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



Hazard/Monster: The Black Obelisk

WARNING: Possible campaign spoilers.

I've recently been having a bit of a mental dilemma with certain traps in my campaign.

My previous post talked about a specific hazard that has both positive and detrimental effects, and issues that come up as it relates to forced movement. Now I'm dealing with a solo trap that... well... I'm not sure if it should be a "trap" in the first place, at least in terms of how a "trap" is defined by the 4e rulebooks.

NOTE: In order to avoid spoilers, I will be talking in a general sense and have created a radically different object that has the same issues: the Black Obelisk.

You see, there's this object that is extremely powerful. One could argue that it's also intelligent, in the same manner that artifacts are but at a much more powerful scale. And it has friends, creatures that want to protect it and the area ahead.

One could argue that that's a trap or hazard, but I have some issues with that:

  • The object's mechanics are beyond the scope of the traditional trap's statistic block. Most traps have a single attack or action they take; this object would have more options.
  • The object provides an aura that protects its allies, so it technically functions as a controller. If it were to have healing or regenerative properties, it could also be considered a "leader".
  • The object has multiple attack types, and some of those attacks or actions are not as intense as its bigger hits, so it has Minor and Standard actions. It could also conceivably have interrupt actions and make opportunity attacks.
  • The object is powerful enough that it can't simply be dispelled by a few rolls (such as the traditional Arcana-/Religion/Thievery-based skill challenge, for example), and there's no chance of it being defeated by a single Thievery roll. It should take significantly more work to disable it, so much so that it's probably easier to destroy than to disable.

With that in mind, a thought occurred to me: what if this was a creature? That also has some issues:

  • It is an object, and as such falls under certain guidelines in terms of defenses and durability (see "Object Properties" in the Dungeon Master's Guide). Granted, those defenses will probably be boosted because of the nature of the object, but it's still an object nonetheless.
  • It has no brain or mind of its own (one could argue its attacks are by design or due to some sort of programming), so it doesn't have a Will defense. It would also be immune to other mind-affecting keywords and specific attack types: disease, poison, gaze, psychic, charm, fear and so on.
  • It's anchored to the ground, which means it can't be force moved and probably cannot fall prone.
  • It doesn't provoke opportunity attacks because its physical state never changes; it cannot "let its guard down" (see the definition of "Opportunity Actions" in the Player's Handbook) because it really doesn't have a dynamic guard like a living creature would. It also doesn't have eyes, so it qualifies as having "all around vision" and blindsight.
  • Unless one of the creatures in the encounter is a mason, it can't heal. For that matter, it doesn't know what it is to be "bloodied" either. When it drops to 0 hit points, it is destroyed.

So I decided to make my object a "object monster", treating it as an Elite monster with a somewhat modified stat block.

As an example, I have created the Black Obelisk "creature" below. I admit I threw this one together rather quickly (I even had to make post-production changes to the image in Photoshop to remove spoilers) and only made it for this blog post to give you an idea of the sort of thing I had in mind.

The Black Obelisk

As you may notice, the important differences are in the top section (hit points) and in the "Traits" section, where the obvious differences between a monster and a common trap are. Beyond that, it's a monster. I hesitated including the attributes at the bottom since they don't apply and are hardly used, but whatever.

Now this "creature" is not meant to be alone; it comes with any number of other guys. Those guys in turn draw power from the obelisk, regenerating their wounds and gaining protection from the obelisk's own attacks.

Now that I've decided on this hybrid, I might end up using it in multiple places. I don't know... I somehow prefer creature mechanics compared to trap mechanics, at least for the simpler non-deathtrap traps.


Hazard: Calming Waters

Hazard - Calming Waters

Don't drink the water...

WARNING: If you're one of my players, this might contain spoilerific material!

I have a bit of a quandary, and figured this was as good a place as any to talk about it... Well, at least here you can speak in blurbs larger than 140 characters anyway.

As part of my campaign, I have one room that in addition to a lot of bad guys and a few other traps there is a stream of shallow water. This water - what I refer to as a Calming Waters hazard - heals the creature that touches them quite a bit (gain a used healing surge or recover your surge value in hit points, +5 temporary hit points, make an immediate save versus an effect), but that wave of healing energy is so powerful and overwhelming that it has a nasty side effect: it knocks you unconscious for at least one full turn.

In a non-combat situation that's all well and good; if a player chooses to drink from the water, well, that's his prerogative. And if he falls asleep because of it he can wake up (eventually). But what if this is a combat situation?

In the same room I have some bad guys, guys that may not even know themselves the power of the water, so they do not know how much of a tactical advantage it would be if their enemy would simply keel over and fall asleep if they so much as touched it. But they will enter combat the same way they would against any other foe, using the powers that come naturally to them. In this case, they have powers that perform forced movement (Thunderwave, for example), so it is conceivable that they could push their enemies in to the water without intending to do that in the first place.

Question: If someone is force moved in to this hazard, do they get a saving throw?

There are some factors to consider here...

First off, if you force move an enemy in to "hindering terrain", they get a saving throw; that rule is pretty cut and dry. For the record, here's the text from "Forced Movement" in the original Dungeon Master's Guide:

Hindering Terrain: Forced movement can force targets into hindering terrain. Targets forced into hindering terrain receive a saving throw immediately before entering the unsafe square they are forced into. Success leaves the target prone at the edge of the square before entering the unsafe square.

...and the text for "Hindering Terrain" from the Rules Compendium:

A type of terrain that hinders creatures, usually by damaging them. Examples: Pits, lava, and deep water. A creature can make a saving throw when it is pulled, pushed, slid, or teleported into hindering terrain.

But is it really hindering terrain? I can't help but think that the concept of whether a patch of land is "unsafe" is up to interpretation by the creature. The enemy may not know it's hindering terrain or that it poses a threat, choosing simply to walk safely around it and not get their feet wet. "Pits, lava and deep water" are pretty clearly dangerous, so an enemy would have it in his best interests to avoid them, but the calm waters are visually nothing more than a shallow (no more than a foot deep), crystal clear pool of water. To the naked eye, it's only difficult terrain until something comes in contact with it.

So if I were a player who got pushed in to the water and the DM tells me "make a saving throw", my first question would be "why?" The act of making the saving throw indicates to me that the water *is* dangerous, something that I probably didn't have any idea of beforehand. It immediately ruins the illusion that the water is either harmless or can have a positive effect.

My issue isn't about saving throws during the entire encounter... My issue is with the first saving throw, when a blissfully unaware creature finds themselves ankle deep in really soothing water until they black out.

The way I handled it before is that the first time it happened that person would not get a saving throw, and the hazard would attack normally. If it missed, they would still not know it is "unsafe", so others that went in wouldn't get a save either. But from the first time it hits and knocks out a target, everyone gets a save.

If this were "fourthcore", there wouldn't be a doubt: you're going in whether you like it or not. Actually, the waters probably wouldn't even get an attack roll and knock you on your ass instantly, but that's not quite the case here. 😉

What do you think?


Contest Results (Finally)!

First of all, once again I apologize... This has been a hellish month, and had I known that it was going to end up like this I probably would have handled the contest differently. It is my first contest after all.

Due to my inability to focus in a time of adversity, I put the call out for judges. Four people responded (all of them have chosen to remain nameless), and one of those four never responded to me sending them information, so I'm basing the following results on the other three. Each judge was to take all five entries and rank five of them them in order from 5 (best) to 1 (worst). All three judges' score would then be added and the highest score (out of a possible 15 points) would be declared the winner.

Using that mechanism, after a few days of deliberation on their part, we ended up with a two-way tie for 1st place and a two-way tie for 3rd place.

Due to the delay in prize selection, and adding the fact that I did not choose to be the tiebreaker myself (if I wasn't capable of judging before, I don't consider it proper to be judging now), I have decided to award all four with a prize in one way or another.

After seeing all the entries, I did notice something: Although "standard" and "elite" monsters are pretty well defined and everyone handles them the same way more or less, the "solo" encounter is a whole other story. I've seen multiple ways that the request for a "solo" is encounter was interpreted... Some did a very basic and plain solo creature surrounded by traps and hazards. Others created a sort of hybrid, where it's one creature that goes through three elite stages (once the "elite" version of the monster is destroyed, it's replaced by a different version of it). And others didn't put many mechanics in to the encounter and preferred the story and the potential roleplaying aspects of the situation play out.

So here are the results, as chosen by my crack team of judges, in no particular order except for the prize grouping.

TIE FOR FIRST (no particular order)... Prize: Heroes of Shadow (or equivalent) from Wizards of the Coast

  • "The Fountains of Unbearable Grief" by Caoimhe Ora Snow (@dazedsaveends on Twitter): The background story won over most of the judges. It also includes a very detailed encounter area with a variety of different terrains, and the solo itself is quite the intriguing concept.
  • "Fountain of Sorrow" by The Id DM (@TheIDDM on Twitter): This was more than I personally expected and reads like a full adventure (it's close to being longer than most the other contest entries combined), complete with an adventure summary, a social scene leading up to the encounter, a random encounter table, custom magic items and more. I would have taken points off for making the enemy my name spelled backwards though, so be lucky I didn't judge it... 😉

HONORABLE MENTIONS, TIE FOR THIRD (no particular order)... Prize: $10 Amazon gift card

  • "Ego-Tastrophy" by Jeff Gupton of Blackbyrne Publishing (@BlkbyrnePublish on Twitter): It probably helped that two of the three judges were creative designers, and one of which is a published designer. Very straight up encounter against a golem, but the inclusion of a tactical map was nice. And the judges were simply fascinated with the name of the creature: the "Horace Brigland Borgtite Golem".
  • "Lair of the Tentacled Horror" by Raja (NOTE: PDF does not contain the area map; don't have access to it right now, so it will be posted separately soon): The judges liked the concept of a monster that spawned minions repeatedly (similar to SvD's Endless Hordes, but instead of being a separate hazard it's part of the creature's mechanics). Mixed that with a very Cthulhu-esque atmosphere and enemies (cultists and tentacles! Woo!)  and it looks quite entertaining. This was yet another submission that went above and beyond presenting more than just an encounter; it included an entire underground system of caverns through which the "tentacled horror" can pretty much move at will. PCs would probably have to slice through several tentacles shooting up from out of the water before the BBEC ("big bad evil cehalopod") shows up.

Thanks to everyone for their submissions. I promise the next contest will be simpler, will be easier for anyone to enter without much effort, and will be decided upon significantly faster.

If you are one of the winners above, please contact me privately (through email or through Twitter DM) to make arrangements.

I may include some of the other submissions in a future post; I don't know yet.


Preview: The Ethereal Bard

The fiolliowing is an element from Chapter 2 of my campaign, The Coming Dark. If you are one of my players and have not reached Chapter 3, you may not want to read this.

D&D 4e has very specific rules on how certain powers affect "allies" and "enemies", but those rules always make the assumption that there are two sides to every conflict. What if there's a third party that's laying down effects that change every round?

For one of my favorites scenes in my campaign I created a thing I call the "Ethereal Bard". Imagine walking in to an inn and, instead of seeing a band on stage or a sole minstrel playing music, there's a semi-transparent illusion of a bard playing music, and that magical construct reacts to requests from patrons, plays songs according to the situation or mood in the main area, or simply plays songs at random. And, when violent action ensues, it doesn't quite know how to react to everything that's going on, so it starts to play random songs more frequently.

Furthermore, each song is similar to a bard's power, treating *everyone* within range of the music as either an ally or as a friend depending on the power.

Here is my official write-up of it:


The “Ethereal Bard” is a magical device that appears as a humanoid musician with any number of different instruments in hand. The musician himself is an illusion, powered by the magically infused pedestal it stands upon. There is a tip jar near the pedestal at its feet that contains mixed silver and copper pieces.

The bard plays music appropriate to what is going on in the lobby, or will play a completely random song. It will also take requests, giving preference to any creature that adds coins in to its tip jar.

When combat in the lobby begins, the Ethereal Bard floods the room with inspirational music. At the start of each round, it will begin to play one random song that has a magical effect on everyone that can hear it in the lobby.

At the start of each combat round, roll a d6 against the table below to determine the effect. The effect applies to every non-deafened creatures in the lobby until the end of the round, when the device will choose another song.

1) Song of Courage: The device plays an uplifting song that includes shouts of encouragement, making it seem as if a large crowd was cheering.
Effect: Any creatures that hears the song gains a +1 power bonus to attack rolls.

2) Song of Defense: The device intones a battle hymn, bolstering your abilities to resist attack.
Effect: Any creature that hears the song gains a +1 power bonus to AC.

3) Song of Conquest: The device begins to play a bolstering song that makes everyone fight with renewed vigor.
Effect:  Any creature that hears the song and hits an enemy with an attack gains +3 THP.

4) Song of Recovery: The device begins to play an inspiring song that instills a sense of perseverance.
Effect: Any creature that hears the song gains a +2 power bonus to saving throws.

5) Savior’s Song: The device begins to play a song inspiring determination and focus, with hopeful verses of battles won despite daunting odds.
Effect: Any creature that hears the song can reroll one saving throw that he or she fails during the turn.

6) Song of Speed: The device begins to play a rousing refrain, imbuing everyone with increased speed and agility.
Effect: Any creature in earshot gains +4 power bonus to speed and can shift 1 extra square whenever he or she shifts.

I mean, just imagine it... Our heroes and the bad guys are duking it out in the lobby, upending tables and throwing chairs at each other, all the time while music from an illusionary bard plays in the background and boosts their abilities.

I considered giving this device an XP weight, but since both the allies and enemies could take advantage of it I decided not to. Just another zone effect to add to the excitement of the encounter.

So what do you think? Anyone out there used something similar?


On a semi-related note, Chapter 1 of my campaign is pretty much complete and being reviewed by a few people. Soon it will be released to the public, and I hope you enjoy it!

And there is a little over a day left in our contest to win "Heroes of Shadow"! Get those submissions in quick!


Underwhelming Odds

When I first picked up the D&D 4e rulebooks and began designing my campaign, my DMG was opened several times to the "Encounter Level" chart in order to determine what my XP budget was, and I was using that as a basis for all the encounters I put together. After all, this was the sort of thing severely lacking in previous editions, and Wizards of the Coast must have gone through the motions of balancing both sides to a conflict... They must know what they're doing to come up with these numbers... right?

As the first group in the campaign I'm currently running approaches their fourth level and the end of the first act, I look at MasterPlan and see every other box is in bright red, as if MasterPlan is telling me "are you insane?!? This encounter will crush the party in to gibs! TPK! TPK! For god's sake, man... TPK!!!"

Why is that? Because the current party, when presented an encounter equal or even one level higher than their own, plows through them as if they weren't even there. An army of minions? No problem! A dozen or more kobolds/goblins/small nuisances? Piece of cake! A solo monster two levels higher than the rest of them? Child's play! It was brutal, but not for the players. Even the "hard" encounters didn't last more than two or three rounds, and it usually ended up with only one player or two injured. It feels like they're never bloodied.

I thought something was wrong... this wasn't the way it was supposed to be, right? Granted, some of the problems were actual design issues (my solo "boss" wasn't properly designed, for example), but that couldn't have been the case always. "Maybe it was the dice's fault... Yeah, that's it..." (admittedly, there were some really bad die rolls on behalf of the monsters), but to compensate I found myself adding monsters, traps, or something more to the mix to make it feel like more of a challenge. For example, going on the mathematics alone, at least one non-boss encounter ended up being five levels higher than the party.

The second group to run the campaign had a little more difficulty. The encounters were virtually the same, but they weren't getting off so easily. We recently finished an encounter that would qualify as "hard" (in terms of the XP allowance) and almost every party member (even two NPC allies) got bloodied. I fear that if I throw the same Level+5 encounter at them, it will be a soul crushing defeat.

At the table you can adapt to this; if the party is having it easy, throw some more at them. If the party is having trouble, you can throw some allies in to the mix, or take some monsters away, or even fudge the dice in the player's favor. But I'm designing a campaign for physical distribution... I don't have that luxury, do I?

So I'm forced to create my encounters using the formula the DMG provides because those numbers theoretically define what the expected difficulty should be for an "average" party. In the back of my mind I can't help but think the encounter is too easy, but I can't beef the encounter up at will because I have no idea the ability of the party facing it. An encounter I consider "easy" could be devastating when thrown against a party with a different makeup or a different level of experience.

I can't blame the dice. To me, dice in a DM's hand are sometimes optional... the DM can ultimately overrule them anyway, so he could technically decide hits and misses based on what best fits the story (NOTE: Whenever I have overruled my own dice rolls, it has always been in favor of the party; I don't make it worse for the players just because I feel like it). If the DM wants the party to squeak out of the encounter by their fingernails, he could easily do that without rolling a single die. Sure the players get to roll on their own, and the DM has no say over those results, but he could most certainly compensate by downgrading a monster attack roll or two.

I realize now that one of the important aspects in module design isn't necessarily difficulty but entertainment. Unless I'm making something "fourthcore", I kind of have to go by the recommendations because they are the norm. If the end result is a pushover for the party, or if the party is getting hammered to the brink of death, I have to have a certain degree of trust in the DM running the campaign to make up for that.

As part of my campaign, I've considered adding a section to each encounter or scene describing how to make it "harder" or "easier". I've seen some modules describe how to adjust the difficulty in cases where there are more or less players ("if four players, do this..." "If six, do this..."), but the ones I've seen have provided very general recommendations at the beginning of the module, not on a per encounter basis. And most modules don't discuss the topic at all, expecting the DM to figure that sort of thing out as he goes. The way I see it, I either have faith in the DMs to compensate or release two versions: a seemingly wimpy (at least to me), by-the-book module and a Fourthcore "no, seriously, everyone's gonna die" version.

I guess it all boils down to playtesting. I'm currently running the campaign in three groups, but I do admit they are all "play by post"; I have not tried any part of my campaign with a live audience. One of these days I should run it in person, but I haven't DM-ed a live game in almost two decades.

Also, before I DM one of my own, I feel I need to play a lot more. A lot of people find that somewhat puzzling... It was the same problem when I was doing video game design, writing The Opera (total conversion for Half-Life). When I told people "I don't have time to play games, I'm too busy writing them!" they thought I was joking, but it's the honest truth. Hopefully I'll remedy this concern soon.

Time will tell.