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Making characters with the DM

Something that one player and I always do is make his characters for my campaigns together. It's something that works really well, for both of us, and I think it's a practice that really helps flesh out a character and plant some solid story hooks.

He usually comes up with an idea or concept on his own, thinks about it a bit, and then comes over and we hammer out the details. As a DM, I can offer suggestions that he may not have thought of, or outright tell him if a power/feat choice is a bad idea (like focusing on an undead-hunting theme in an undead-light campaign).

One of the first things we discuss is if his character works in the campaign. For instance, he had an idea for our upcoming Dark Sun campaign to be a Raven-based warlock. Problem was, not only is this an arcane class (meaning that since it's Dark Sun, there should probably be a bit more history/backstory established as to how he is able to use arcane magic) but he also wanted to use a Spellscar, something from Forgotten Realms with FURTHER arcane magic connections.

If he had showed up on game night with this character, I would have been put in a tough situation. Without some time to think about it (such as even looking up what a Spellscar IS) I probably would have said his PC wasn't eligible for Dark Sun play since I had no idea how his powers worked and if they were even possible in Athas. He would have had to make a new one, and delayed the game...something which would have satisfied no one. Instead, however, we were able to look up Spellscars and toss some ideas back and forth how exactly it worked in the Dark Sun universe. (Long story short, it was because a Sorcerer-King cursed him years ago.)

Another way this shared character-building is helpful is when it comes to planning his backstory! Initially when I asked him what his character did, he had some vague idea of being an old (really old) wandering nomad, with magic powers because of "a curse". And he had a giant (medium-sized) pet Raven that also served as a mount.

This was alright, but other than the raven, it's pretty bland and lacking in specificity and hooks. And the raven...WTF. How the hell would this fit into the story? But don't get me wrong - this is a great time for a DM, as you can take what your player has in mind and not only enhance it, but also enhance it in a way that it will flawlessly fit into your campaign. And by doing it together, cooperatively, it's still HIS just helped steer him to the final version.

I proposed some different ideas, and after discussing them a bit, throwing some out, modifying some others, his character became a nomad who wandered between city-states as a special courier, riding his Raven mount (keeping his close connection to the Raven.) We also decided that the reason his arcane abilities have not gotten him locked up, enslaved or killed by a Sorcerer-King (SK) is because he is actually doing the SK's bidding, by serving as a guardian to the SK's favorite, exotic, last-of-its-kind pet...a Dire Raven. The Raven was suffering/dying in captivity, unable to be free and run/fly unhindered, so the SK had to free it. And to ensure that it would be protected, he charged the player's character with the responsibility of guarding it, and "blessed" him with powerful magic abilities.

Thus is this character able to use arcane magic & not be killed by the SK, and it the Dire Raven's need to be free and restless nature also connects nicely to why they are always on the move, living a nomadic life.

From there, we moved on to the sometimes tricky question of why the character is adventuring. Fortunately, we quickly came up with a great reason - to find some way to restore lost youth. The character, and the Raven, are now both quite old and nearing the ends of their lives (this also explains why the Raven is only able to serve as a ground mount initially...since a flying mount would be too powerful for low-level characters). The character wishes to find a way to restore himself and the Raven's youth, partially because they are best friends/partners, but also because years ago the SK warned him that if the Raven ever died, he would shortly, undoubtedly follow.

Finally, one other thing that always happens during these brainstorm sessions is that I will bombard him with various questions about what his character would do. From his answers we are always able to really flesh out just who the character is, what he believes in, how he acts/reacts to things, etc. A nice thing about establishing a character's personality like this rather than in the game, is you can take the extra time to consider different options.

During a game session, I would be reluctant to prompt a player with "what if your character did this? or what if he wanted to do this?" because it's almost like I'm wresting creative control away from them. Plus, it is selfish, as the other players are forced to just sit around and wait. But while brainstorming? It's great! Sometimes you will suggest things the player never considered that they immediately latch onto. And the rejection of your suggestions (ie, what the character doesn't do) helps just as much to flavor the blank character as what they do do.

So after about an hour of talking and coming up with cool ideas, we had taken his "cool concept but very unfinished" character to a very interesting, definitely creative person with a great backstory, strong personality quirks AND some great potential story hooks for me to use. He's super excited to play his character, and I have all sorts of evil ideas spinning around in my head as to how I can weave his story into the plot. It's win-win.

Dark Sun Music time!

Lately my D&D music hobby has been to start building a Dark Sun soundtrack for when the campaign setting comes out in August! It's been pretty exciting for our group, as no one except me really knows anything about Dark Sun other than a) it's a desert setting, and b) there are thri-kreen!! I am really looking forward to bringing the harsh brutality of Athas to life for them and shocking them at how strange and foreign a land it really is.

Finding Dark Sun music has been quite the thematic change for me. Instead of the usual courageous and heroic stuff, I've been selecting dark, ominous and unsettling music, with a large dose of tribal drums, chanting and eerie melodies rounding out the mood.

I've avoided anything with triumphant horns, regal trumpets, anything like that. No fanfare here...except for the sorcerer-kings. I've been quietly putting aside some evilly majestic tunes for when they make appearances.

There is a great thread for this exact purpose on the Wizards forums:
Let's Rock this Desert - Musical Background for a DS campaign.

So far I've gone through the soundtracks for Dune, Conan, Borderlands, Quake, Prince of Persia and Gladiator, and picked out some great songs. I've also come across some unusual choices I would never have heard of if not for that forum thread, such as E.S. Posthumus and Dead Can Dance. I also found a terrific song by Sepultura called Ratamahatta which is incredibly awesome, wild and dark. It's going to be my campaign "theme song" that I plan on playing at the start of every night to tell everyone it's time to get down to business.

Besides the great but typical desert background songs, I've also decided to go with a heavy metal theme for anything related to the gladiatorial arenas (which the party will undoubtedly find themselves in, eventually.) I think it properly captures the grim and violent nature of such a place, with the crowds cheering, the brutal fights for survival, etc.

Dark Sun Theme Song

Source: Ratamahatta - Sepultura

The Arena

Source: Gravity Well - Sonic Mayhem

How to help when on the other side of the screen

Recently I got to actually play a PC in a campaign rather than my usual DM role. And it was a blast! As much as I love crafting devious storylines, it's great to take part in the adventure too. During the game I realized that even while not acting as DM, there are ways you can help it run smoothly.

Think of Yourself as the DM's Assistant
This is the mindset I take when playing a PC, mainly because the person who DM's when I step down is fairly inexperienced and new to running games. Use your experience and knowledge to help their game flow and progress - the entire table will benefit from the results. Ask yourself often - if I were running this game, what would I want and/or really appreciate right now? This mindset is the basis for rest of this post.

Keep the Party Focused
One of a DM's biggest enemies is inattention. Maybe the players are talking about the latest movie, or about some recent news, or even something in-game that's completely unrelated to what is actually happening. Most DM's have seen this enough on the other side of the screen; if you see this happening while playing try to steer the party gently back on course before it reaches the point of "DM intervention." One of the more subtle ways you can help get everyone's attention back onto the game is by...

Asking Leading Questions
Most experienced DM's will be able to spot a plot hook a mile away. However, not all players have this same sensory ability (no joke!). You can really help your DM by spotting these hooks or realizing when the party could really benefit from additional information, and asking the questions they want to answer. We all know how frustrating it is when you present the party with a seemingly obvious hook and they completely miss it - you don't want to break the immersion and point it out, yet it's essential to the plot development.

Keep in mind that you don't want to go too far - don't ask questions about everything in a paranoid obsession for detail. In fact, asking too much can be terrible for a new DM, since they likely aren't ready for a lot of improvisation and on-the-fly specifics. At best, you might frustrate them; at worst you'll completely frazzle them and throw them off their game for the rest of the night.

Volunteer to Be the "Rules Guy"
This isn't as bad as it sounds, because let's face it - in most groups, whoever normally DM's is ALREADY the "Rules Guy," simply because they require to know the rules inside and out already (for the most part). But help your DM out. Chances are they've never had to look up how much horse barding costs, what the differences are between cover and concealment, or what a tiefling's racial ability is. Even if you don't know either and have to dig through some books, this leaves the DM free to continue telling the story and focusing on the important details.

Other examples would include keeping track of status effects, putting bloodied/marked indicators on figures, and clearing the figures while the DM is readying the next encounter. Anything to lessen the DM's workload.

Don't Make DM Decisions
This can be difficult, but try to remember that you are not the DM. If there is a tough decision to make (such as a fuzzy rules situation), do not step on the DM's toes. Let them make their decision and don't upstage them by arguing it. Instead, try to imagine yourself as a detached, neutral party and offer suggestions or alternatives to both sides so that a conclusion can be reached that satisfies both sides. If it's turning into a heated argument, do your best to diffuse the situation, maybe by coming up with a compromise or volunteering to research the rule in question.

Finally, above all else, DO NOT SAY "Well in MY game this is how we'd do it" or "I would do it this way if I were DM'ing". It's insulting to your DM and disrespectful, and you're essentially cutting his legs out from under him and telling the other players that you're better at DM'ing.

Playing the Game Properly
This is very simple, but it's important. It's so, so easy to metagame or abuse unspoken game rules (like not robbing merchants, even though it's clearly obvious you would be able to), but this sort of behavior just makes a DM's job even we all likely know, from experience. For instance, in the game I played we found ourselves in the laboratory of someone named "Acererak." I knew instantly who this was and what it meant, and while inwardly I was screaming "Oh shit!!" I saw that no one else recognized the name, so I simply asked the DM for a History check to see if I knew who it was. I rolled badly, so I shrugged and we moved on.

Anyone else have any tips on what a DM can do to help out when they are a PC?

Don't let min-maxing consume you

I received a rare opportunity on the weekend - to play D&D as a player instead of a DM! I excitedly loaded up my Protector Shaman, who was moderately out-of-date (hadn't been updated since before Primal Power came out), and began checking out the new feats, power & options that were now available.

The game, ironically, fell through. However, this was not before I spent a good hour toiling over options and possibilities. One of the things that always paralyzes me when building a character too many options, and the desire to maximize my potential. For example, do I take a Mace of Healing +2 to enhance my healing on allies? Or do I take the less-powerful Healer's Broach +1, for less healing to allies but extra healing to myself? And if I take the Broach, that means I can't take the Cloak of the Walking Wounded, which I wanted to ensure that if I got low I could power back up quickly, etc.

I realized I was spending way too much time on calculations and math when I looked down at my notes and saw no less than EIGHT different gear and feat builds, with their strengths, weaknesses, and additional powers listed individually for each one. The real irony is the main cause of my paranoia was maximizing my healing capabilities; capabilities that so far in the campaign have proven more than sufficient.

So I took a step back and distanced myself, knowing that my shaman's healing would be good enough, and just chose one build and hit Save Character. And it was great! It was like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders, and I had a lot of fun finishing my character's power selection and feat choices. Of course, I didn't get to actually *play* my shaman...but oh well.

I guess the moral of the story is that while D&D is undoubtedly a game of stats, bonuses and numbers, and it's fun to make your character awesome and's important not to take it *too* seriously. If you're stressing out or fretting about feat/power/gear choices - don't! It's just a game.

"Oops, I forgot to..." moments

4E is a complicated game when it comes to remembering things. There are many, many things to remember - rolling saving throws at the end of your turn, taking ongoing damage, when an effect/buff/debuff ends, who's marked, a few extra damage here or adds up. And this always results in the somewhat-grey area debate of what happens when you forget.

For our group, it's simple. We break it down into categories:

Automatic events
If something was supposed to happen automatically and wasn't a matter of choice, we apply the forgotten effect no matter how long it's been (within reason). These are straightforward and rarely disputed, since we view these as things players (or monsters) are entitled to. Examples of automatic effects that we commonly allow after the fact:
  • forgetten saving throw(s)
  • forgotten ongoing damage or healing from regeneration
  • a battlerager fighter forgetting to gain the temporary hit points from making an attack and/or using an invigorating power
  • a fighter attacking someone and forgetting to mark it. Exception: if the target was already marked by someone else, then it is assumed the fighter chose not to overwrite the existing mark.
  • not realizing at the time that someone should have gotten an opportunity attack
  • forgetting to add a bonus to a damage or healing roll
  • forgetting to add a bonus to hit rolls. If this turns a miss into a hit, it can screw things up, so someone has only until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember a forgotten +hit bonus. That way, if the miss-turned-hit changes events (by killing the next combatant's target, or even the next combatant) we only have to redo one turn to fix things.
  • forgetting a bonus to defense that would have turned a hit into a miss. As above, someone only has until the end of the next combatant's turn to remember the mistake.
  • forgetting because there was multiple things happening at once. For instance, if a power lets a player shift, spend a healing surge, and make a saving throw, they are allowed pretty generously to do any of those things after the fact if they forgot because they were preoccupied doing the other actions.

"I would have done this" actions
The next step up are no-brainer actions, where the player would almost always have done something, but just forgot to actually say it. This is sometimes tricky, and we've had to firmly put our foot down a few times on things and deny players sometimes. Quite often these are the result of unused minor actions, but generally if it's something that a player has to consider and actually make a decision about, they CAN'T take it back. Examples would be:
  • a ranger hitting a target without declaring as his quarry, even though logically he should have (it qualified to be his quarry, he hadn't marked anyone else as his quarry previously, and he still had his minor action available)
  • someone forgetting to sustain an effect. If they ended their turn with the required action type still available, we assume they just sustained it. If it's still their turn when they realize their mistake, and they no longer have the required action available to sustain the effect, they can either end the effect or take back the action required to sustain the effect. If it's after their turn, and they ended their turn with the required action type not available, then they didn't sustain it and the effect ends.

Actions that required consideration and decision
These actions CANNOT be taken back, for various reasons. Often it is because the "forgotten" ability was one that has the potential to be wasted. A perfect example of such an ability is a paladin's Divine Strength, which adds a damage bonus to the paladin's next attack. A paladin can't make an attack roll, hit, and then "remember" to use Divine Strength since he already knows the result of his attack (a hit). The only way we would allow this (sometimes it is crucial) is if he re-rolls his attack roll as well. Some examples of things that cannot be "taken back":
  • forgetting to use a "bonus on next attack" ability until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled)
  • forgetting to declare the attack until after the attack roll has already been made (though allowed if the attack is re-rolled). Not declaring the attack means the attack was an at-will attack.
  • essentially anything else that doesn't fit into the first two categories; anything that isn't automatic or near-automatic.

Rewarding "treasure" instead of gold

At the start of a new campaign, I always ask the party if they want to find random treasure (art, relics, heirlooms etc.) or just basic gold. It's funny - even though we're usually a pretty min/maxing group, we tend to prefer the varied treasure items, even though it's disadvantageous in every way:
• More bookkeeping for the players
• More pre-emptive work for the DM
• Actually results in less wealth for the party, since sometimes we keep sentimental or strange treasure instead of selling it

But it's just so much more interesting and fun to find ruby-eyed dragon chalices or ancient paintings of floating castles, not to mention they spark countless roleplaying opportunities. Players tend to remember treasure items they become emotionally attached to, and usually try to use them or bring them up later in the campaign. It's quite fun to see treasure you gave out many levels ago resurface, sometimes at critical moments.

Also, if the players have any sort of "home base" to actually display these treasures, they'll probably keep most of the random junk they find as mementos of their adventures. And even if they don't have a base of operations, I've seen players willingly give up the monetary value of treasure just for fun, such as keeping (and wearing) a fancy platinum belt buckle instead of selling it.

As a DM, this is one of the planning steps I enjoy most. I love coming up with weird, unexpected treasure items that the players would never expect, but still "fit" in the fantasy world. One of the stranger things they found lately was a shag rug carpet in a dragon's den, woven of lustrous "lunar silk" (whatever that is) and aurumvorax fur. One of the players IMMEDIATELY claimed it for his house. They've also kept a set of inscribed ceremonial swords which they later gave to a standoffish noble to win him over to their side.

I haven't purchased this book, but I've heard great things about the mundane treasure found in The Mother of All Treasure Tables.

Here's some quick tips for fast treasure items:
• Take a regular item and make it plated/lined with a valuable metal, or made out of exotic material. A bowl becomes gold-plated, or made out of ironwood, felwood, the remains of an ancient treant, etc.
• Flavor treasure for where the players found it. A kuo-toa temple my party recently infiltrated had decorative wall frescos and murals, so the party found a large set of glowing, luminous paints which were quite valuable due to their unusual nature & rarity.
• Idols, statues, and paintings depicting plot hooks are a great way to give treasure AND hints at the same time. Finding a small idol of Bane in a bandit's pack? Nothing noteworthy. But when they find a duplicate idol weeks later in an old merchant's bedroom? Suddenly relevant!
• Add minor magical properties. A mug that cleans itself, a tablecloth that never wrinkles, a bottle that cools its contents. Nothing that would count as a magic item, but would make a mundane item worth much more expensive/valuable. Plus, it's more creative opportunities for the players! Chances are, they'll find some fiendishly clever (or just weird) uses for such items.
• Magical/rare parts, metals or ingredients make nice treasure finds too. A block of pure mithril can be sold to the blacksmith, or maybe the party's fighter will run with it and see what can be made from it.

Healbot: what to do when the healer can't make it

In my campaign we have seven players, only one of which is a class with any sort of healing whatsoever, a warforged cleric. No paladin, shaman, bard, etc. This makes things tough when that player can't make it. So what we do instead is have his character go into "automatic mode" and become Healbot.

Our rules for Healbot are as follows:
• Acts in initiative round 0.
• Never deals damage or attacks, and cannot be targeted/damaged by an attack. Essentially invisible to enemies.
• Moves around the battlefield to stay in range of as many allies as possible.
• Cast Healing Word (with his normal modifiers) on bloodied allies.
• Will make Heal checks to grant allies saving throws or to let them use their second wind.

Granted, this only works flavor-wise because he's a warforged, and even then only by embracing the warforged = robots theme, works! Without a healer, we find that EL+0 or even EL-1 encounters are almost impossibly hard. With Healbot, they are tolerable, while still being quite challenging.

Monday Music: Scene Soundtracks

Recently I've started experimenting with building mini-soundtracks for scenes. My group has actually asked for more musical cues, so I've started making small groups of songs to accompany certain events as they unfold. It takes some micro-management on the DM's part but the extra impact is worth it.

(The following contains spoilers for the Shackled City campaign)

Here's an example of a scene that will occur the next time I run my campaign. In this scene, the city's merchants and businessfolk are fed up with increasing tax rates, and one merchant named Maavu is leading a vocal protest/demonstration outside City Hall. Many disgruntled and even hostile merchants show up, as well as many other civilians, and a large mob forms. One of the issues they have is that the tax money is being used to hire half-orc mercenaries to supplement the regular guard force.

Maavu's passionate speech has a huge effect on the gathered crowd, and they start cheering and encouraging him. His words are inspiring and stir up those in attendance...maybe too much. Encouragement starts turning into hostility towards the city government - perhaps Maavu's true goal all along. The next song will play once the party realizes things are starting to turn ugly, but Maavu continues orating and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

The foreboding, ominous next song will start as a guard captain and 4 mercenaries arrive on the scene. As they make their way through the crowd they receive jeers, angry glares, and thinly-veiled threats. Upon arriving at Maavu's dais, the captain announces that Maavu is under arrest for, essentially, treason. The crowd, openly hostile towards the newcomers, is on the verge of erupting.

At that moment, members of the local thieves guild hiding in the crowd brutally ambush and murder the mercenaries in an attempt to throw things into anarchy. The last song starts at this point. The crowd starts rioting and destroying buildings, lighting things on fire, and trying to kill the guard captain. Meanwhile, a mage working for the city government in the upper level of City Hall summons some invisible air elementals to assassinate Maavu. The party has to try to disperse the crowd without killing everyone, save Maavu, save the guard captain, and deal with the air elementals. Needless to say, it's utter chaos.


I find that having scene-specific music really livens the game session up and keeps the players interested, involved and really immersed in what's happening. It does take some time to trawl through the hundreds of mp3s you've got stored up (if you're like me) but I keep them organized by theme - creepy, caves, fighting, etc - to help streamline the process. What would really make it more efficient would be a tag system, so I could tag a single song with multiple attributes. Something for me to work on, I guess.

The Trouble With Trolls

On the weekend my D&D group encountered 4E trolls for the first time, and it was an ugly experience. At first glance I was impressed with how Wizards adapted the classic troll regeneration to 4E - taking fire damage would "shut off" a troll's regeneration until the end of its next turn. Made sense.

However, we ran into some interesting problems during the fight. First of all, it was absurdly easy for the party to shut off a troll's regeneration, and this was without an actual fire-using character (monk, barbarian, sorcerer, swordmage, fighter, cleric). A simple low-level alchemist's fire did the job, with 100% success rate. Since even the cheapest alchemist's fire still does fire damage on a miss, the person using it didn't even have to hit the troll, just chuck it around and lightly singe it.

Ironically, this made the troll minions (Troll Runts, level 12 minions) almost impossible to kill, since minions take no damage on a miss. They dropped the minions to 0 hp dozens of times, but kept missing with the measly +4 bonus to hit from the alchemist's fires. Eventually they just ignored the runts (which is hard to do when they were dealing 10 dmg per hit) and took down all the "real" trolls, at which point I had the minions flee - a clumsy solution at best.

For a party without a fire-user, alchemist's fires really are the only solution to trolls. But using/relying on them makes regular trolls a joke, and minion trolls virtually invincible. Neither feels right.

Monday Music: Music Parallelism

I've been thinking about music parallelism lately - using different versions of the same song for different moments (or using two different but similar sounding songs). When a familiar melody from a past important moment starts playing again, different yet still immediately recognizable, players will immediately think back to that moment, and also wonder what the musical change entails.

The dual nature of using parallel songs lets you achieve a number of different effects. You can show how something has evolved or changed, maybe due to the players' actions, maybe IN SPITE of their actions; you can have a slow/fast-paced combination to use as foreshadowing/eventual reveal; or even something that is literally parallel like a mirror universe or a "dark world" alternate reality.

Tristram Village

I recently used the Tristram Village theme in a Monday Music post, but I've since discovered a track on the Death Note (anime) soundtrack that sounds remarkable similar. You could use the second song to represent the same village, only years later, or after some significant event - showing that while things in the village have changed (like the song), at heart it's still the same place (the music sounding very similar).

Ave Satani

This is the song that original made me want to start using parallel audio cues. The first, original version of this song would be perfect for an evil god's plane, lair, temple or whatever. Something that firmly associates the god with the song. The second song, fast-paced and rocking guitar, would be great for the inevitable epic battle with said evil god.

Those Who Fight

One of the best sources of roleplaying music ever, the Final Fantasy series is also awesome because there are different versions of so many of its songs. Whether it be fanmade, from a movie inspired by one of the games, or even a spinoff game, there are countless FF renditions to pick from. The following songs are all version of the Final Fantasy 7 battle music "Those Who Fight." The second song is a great modernized version of the original, and the third is something completely different - a discordant yet beautiful piano version.

One Winged Angel

Probably one of the most famous Final Fantasy songs, this one actually worked on me via parallelism - I was familiar with the original version, I heard it again in Final Fantasy spinoff game Kingdom Hearts and instantly went "Oh shit!" upon hearing it, which is EXACTLY what I believe DMs can achieve with good music selection in their campaigns. The third version is the mind-blowing version that was in the Final Fantasy 7 movie, Advent Children. Listen to the first two and picture those songs playing as the party fought a villain during Heroic and Paragon tiers - enough so that they associate the villain to the song. Then listen to the third video and picture the terror on their faces as they realize just who's back for revenge.

Anatomy of a One-Shot

Last week our D&D night was a special one-shot session that still took place in our regular campaign continuity. One of our players was moving away, so we wanted to play one last time before he left. Fortunately, we happened to be directly between chapters and not buried in some dungeon, but I didn't want to start the next chapter since the moving player wouldn't get to see any of it anyway. It took some brainstorming, but I was able to weave together enough loose ends and dormant plot hooks into a cohesive and fun night, while still remaining relevant to the long-term campaign!

In my opinion, when you run a one-shot that takes place as part of your regular campaign, it's a great opportunity for the DM to:
• Expand on NPC personalities and their relationships to the party
• Sprinkle plot hooks, clues and hints that you might neglect during a busy "real" session
• Let the players really guide the night and do what they want; it's not part of the "real" plot or storyline so let them have fun! It's a perfect time to look back at what silly/unexpected things the players really latched onto and had fun with, and focus on those things for a few hours.

Previous Events

A while back, the party fought off a rampaging Umber Hulk and saved some innocent civilians. However, the highlight of that night wasn't their heroics, but instead how they saw a little cart on the official map labeled Meat on a Stick. Being typical D&D players, the instantly fixated on this random little stand and, after some improvised vendor dialogue, purchased the "franchise" and started elaborate plans to turn it into a lucrative business. (Players. Sigh.)

In a different incident, a local inn a short distance away from town was ransacked by bandits and mostly destroyed about a year ago. The players fought off the bandits but were too late to save the innkeep & workers. Since then it's been cleaned up but abandoned. The party purchased the deed to turn it into Meat on a Stick's headquarters.

The party is also in an ongoing war with local thieves guild The Last Laugh, having thwarted their efforts on numerous occasions. Both sides hate the other.

What I decided to go with as the basis for the session was the Grand Opening of Meat on a Stick, rebuilt on the old, destroyed inn. I let them pretty much design the layout and floorplan of the restaurant themselves (which was a lot of fun for everyone), working with a big supply of D&D tiles on the table. I then had the NPC author of our campaign newspaper arrive and suggest they hold a grand opening event, so he could write a restaurant review in the newspaper. Naturally there would need to be important city dignitaries and officials at such an important grand opening...

Two encounters is a perfect amount for a one-shot night, and this worked out perfectly - one encounter would be the party getting the required meat for the night (huge, rare animals captured and brought back by their ogre chef), in a huge melee right in the restaurant's backyard. The other encounter was a surprise ambush by the Last Laugh during the meal, a dual purpose assault to both injure/kill the PC's and to damage their reputation by killing the dignitaries.

This led to some great creative goofiness as the party came up with insane ideas for entertaining the guests, such as enchanting all the cutlery to sing songs and serving all sorts of bizarre, exotic meat (dire lion chops, portal drake stew and phase spider pudding were all on the menu).

There was also some nice individual roleplaying time as the players got to play their characters in non-combat situations, and expand on their individual quirks and personalities a bit. The barbarian decided that he wasn't going to serve anyone and acted as the bouncer. Meanwhile, the warforged cleric took the opportunity to chat up the mayor about the many benefits of establishing an all-construct city guard. Additionally, they got to interact and chat with important NPC's who, though they had met them before, had never really received equal table time with the party. Important NPC's who will soon play major roles in the campaign...

The Last Laugh's attack caught the party completely off-guard, and was surprisingly emotional, as it was the first time the thieves guild had proactively attacked the party instead of vice versa. Since Meat on a Stick was the party's precious baby, they took the attack very, very personally. It was also very interesting watching the party actually be concerned about property damage and such for the first time EVER.

At the end of the night, Meat on a Stick had gone from a funny running joke to an actual, in-game thing, many essential NPC's had been fleshed out, and the Last Laugh hate was stronger than ever. In retrospect, it's probably good to run sessions like this once in a while, to let the players' actions dictate the night's events, tie up loose ends and plant some nice plot/story hooks for the future.

Achievements in D&D, part 2

No music spotlight today - instead, update on the D&D Achievements system! We finally managed some D&D game time on the weekend, for the first time in months. I've been gradually adding more and more achievements to my master list for some time now, and decided to implement them in Saturday's game.

I printed all the achievements I'd come up with on 2.5" x 3.5" cardstock cards (baseball card size) with the name, point value, and criteria (and a little line at the bottom for the achiever to write their name). An empty box to check when the points had been spent, and I was ready to go.

I told my players, and they were excited about this new element of the game. One thing I was sure to emphasize was that in general, each achievement would only be attainable once, ever. I told them it would make sense later.

The first achievement

About 20 minutes into the game, the first achievement was given out! It was one for rolling over a 30 on a skill check. This was a perfect opportunity to explain why each achievement was only attainable once - in this case, it was so that the other players, upon learning of the criteria for an achievement, didn't go out of their way making silly skill checks or stacking bonuses to get a result over 30. I think that unlike video games, purposefully "farming" achievements would ruin the game and get everyone distracted and preoccupied with metagame thinking.

Problem: Tracking long-term stats

I quickly ran into a predicament with some of the achievements though. Long-term ones such as "kill 100 enemies with melee attacks" quickly made me realize that I need some sort of easy recording method, as it's quite tough to keep track of in the heat of battle, especially when you're running half a dozen monsters and numerous abilities, status effects, etc. A master list with each player's name & current kill count already written down will help. Since this is an ongoing, permanent stat sheet, it should be easy to keep updated.

Problem: Tracking short-term, temporary stats

The other type of achievement that caused me headache were the short-term ones such as "Fail 5 saving throws in a row." Not only did I need to track each PC when they had a status effect, but if they saved against the effect and then received a new one, I had to start counting all over again. I haven't yet figured out a nice way to handle these.

For both of these, I could ask the players to help me, but I think asking them to keep track of how many saves you fail in a row would tip them off that there's an achievement related somehow, which I want to avoid.

Problem: Need More Achievements!

One player got a little disappointed after pulling off a phenomenal series of actions to keep the entire party AND a room full of important dignitary NPC's alive, and not getting an achievement for his efforts. We laughed about it, and I told him flat out that I mistakenly forgot to design some healing achievements (though I do have a long-term one for restoring 15 allies from negative HP to positives).

While this wasn't a big deal, it did slightly set off alarm bells that getting achievements was already an important objective in my players' minds, despite there being nothing to redeem the points for yet! I'm hoping this was just because they were new and fun, and everyone wanted one.

Overall, the achievements were a great success. For next time, I'm going to try to come up with some better bookkeeping methods, and maybe a fun little sound to play when an achievement is received - maybe the Final Fantasy victory jingle?

Monday Music: Unstoppable

One of the most vivid, dramatic campaign scenes is when the party has to take on titanic being that looms over them, massively powerful and destructive. These songs have deep bass-like qualities that convey a feeling of immense size and invincibility, an unstoppable force that everything flees from.

Shingun (Marching Army)

Source: Fullmetal Alchemist OST 3

In Labors & Dangers ~Fortitudo~

Source: Bayonetta [Xbox 360]

Bridge Battle

Source: Lair [PS3]

Mood: Power, enormous size, unstoppable, impending disaster

Summary: These songs would fit any situation where the party is faced with something that they really can't slash or magic down - maybe it's a huge, primordial being awakened from dormancy, an army of hulking warforged juggernauts bearing down on a city, or even something more mundane like a volcano eruption. They all feel very epic, and would be perfect to use as in a campaign/chapter final battle.

These songs would be perfect for:
• A gargantuan, godly creature that dwarfs the party
• A driven, mindless, merciless construct army destroying all in their path
• The end of the world, when the fate of humanity/earth/existence is at stake

Monday Music: Dark and Depths

Caves, subterranean tunnels, deep murky depths...sooner or later, every D&D party ends up delving into the dark underground. Whether it be vast caverns of aquatic horrors, or ancient ruins of long-dead civilizations, these excursions tend to be similar in spirit - tense, ominous and a little creepy.

Fortunately for the music-loving DM, there are boatloads of great "Evil Cave" songs available to use. Most are quite generic and would also work perfectly well for dungeons, prisons, ruins, etc...anything controlled or inhabited by monsters or enemies.

Kita No Daikuudou

Source: Final Fantasy: Advent Children [Movie]


Source: ICO [PS2]

Dark Secrets

Source: The Last Remnant [Xbox 360]


Source: Diablo [PC]

Dead On Time

Source: Silent Hill: Homecoming [PS3]

Mood: Creepy, suspenseful, dark, gloomy, tense

Summary: This selection of songs is high on ambiance, hopefully evoking feelings of uncertainty and danger. They're all fairly generic while still maintaining a discordant, unnerving feel, which should help a DM build up dramatic suspense before all hell breaks loose. There's also lots of strange little noises which really keeps a listener on edge and wary. Personally, the echoing wind and unidentifiable noises makes me think of maze-like, unknown caves where a party would be completely lost and overwhelmed by the huge vastness they find themselves facing. And who knows what those clangs and bizarre sounds really are?

These songs would be perfect for:
• The Underdark
• Exploring an ancient, long-dead underground civilization
• Investigating something haunted; a ship, a castle, an city, etc.

Monday Music: Danger!!

Most D&D fights are against regular sized foes. Orcs, gnolls, maybe you go up against a troll or giant now and then. But sometimes the PC's have to take on a true behemoth. We're talking dragons, titans, maybe some horrible primordial. For these fights, it's nice to have suitably overwhelming music.

The Monster Hunter game series for Playstation Portable is a great source of "oh crap!!" panic music. Fast-paced and exciting, I would definitely only use them for battles against a massive foe or with an epic scale. To use them on orcs or goblins would be a waste.

Rathalos - Howling

Source: Monster Hunter OST

Monoblos - Crimson Horns

Source: Monster Hunter OST

Gypceros - Poison Mist

Source: Monster Hunter OST

Gravios - A Crack In The Earth

Source: Monster Hunter OST

Rathian - Rhythms Of The Ancient Past

Source: Monster Hunter OST


Source: Monster Hunter Portable 2 OST

Mood: Primal, panicked rush, fight for survival, relentless pursuit, rampaging beasts

Summary: If your party is against something physically massive and overpowering, these songs should work perfectly to convey the sense of power that such creatures should possess. The fast drum beats also work great for encounters in a jungle or wilderness setting, where the players are clearly out of their element...but their opponent is not.

These songs would be perfect for:
• Fighting a dragon, tarrasque, or anything else enormous that dwarfs the PC's
• A climactic battle where the party has to rush and hurry before something Terrible happens
• Any combination of Big Monsters and Out-of-Place party; T-Rex in a temperate jungle, bulettes in a rocky gorge, Kraken at sea (obviously)...anything where the monster can have their way with the hapless, uncoordinated party.

Monday Music: Banquets & Balls

Occasionally your party of rugged manly-man heroes will end up in a situation totally foreign & frightening to them - a fancy, glamorous banquet. (Or ball, masquerade, etc) It's a nice break from hack/slash killing, gives players some roleplaying time, & usually ends in comically disastrous fashion.

Even if you know the barbarian will end up brawling in the kitchen or swinging from expensive crystal chandeliers, having "scene" music helps bring life to the setting. Some players will concentrate hard on being civil and dignified, while others will be exactly the opposite and emphasize how awkward and out of place they feel. Having appropriate music will do a better job of painting the scene in players' minds than even the best spoken description, and help everyone at the table get into the proper mindset.


Source: Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale

Lullaby of Resembool

Source: Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood OST

Tifa's Theme

Source: Final Fantasy Advent Children OST

Mood: Elegance, lighthearted, high society, nobles, luxury

Summary: Over the years, my players have attended high-class balls and banquets as bodyguards, as thieves, and as guests of honor. It's always fun when they're attending as legitimate guests, since you end up with the real-life players roleplaying their characters, who are themselves "roleplaying" as distinguished, cultured citizens.

One extra feature in these songs are how generic they are. Pleasant but unremarkable, they are meant to be subconsciously absorbed in the background while the players are busy roleplaying, concentrating on dialogue, or making sure they don't offend the Duke they're trying to impress.

These songs would be perfect for:
• Any luxurious, high-class party such as a banquet, gala, masquerade, etc.
• A play, show or opera
• Pretty much anything where the party is there as spectators or guests instead of adventurers

Monday Music: Town Themes

Something that makes me want to punch gnomes is the sound of cliche "medieval" music. You know the kind - bagpipes wailing, cheery flute you'd associate with celtic dancing or medieval fests. (It is also used in many RPG games, and every terrible fantasy TV show/movie ever invented.)

I hate this music! Not the music itself, but what self-respecting evil DM has a happy little town deserving of a theme song like that? No, our villages are besieged by bloodthirsty goblins, situated atop ancient gnoll burial grounds, or unknowingly participating in vile rituals which will summon Yok'Thrykrr the Devourer. No, my fellow DMs, we need appropriate town music.

A few "village that is totally effed and may even be aware of this fact" themes that I have used are as follows:

Tristram Village

Source: Diablo OST (No longer available for purchase on Amazon)

Castle in the Mist

Source: ICO OST (aka ICO-Melody in the Mist) (Import only, it seems. Sadness.)

Mood: Loneliness, determination, meager resources, hardship, helplessness

Summary: These songs perfectly capture the "points of light in the Darkness" theme that Wizards is pushing so hard in 4E D&D. In fact, the games themselves follow this theme exactly as well - in Diablo you are one hero against thousands of demons in a corrupted land, and in ICO you are a boy all alone in a monstrous castle fighting...the Darkness (no, seriously!). No wonder their music fits so well.

I would guess that not many would listen to these songs and think "Wow, this sure is a nice place to live!" Instead, I hope players would grit their teeth, sharpen their blades and prepare themselves for difficult struggles ahead.

It would be perfect for:
• Any town/village where there is hardship and people who need help (aka EVERY D&D TOWN EVER)
• Castle in the Mist - an elegy (I visualize it playing while sending someone's body drifting off to sea, something like that)

Monday Music: Countdown


Source: Needless (Anime, but couldn't find a link to purchase the soundtrack). The artist's name is e-ZUKA.

Mood: High tempo, blood pumping, aggressive, speed

Summary: One of many in my "generic battle" music folder, this song has been remarkable in my D&D group for stirring up my players and getting them very intensely focused on the fight at hand. A few have even started mock-hating the song because they unconsciously find themselves pumping their heads to the fast guitar beat. It's a great, fast-paced battle theme that would also work exceptionally well in other tabletop games for chase scenes, fights atop a speeding subway train, or anything else that screams SPEED.

It would be perfect for:
• A high-speed car chase
• A medium-level fight - not a pushover, but not epic either
• Battling atop a speeding lightning rail train in Eberron

This rest of the soundtrack is full of similarly styled action music, many of which I use in my D&D music library. Here are a few more of my favorites. (The thumbnails look identical, but they are in fact different songs.)

Monday Music: Ave Satani

Ave Satani

Source: The Omen soundtrack (Amazon)

Mood: Evil, pervasive, fanatical cultists, grotesque, foul ritual

Summary: Probably one of the most classically "evil" songs I can think of. Hell, the title means "Hail Satan" so you know what you're getting. Great gregorian chant singing (which always sounds biblical and ominous), mixed with a plodding, foul musical score which builds to an eerie crescendo. It's quite disturbing, especially how the singing voices continue to raise in pitch and harshness right up to the song's finish. Also, when the instruments start in at 0:32 (a bassoon, maybe?), there's just something about it that screams corrupt, bloated, obscene least to me.

It would be perfect for:
• A demonic cult performing a ritual for their loathsome master
• An evil temple or church
• A plane/realm of nightmares or madness

I always find music works well in parallel. I don't foresee working this song into my game, but if I did I would probably have the party encounter or be imprisoned by a cult set on summoning their demonic master. "Ave Satani" would play during the ritual, but the demon lord might still escape (maybe in partial, weakened form) and then the party would have to fight it. Or, they might have to pursue the demon back into its own realm and slay it there. Regardless, when they fought it I would switch to the following song, a more rocking version of "Ave Satani" by a group called Gregorian. This style of music isn't for everyone, but it's perfect for my group.

Great idea resource: Paizo's RPG Superstar

Paizo is currently in the midst of their 2010 Paizo RPG Superstar contest, where they have gamers submit a number of concepts and finished ideas to their staffers for judging and criticism. I believe the winner last year won a writing spot on one of Paizo's products, possibly their Pathfinder line? (I don't remember exactly).

Over the course of the contest, the contestants must design a number of varying entries - a wondrous item, a monster concept, followed by its stat block, a location complete with map, and finally a full adventure proposal. The field of entries is narrowed down to 32 writers in the first round, and then halved each round after that until only one is left standing (writing?).

While this is certainly very cool to any aspiring RPG writers, I find it to be a great source of ideas and inspiration for my own personal GM toolkit. Every GM I know is constantly on the lookout for cool ideas or novel concepts, and this contest is an incredible think-tank of creativity. Obviously you can't pluck someone's adventure proposal out and get it published, for blatant legal and copyright issues. But in your own personal game? Go for it!

One of the best things about looking at such an unrestricted field of entries is the huge variety you see in the entries. Some people submit simple and conservative ideas, others might have bizarre necromantic elements in everything they do, others might have a cosmic/starfarer slant to them.

My favorite category is the first round finalists - 32 wondrous items that made the cut past Paizo's judges. The nice thing about any of these 32 items is that you already know that they are mechanically sound and not game-breaking/overpowered, since those are some of the criteria the judges looked at. However, even the items that didn't make the cut are worth checking out. Even if you don't use the item as-written, you're bound to find some fascinating and truly imaginative things you could implement into your own games.

The only negative for 4E players is that the contest is for Paizo's Pathfinder universe, which uses the 3.5 rules. Even if you can't use the exact crunch of some of the applications, you can always reskin them for 4E, or simply view them as raw, undeveloped concepts and ideas.

Some of my favorite wondrous items from this year's finalists, which I intend to stat up for 4E and work into my game:

Amulet of Sparkling Deceit by Jeff Spencer (amulet that distracts a nearby enemy, making it grant combat advantage to the wearer)

Batrachian Helm by Matthew McGee (a frog helm with a tongue attack!)

Tankard of the Cheerful Duelist by Matthew Morris (tankard that buffs AC a little while worn, but more when carried in offhand)

Adapting to your players

As a GM, one of the best tools at our disposal is being able to smoothly adapt to our players' actions, desires and expectations. I'm not talking about reacting to attacks and decisions, or even to the bizarre randomness that always occurs. I'm talking about shaping the flow of the game around them.

In my opinion, an ideal GM will not only always have a quick answer for unexpected questions, but will find a way to convincingly work whatever the players can come up with into the story. When pulled off successfully, a skilled GM can turn a seemingly random and half-joking question into a tantalizing plot hook that gets the party excited, thinking they've stumbled onto a secret bonus or clue.

During a routine dungeon crawl of a deserted gnomish city, the party stumbled upon a cauldron that needed no external fire to cook its contents. For some reason (who knows how players think?) they immediately latched onto it as if it were an invaluable artifact, and lugged it about for the rest of the crawl, despite its encumbrance and weight. I took note of their random attachment to the cauldron for later.

A few levels later it returned to prominence when a prestigious cooking contest was held in their city, as the final event in an annual festival. Naturally, they wanted to win. While researching exotic recipes, they discovered that centuries ago the cauldron had belonged to the now-deceased town founder, a powerful archmage, and that he had been an outstanding chef!

They used a speak with dead ritual, and not only enlisted his culinary expertise, but also found out that that when "heated" with magical fire the cauldron would add extra flavor and deliciousness to its contents. Naturally, they went on to win the contest, all the while excitedly talking about how lucky they were to have grabbed the cauldron way back then, how fortunate they were to discover that the founder had loved to cook, and how clever they were in convincing his ghost to help them. It was one of the most enjoyable sessions of the entire campaign, and everyone had a great time concocting all sorts of terrible meals for the contest.

Of course, what they didn't realize was that nearly all of it was improvised.

The cauldron was real but insignificant, garnering only a single line of text in the book.

The cooking contest, on the other hand, had been added by me, to let the party indulge their bizarre cooking desires (they had also converted a subdued ogre into a chef at their tavern.)

And as for the culinary expertise of the town founder? Entirely a spur-of-the-moment plot hook, after someone rolled a critical success while researching local cooking history at the town library. He had just been looking for recipe ideas, but I felt that a critical success deserved a special reward. So I told them the founder had been a skilled chef, something they definitely hadn't expected, and their eyes lit up at the new possibilities.

Suddenly these random, unrelated bits all came together - the cauldron, the cooking contest, the city itself and this famous historical figure who they had only heard of previously. It was like the big moment of revelation at the end of a mystery novel. I was able to spread the seeds of numerous story pieces and plot hooks, and the player who had gotten the critical success got to bask in the glory.

"Maybe the cauldron was his!" said one enthused player. That's not a bad idea, I thought. And so it was.

All this led into impromptu skill challenge where they spoke to the founder's ghost (laying the groundwork for great plot exploration later on) and "discovered" the cauldron's magic fire property, which - you guessed it - was also invented on the spot.

Letting the players "invent" clues and advantages was great fun for everyone at the table. I got a kick out of letting their decisions and actions dictate what happened next, and was able to almost sit back and let them write the story themselves. And because I maintained a confident, unhesitating front, they were thrilled, believing that they had discovered this secret, hilarious loophole path to victory.

As a GM, it's easy to screw up this potential through the simple act of saying No. It would have been all too easy to say "the cauldron is bolted down" or "the cauldron loses its magic outside of this room." And was the town founder actually a chef? Of course not, but changing this fact sure made for some fun and interesting roleplaying. You want to encourage and stoke your players' creativity, not stomp all over it! Don't be a wall that stops your players a doorway that opens up into new, interesting paths.

On the other hand, you have to be convincing. When I told my players that the founder had also been a skilled chef, I was calm and almost amazed, like I was impressed that they had managed to dig up this obscure bit of information about him. I may have even pretended to be referencing a special page in the book. Players are like wild dogs - they sense fear. Had I been hesitant or nervous, they would have known that I was making it up on the spot. Not only does this rob your players of their sense of discovery and accomplishment, it's also discouraging, as it seems like you are patronizing them.

Finally, if a quick improvisation job blows up in your face, don't fret about it - it's bound to happen sooner or later. Remember, you're hanging out with friends, not giving a presentation at work. If you're stressing out about making on-the-fly decisions and dealing with unexpected things, you're putting way too much pressure on yourself. At the very worst, you admit you screwed up or got some facts mixed up, you get some ribbing from your players, and you move on. The potential benefits are well worth the risk.

Monday Music: Phantom Forest

Phantom Forest

Source: Phantom Forest - Final Fantasy VI: Grande Finale (Amazon)

Mood: Solemn, mournful, mysterious, tranquil

Summary: A haunting yet regal song, full of tragedy and tranquility. The first part feels like arriving, and passing through, some otherworldly gate or door, while the rest feels sorrowful and peaceful.

It would be perfect for:
• Entering a ruined kingdom where all the people are trapped as (non-hostile) ghosts
• Floating down the River Styx, seeing images and memories of the past flicker around you
• Exploring an ancient and deserted, yet still sacred-feeling temple

It's from Final Fantasy VI, so huge nostalgia points right away. But even better, it's not the exact version from the game, so players who've played the game (let's be honest, who HASN'T played it) might not even recognize it right away.

Monday Music: Assault on New Avalon

Because I focus a great deal on music in my campaigns, I've decided to post a cool song or two each Monday, what kind of mood it sets, and where I intend to use it (if I've planned that far). Today's song is "Assault on New Avalon" from the World of Warcraft - Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack.

Assault on New Avalon

Mood: Chaos, war, epic scale, overwhelming evil

Usage: This will be used near the conclusion to the entire campaign, when the party's home city is attacked by an army of demons and a gate to a terrible demigod from the Far Realm begins opening in the sky. The PCs will be dispatching a foe either underground or out of town (somewhere not directly on the city streets), and will receive an urgent magic message telling them that the city is under attack. This is the music that will play when they arrive on the scene and take in all the destruction - thundering black sky, razed buildings, streets erupting in fire and smoke...and up above, a foul, monstrous form slowly rippling into view.

GameMastery NPC Decks

I was randomly perusing Paizo's online store yesterday and ended up in their GameMastery Cards section. I own a few of their item card and critical hits decks, so I figured I'd see what new item sets they had for sale now.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover a new deck product by GameMastery, NPC decks - cards with full-color face illustrations of NPCs. There's even a deck devoted to villain pictures.

This is a BRILLIANT idea! Often have I lamented that a particular NPC is not coming across in very memorable fashion, and wished that I had a picture I could show my players. These cards seem like the perfect solution.

First of all, they're inexpensive, which is always nice ($10.99). If the quality is anything like the item sets/critical hits decks, then the art will be great and the cards nice and sturdy. The cards have blank space on the back to write notes, so parties or DMs will be able to jot pertinent NPC info down for easy future reference. And since the cards are standard trading card size, they will fit in protective sleeves - great for extending their durability and allowing notes to be written on the sleeves without wrecking the cards themselves.

I instantly became a fan of these cards. I see them being greatly beneficial to any DM, as it will help players remember NPCs more effectively, and also allow them to record important notes or information about said NPCs.

Scenario #1, without cards or pictures
DM: You walk into the tavern and see Sheila the Red at the bar, who waves you over.
Player 1: ...who?
Player 2: Was that the mage who helped us escape the catacombs?
Player 3: No, wasn't that the evil sorceress we were trying to find last month?
Player 4: Is she hot?
DM: *cries*

Scenario #2, using the sample picture on the NPC deck box
DM: You walk into the tavern and see Sheila the Red at the bar, who waves you over. *hands over card*
Player 1: Oh right, her! I remember that ridiculous hat.
Player 2: *turns card over, reads notes* Hah! That's right, she was the one who beat you in the drinking contest!
Player 3: Grrr...I hate her so much! Write that down. I'm serious!
Player 4: Oooh, she's pretty hot!

Great-looking, affordable NPC gallery AND information database, rolled into a set of portable, convenient cards? SOLD!

3.5 Reskin: Magic Sniper Rifle

All the simple monster re-skinning in 4E made me think of a simple yet effective reskin I used in a 3.5 campaign a few years back. My players were tasked with stopping a master assassin who had been killing political figures by magically sniping them from incredible distances away.

When they eventually tracked him down, he was on a rooftop (the party was on the ground), wielding what looked like a heavy crossbow minus the bolt and bowstring mechanisms. He opened fire on the party, shooting shimmering magical shots with unfailing accuracy. Each of his shots did 1d20+10 damage, which made for some great reactions around the table...

Me: (after rolling and confirming a hit) Okay, that's a hit so...  *rolls d20*
Player: What? He gets two shots?
Me: No, this is his damage roll.
Player: What?! HE DOES d20 DAMAGE??

The players scattered for cover but he still shot them with pinpoint accuracy, no matter how low I rolled, before making his escape. Afterwards the shaken and nervous party revised their "yell, charge and bash things until they die" methods to properly combat this terrible challenge.

Seems unfair? After all, a weapon that does d20 damage? That's ridiculous!

Until you consider that the "sniper rifle" is just a slightly modified 9th level wand of Magic Missile.

For flavor, I made it do 1d20+10 instead of five 1d4+1 missiles, which upped the damage range to 11-30 dmg instead of 10-25 dmg, but balanced it by making the shooter only able to target one creature.

The never-miss aspect of Magic Missile is what made the trick really work though, and convey the feeling of a master sniper with amazing skills. I rolled attack rolls for the assassin, but this was simply for show and to mess with their heads - nothing wreaks havoc with a metagamer's head like seeing the DM roll a 2 and still hit a rogue taking cover behind a tree.  ;)

If you wanted to extend the rifle theme further, you could have the shooter change "clips" by ejecting the old wand and inserting a new one for a fresh 50 shots. Or have the wand utilize the Enlarge Spell feat to double its range to ~400 feet of sniping accuracy.

Achievements in D&D

I'm thinking about implementing an Achievement system into my 4E campaign, much like the achievements in Xbox 360 games or World of Warcraft. I believe that achievements, while meaning a bit of extra bookkeeping/tracking on my part, will enhance the campaign in a multitude of ways.

Recognition. Extremely heroic or awesome actions will now be rewarded not only with in-game victory, but also out-of-game recognition and celebration.

Permanency. Each achievement will be in the form of a cardstock card or slip, that players will be able to keep with their sheet - tactile reminders of the adventures they've had.

Consolation. Achievements for really bad luck, such as 5 failed saving throws in a row, will (hopefully) lighten the mood and help an unfortunate player get back on his feet.

Humor. Many of the achievements will add humor to the table, either through weird requirements (such as drowning a flying monster) or funny titles referencing running/inside jokes.

Redemption. I haven't figured out how this will work, but players will be able to "cash in" achievement points they have earned for favors in-game. Not like a store, but more like...divine favours, like the gods themselves are rewarding them for their feats. Rerolls would be the simplest exchange, but maybe also things like a permanent bonus to a skill or defense. Minor boons.

Some achievements are easy to plan out - kill X enemies, deal over X damage in a single attack, etc. I've written up plenty of those already. The harder part now is coming up with creative achievements that will suitably reward a player doing something bizarre and unexpected. In other words, exactly what someone should get an achievement for.

Here are some sample achievements I intend to use:

• Kill an enemy with a power that does not deal damage or ongoing damage.
• Kill an enemy with a utility power.
• Roll a natural 20 three times in one encounter.
• Fall 100 feet and survive (only attainable in Heroic tier)
• Knock an enemy off a ledge, cliff, etc., where it dies from fall damage.
• Perform an area attack that includes at least 2 friendly targets where you miss every friendly target but hit every enemy target.
• Have at least 3 players at the table wearing pop boxes on their heads at the same time.
• Miss three attack rolls in a row.
• Go an entire game night without taking any damage.
• Survive an encounter while wearing armor you are not proficient with.

One potential drawback of achievements is people getting carried away with them and "achievement-hunting," but this won't be an issue because the achievement list & requirements will be secret, and each achievement will only be attainable once. So players won't be able to intentionally try for achievements.

Another drawback will be trying to keep track of achievements that are bestowed for things like 100 kills, or like in the list above, surviving an entire night without taking damage. I'm considering making a graph with each character's name on one axis and achievements the character qualifies for on the other axis. That way, I can tally kills or put an X in a character's box when they no longer qualify for an achievement. Not sure how well this will actually work, but it seems a decent method in theory.

I've ran the idea by a few of my players and they were very excited about the idea, so it should be fun to see how they react when the achievements start popping up!

DM Pressure, more music!

In a way, the internet is an awesome resource for DMs looking for inspiration and ideas. However, it's also awful because if you're like me, you see all the awesome campaigns out there and what other DMs are doing and feel totally overwhelmed! I mean, look at the stuff Gabe @ Penny Arcade is doing, and that's as a (relatively) rookie DM! Then there's people with light-pen projector tables, all sorts of awesome Dwarven Forge terrain dungeons, and of course the completely mind-blowing SurfaceScapes project.

Sure, it's self-inflicted pressure, since no one else in my group even hears of these awesome things unless I tell them. But still! I want to keep pushing the bar and surprising my players in as many ways as possible.

Some of the fancier table tricks are, unfortunately, out of the question for me and my limited finances. But as someone with a laptop, extra monitor, and devoted "gaming table" speakers, one thing I can do is use electronic props to their fullest.

I mentioned previously how essential music was in the finale to our last chapter, and I intend to continue this trend when the party ventures to a haunted village later on in the campaign. They don't know anything about the village other than its tragic, distant history, so it should be interesting when they eventually find the hooks connecting it to the central plotline.

The song is from a World of Warcraft dungeon called Karazhan, a haunted, magical tower which contained all sorts of awesome noble ghosts and weirdness, like an undead butler still serving at a banquet of cultured, elegant ghosts, a giant chess board where you had to participate as chess pieces, and an opera event where - in front of a ghostly audience - you re-enacted well-known folklore stories such as Romeo & Juliet or Red Riding Hood. (How full of great, classic fantasy RPG hooks is that??)

The way I see this happening is they'll travel to the village, expecting long-deserted ruins. But the village will be still there, bustling with people in antiquated style houses and clothing. Gloomy lights, cobblestone streets, Victorian manors...maybe a Ravenloft feel. Obviously, because it's blatantly fishy and because they're PCs, they'll be suspicious. Which is fine!

Then, as they proceed deeper into the seemingly-innocuous village, wondering what all the fuss was...maybe they find a few hidden secrets and discover the darker truth beneath the simple exterior. Or maybe there will be some old man on the road warning them not to stay past nightfall, but they do and when the sun disappears the town gets all demonic. Endless possibilities!

Using music to enhance your game

In a previous post I mentioned how I was using a very cool song from the movie Final Fantasy: Advent Children to add a ton of atmosphere and suspense to my 4E Shackled City campaign. It was a huge success, and I highly recommend using special music for special events. Here's a few more details about how it went down. (The full session recap can be found here.

The temple was well defended, and the party had been overcoming tough opposition (and were starting to really hate kuo-toas.) After emerging into a large open cavern, they started to hear a loud, rhythmic thumping noise.

This is what they heard (I clipped the first minute or so and played it on repeat.)

As they explored further, they looked into a huge, football-stadium sized chamber only to see hundreds of kuo-toas deep in trance/meditation. The sound was the sound of countless kuo-toa hearts beating in unison.

A long bridge led above the crowd into a shrine, and the effect of the suspenseful, ominous music playing while they crept across was great. I stopped the music when they entered the shrine. A few encounters and one session later, they had the dwarf in tow and were ready to start sneaking out again. They exchanged nervous looks when I put the music on again, which I took great pleasure in.

Sneaking out over the bridge was a stealth-based skill challenge, so as to not alert the dormant horde beneath them. They eventually failed, making noise and alerting the kuo-toas. However, I didn't tell them they had failed or that the kuo-toas had noticed them, I simply switched the song to the 1:40 mark and waited. When the tempo changed everyone at the tables completely lost their minds and started all yelling at once what they were doing, in a panic.

The skill challenge turned into an escape-themed one, led into a fight with a vengeful dragon back for a rematch, and finally a terrible far realm abomination blocking the way to their escape boat, all while being pursued by enraged kuo-toas out for blood. I used various escape/pursuit-themed songs to emphasize the danger, and after the beaten, tired but successful players drifted away on their boat, they all said it was one of the most intense sessions yet.

It can be tough to find that song that perfectly fits an event, and you don't want to do it too often or it'll lose its magic. But sometimes it works perfectly, and makes a cool encounter unforgettable.