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.


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.