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



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 Winner: Goblins go BOOM!

It's no secret that I love minions. They are an easy answer to making an encounter seem like more than it really is. Sometimes just a handful of monsters is dull... I want droves upon droves of enemies coming at them from all sides! And when I don't want them to die so easily I toughen them up, but sometimes I want them to die in an unnaturally glorious way.

Recently Wastex Games had a contest called Minions Encountered, where the objective was to create an encounter where the boss used his minions in an "interesting way." I decided to submit one encounter that was inspired by my campaign.

To be quite honest, besides what you seen on this blog I've never actually submitted anything to a contest of this nature. Heck, I even failed miserably at NaNoWriMo and the NYC Midnight Short Story competition (I never even got close to finishing a submission for either one). So I looked at this competition a different way: to see if I can physically put something together in a format that others could actually use.

You see, there's a big difference in designing a campaign that you will run and designing a campaign that someone else will run. If you're doing it for yourself, you can fill in the blanks as you go, adjusting the encounter based on the how the players react to it. But when designing it for use by the general public, you either tell them very little (and hope they can fill in the blanks themselves) or explain every little detail so that there's no room for doubt. The former is meaningless for the competition, so I decided to build the encounter in the traditional format that Wizards of the Coast has used on multiple occasions.

And it allowed me to get a little more practice with Adobe InDesign CS5, for that matter. I'm not a graphic designer, so this too was somewhat of a new experience.

Now, about the encounter itself... The encounter is relatively low level, so I chose to use a concept that I'm surprised isn't used very often: the "Goblin Suicide Bomber", which is loosely based on the "Goblin Grenade" from Magic: The Gathering. Whereas most goblins are rather cowardly and flee at the first sign of trouble, these little buggers race forward to protect their leader and their sacred temple, light their fuse, then jump on the backs of unsuspecting PCs while laughing maniacally and waiting for their fuse to burn down.

But that wasn't enough! These guys would die almost immediately and they would have little effect; a poor initiative roll combined with a well placed burst attack can take them out of the equation almost instantly. What we needed is LOTS of goblins. Like... oh, I don't know... dozens of these little guys! I needed something that would keep creating wave after unrelenting wave of happy-go-lucky suicide bombers. So I turned to Save Versus Death and their "Endless Hordes"... Now things really come together! Four suicide bombers per turn, ad infinitum, should get fun quick!

But that still wasn't enough! Players could simply step aside, push them out of the way, or simply move faster than the bombers. What I needed is something to funnel the bombers so the players would have no choice but to charge in themselves, taking a boatload of damage in the process. So I chose to put the entire encounter atop narrow stone bridges over a river of lava.

Apparently that was enough.

I would like to thank Wastex Games for choosing me as the winner! I'm honored, guys! I'm sorry I can't take photos of the prize (I don't have a working digital camera; will try to get one soon), but I really do appreciate the Beholder Eye Tyrant and other minis!

Here, for your enjoyment, is my winning entry on the Wastex Games site:

The "Chamber of Fire"... or, as I like to call it, "Goblin Go BOOM!" (PDF)


Encounter: Hall of Spiders

We Xogo recently had a "Create an Encounter" contest. Unfortunately I didn't win, but I figure the following encounter should not be wasted.

During the development of my campaign quite a lot of things have changed. Rooms have been added and removed, creatures have changed drastically, the plot has been altered five different ways, etc...

The main reason is that certain things look good on paper, but when it comes to actually using them in a game it doesn't quite work. Many a time I have thought of a really cool idea that I wound up trying to railroad in the the D&D 4e mechanic, and the end result isn't quite what I had hoped. And some things that do seem to fit perfectly end up being a disaster when it comes to playtesting it.

On the massive external hard drive I use to keep all my campaign information I have one folder called "Legacy", which is where maps go to die. But just because they don't fit in to my campaign doesn't mean they'll never see the light of day. Maybe someone out there could use them... Someone like you!

So this will probably be an ongoing series of mine where I provide encounters or scenes that are disassociated from the rest of my campaign, and because I have no immediate plans to use them they aren't "spoilers". Maybe someone out there will breathe new life in to them.

The Hall of Spiders

One of the focal points in my campaign is, without giving too much away, a dungeon with very strong divine and arcane influences that has been abandoned for hundreds of years. In these environments there are generally three different things you can find: undead that simply refuse to die, strange creations infused with arcane energies or nature simply taking residence in a nice comfy place. This is the latter of the three.

This encounter was the very first encounter I developed for my campaign, at a time when I had no idea what the rest of the zone was going to contain. I didn't even know what this was the entrance to... A castle? A lair? The local inn?

After everything else in the zone was developed, this seemed horribly out of place. And the fact that it came immediately after a complicated encounter with a lot of enemies didn't help; I know some would argue that it goes against some sort of DM's obligation, but I simply didn't want to keep slamming the PCs with encounter after encounter.

Originally this had a fixed amount of minions, which you are most certainly welcome to do to simplify your life (I had six Spiderlings in the original design), but recently I read the article by Mario Podeshi on Save Versus Death called "Endless Hordes" Minions and I wondered "why does the number of spiderlings have to be finite?"

So here it is... The Hall of Spiders (Level 4+ Encounter)


Enjoy! If you do use it, or make any modifications to it, do let me know.


Hazard: Fleeing Rats

DISCLAIMER: I'm going to be talking about a movie that's over 20 years old. Don't start screaming about spoilers.

A while back, while I was in one of my design sessions, I found myself watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for the umpteenth time (why? Because it was on TV! Duh!). On or about the same time I was trying to think of something to put in a tomb, the scene under the church started. You know, the one where Indy and Elsa (to avoid calling her "the hot chick", I actually had to look her name up) are plodding through a sewer filled with rats.

When they reach the resting place of the knight, the creepy guy from the Brotherhood that's following him lights a match and drops it in to the river of oil. The next scene shows what can only be described as a wave of squealing rats trying to escape the oncoming flames.

Suddenly it struck me: if you're happily walking through a narrow corridor when a horde of a million tiny rats begins to barrel towards you, what would you do?

Run away!!!

I know there is a "Rat Swarm" monster, but that's not quite the same thing. The rat swarm in the Monster Manual is an actual monster and is handled as such: it occupies a specific square, attacks a single target, takes damage until it dies, etc... It arguably has intelligence. That's not what I'm thinking. I'm thinking of the "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater" sort of mindless panic where tiny, otherwise harmless rats freak out and run in unison without thinking of anything besides "FIRE BAD!". A sea of endless rats small enough that they easily pass through the player's space but individually not big enough to be attacked directly.

And standing anywhere in their path is probably not a good idea.

And thus the "Fleeing Rats" hazard was born...

Now the wave isn't "endless" in the literal sense (although, with magic, anything's possible) so it has a certain size: it has fixed dimensions - a 2x10 grid of contiguous squares - that moves like a snake, in a straight line away from something bad towards something... less bad.

Think of the possibilities this allows:

  • The party's pyromaniac can take great pleasure in immolating several thousand rats. You, as DM, can then figure out how to amend the hazard to handle what a swarm of rats on fire would be like...
  • The party should be able to see the rats before they arrive, but if you're a particularly evil DM you can treat the swarm's arrival like a surprise round.
  • This could be a perfect lead in for something that the players should be afraid of: whatever spooked the rats in the first place.
  • Deep down inside, every adventurer wants to be Indiana Jones. They're just afraid to admit it in mixed company.

I'll also point out that this trap will not only work outdoors as well, but it doesn't have to be rats. Spiders, ants, squirrels... Pretty much any small creature that runs on all fours and isn't too bright will work.

So how would you change this?

ADDENDUM: I know I warned you about spoilers, but I don't think I actually included one.

So here ya go... Ready?


Indy's father is Keyser Soze.