore (storm peace)
  • History / stonecunning (decoration in the main entryway)
  • Social interaction (with Merf)
  • Alignment (dealing with Merf)
  • Traps (Chest room)
  • Combat with melee and ranged (hobgoblin fight)
  • Stealth (sneaking up on hobgoblins)
  • Darkvision and lighting (dark north corridor)
  • Non-lethal encounter endings / chase (retreating hobgoblins)
  • Poison (spiders)
  • Entanglements (spiders)
  • Harvesting poison (spiders)
  • Loot and looting (throughout)
  • Identifying potions (chest room)
  • Reach weapons (mage knight)
  • Terrain (mage knight)
  • Future plot hooks (throughout)
  • Nature for monster info (throughout)
I suspect there is a lot of other stuff I probably missed too, but you get the idea.

So grab this and/or the original and hack it into something you can use in your game.


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Puzzle Clock

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

This week we're covering a giant puzzle encounter. Our encounter is located as the only entrance into an area that the PCs really wants to access, details left to the GM. The top level puzzle, which isn't to be explained to the players, is a clock. The entryway to the area is a portal that leads to area 1. Portals lead in order from the end of area 1 to the start of area 2, from the end of area 2 to the start of area 3, and so forth, until finally the portal at the end of area 12 leads to the area of interest.

Lore, legend, or a tavern conversation will tell the party that the entry portal only opens at noon each day. The detail that the PCs will need to discover for themselves is that the initial portal is only open for a few minutes, and that subsequent portals open for an hour each, one after the other. As a result, it will take a minimum of one hour to traverse from area to the next, and thus a total of 12 hours to reach the end. Should the PCs fail to reach the next area before the portal closes, they are stuck in that region with its dangers for 23 hours.


To add to the suspense, use an actual timer and set the portals opening and closing based on the timer. You won't want to wait an hour, so pick a time that works for your party, and stop the timer when combat starts, since combat is notoriously slow.

The 12 regions are described below. All of these dangers are magical in nature, and thus will reset periodically. Try to let the players work out the puzzles on their own. If they reach a point of frustration, let them roll for their characters to attempt to figure them out. Give hints if you need to. Keep it challenging but fun.

As puzzles go, there puzzles are meant to test a gambit of skills, not just traditional "intellectual" puzzles. Fast, strong, wise, smart, charismatic, and tough will all be needed.

  1. The Lake
    • The entry and exit portals lies on opposite sides of a murky lake that covers most of the room with a small shore on each side.
    • In the center of the lake on one wall is a small square platform.
    • There are illusions of creatures in the water barely visible to a subset of the party. The creatures would be a tough fight by themselves, but as a group would be potentially deadly to the party.
    • The platform has a trap that is undetectable unless it is investigated at close range. This can be done while in the water next to the platform.
    • Anyone who crawls, jumps, or otherwise touches the top of the platform will be severely injured. Optionally, use lightning and have it electrify all of the water at the same time, so anyone in the water also takes some damage.
    • The plaque on the floor at the entrance states "There is only one thing to fear."
    • SOLUTION: The only thing to fear is fear itself. So long as the party crosses the water directly by swimming, they are fine. If they use the platform, someone is going to have a bad time.
    • GM TIP: Describe the creatures in detail and let the PCs make checks to find out what they know about the creatures they see. This will make them convincing.
  2. The 3 Caves
    • There is a single wandering tunnel with 3 caverns along it, increasing in size: small, medium, then large.
    • There are 3 gold plates, perhaps 2 feet in diameter, in the first room. 6 Plates are in the second room and 5 plates are in the third room. Each room has 10 slots in the floor that can hold the plates.
    • A protective force shield does not allow the party to approach the portal to the next region.
    • The plaque on the entrance reads "Round plates into square holes."
    • SOLUTION: The patterns is n x n aka n-squared, where n is 1, 2, and 3. The portal will be protected until 1 plate is in the first room, 4 are in the second, and 9 are in the third. The order does not matter, nor do the slots chosen to place the plates in.
  3. The Two Chambers
    • A long narrow tunnel wanders for perhaps a hundred feet before reach a single chamber that has no other exits.
    • The chamber is longer than wide. There is a table with 7 colored bells on it -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Red is the lowest note, and pitch increases up to violet being the highest note.
    • The second chamber has holes in the floor that will hold the bells. 
    • The plaque reads "Simplicity is the key."
    • SOLUTION: The bells in the first room do nothing. There is a secret door at the far end of the room that can be detected by at least 1 person in the party. It leads to a second chamber.
    • So long as the party doesn't remove the bells from the first room, the portal will open.
    • The simple answer, is thus, doing basically nothing.
    • GM TIP: Carefully record every action the PCs take as if it matters.
  4. The Pit
    • The pit is over 100 feet across and the room is magically dark, so you can't see the other side. Magic doesn't defeat this simple property.
    • There is no detectable bottom to the pit. Anyone falling into the pit will take severe falling damage and be teleported back to the entry portal for this region.
    • Anyone falling twice without healing in between will likely die.
    • The plaque reads, "Seeing is not believing, believing is seeing."
    • SOLUTION:  The party has to traverse the pit. Tying ropes together and using a grappling hook will work. Spells, potions, and other class features may help. 
    • Jumping probably won't work.
    • Know the distance to the other wide will require trial and error with sense other than sight, thus believing but not seeing.
  5. The Colored Tiles
    • There is a small entry room, a visible exit room, and in-between a large room with a colorfully tiled floor.
    • The tiles are 3 ft square and colored red, yellow, orange, green, black, purple, blue, brown.
    • Each tile has a different effect when someone (not an object) touches it
      • RED -- fire damage
      • YELLOW -- toggles the light in the room -- can you see color in pitch black darkness?
      • ORANGE -- poison damage
      • GREEN -- healing
      • BLACK -- changes the tile colors (rotate the list); new effects happen immediately
      • PURPLE -- spews slippery slime in a 10 ft radius
      • BLUE -- freeze damage
      • BROWN -- tile springs up, throwing anyone on it 10 ft in a random damage causing minor damage and perhaps triggering a new effect
    • The plaque says "Choose a wise path."
    • SOLUTION: Ideally the party would just jump from green tile to green tile, but the distances won't work out to allow that. Taking some damage is probably the best approach, but choosing the wrong tiles could be interesting.
    • Testing tiles from the edge is probably a good idea.
  6. The Tunnel
    • A wide tunnels zigs and zags back and forther from entrance to exit.
    • The tunnel breaks up line of site so each new turn cannot be seen until it is reached.
    • There are random traps scattered throughout the tunnel, especially right around the corners.
    • Some traps are easy to spot, but hard to decipher how they work.
    • Some traps are hard or impossible to spot.
    • Some traps affect other traps.
    • Some traps put large distances between the trigger and the effect.
    • Some traps only trigger after they have been stepped on a certain number of times.
    • Add in lots of false traps, like strange looking tiles and holes in the wall that do nothing.
    • Plaque reads "Watch your step."
    • SOLUTION: Find the traps and avoid them.
  7. Rooms of Choice
    • A corridor leads from the entry portal to a circular room.
    • The entry door to the circular room is a one-way door. Once in the circular room, you can't go back.
    • There are 5 doors leads elsewhere covered in 9 pictograms in a 3 x 3 matrix, given first row, second row, third row.
      • 4,9,2,3,5,7,8,1,6
      • 2,7,6,9,5,1,4,3,8
      • 6,1,8,7,5,3,2,9,4
      • 8,7,4,5,1,9,6,3,2*
      • 8,3,4,1,5,9,6,7,2
    • When one of the doors is touched, it disappears. 4 of the doors lead to rooms full of monsters that attack when the door disappears. The 5th leads to the exit.
    • Choose level appropriate monsters to fill the 4 rooms. Mix up the strategies required to defeat each.
    • The plaque reads "Don't spin your magic to win."
    • SOLUTION: Four of the matrices are the same, just rotated. They are also magic squares. The 5th is neither, and is marked above with an asterisk.
  8. Many Steps
    • There are five rooms tied together in order by corridors.
    • PCs cannot enter the corridor to the next room until they deal with the current one.
    • The rooms contain in order:
      • An empty urn
      • An empty fountain
      • A small model windmill
      • An unlit torch on a post
      • An empty glass sphere
    • Plaque reads "Build the world."
    • SOLUTION: This is an elements puzzle, referring to the 5 elements being the building blocks of the world. The urn must be filled with earth. The fountain must be filled with water. Wind must turn the windmill. The torch must be lit. The glass sphere must be infused with some sort of magic.
    • Dust and debris from the stone floor will provide enough earth.
    • A waterskin will provide enough water.
    • All of the party blowing together will turn the windmill. A spell will also work.
    • A torch can be lit by normal or magical means.
    • Any spell from any source can fill the sphere with magic.
  9. The Gauntlet
    • The gauntlet is a long hall with pairs of alcoves that mirror both sides of the corridor. There are 5 pair of alcoves.
    • Each alcove contains creature or creatures. They get harder to best as the PCs move down the hall.
    • At the end of the gauntlet is a room suitable for resting with the portal.
    • The plaque reads "Endure."
    • SOLUTION: The party has to defeat all the monsters without healing. Any healing magic by spell, potion, wand, scroll, etc, transports the party back to the start of this region and resets all of the monsters.
    • The resting room at the end allows healing and, in fact, will speed natural healing.
  10. Many Corridors
    • 7 Parallel corridors lead from the start to the finish of this region.
    • There are a couple of strong incorporeal foes (i.e. ghosts) in the corridors. 
    • The foes will engage all targets they can see. If they see no targets, they move to the next corridor.
    • The plaque reads "Strategize together or apart."
    • SOLUTION: Because of the strategy of these foes, it may be a very good time for the party to split up or stick together, depending on the party's roles, health, and abilities. 
    • If one character is really tough, they can occupy the ghosts until the rest are through.
    • If one character is really weak / hurt, the rest of the party can occupy the ghost while the weak one gets through safely.
  11. Columns
    • There are several columns in this room scattered randomly throughout. One must pass between the columns to reach the exit portal.
    • Half of the columns are glowing.
    • If a PC passes between two glowing columns, both columns discharge lightning and strike the PC. They then no longer glow.
    • If a PC passes between two non-glowing colums, they both start to glow.
    • If a PC passes between a glowing and non-glowing column, all columns toggle whether they are glowing or not.
    • The plaque reads "Don't go into the light."
    • SOLUTION: Careful planning will minimize the damage taken. If one of the party is immune to lightning damage, it gets even easier to work out a solution.
    • The clue refers to the light (glowing) causing lightning damage.
  12. The Storyteller
    • There is an entry chamber, and exit chamber, and a dragon chamber.
    • There is a dragon.
    • There is a fire with chairs about it.
    • The dragon will request the party to have a seat by the fire and for each of them to tell a story.
    • The dragon will not allow the PCs to pass without telling a story.
    • The plaque read "The best seat by the fire."
    • SOLUTION: This dragon needs to be convinced to let the PCs pass, or must be defeated in combat (likely PC death).
    • The full quote is "The best seat by the fire is for the storyteller."
    • The dragon is of neutral variety and it doesn't react to any persuasion based on arguments about good or evil.
    • The dragon is not greedy, and cannot be bribed.
    • The dragon cannot be persuaded by helping it to leave this place. It is content here, since it is a magical figment.
    • The dragon is immune to magical / psionic effects, and has true sight. This encounter cannot be simply bypassed by any means.
    • The dragon will only allow worthy individuals pass, but will not state that.
    • The dragon will judge based on the epic telling of the story, not the truth of it.
    • This is an opportunity for the PCs to share their backstories, share their exploits, and use their charisma-based skills. Roleplay!
    • GM Tip: Let the players roll, but add bonuses for their roleplay performance.
Upon leaving the puzzle clock, all party members are fully healed with all effects removed.  This is designed as a one-way passage, so remember not to use it also as an exit.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Coordinated Enemy

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

I am sticking this interesting encounter in as an extra because it is a short one. This encounter is also highly tactical and depends on the rules for your system. If you can't use it as is, there is probably a way you can adapt it to your system.

In this scenario, the party is wandering through a structure, dungeon, mansion, cavern, or other large structure with rooms and corridors. In my case, it is a dungeon. The PCs are fighting large numbers of a single type of enemies -- undead, orcs, goblins, kobolds, or, as in my case, warforged. Whichever location or type, the early battles in corridors and scattered locations will be easy.

Why are these early fights easy? Tactics won't matter in them. The enemies are spread out, they are easily surrounds by the PCs, and they they are outnumbered. Expect these early battles to start and end quickly with the PCs always victorious. Don't worry -- it's a setup.

At some point, the party is going to come to a room they need to cut through in order to get to their objective. This room, will be large enough to hold 6+ bad guys. They will be positioned in a U shape around the doorway, preferably with very dangerous weapons with reach. By reach, I mean the bad guys can strike someone walking through the door as soon as they enter without them being attackable by the entering PC. This is no random enemy. This is a coordinate group with a coordinated attack plan.

The PCs will likely not recognize the threat in this case. They open the door, see some enemies, and rush in. That first PC through the door is going to immediately get hit with maximum attacks from all of the bad guys at once. Compare this to earlier fights where a PC was lucky to get hit once, this 6+ strikes at once is going to hurt. In my case, the 6 warforged with glaives hit the party's barbarian so hard that he dropped and had to be dragged out by a fellow party member.  Don't chase the party when they fall back. The tactic works until they break through the door and engage the enemies in number.  That is the PC strategy that will work -- somebody takes the hit, then everyone runs in. Of course, there may be other options, depending on magic or other abilities at the PCs' disposal.

Now, sometimes it may be hard to get a U shape of enemies in position with enough oomph to take down a PC. In this case, consider adding a few ranged attackers at the back of the room to up with danger.

In the end, somebody is going to get hurt. That is OK. Hurt is not necessarily dead. Someone is going to have to take the hit in order to overcome the obstacle and get the party through. It will teach your players that they need to work together. Someones, what is good for the party, isn't good for the individual. This is one of those cases. That simple fact is the real challenge.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Hermit Mage

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

Sometimes adventuring parties gain too much confidence from too many victories, and throw caution to the wind. In these cases, it is sometimes necessary to remind the party that the world is a big place, and for all their powers and abilities, there is always someone more powerful.

I usually throw this encounter into an unlikely place, like searching through a dungeon or a cavern system or even in an old ruin. In this remote, unpopulated location, the party stumbles across a room with the glow of a burning fire and the smell of stew boiling over the flames.

In this room is a powerful mage. Feel free to build this mage to fit into whatever bigger scheme of the plot. In my recent campaign, centered around an evil gnome army, I made him a gnome. Tie this mage to the plot in such a way that the party thinks he has knowledge they need. You need to incite them to really want to talk to the mage.

The mage should be a lot more powerful than the party. Give him some ability that the party can't deal with -- flyings, teleporting, invisibility, whatever. Don't feel bad if you need to break normal patterns of class development to build this character to be tougher than the party.  If you like, give the mage a couple of servant minions just in case. Don't worry about this being fair in terms of a fight. That isn't the challenge they are meant to overcome by combat.

The mage has one goal. He has chosen this out of the way place so he isn't bothered. A party that has come to bother him for information. They have no magical knowledge above his level to trade. This is the worst kind of distraction. He just wants them to go away and never come back. He might also want to make sure the party doesn't tell anyone about his "hiding" place, mostly through intimidation, and if needed, manipulation of memories.

This encounter can play out a number of ways. The party can try to talk to the mage and just get turned away. As a GM, this is the least interesting outcome, so try to describe some things the PCs can see in the room that give them even more of a clue that this mage knows something. The PCs could aggressively or tenaciously attempt to talk to the mage. In this case, the mage is going to forcefully remove the party, quickly illustrating to the party they are outmatched. The party could attempt to patiently negotiate with the mage. In this case, the mage will likely lose patience and block the PCs out. If they aggressively respond to that, combat will erupt.

Combat, in this case, is not meant to be lethal, though it certainly could be. The party is going to get a quick dose of powerful magic, and should figure out the predicament. If they don't, and rush into full unceasing combat, have the mage apparently TPK the party. Then have them wake up later, far away, locked in crates or cages with their equipment nearby. The escape will be a fun challenge, and they will get the point.

In the end, the encounter is meant to place something the party wants just out of reach, protected by someone they cannot defeat. This is a huge awakening for some parties because it illustrates the big world with an always bigger power. It is good roleplay, though, and will give the PCs a bit more caution as they move forward.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Interesting Encounters: The Battle for Skullport

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

It is sometimes very challenging to get lower level characters engaged in a way that feels epic. This interesting encounter is putting some moderately leveled (5E level 7-ish) characters in the middle of a huge battle. This battle is designed to make the PCs actions determine the outcome of the battle. It is also designed to feel epic and balanced.

This particular battle takes place in Skullport in the Forgotten Realms, however, by replacing the foes with equivalents, it could really be a battle in almost any setting. Skullport is a city of ill repute that bridges the surface worlds and the Underdark in the realms. Unfortunately, in this scenario, it has been assaulted by an army of warforged and the PCs needs to help take it back.

The battlefront for this scenario is a coast line in a shallow bay. 50 Foot war golems, melee and ranged warforged groups, and warforged cannon groups line the coastline. In order to succeed, the party needs to destroy all of these foes, because in this case, they aren't backing down. (If you replace them with another foe, retreat may become an option, of course.)

The party is attacking from a battleship with advanced weapons. In my version the advanced weapons are cannons, but that can certainly be varied based on the setting. The plan is for the party to fire off colored magic flares at targets, and the battleship will attack those locations. The party is splitting up. Each PC gets a longboat with around 10 allied fighters of lower level. The PCs need to guide the longboats ashore and then engage in melee and ranged combat combat.

Because the allies are of lower level than the PCs, the PC special features can still do significantly higher damage than the group of allies. The PC controls both, giving them some flexibility.

There are a number of points of danger. The war golems can easily crush the incoming PC-controlled forces. The enemy cannons can also easily devastate the PC-controlled forces, as well. To give the PCs some maneuvering room, I added a lot of cover for the PCs to use to hide (along with their troops). The melee and ranged warforged forces are going to be gunning for the PCs. I used a very large battlefield to give the PCs (and their forces) time/space to move away/towards their enemies of choice. This is important, because if two groups of enemies engage them at once, they will be greatly outnumbered.

The war golems, if the PCs choose wisely, should stay focused on the battleship, wade out into the water to pummel it (where they are slowed by deeper water), and hopefully get obliterated by the battleship's advanced weapons.  This doesn't stop the battleship from getting severely damaged during the battle by the land-based enemy cannons. Make sure you give the PCs direct information on how badly damaged the battleship is to increase the tension.

The strategy that the PCs should quickly figure out is to bring the longboats under as much cover as possible, then sneak into range, and attempt to capture the enemy cannons. Enemy melee and ranged forces will complicate this, but once they get some cannons, they can either assist the battleship or take out enemy warforged on the shore.

When the PC and their group of allies get hit by normal damage, kill off their allies one by one. The dwindling number will feel very dramatic. However, when the party gets hit by area effects, like perhaps spells, make sure you damage the PCs too. The fear should always be that the PCs will end up as a lone target with no allies.

As the battle play out, if well-balance, it should feel very tense in the beginning, turn into hopelessness as the battleship approaches destruction, and then feel like joyous success as the PCs take the land-cannons and turn the tide. This will add a lot to the epic feel of the battle.

For more thoughts on how to run large battles, take a look at this article discussing a nice mathematical way of handling it.

The Dread Naught Campaign Summary

This is a brief summary of the 11 month campaign that I GMed and recently ended. I have left out the bulk of details about the party, which changed several times over the 11 months, but rather captured the framework of the plot used. I thought other GMs might find this inspiring. As with most of my campaigns, this one focused on epic deeds, not just humdrum bandit-bashing. There are, of course, added to this framework, a number of character specific plot lines which are mostly not discussed here. If you reuse any of this, definitely considering customizing it for the motivations of your party.

For reference this campaign took about 33 sessions. Each session took about an average of 3 hours, meaning that the campaign was about 100 hours of play. The party started at level 1 and fought the last battle at level 12. It was played using D&D 5E.

The Dread Naught Campaign continued a previous year and a half campaign that I ran in Pathfinder in the Forgotten Realms. Though the lore continues, the party is completely new and unaware of most of what happened in the previous campaign. The story starts out in the woods very near the small town of Grievance, just south of Baldur's Gate.

The party is started using the adventure "A Dark and Stormy Knight". This adventure find the various adventurer's taking shelter in an old tomb built into a hill. Inside they fight rats, they discover trapped treasure, they socially interact with a quasit named Merf, they fight hobgoblins, they fight off some spiders, and eventually they face off against a big bad undead Knight. The story introduces the characters to each other and takes them through all of the major rules of the game. Merf joined the party by choice of the party through strong social interaction.

From there, the party was off to Grievance. It was attacked by "cultists" and a blue dragon just after their arrival.  The party saved as may people as they could, took out some cultists, and then went after them. After infiltrating their lair, they stole back a bunch of the loot, freed a gold wyrmling and an elf named Varn, and started tracking down the bandits who had been masquerading as cultists.

The party infiltrated a caravan shipment of "cultist" loot headed for Baldur's Gate. The caravan was attacked before reaching Baldur's Gate, and all of the normal crew were killed. The party continued with the shipment into Baldur's Gate and found themselves suddenly in charge of a warehouse with a bunch of riches and blackpowder. Further investigation showed they were now in charge of a massive fortune being used to build something.

The something being built was completed under direction of the party. It was a massive warship called the Vengeance. The plot became clear. The "cultists" were actually bandits, mercenaries, and and others from Skullport. Skullport had been invaded by a warforged army commanded by evil gnomes. The party and the Skullport crew of the Vengeance were going to take the city back. Though the evil nature of Skullport was troubling, the party knew their actions would protect Waterdeep above.

Under the command of a beholder named Gurag, the party sailed into Skullport and started an assault on the warforged army. Leading groups of fighters, rangers, and other folk, the party forced the warforged to retreat back into the mysterious tunnel from where they came.

The Vengeance was left in Skullport, most likely to be dismantled for materials to rebuild the city. The party went after the gnome-controlled warforged army in the tunnels. They went through a rather large underground complex, clearing a path, and enabling power for some sort of magical tram.  There they found the first indications of the technological and magical advancements of these gnomes. Journals even spoke of Dreadnaught being completed and the bridge builder. These clues didn't really paint the whole picture though.

The party got underway on the tram, following the path of retreat of the warforged army. In the tram tunnels they experienced goblins, beholders, and other adventures. Above ground they tended to other cities attacked by the warforged army.

In Athkatla, they found a city that had disabled the warforged and used them for their own purposes. Unfortunately, tracking down this power was held up by various political entanglements with one of their own being framed for murder, and another member being put under a geas to kill the party's noble. In the end, evils were defeated, and some secrets of the warforged were uncovered. The party left the city, leaving behind one of its own as a new member of the city's government.

In Zazesspur, the party found a large crater formed by the unexpected explosion of a gnome-built mythallar. In this crater, the dead came back, and several lost party members and family members appeared to the party. The party also found the commoner population under attack by a plague. Through smart investigation, the party determined that Aluando and his band of mages and alchemists were the source. They were making plague potions from the dead remains of a sleeping tarrasque killed by a shard from the exploding mythallar. They also found a baby tarrasque that they added to the party.

The party ran Alaundo off after a short battle. They also infiltrated the city government fortress which was being run by shapeshifted gnomes. They retook control of it for the people. They also fought off a destructive religious order that was killing people in the city.  Unfortunately in the chaos of Zazesspur, the party lost Merf, their quasit party member, who disappeared after potentially tracking down Alaundo.

In Zazesspur they also found the Vengeance again, heavily damaged from battle with the Dreadnaught and with only one hidden crewman left alive. The description of the battle was troubling -- the Vengenace had been bombed and attacked by airships. They funded The Vengeance's repair and a new crew, and sent it to Calimport to assist in the future battle. With help from one of the party's friends, the battleship would sail to assist them once again.

Then the party headed on to Calimport. Along the way they learned their helpful friend Varn wasn't all he seemed to be. Varn, in fact, was a dragon, who told the story of the gnomes. The gnomes started north of Waterdeep in the mountains where they were guarded over by Palarandusk, an ancient gold dragon. During a previous battle (from a previous campaign) a magical anomaly was unleashed on the gnomes, causing them to enter hypertime and twisting their nature. The sped-up gnomes built airships and flew away to Chult, getting hundreds of years in hypertime to advance their tech and magic in only a few short years. More troubling though was that Palarandusk, friend of Varn, later disappeared, presumably at the hands of the gnomes. Varn was determined to find his ancient gold dragon friend and save him from whatever evil the gnomes had unleashed upon him. The magical secrets Palarandusk holds could be the death of all.

The party continued to Calimport where they joined forces with genasi rebels in the city.  The city was in ruins, with all normal folk leaving. Warforged and airships and lizardmen and dinosaurs took control of the city for the gnomes. Reconnaissance showed a large bridge being slowly built from Chult to Calimport, inching closer every day, with a walking city behind it. This walking city was the Dread, the first, serial number 0, the Dread Naught (a terrible pun). Airships guarded it and the bridge.

Unfortunately, while sneaking through the city, the party lost "Tarry", the baby tarrasque, to the gnome army. The stakes were greatly raised considering the destructive force the party had just given to the gnomes.

In the city, the party captured a downed airship which they took as their new battle platform. The party infiltrated the main base and determined the location of the tech center. There they battled a much stronger Alaundo and tracked down the information on the Dread Naught. Unfortunately, there, they also found Merf, who had been transformed into a terrible beast of destruction by Alaundo. The party was unable to save poor Merf, who mustered enough power to help the party before disappearing.

Using the recovered tech information, a plan was formulated to infiltrate the Dread Naught and explode the mythallar inside it. With support from Varn, the Vengeance, and other allies they had gained in the city, the party planned an attack to give the party cover for their operation.

The final battle was intense, with Varn battling airships in the sky and the party infiltrating the mechanical guts of the Dead Naught to plant an explosive device.  Merf made a brief appearance to assist the party, but was later lost to an unknown end. The Dread Naught and bridge builder were destroyed by the mythallar explosion. The Vengeance was sank with only some crew recovered. Varn took out most of the local gnome air fleet. Golaiths and genasi stormed the bridge builder, but escape before the final explosion. With the destruction of so much of the gnome army, the rest retreated back into the underground tunnels. The party barely escaped with their lives, hanging from ropes from the airship Menace as it flew clear of the explosion.

The Sword Coast was saved from the invasion, but the war is not over. The gnomes still lurk, learning and rebuilding in the jungles, mountains, and savannas of Chult. The bulk of the party left for safer lands and safer times. Cieran, as the remaining dedicated member and captain of the Menace airship, gathers a crew to head for Chult to start the new campaign: Nightmares of Chult. Deep in the jungles of Chult, the new party hopes to recover the Tarrasque that was lost, find Palarandusk, and stop the dangerous gnome enemy before all of Faerun falls to their diabolical plans.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Grande Hotel

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

The Grande Hotel is a social encounter. I originally wrote this encounter as a balancing bit of luck for a min-maxed overly-charismatic bard. It certainly highlights the dangers of being too reliant on only a single aspect in a single character. It is also a lesson in not splitting the party.

The Grande Hotel is the first big chance for the new big damn heroes to flaunt their wealth and get some rest. From the moment the party walks into the hotel, they get a flood of elegance. A doorman opens the door for them and offers to take their *ahem* luggage. If they agree, a bellboy will appear with a cart and take any items, weapons, etc and load them on.

At the front desk, a very polite man will offer to get them a room or suite, separate or together. After they pay for their room, he will offer to have one of the other servants measure the party and send up evening wear before dinner, since the party probably doesn't have any such thing with them.

The rooms will be beyond anything most of the party has imagined. Dealing with the staff is always pleasant. The other guests may not be so welcoming. Nobles that stay in the hotel will be particularly snobby. Give the players a good hook into the next stage of their adventure that requires them to talk to them and gather information.

The charismatic leader of the party will catch the eye of one of the two beautiful sisters that owns the Grande Hotel. Venecia is a very beautiful woman, and she will take an instant liking to this charismatic party member, who I'll call Jim, although Jim need not be a man. Jim will say all the right thing in his normal charismatic way, and in doing so, will get invited to dinner with the owners. Everything about Venecia will seem pleasant and wonderful, even perhaps supernaturally so.

If there is a cleric, priest, or paladin in the party besides Jim, they might a bit of a bad feeling about Venecia. It won't be anything specific unless they dig in further.  Any cautions from them will be hand-waved off by Venecia in a very convincing way. After all, Venecia and her sister are respected business people in this city.

Should someone try to join Jim and the sisters for dinner, Venecia will indicate her desire to spend some alone time with Jim. Venecia might even offer a rain check for another night for the one wanting to join their dinner.

The rest of the party will be dining at the same time in the grand dining hall. The servants will have provided elegant evening wear and insist that they leave their weapons in their rooms.  A PC may be able to hide a small weapon like a couple of daggers under their jacket or a light crossbow under a puffy dress. They will be seated among other guests and enjoy a variety of small talk.  Along with the snobbery before, there may be calls for stories. This is a great time for the party to tell about some of their adventures. The nobles, of course, will be impressed by everything excepting descriptions of obvious gore.

Jim will be escorted onto the roof of the Grande Hotel where there is a beautiful garden open to the sky.  The sun will have just set and stars will be appearing. There will be a low table there, surrounded by pillows, and loaded with fruit and other feast-worthy foods. The servants will get everything in order for Jim. Venecia will be there waiting. Her sister, Varista, will arrive late in a beautiful dress with a veil. Venecia will say all the right things. Her sister will say very little, coughing perhaps a bit, and mentioning that she has a cold.

Once dinner is underway, the servants will ask if there is anything else. Venecia will send the servants away, saying that they no longer wish to be disturbed. If Jim studies the servant's face, he will notice an odd look. Venecia's face will tell of ravenous desires.

After the servants leave and dinner is finished, the sisters will snuggle in close to Jim. The affection will quickly turn as Varista pulls away her veil, revealing a gaunt frightening face. The illusions will quickly drop as the sisters are revealed as succubi. Jim is obviously to be their dinner.

They situation will seem quite dire at first. Jim, because he is more of a talker than a fighter, may not have the physical skills to fight off the sisters. Even a skilled fighter will be hard pressed to fight off two of such fiends. He will be struggling to ultimately try to get away to signal the others.

The others will be down a floor and down a hall, so it isn't an easy location to hear anything from the roof. The one saving event is that someone at dinner with the party might mention several hints at other guests disappearing and some strange tidbits about the sisters. That might be enough to have one of the party members grow alarmed.

Whether Jim is able to contact the party or the party decides to check on Jim, it ultimately turns into a fight between the sisters and the party. The sisters will use their wiles and persuasion to attempt to talk the party into letting them be. They obviously have a tremendous amount of money to offer. This chance meeting with Jim was a desperate last measure to save Varista's life, after all. The party may or may not be convinced.

No matter what happens, this evening will likely be the party's last night of staying in the Grand Hotel.  In addition, should they kill the sisters, they will be hard pressed to make a convincing tale for the local authorities that the sisters were succubi. The sisters may return to humanoid form after killed, likely resulting in the party being wanted for murder. This makes for another nice plot hook.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Interesting Encounter: The Goblin Luge

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

This encounter is all about excitement and speed with a lot of humor thrown in. The encounter takes place on a sleepy little snow-covered mountainside in a village. The party can start out either inside or outside.  After an overnight ice storm, the party will be startled by screaming and strange noises.

A group of goblins has gathered up the mountain from the village. They have recently discovered that if they load 4 or more of them onto metal shields they recently recovered from a nearby battle, they can attain a lot of speed going down the hill. They get the wonderfully evil idea of using this new found method of transportation to make a raid on the village.

The raid starts with the first few groups sliding through the village at high speed. They have bladed weapons that at speed can be quite deadly to townsfolk or hurt the PCs. They are also trying to grab things like goats and buckets and laundry and whatever else might be outside as they slide through. Some sleds with fewer goblins might even be going slow enough for ranged weapons like shortbows to come into play.

The goblins will grab whatever is in reach, which is not always a good idea. One sled might end up with a laundry line of bloomers blocking their view. Another might spin out of control with the uneven weight distribution of a grabbed goat. Some might hit ramps of wood or other material laying around in the village. An airborne sled can do a lot of damage if it hits someone or something, though the goblin crew won't fair well in the collision.

Because the goblin shield sliders are moving so quick, they will be extremely difficult to hit if attacked, and also difficult to dodge. Since this looks like a fun raid, however, there will be a lot of goblins up the hill waiting for their turn keeping the chaos going.  The party may try to engage the goblin sledders, improvise traps, grapple them, or even charge up the hill after them. In all cases, they will be at risk for weapon attacks and collisions.

The real goal at the heart of this encounter is keeping the goblins from hurting townsfolk and taking their stuff, so the party may also be corralling townsfolk indoors and moving stuff out of the grasp of goblins. The might also be building up things to deflect the goblin luge track away from the village.

To further complicate the encounter, some large creature, like a hobgoblin or ogre may come along and decide this looks like fun. Where the party is preparing for only the goblins, this makes for a hilarious change of pace. The bulk of a much larger creature is going to call for an immediate change of tactics. Failure to do so will cause a lot of damage, and even perhaps result in a PC being grabbed up and taken captive. A huge creature could also destroy buildings or grab up townsfolk.

Another aspect is that the goblins will be attempting to pilfer items off the party. If the fighter's magical sword or the wizard spellbook gets grabbed, the pursuit is on. Expect that the PCs will grab an empty shield and head down the hill after them. The chase is on.

During the chase, let the PCs lean to steer and push with their arms and weapons to gain speed. With any luck, they will catch up and engage the goblins in melee combat while sliding.  Of course, in true Indiana Jones style, or perhaps inspired by Numenera's GM intrusions, the chase has to end badly.

The improved mountainside luge track empties out on to a partially frozen lake. At the bottom, the sleds will slide out onto the ice. The ice is safe for small goblins but the bigger PCs will, of course, crack through the lake and start the ice chunks flowing towards -- you guessed it -- a waterfall.  What was at first a fun chase, is now turning into a fight to life or death. The PCs will usually be able to just paddle their concave shield over to the shore and count themselves lucky.

If the large creature earlier grabbed something, it is going to be bad news at the bottom of the hill. The huge creature is going for a dip through the ice into the cold water, and whatever he grabbed is going with him. If it is a PC, there is going to be significant cold damage, a fight to reach the surface and potentially break through the ice. Trying to get warm before frostbite and hypothermia set it will also be a challenge.  With the party in chase, this shouldn't be too big of a problem, but it should feel dangerous.

In the end, the party should have a good time watching the goblin antics and feel lucky they survived the encounter relatively unscathed, except perhaps for a missing item or too.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Danger of Stereotyping Players

We probably have all heard the stereotypes: the munchkin, the min-maxer, the power gamer. There are entire sections in gaming books written on different types of gamers and how to deal with them. Today, I'm covering why this kind of classification of players is dangerous for being a good GM.

Using stereotypes to identify players is a terrible way to relate to your gaming group. Once you believe you can adequately boil down the needs, wants, and behaviors of a player to a single name, you have lost sight of all of the details that differentiate that player from everyone else. You start thinking that those stereotypes are the important part of what defines a player. You start designing a game around those stereotypes. People are rarely so fundamentally cookie-cutter. Stereotypes gloss over the details that you need to pay attention to in order to be responsive to your players.

So how do you deal with a power gamer or a min-maxer, if you don't want power gaming or min-maxing in your game? If you are already convinced that is what these players solely want, then the only answer is to kick them out. A power gamer will power game, right? Wrong. Power gaming is a behavior, one that any player might pick up in a certain situation. If we focus on people as a problem, instead of behavior as a problem, we lose all of our options for dealing with undesired behavior. When one of my players starts min-maxing a character too far, I send them a reminder, that in my games we play characters, not character sheets, and that min-maxing a character is not acceptable in my games. Players respond to this. They can change behavior. They can become better players. They are not limited to one play style. They can grow beyond a stereotype.

Stereotypes with bad connotation are also a problem because they are used to mask other problems. Every couple of months a post pops up on the forums with an exasperated player.  "My GM isn't enforcing the rules, other players are doing things that aren't allowed, and I don't want to be a rules lawyer." Sometimes the GM in the game has gone so far as to tell the player to stop rules lawyering. This is a valid complaint by a player, that the GM and other players aren't playing by the rules. Instead of dealing with the valid problem, the player who brings it up gets swept under the rug as a rules lawyer, and nothing gets fixed or improved. Stereotypes for players provide a shield for the GM, allowing them to ignore problems. That doesn't help anyone. Stereotypes are too often used like this, to write people off.

The bottom line is that your players are complex people with probably varied backgrounds in gaming. If you want to put together a good experience for everyone, you need to drop your stereotype view of the game and focus on really caring about what your players want. Instead of calling out players as bad players with bad habits who will never change, focus on reigning in bad behaviors when they impact everyone having fun in your game. Taken together, these things can help improve your game, without the stereotype name-calling.


Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween


My home will be safe from candy-seeking adventurers tomorrow night.

Horror Games: The Evil Within

The horror genre in gaming is drastically different than the horror genre in movies and fictions. In a game where monsters are fought all the time and where the PCs are trained warriors of some ilk, monsters just aren't as terrifying. The lack of direct visual representation of the situation, combined with the lack of real-time pace, makes it more difficult to generate the wonderful jolt of being scared. To replace these elements, consider focusing on another great horror: the evil within.

The evil within is all about generating paranoia and fear within the party. By making the party a potential enemy, it makes combat more tense. Trust is broken. When your ally could at any moment become your enemy, it makes it hard to let them do the things they need to do, even like just standing behind you.

To bring out the evil within, we are going to use 3 different mechanics: sanity, disease, mental domination. Sanity mechanics allow us to use horrific circumstances to mentally break down the PCs, first generating annoying quirks in their behavior, but marching them steadily towards total insanity. Disease can be used to slowly eat away at the PC's body and brain, adding to insanity, and perhaps even turning them into a monster. Mental domination is the ability for external force to take over or heavily influence PCs into acting against their normal will, turning instantly into an enemy, one the party may be hesitant to deal with.

Pressured actions are the 4th element we add. We aren't really using any new mechanic or event. Instead, what we do is set the plot on a course in such a way that the PCs feel they have to move it forward. By depriving them of information, they feel pressured to go along with the path of events. These events, however, slowly change from seemingly normal to excessively cruel, violent, or corrupt. Like slowly heating a lobster so it doesn't feel the heat, we slowly immerse the party into a series of deeds that increase in evil and unlawful nature. In essence, we bring the party slowly to the dark side. The end result is one or more of the party members committing an act they would never normally consider.

At first this won't set in. The PCs will be oblivious to what happened. Later, however, the PCs, when put under stress, will remember what their party members are capable of. This will enhance the paranoia and distrust brought on by other factors.

Cultivating the evil within the party as a true threat takes time. However, as the stresses increase on the party in your horror game, these seeds that you plant early on will take grip. At maturity, you can truly generate some of the fear that we all really want in our horror games.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Planning for a Long-Term Campaign: When Sessions Turn into Years

It is the holy grail of gaming: to have a game that goes on for years, chewing through PCs and plot lines to build truly epic heroes.  Today's article is addressing how to plan out a long-term campaign and what to expect.

The first aspect of planning a long-term campaign is recognizing that things are going to change. Long-term campaigns only succeed when they can continue through the expected changes. The first thing you can expect is that real life is going to generate absences. To make a game resilient against absence, get a group size that is larger than what you need to play. For my games, I run with 6, knowing that most encounters will do just fine when only 4 are present.  Even with this, there are going to be times you just can't get together a quorum. Expect this to happen around holidays. Whatever you do, maintain consistency in scheduling. It is way to easy for a few skipped session to turn into the defacto ending of your gaming group.

Another change you have to be prepared for is the loss of players. The world is a dynamic place with school classes that start and stop, with jobs that come and go, and with people that move away.  Be prepared to replace players you lose. Players especially tend to leave around May-June, August-September, and around December-January.  When a player leaves, be prepared to find a new player, and be prepared to get them up to speed quickly on both rules and the story. Documents prepared and updated throughout the game can help your with this.

From these expected absences, you can get an idea of when your sweet spots are in the gaming year -- Mid-January to April and September through October. These are the times you want to plan the beginnings and the ends of segments of your campaign. These are also the times you will have the best player attendance and the most motivated players, so save your best story lines for these times.

The second aspect of planning a successful long-term campaign is to break it up into segments. Not every player is going to want to play a single character for all 20 levels.  Having major segments with major story lines breaks up the 20 levels. In between segments, you can give your players a chance to switch characters. It is also a good time to make major changes in setting.  Segments should be chosen to last from 6 months to a year, depending on how quick your group grows to wants changes made to characters.

The third, and most important aspect, of running a long-term campaign is having an overarching story that ties the full campaign together end-to-end. This story need not be a single villain or single mission, but it should connect together the segments, and build larger meaning from the individual challenges that the party overcomes. Possible patterns for this include a large organization that have far reaching influence and apocalyptic plots that will end the world. War also can provide a backdrop for an overarching story. This overarching story just needs to be an outline -- don't add the details and specifics until they come up in the campaign. Prepping too far ahead will be wasting all of the good ideas you'll get in the meantime. It also ties your hands in responding to player feedback.

No matter which story binding concept you choose, be sure to use character backstories to tie characters to it. Stories are far better when the characters have real motivation to move them forward.

Finally, the fourth thing to keep in mind in a long-term campaign is that you need to continually increase heroics required by the party. You can't end a segment on a wonderful climax of saving the day, and then immediately go back at the beginning of the next segment to hunting down bandits. Every story line has to take the danger, the action, the rewards up a notch. Without it, boredom will ensue and the game will fall apart.

I encourage, as you think about starting your next campaign, that you take on the challenge of a long-term campaign. It takes a little extra work, but it is a nice feeling to know you are really bring a regular bit of happiness to yourself and others, throughout the trials of everyday life, something that truly improves the years.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Darkness and the Light: Using Foil NPCs

Without light, there is no darkness. In literature, we take this simple idea of contrast a step farther with the idea of a foil.  A foil is a character or object used in literature to purposefully contrast another character or object, in the process, emphasizing the contrasting characteristics. The use of a foil character is not just limited to literature. You can use it very effectively in a TTRPG game too.

A good example is the pair of Boromir and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. Aragorn and Boromir both are fierce fighting men joining a mission.  However, the contrast between these two character is what is most emphasized in the telling in the story. Without Boromir's complete failure in resisting the ring, we would not be able to recognize how strong Aragorn really is.

Similarly, in the RPG stories we tell, we often want to highlight certain characteristics of both NPCs and PCs in the story. In these cases, adding a foil character can really bring out the contrast. For example, in a party with a paladin, we may want to make the paladin look better or worse.  By bringing in another paladin, either corrupted or upstanding, we can make the point. A stealing rogue can be made to look better after bringing in a murdering thief NPC. A wise PC can be emphasized with a foolish NPC leading the party to folly.

Because the foil changes the perception of an NPC or a PC, it can be very effective in manipulating the story. Do you have a thief that you want to do the right thing? Bring in a morally corrupt NPC to make the thief feel like a hero of good. Need to make a paladin take morally questionable actions? Bring in a high and mighty cleric who messes up a mission with excessive do-gooding. By changing the perception of the PCs, we can essentially rewrite the story, making the hero into the underdog, the hero into a failure, the compromised into the moral protagonist.

The one caution with the use of a foil is to avoid taking away the spotlight. Were Boromir a character in our TTRPG, bring in an Aragorn NPC would upstage the PC, and potentially ruin Boromir's player's experience. In game, it is always important to improve the fun of the players and let them feel in control of the story. Foils should not be used to take away from that.

The next time you need to highlight some aspect of a PC or NPC, consider bringing in a foil character. You might be surprised at the effect it can have on your game.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Evaluating Homebrew and Third Party Options in 5E

There are a lot of questions always flying around in the community about the balance of third party and homebrew options.  Unfortunately, it isn't always obvious how to make this judgement and how to evaluate the options. In this article, we're going to look at some strategies for making the evaluation in 5E.  For a light example of this analysis, take a look at my thoughts on fixing the Ranger Beastmaster archetype in 5E.

The first thing to keep in mind, is that a well balanced option should be neither clearly better or worse than existing options in order to be balanced.  Unfortunately, this kind of comparison has to look at a lot of different aspects and try to compare them as a whole. Some of these aspects are easily quantifiable. Some of these aspects are hard to measure. Our first step is to try to get things into the same language.

Combat effectiveness is a definite consideration. A PC during combat causes damage against foes while taking damage from foes. Improving performance of a PC can be done by increasing the probability of a hit, increasing the amount of damage for a hit, or by increasing the number of attacks. It can also be done by decreasing the probability or number of hits against the PC or by decreasing the damage against the PC.  AC, attack bonus, and damage resistance are all straight-forward effects. Secondary effects, like the rogue's cunning action, also play in by allowing the PC to move out of danger.

Non-combat effectiveness and role-play flavor are also key evaluation points, though typically these are less weighted than combat effectiveness.  The farther away we get from the crunch of combat and mechanics, the less weight the enhancements seem to carry.

For comparison, we need to get everything into the most common form. Things that replicate spell effects, list the spell and effective level. Things that replicate magical item effects, list them as a magical item and its rarity. Attack and AC points are incremented in 5% effects for damage production and damage reduction. We know from fighting styles the relative weighting of AC, damage, and attack bonus: fighting style gives +2 to attacks (+10% chance to hit), +2 to damage, but only +1 to AC (5% less chance to hit).  As you reduce to a common form, start lining up comparison between what you have as a homebrew / third party option and the best first party comparable.  Start figuring which is better in each of the categories that applies. If all of the comparisons favor one of the other, it points to a balance problem.

Classes have the added complication of requiring balance at each level. This isn't always perfect. For example, the druid has a couple of know levels where it is very powerful, but this rolls off. To do a good comparison, we need to look at the comparison at each level as the class builds.

Keep in mind that mechanics often have layers of equivalency.  For example, comparing cantrips, we can see that different types of damage are weighted at different levels. Fire, acid, cold, and lightning damage all have different ranges and damage dice. Some have advantage under certain conditions. Some have additional effects. Similar levels exist for resistance and immunity, where some are easy to get, and some are impossible to get. Similarly, some are very useful, and some are almost never useful. When we do our comparison we need to take all of this into account.

When evaluating archetypes, compare against all available archetypes for a class, noting commonality and differences. Where something falls out of the normal pattern, throw up a red flag.  Pay attention to attributes like how many enemies or allies are affected, how long the effect lasts, and what kind of action is required. A combination of several changes from the norm all in the better direction usually indicates an overpowered design.

In the end, all of these comparisons are all about asking the simple question: Is this homebrew / third party element something that is always better or worse than the most comparable thing to it in the first party content?  Once we answer that question, we are done.

Having just a single person do this analysis isn't perfect. The perception of the content is just as important as the reality. To really get it right, we also need to have multiple people do the comparison and argue it out. Often by changing the method of comparison, we change the result, so multiple methods should be considered.

In the end, the gold standard is the play test. Before you declare a class, feat, feature, or other game content fair and balanced, consider running it for a while and adjusting as needed. This probationary period can work wonders and get you to your final goal of a fun new game addition.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Interesting Encounter: Goblin Canyon Ambush

Interesting encounters are short descriptions of encounters that GMs can use to build on.  They combine unique aspects of different types of foes, terrain, skill checks, weather, combat, etc in order to provide more unique challenges than hit monster; repeat.

The goblin canyon is an excellent whimsical "random" combat encounter to throw into a campaign for a change of pace.  For this encounter, you will probably need to break out your mass combat rules.  I had about 70 goblins in play.  This encounter is best used with non-flying PCs that are traveling with companions, mounts, wagons, and other non-worn supplies.  It can work for a caravan too, or a ship floating down a river with minor modifications.

The party in this encounter is traveling through a canyon with sloped sides and a lot of rock formations.  The formations and canyon walls are 20 to 30 ft up.  This is all pretty visible when the party enters the canyon. Because of the open layout, it doesn't seem that dangerous. This isn't the typical box canyon trap. Very keen eyes might spot the hidden caves or signs of blood from previous ambushes.

What the party doesn't know is that the canyon is the preferred ambush site for a large tribe of goblins.  These aren't just any goblins, though. These goblins are armed and in force.

For mass combat, I like to organize my foes into groups of 6 to 12. Adjust the number of goblins in the groups to get the challenge you need.  Generally this allows you to apply damage to the groups at once, and allows you to have all the members of the group take the same action.

The goal in this encounter is not to kill PCs with goblins; rather, we want to make the party spend a lot of time cutting through melee goblins on the canyon floor. This time spent is the real danger, because a lot of bad things will be going on in the meantime.

On each sides of the canyon, just out of sight, are a group of goblin archers and a group of goblin riders.  To start off the ambush, the goblin archers will spot the incoming party and start rolling a barrage of boulders down the canyon walls, trying to hit the PCs or at least disrupt an easy escape.  PCs will need to dodge the boulders, and boulders will generate difficult terrain when they land in the canyon. The archers can then rain down arrows on the party. The goblin riders on mounts will charge in and attempt to block escape and engage in many vs one melee.  The goblin riders are also going be enticing the party to move away from all of their stuff.

In the canyon itself, there are some hidden caves.  In these caves, 4 groups of goblin infantry wait.  Once this battle breaks out they will run out.  They might attack the party, or they might to get to work on the party's stuff.

The rock formations have a couple of surprises waiting.  Out of the sight of the party, there are camouflaged foxholes dug into the rock formations from the top.  When the battle breaks out, a group of goblin shaman and a group of goblin firebombers appear scattered along the edges of the rocks of the various formations, ready to rain down havoc on the party.

Terrain wise, the twisting corridors between the rock formations can break up the party and allow the goblins to attack each PC from multiple directions.  Also, the sloping sides of the canyon are difficult terrain, slowing PCs trying to get to the goblin archers.  The rock formations are difficult to climb, and their height poses a risk for both falling damage and getting attacked on the way up.

Despite the large number of goblins involved in the battle, there is a lot of opportunity for roleplay. Goblins aren't particular intelligent, so some standard stupid enemy hi-jinks are going to happen.  The firebombers and archers, in particular, may not be as good with their aim as they would like, so hilarity may ensue.  Goblins may also be calling out all sorts of things to the PCs to try to scare them.  The PC may find this pretty annoying, but ultimately funny.

The PCs will look awesome in this fight, so try to get some battle narration going as the PCs mow down goblins.

Firebombers do pose a unique threat that the party may overlook. Fire can be a real nuisance. If the party happens to have some obviously flammable cargo, like distilled spirits, alchemist's fire, black powder, or even lamp oil, the little goblin pyros are going to be dancing with glee. Worn items that are flammable like spell books, scrolls, and magic items (necklace of fireballs) are also vulnerable to the fire attacks.  Wooden wagons will also be prime targets.

With so many goblins attacking, every living thing in the party will be under attack. This includes NPCs, mounts and work animals, and guard animals.  If there are supplies not worn by the PCs, the goblins will be ripping them apart, throwing things, and attempting to steal what they can.  The PCs, win or lose, have a good chance of losing things not on their person.  With this, add more hi-jinks.

Some of the goblins will be in positions to attack and hide. This strategy, depending on your system, can be pretty disruptive and force the party to hunt down goblins in their holes.  This distraction will only worsen looting of the party's stuff.

When things start to look really grim for the goblins, they will grab everything they can and run away.  At this point, throw in a ton of attempts to steal items off the PCs.  Over the sides of the canyon are forest on both sides, so catching more than a couple of the fleeing goblins will be a real challenge.

In the end, this encounter is designed to be a partial victory for the party. Despite beating back the goblins, there is a good chance they lost a lot of stuff in the fight.  It will be a really cool story for them to tell, when their party took out a goblin army that outnumbered them 10 to 1. It is definitely a nice distraction from the plot for a session, when you need a change.