A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Winter is Coming

I have decided to participate in T. W. Wombat's Winter is Coming RPG Blog Festival, in which we all create winter-themed content for D&D and other rulesets.

Since I live in Miami, Florida I admit I don't have the level of experience with whatever this "winter" thing everyone keeps talking about is, but I figured I'd give this one a shot since I've had an idea bouncing around in my head since the festival was first mentioned.

And it's gotten a pretty good list of participants, some other folks from the D&D blogsphere that are much more familiar than little ol' me. But I'm surprised to see that, although there are several that are creating an "encounter", I appear to be the only one crazy enough to create a "delve". I could be misreading their plans of course, or it could simply have to do with only having five days to do it (submission deadline is September 26th).

Although I haven't fleshed out all the details, I'm predicting a short adventure/delve of between three and five encounters for characters of low to mid paragon tier (12th-14th level) using the Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition guidelines (I will probably create it using GSL guidelines). This is not set in stone just yet as I haven't written detailed specifics yet, but it's looking to be the case.

Then again, for all I know this might be another one of my 150 page behemoths... I do tend to overdo things sometimes.

I'm also considering creating a winter-themed map, but that is dependent on available time. I'm predicting that, if I do make a full map, it'll probably be a big one and I'll run in to the issues I have before with Fireworks unable to handle big honkin' images. So no guarantees on a usable map, but you never know.

If you're out there and are one of those creative types, I invite you to sign up (sign up deadline is September 23rd) and create something... er... wintery! Doesn't have to be a full blown delve - many are doing themes, feats, items, etc... - but don't let me stop you from creating something awesome!

Stay tuned!

Filed under: 4e, Design, DnD, Encounters, Maps, RPG No Comments

Critical Assault

Today was an interesting day... I spent almost the entire day at my FLGS, hoping to either run a game or participate in one. Here is my experience...

Disorganized Play

I was looking forward to the opportunity to DM my first live game in over a decade. I prepared two campaigns: one homegrown and simplistic, the other was Revenge of the Iron Lich.

Last week I offered the idea of RotIL to the players at the store, but I don't think the concept of it really sank in with many of them. Although I think they would have enjoyed it, they didn't seem all that interested in doing something different. Maybe it's because I'm a newcomer and they don't know who I am or what I'm capable of, and I have to accept that if that was the case.

But running what amounts to a "pick up" game at a FLGS is not that simple.

  • The store owner doesn't help at all. In the case of this store, the owner is heavy in to Magic: The Gathering, as can be expected: it's a cash cow and probably the primary source of revenue for his store. So he seemed rather disinterested in anything else, and left it up to the players to arrange WPN events all on their own.
  • Today, half the store was taken up by the Star Trek Fan Club, which consisted of a bunch of guys older than I am taking up a half dozen tables with their various Enterprise models and cardboard stand-ups of ship captains, and sitting around talking Star Trek. I'm not sure why they were there or what they hoped to accomplish, but between them and several tables of card games (MtG and other card games; I don't know which), we were pretty cramped. There was barely enough room to run Lair Assault, and I can't imagine running something like RotIL which has a much larger map.
  • The primary game organizer was not there today.
  • There was no organization or scheduling of games; people just showed up in the hopes of playing. Again, this could seem that way simply because I'm an outsider and don't have the level of communication other players do (who, for all I know, see each other every day). But besides word of mouth there does not seem to be any planning or precise event scheduling, so it's impossible for an outsider to plan their participation.
  • I tried to gauge interest by posting on the store's Facebook page. I got one person interested, and that person canceled this morning. So I cannot recruit players; if there are players out there they aren't on Facebook, or at least don't follow the store's page with activities.
  • I suggested to the owner "...that maybe Encounters could be run on other days?" He looked at me as if I was crazy. Wizards of the Coast "kind of expects this to be run on Wednesdays", and a 7:30pm start time is kind of a hard sell. But if I decide to run it on a different day or at a different time, how would I get people to attend? I can't put those off days on the WotC store locator because, as per their guidelines, Encounters *must* be on Wednesdays.

So because of all that, I was unable to run my own game; at this rate maybe it isn't meant to be, at least at this locatin.

Instead, I participated in...

Lair Assault: Forge of the Dawn Titan (Warning: possible SPOILERS!)

The group, without my knowledge, decided to go for the "everyone is the same race" achievement.

The race they chose? Gnomes. Based on m observation of the game the last year, I had created a tiefling mage designed with two things in mind:

  1. Being a controller: forced movement and dazing effects, with the hope that we can push things aside and run right through it to the boss.
  2. Cold attacks. This one was common sense: if you're in a zone that's filled with lava, cold attacks must be really useful... Right?

So I had to spend a bit converting my tiefling in to a gnome. If I must, I must... Although Fade Away is probably much more useful than Infernal Wrath in a place where everything has fire resistance.

This might have worked well except for one thing: by the third round, I was unconscious. Why? The DM, and I'm not making this up, rolled THREE consecutive critical hits against me within the first two rounds. The only thing I managed to do before going down for the count is activating Wizard's Fury and firing one Magic Missile. Even with using interrupts like Shield and Fade Away, I was at -4 hit points at the end of round 2 due to two critical hits. The healer revived me, only to get hit with the third critical hit that took me down again.

After that, the party left me to die as they continued forward. I failed my first two death saves before the "very bad thing" happens (if you've played the module, you know what I mean) and killed me outright.

All in all it was an entertaining experience, but mostly due to the social aspects of the game. Nobody enjoys getting mercilessly beaten to death by an unforgiving d20, but it was cool all things considered. I did learn a lot: the group has gone through this campaign several times before, so they knew exactly what needed to be done and what special powers would benefit them.

I had to leave before the end of the game - I did die 30 minutes in, after all - so I'm not sure if they made it. They were doing fairly well and had a lot of time left, so perhaps they did.

For what it's worth, thanks to my participation in this game I think I now have my DCI number issues sorted out. I'm officially registered, so now I can really be a WPN event organizer! Woo!


I don't know when I'll ever get to DM a game in person at this rate. Maybe it'll just take time, getting to know the players that are there and convincing them that I can do this, but even then it's going to be hard to get everyone there in an organized manner.

There is another option: online play, using any number of social networking services like Google Hangouts, Skype, etc... It seems that I may have to look in to getting a decent headset and microphone, and then seeing who out there wants to run a game and what kind of game.

Until then, I have a box labeled "Revenge of the Iron Lich"... A modern day Pandora's Box, just waiting to be unleashed on unsuspecting masses.


Is Surrender Always an Option?

In the movies, I don't recall many times where the protagonist asks the "big evil" to surrender and the BBEG says "You have a point. I surrender!" You didn't see Oddjob throw his hands up and capitulate when Bond threatened him with his hat. You didn't see the alien queen assume the fetal position and begin trembling just because Ripley called her a bitch. The Witch King didn't look blankly at Eowyn, suddenly realize that there was a little loophole to his immortality, and ran away screaming. It just doesn't happen in fiction, at least not as often as it would in real life.

Not much has been written about the possibility of surrender in D&D, especially in 4e. The only reference I can find is in the entry for the Intimidate skill (Player's Handbook, page 186 or the Rules Compendium, page 147):

Opposed Check: Against a monster’s Will. (Adventurers can also try to intimidate DM-controlled characters.) The monster gains a +5 bonus to Will against the check if it is unfriendly to the adventurer, or a +10 bonus if it is hostile.


Success: The adventurer forces a bloodied monster to surrender, gets a monster to reveal a secret, or cows a monster into taking some other action.

The above does not take in to consideration a variety of factors, such as morale. If the party has slaughtered fifty goblins as they plow through their lair, the rest of the lesser goblins would be much more receptive to "surrender or die." But, if you're a "by the book" DM, using the above numbers would still make it somewhat unlikely, or at least infrequent, that even the most lowly goblin would surrender.

Run Away! Run Away!

Every time I look at the first encounters in Keep of the Shadowfell, I can't help but think "why are these monsters still hanging around?!? Screw Irontooth, he could handle himself... I would have dropped my blade and run the hell out of there in a heartbeat!"

Let's do the math for a second: a Goblin Cutter (Monster Manual, page 136) has a Will defense of 11. For argument's sake, let's downgrade it from "hostile" to "unfriendly" - rather than charge at you with its sword, the goblin will be more likely to shout insults and really dislike your presence - so that's a +5 bonus, making the Intimidate check a DC 16. At first level, that's pretty close to a "Hard" DC (a truly "hard" DC at level 1 is DC 19). I have a level 2 warden that has an Intimidate bonus of +0, so he'd have to roll a 16 or higher to coax a goblin to surrender. That's a pretty tall order, even though he's the lead defender killing things left and right with a big honkin' battleaxe.

Let me sidestep for a minute and point out that Intimidate is Charisma based, which in my opinion is somewhat absurd. Your beefiest, burliest, most violently intimidating defender usually can't Intimidate themselves out of anything unless they take training in it (I've always wondered what "intimidation training" is like). If anything, it should be Strength based, I think. But I digress.

Someone trained in Intimidate and that uses Charisma as their primary attribute could get a +10 bonus if they really try. So even against a lowly, visibly shaken goblin they need a 6 or greater, which means there's still a 25% chance that the goblin will laugh in their face. And if the goblin was truly hostile (DC 21), that percentage rises to 50%. Somehow that doesn't seem likely enough.

I also need to point out the consequence of trying to intimidate anything. Under the block quoted above:

Target Becomes Hostile: Whether or not the check succeeds, using this skill against a monster usually makes it unfriendly or hostile toward the adventurer.

So if you happen to roll a failure, this lone goblin is going to come charging at you? Really? I also don't think I need to point out the inconsistency... Even if one rolls a success and the creature surrenders, as per the above it is still unfriendly or hostile. So what's the point of intimidating?

D&D does not have a "morale" stat; the closest it gets is a "circumstance bonus" to die rolls, but that's somewhat of a gray area and I don't think it's documented anywhere. If the party has been killing goblins wholesale, the remaining goblins would be terrified in no time at all. There is no way to quantify that, so DMs must use their own creative license, using what they may or may not know about how goblins act and try to make an intelligent decision of what exactly would happen in this situation.

Taking On the Alien Queen

But what if the target is your "big evil"?

"Gosh Ripley, you're right... I never meant to be such a bitch... I'm sorry. I should go."

The whole reason this conversation came up is because my primary party is going up against the "big evil" and the assassin/rogue decides to intimiate it. The BBEG has a base Will defense of 19, +10 for being hostile (no doubt about that here), so that's a DC of 29 (way beyonsd being "hard"). The assassin has a +11 intimidate, which means he'll have to roll an 18 or greater; that's a 15% chance of success. Another tall order, but at least it's fairly realistic.

But what exactly *is* success here? Many say that this shouldn't work at all, that there are creatures that are so fanatical that they are beyond intimidation ("fight to the death", as some official modules put it), but then I become one of those DMs that says "no". So if I allow the roll, and for argument's sake let's say the player rolls a natural 20, what exactly happens then? Would you still tell them that their intimidation had no effect, even though it was (1) a natural 20, and (2) higher than the BBEG's Will defense +10? Does the BBEG simply see the error of his ways and give up, no questions asked?!?

From a story standpoint, that's obviously not going to happen, but part of me still wants to reward the roll in the unlikely event that it is successful. I've asked this on Twitter and I've gotten suggestions such as granting an attack or damage bonus, decreasing his defenses, adding a temporary condition like dazed or weakened, etc... I actually like a lot of those ideas.

But what about failure? It is a big risk, but the player is making the check as a Standard Action so he's paying a certain price (especially considering he's the team striker). Besides a witty retort and back talk, should the BBEG gain some benefit? Some have suggested increased defenses, giving him one more action point, making an attack as an immediate reaction, etc... I'm still torn about this one, but for now will probably do no more than than laugh in the player's face and try to kill them again.

I do not want failure to be too extreme, because if it's something too over the top the player may not want to try it again. I do not want to put the "fear of God" in a player and prevent them from trying a creative solution to a problem using the resources they have available. I mean, if this will never work, again... what's the point of training Intimidate in the first place?

Others have suggested that it be a complex skill challenge, not leaving the unlikely surrender to a single lucky die roll and reflecting the inherent difficulty in trying to convince the BBEG to give up. This is another idea I'm considering.


I haven't rolled that d20 yet, but will do so later today. I still have the day to determine how it's going to be handled, but I'm wondering how many of you out there have dealt with similar situations. Does your BBEG end up being a big weenie and dropping to his knees, terrified that the rogue in the party really means business? How have your players used Intimidate, and what have you allowed them to get away with?


Excess Houseruling

I don't mind houserules most of the time because there are certain things in the core mechanic that, to me, make no sense, are not covered or may not translate well to the format I normally participate in ("play by post"). I personally have houseruled things like critical hits, tough minions and skill challenge handling (DC 10 + 1/2 level for an assist... at high levels, work for it guys!), just to make it a little more interesting.

But recently I've been exposed to what I call "excessive houseruling". In other words, the DM has elected to lay down so many new rules that you have to wonder if you're playing D&D at all.

For example, in ONE recent game there are the following houserules:

  • New rules for swimming: you move slower, or even sink to the bottom, depending on the armor you are wearing. If you're wearing scale or plate, you sink pretty much no matter what; you get a save after which you can shift two squares and become dazed, but if you fail you start to drown.
  • If you get pushed over the side of a dock in to the water, you get TWO rolls: a "safety roll" (Athletics/Acrobatics, fixed DC) and a saving throw. Now don't ask me what happens if you fail one or both, but as far as I could tell there is no way to avoid being dazed, even if you succeed on both rolls. When it happened to me I somehow wound up dazed, prone and hanging off the side of the dock.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #1: No opposed check to see if the other group is surprised. Post surprise round and first round actions right out of the gate, regardless of whether the enemy can act or not. There is no initiative order, so act at your discretion (and the enemy acts or moves at will as well). You can take full round actions until you "make contact" with the enemy, after which the surprise round ends immediately and the initiative order takes over.
  • Complete redefinition of the surprise round #2: In the surprise round, you get a full set of actions and every time someone attacks the enemy makes an opposed Initiative roll. If their Initiative roll beats yours, the attack does not take place. Note that this is a complete subversion of the initiative and surprise round mechanic in the first place... This rule was so confusing that it nearly wiped half the party on the first round, despite us already standing there, literally two squares from the enemy, weapons drawn an sensing danger. Most of us posted initiative rolls and nothing else (as is normally the case in PbP, so we know what order we attack in and can coordinate. Not to mention a warlord in the party makes things more complicated), and the DM assumed that was all we were going to do in the first round, so we stood there like idiots while the enemy proceeded to smash our brains in with a barrage of attacks (four Thunderwave attacks at least, not to mention several melee hits). The result was half the party dead (my character - the warlord leader - took a total of 74 points of damage at level ONE. For those keeping score, that's 2.5x my actual HP) and the rest bloodied in the first round before any of us even made a single attack roll. It caused such an uproar that the whole scene was retconned by the DM.
  • You can now use an action point as a free action at any time, even if it's not your turn. And forget about milestones and need to keep track of APs; you get one per encounter no matter what.
  • New rules for invisible targets: Cannot attack an invisible target with a "lucky" melee attack EVER, and the houserule has been worded in such a way that I currently have no idea if it can be hit with a ranged attack. Note that none of this has anything to do with whether a character is "hidden" or not; I could roll a natural 20 on a Perception check and pat the invisible gnome on the head, but so long as he's invisible I can't smack him with the warhammer that's bigger than he is.
  • Skill challenge rules that I know I can't explain (I posted the link to the thread on Twitter once; three people read it and only reacted by saying "my head hurts"). Basically we're walking through a city and we need directions, so we ask people. So each character has to pick a race we want to target, then make an opposed skill check of some sort. There's also a bunch of modifiers or something that I don't understand or know how they apply. And the end result is that I have to do 9 successes before 5 failures. Or something. Who knows.

There came a point when I didn't know what game I was playing anymore; I spent more time trying to make sense out of the rules than I did anything else. The story elements became lost in the mess, and every other post was asking for a rules clarification. There came a point when I stopped roleplaying and posted actions because I could not intelligently roleplay when I had no idea what was going on. It was no longer fun... it was work!

So I withdrew from the game.

Until that point, I don't think I'd ever withdrawn from a game in my life (well, except for games in which DMs disappear off the face of the Earth... Hey, it happens in PbP). It was a play by post game that was supposed to be all about roleplaying, but I read the thread a dozen times and didn't know what was going on. I had sensory overload, being hammered with so many rules that I couldn't focus on being the character I wanted to be. And I liked my character, too (one was a dwarven warlord, other was a shardmind psion).

I play PbP a lot, and I use it to tell a story and roleplay with the players. The rules are sometimes secondary, and if the players want to do something dramatic that bends the rules so be it. I have a monk in one game I DM that bounces all over the place, jumping over enemies and the like... Is that allowed in the rulebook? Probably not "as written", but I have him make a skill check and life goes on. I don't completely redefine what it means to take a move action.

D&D 4e has the potential issue of not being specific on certain rules, but that's by design. It's not like earlier versions, where you have five pages of grappling rules or six different ways to cast the same spell. In some ways it's simplistic and I think that's a good thing, but when a veteran player who is use to having a phone book of rules to go by starts playing it, they find themselves filling the apparent gaps.

So I'm curious...

  1. Have you ever been a player in a game where some houserules were absurd, or there were too many to keep track of?
  2. Any special houserules you've put in to effect as a DM?


On an unrelated note, I am taking a brief hiatus while I leave town on business, so this blog will be silent until the 19th of July. How I'm going to handle this trip and GenCon shortly thereafter is beyond me, but I'll figure things out as I go along.


Creating a Non-Lethal Solo Monster

WARNING: This post contains some serious spoilers for the end of Act One of my campaign, The Coming Dark. If you are currently one of my players on the WotC forums, I would prefer you stop reading now.

Almost every "solo" monster I've seen in the world of D&D has one specific purpose: kill the party. There's no question about it, a solo's objective is to inflict as much pain and misery as possible. It even says so in the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 55:

They have more hit points in order to absorb the damage output of multiple PCs, and they deal more damage in order to approximate the damage output of a group of monsters.

But does it really have to be that way? For that matter, do they have to deal any damage at all?

Scene Description

At the end of Act One in my campaign, there is a distinct possibility that one of the enemy will surrender and be taken alive. He will beg and plead that the party protect him from "it", and if they do he'll tell them anything they want to know. He never says what "it" is... But the party finds out soon enough: a creature has been sent to get him.

This creature is called a "Shadow Retriever". It has one specific purpose: recover the prisoner before he talks. And, for whatever reason it may be, they don't just want to silence him; they want him alive. So rather than send an army to get him, they send one creature. And it's a big one.

For the record, this creature is a Level 3 Solo Controller, going up against five level 1 PCs and an NPC ally (a Level 2 Soldier). Most people would consider that a TPK in the making, but that's assuming the Shadow Retriever actually attacks the party.

By design, the Shadow Retriever advances directly towards its intended target, effectively avoiding the rest of the party that gets in its way, until it accomplishes its mission. And only then does that it turns in to a no holds barred killing machine, but it should be considerably weakened by then.

The Retriever was an exercise to see how the party handles a creature that doesn't actually want them dead. In the original design it was meant to drop a boatload of detrimental effects on the party, leaving them to wonder how exactly they were going to kill this thing, only to realize there may not be a reason to take it on in the first place. The Retriever turns in to more of an annoyance than a threat.

Differing Tactics

In order to define the tactics of this creature, I made the creature have two different modes: a "recovery mode" and an "assault mode".

"Recovery mode" is its not-so-threatening version, when it has to complete its mission by targeting a single individual. In this mode it's not a destructive killing machine of chaos and hate, but rather it has tunnel vision and zeroes in on a single target until it has it. It honestly doesn't care about anyone else.

"Assault mode" is just what it sounds like: the destructive killing machine that everyone expects a solo to be. But, by the time it gets to this mode, it should have taken a fair share of damage while moving towards its intended target. Where most solo monsters have special powers that takes over when they become bloodied, this creature radically changes tactics by then and uses the powers it had since the beginning. It is now a credible threat.

There is one problem with the above: if the party leaves no prisoners, the retriever has no reason to go in to "recovery mode". Fine then... that's what the party gets for being so mean, I guess.

If a DM sees the stat block and uses that only, it will most definitely be a TPK. This creature can do a ton of damage while being rather resistant itself (since it's insubstantial) if played straight up according to the stat block and not taking its mode and related tactics in to consideration. It has destructive attacks just waiting to be used, but the DM must be aware that the creature wouldn't use them in whatever mode it's in. For this reason I considered making two separate stat blocks, but I thought that may be even more confusing.

A History of Revisions

This monster has gone through at least four major revisions. The first time I ran this monster in a playtest it was significantly weaker and the party plowed through it without any problem. So when I beefed it up a little, it became overly dangerous.

Here are some of the recent changes:

  • The Retriever is a controller, so it has the ability to drop a truckload of effects on the party: it spawns wisps that restrain their targets (-2 to attacks, grant CA), it created a cloud (as a sustainable effect) that reduced lighting condition in an Aura 3 (so creatures with normal vision have to fight it as if it was partially concealed), and it had a rechargable power that could potentially blind the entire party (everything gets total concealment). With all those attack penalties, despite it having fairly low defenses the party could barely hit it.
  • Originally, powers like Cloud Drift and Obscuring Cloud were rechargable powers. I made them both encounter powers now.
  • The Retriever was originally "insubstantial", and that wasn't the modern day "insubstantial" (force damage doesn't get reduced, radiant damage removes trait until end of next turn)... It was "insubstantial" all the time. That effectively doubled its hit points to close to 300, which is comparable to solos many levels higher.
  • The Smoke Wisps it generated now immobilize instead of restrain. Restraining had too many detrimental effects to be imposed by a Level 2 Minion.

In my current playtest (on the Wizards of the Coast online forums), almost the entire party is blind and one of them is restrained. They can't hit the broad side of the barn at this point, so the retriever happily waded through them and grabbed its target.

I've had one player already say that he "expects this to be a TPK" for the reasons I describe above: they can't hit the thing, are suffering through a ton of effects, and the creature seems to be able to do whatever the hell it wants.

In a manner of speaking, this monster becomes something closer to a trap/hazard or skill challenge: the creature has its intended target and is slowly lumbering away... How do you stop it? How do you free the captive prisoner? Do you even want to? Do you care that the guy that tried to kill you twenty minutes ago is being dragged off by something rather evil looking?


Even though this is a major spoiler for my campaign, I'm posting this so that others can see it and comment on it.

What do you think? Is this creature too lethal, too weak or just right?

Download PDF: The Coming Dark, Scene 1-8: The Shadow Retriever

(EDIT: Sorry... Corrected link. I'm having some issues with my hosting provider right now, and had a hard time uploading the PDF in the first place)