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Halloween One-Shot

A few years ago I decided to run a special Halloween D&D one-shot adventure.  Not Halloween-themed, but dark and/or creepy rather than our traditional stuff.  No planning went into this, the entire thing was improvised, and what resulted was not a one-shot adventure but rather an epic, sprawling time-travel campaign that lasted about 25 sessions and almost 2 years. 

We made up some half-assed reason the party was together in town, and didn't spend too much time on it.  There was a festival in town, and the players happily took part in a number of contest and events, and basically just had some fun roleplaying and beating NPCs at trivial tasks. The main event was a magician, who called them, the "champions of the festival" up on stage as guests of honor. One of his main tricks involved copious amounts of brilliant fireworks, and also flying around above the audience tossing pyrotechnics into the air.

The PCs slowly realized that the fireworks and explosions were scattering strange black sand/beads into the audience, and anyone touched by said beads started acting really messed up, freaking out, hallucinating, etc. They started investigating, and about an hour into their investigations I dropped the kicker on them - an NPC who had just arrived in town and hadn't been affected by any of the sand asked them why there was sand in their hair. They then realized everything they had been seeing and reacting to was all not as it seemed, and from there things went downhill. It ended with the entire town turning into shadow creatures and the party leaping into a rippling black liquid filling the central town fountain, and emerging into a pristine cavern with 12 perfect white doors around the room like a clock face.

Over the course of the campaign, the players went through the (magical) doors to 12 different locations. After a while they deduced from talking to NPCs that not only were they traveling to different places, they were also traveling to different points in time. In each location, they were tasked to find a crystal and destroy it, which would bring them back to the room with the doors, and the door they had entered would crumble to dust. They went to the arctic, a haunted forest, an orc stronghold in the mountains, a desert excavation site, a city under siege from an army of demons...each door was a totally new setting, with new scenarios playing out.  Each of the locations also had a subtle theme, such as war, madness, necromancy, etc.

Had it not ended early, the campaign would have seen an international uprising of non-human races rise up against their oppressive human overlords (in four different countries simultaneously), and a resulting backlash against the rebels by human-piloted Warforged Juggernauts (think X-Men's Sentinels, both in flavour and function).

The rebellion itself was also part of a larger plan to destroy the human nations' capital cities, which would shatter a long-forgotten magic barrier shackling a floating island stronghold to the bottom of the sea. The owner of the stronghold, the recently freed Vecna (who had been trapped in Ravenloft until the seals trapping him there - the crystals - were broken), would then be free to raise his fortress and seek revenge.

This was all part of an even larger plan, as the mastermind behind it all, Vecna's former lieutenant Kas (actually an ex-PC after a player decided to change characters), would finally be able to seek his centuries-old revenge on his now-mortal ex-boss.

Not bad for what was supposed to be a little improv session.

Keeping Dungeon Tiles in Place

Wizards' brand of Dungeon Tiles are great game tools, but they have the annoying habit of sliding around the table, sending figures and dice flying. I've read suggestions to use putty or sticky tac on the backs to hold them in place. While this certainly works, I happened upon a nice solution by accident over the weekend - non-stick kitchen rubber mats.

We have this rubber mesh matting that is used to protect countertops or line drawers to protect the wood and keep things from sliding around.  I think I got it at Wal-Mart or Superstore, somewhere like that. They are inexpensive for a large surface, and you can cut it with scissors so you can fit it wherever you need.  Well, these mesh mats work great on tables to keep your tiles from unwanted sliding, and there's no risk of removing the surface of your tiles by sticking things to them. And when you're done, just roll up the matting and tuck it away (maybe next to your rolled-up battlemat).  Cheap and convenient.

After googling for pictures, I've learned that these mats are commonly called bar liners. Makes sense.

Tracking Powers with Transparent Sleeves

Using a transparent sleeve with dry or wet-erase pens can be a very efficient way of tracking hit points, marking conditions, or anything else that would normally require you to erase or record something. When it comes to powers, most of the players in my group use the Character Builder's printed power cards, or some custom power cards that I've designed, but I find it unwieldy to have a handful of cards that I have to hurriedly sort through every turn.  So I use a custom power page in a plastic sleeve.

I still build my character on the Builder, but only print out my actual sheet and not the powers. I open a new document in Adobe Indesign (you could do this in Word or Excel, but probably with more effort.) and write in the pertinent information for each of my powers...action type, range, attack versus defense, etc. I separate at-will powers, encounter powers/item uses, and daily powers/item uses into different sections, and put a little checkbox next to the encounter & daily ones.

When it's time to play, I leave the power sheet in the sleeve and color in each checkbox (on the sleeve, not the paper) with a wet-erase pen.  Then, when I use that power, I simply wipe off the mark.

I prefer this single-page method because it allows me to see my entire range of powers/options without any card or paper flipping.  I play a healing shaman and it's vitally important that I always know how much healing I have left available.  Using the sheet, I can simply glance down and see how many colored marks are left on the sheet, rather than flipping through cards and trying to remember which powers I've already used.  It's also nice because I can write in any conditional triggers - in my case, when a healing power heals additional hit points due to an ally being adjacent to my spirit companion.


On this sheet, the left half is at-will and encounter abilities, while the right side are dailies.  The thick black line splits the page again, with the top half being attack/utility options while the bottom half is all healing stuff.  Again, this organization helps me quickly decide which of my options are viable for a given situation.  A routine fight where no one is injured yet? Left (non-daily) and top (attacks) is where I look.  Later in that same fight, an ally starts to get a little low?  Left (non-daily) and bottom (healing).  Boss fight, a lot of damage being thrown around to the entire party?  Probably dig into the right (daily) and bottom (healing) goodies.

Aside: using paper clips works great for anything in 4E that has charges, such as the charges on a Healer's Sash or even an assassin's harvested souls. Just stick them on a card to have a nice visual reminder of how many you have left, and remove them when you need them.

Obviously, this method isn't for everyone.  It takes a fair bit of work, and every time your stats or equipment changes you need to print out a new page.  I've also use Indesign every day at my job, so while making a sheet like this is very easy for me, it could be difficult for people unfamiliar with design programs.  But for actual in-game convenience, I love it.

Music Showcase: Beyond the Wasteland

Beyond the Wasteland  (Final Fantasy: Advent Children soundtrack)

Ever since I heard this song, I've wanted to use it in a game.  In the campaign I'm running (a 4E conversion of Dragon's "Shackled City" adventure path) I finally have the chance.

In Chapter 4: Zenith Trajectory, the party is tasked with tracking down and rescuing a dwarven warrior named Zenith Splintershield, who's been missing for a decade after a crusade into the Underdark that went wrong (surprise surprise). They learn that he's being held in a kuo-toa city/shrine deep underground.

So far, the players have fought their way in, killing many kuo-toas and fighting off a black dragon, who flew away before they could finish it off, and have approached a massive stone shrine/ziggurat with hundreds of chanting kuo-toas crowded around it. They have to sneak over a stone bridge into the shrine, defeat the totally insane Zenith, and then try to sneak away/escape.

Which, of course, isn't going to happen.  ;)

When they started approaching the temple (before they could see it) I started playing this song, clipped to the first half. It freaked them out completely, which was only driven home when they saw how many potential enemies were before them.

After fighting Zenith, I'm going to play the music again as they sneak along the bridge, trying not to alert the Kuo-Toas below (which will be a Skill Challenge based on stealth and observation).  Eventually they'll be discovered, but I won't say this fact out loud - I'll let the music at 1:47 convey the message. It should be fun, and will lead into part two of the Skill Challenge, which is based more on athletics and fending off the swarm of enraged kuo-toas.

4E Critical Fumbles

4E doesn't have a fumble system, something we found unacceptable!  After some tinkering, we came up with a simple, effective system.

If you roll a natural 1 on an attack roll, make a saving throw.  If you pass, your attack simply missed.  If you fail, you fumbled!

Then various things happen, most commonly one of the following (though obviously circumstances dictate different things)
  • You drop your weapon / implement
  • You provoke an attack from an enemy in melee with you
  • You hurt yourself and take a -2 penalty on all rolls until the end of your next turn
  • You fall prone
As a group, we love fumbles as they are always hilarious to picture the powerful warrior falling on his ass or the evil demilich tripping over his robes and falling down the stairs, or what have you.

Picking Your Dice Set

Choosing your dice is always an odd, superstitious tradition in D&D.  Some people prefer to have the full set fresh out of the tube, and keep it together through thick and thin.  Others mix and match depending on which dice "come through" for them during games.  Others will meticulously roll every available d20 numerous times, mentally tracking which show a pattern of high numbers and carefully calculating through trial and error which dice are "superior".  These people should probably take up careers performing complicated, repetitive statistical tests.  ;)

Personally, when I'm a player I prefer practicality over superstition. As a Shaman focusing on healing in our 4E campaign, I use primarily d6's, so I have four lustrous red d6's set aside.  The other dice I use are selected by color so I can determine their type instantly.  I find that when I have dice of all the same color, it's not as quick as when I have them color-coordinated.  And in 4E, things take long enough already without people studying their dice to make sure they've grabbed the right ones.

Some people would probably call that just as picky as the person methodically rolling the d20's, but regardless, picking your gaming dice is always fun and a very personal, individual habit.

(Just don't pick the speckled ones that you can't even read the numbers on - I hate those.)

Using Pipe Cleaners to Mark Figures

One of the most common problems in 4E is marking figures with status effects.  A single creature can be marked, bloodied, slowed, dazed, have ongoing fire damage...the list goes on.  Different groups have different ways of handling this, perhaps none as elegant as Alea Tools' magnetic markers, or Kiko's status stickers. Plastic rings from pop bottles seem a very popular choice, being free (assuming you drink pop) and coming in a variety of colors.  I've tried these and they certainly work, though I wanted the ability to adjust for different figures' shapes and sizes.  So I tried colored paper clips but they were too annoying to mangle into the right shape.

However, pipe cleaners are spectacular for this!
  • They are cheap, yet are very durable
  • They come in a variety of colors
  • They are lightweight and won't topple a figure or interfere in movement
  • You can cut, bend, twist or loop them to fit any figure's size or shape
We keep a stack of each color handy, pre-bent in a default U shape, which can simply be dropped on top of most figures where it will rest on an elbow crook or torso.  And if there's a weirdly shaped figure, we just loop the pipe cleaner around it so it will stay on - takes a few seconds tops.

Hands-down the most convenient, essential tool we use in our games.

Spend a Healing Stirge!

The title of this blog comes from the horrifying yet amusing idea of using Stirges as health injectors, somehow reversing their blood-sucking abilities to bestow hit points instead of damage. Every well-equipped adventurer would carry a few Healing Stirges™ for those unexpected emergencies. Simply stick the needle-like proboscis into your arm, squeeze firmly, and presto! Instant transfusion!

As an aside, if an alchemist or artificer were to make actual mechanical syringes in the D&D universe, they could look like Stirges. After all, the basic idea behind the creatures is exactly the same (though reversed in function).