The Character Filter

A lot of posts online from new players and Dungeonmasters seem to ask the same question: How do I get in character? It’s a tough question since most of us haven’t had several years of improvisational acting experience so they may not be used to the idea of thinking on their feet as someone other than themselves. Thankfully, my gaming career started in the Drama classroom back in 5th grade. I did horrible skits that weren’t nearly as funny as my friends and I thought they were and a lot of improv. We’d get a slip of paper, a couple of minutes to plan a scene in the hall, and then we had to perform in the scene on the fly. Because of the timing of this, I learned at the same time I started playing role playing games the very tricks I needed to stay in character. Now, my training (if you can call it that) was meant for grade school children and happened almost twenty years ago (which was a LOT of bourbon ago), so there’s probably a proper term for this, but I’ve always called in the Character Filter.

The character filter is simple. It’s a little filter set up in your mind that everything you take in and everything you send out – both in actions and speech – go through. The filter itself is just the question “What would my character react?” That’s all there is to it. Just run everything you see and hear through that filter as well as everything you do or say, and you’ll be in character. Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. It takes a lot of practice to get that filter in place without slowing things down too much and reacting normally. It can also be a hard concept to grasp as well, so let’s try an example.

I am Darryl. I’m 31 years old, out of shape, intelligent, logical, have no fighting training, am a human born and raised in the late 20th century on Earth, and I try my best to avoid confrontation as much as possible. My character for a time was Grimlock (yes, it was that sort of a game…we had more pop culture references than game terms flying in every encounter), a Half-Orc Fighter (who was basically a Slayer before Essentials was released). He was 19 years old, big and muscular, dumb as a rock, wielded an axe bigger than he was almost, was raised in a tribal culture, and loved to fight. If the troll with the big maul standing over me said to me, “I’m gonna turn you into jelly!”, I (as in Darryl) would probably need to change my shorts before whimpering, “I’m sorry I’ve offended you, sir.” Even Darryl playing the game would think, “This troll is a couple of levels higher than our average party level which means this is going to be a difficult encounter and our Wizard is the only character that can do fire or acid damage so his regeneration is going to be a big problem and I’ve only got two healing surges left and I’ll need to Mark him and his average damage output’s going to be blah blah blah metagaming blah blah blah.” Grimlock, however, neither thought nor said those things. He stepped up, greataxe in his hand, and said “Me Grimlock no be jelly! Me Grimlock make TROLL JAM!” and swung for the fences.

This entire event took exactly two seconds because it went directly through my filter. My thoughts were all tactical and game-related, but Grimlock’s thoughts were solely about his pride at being threatened and his need to respond to that threat with force. I took the insult from the troll, knowing that it meant he was targeting me with his attack as Darryl, put it through my filter of “What would Grimlock do?”, and that filter gave me the answer of “Respond with a similar threat and attack.” So that’s what Grimlock did.

It can take a lot of practice to get that filter in place. It’s even harder when you’re the Dungeonmaster as you have to change that filter constantly in order to portray the various NPCs in your game. There are a few tricks you can try that might help you get your filter in place. Try using an accent or different voice for your character. Don’t worry if all you can do is a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. Do you know what a Hammerfast accent sounds like? Maybe it’s exactly like a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. You can also pick up an affectation, like your Rogue talks with his hands or your Warlock constantly cracks her knuckles. Both of these can help you by giving you something to focus on to put you in character. You’ll start associating that knuckle-cracking or that accent with thinking like your character, and soon you’ll be doing it without realizing it. A filler phrase can also help. If your Dwarf says, “By Moradin’s Beard!” when he’s surprised, that not only helps get you into character but it also buys you a precious second or two more time to think of what he would say.

The longer you spend with a specific character, the easier it will be to predict what that character will do. After a few sessions, you should know if your character is tactical or brash when it comes to combat, if he or she is soft-spoken or loud, rude or courteous. The longer you play the character, the most history you’ll have with him or her and the more you’ll know how he or she will react to things. One trick you can do is writing a journal of your campaign from your character’s point of view. At the end of every session, take some time and write about what happened that week in your character’s writing. This way, you can take your time and really think through how your character would react to everything going on in the campaign. This will also give you the benefit of helping you remember smaller details about the campaign and the story your Dungeonmaster is telling.

Be sure to realize is that you’re sitting around a table with your friends. No one’s going to be expecting method acting and no one’s going to care if it takes you a few seconds to think of how your character would act. You’re basically doing improv for between two and eight hours every week or two. You’re going to do something silly in character that’s going to make everyone laugh. That’s part of the point. Give yourself license to screw up and turn it into character moments.

This goes double for a Dungeonmaster as he not only has to do all that, but he also has to switch between several if not dozens of characters over the same time period along with keeping track of the story, running the combat, adjudicating the rules, and everything else going on. Your players will definitely cut you some slack if you need a few seconds to figure out how an NPC will react to a player. You can also use stalls such as taking a bathroom break, refilling your drink, making a food run, or anything else to give you a few moments to figure out how Lord Greyson will react to the party’s Dwarf Shaman mooning him.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a game. You’re not on stage. Feel free to take your time and screw up if necessary. It’ll take a little practice, but once you’re used to using that filter, it’ll become second nature. Once it does, your character may end up doing things that surprise even you, the filter works so quickly. And that’s part of the fun.

Published in: on December 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Update on the Blog’s Status

Wow…did NOT expect this. One exclusive unboxing for a tertiary product from Wizards of the Coast and I get more pageviews in a single day than I did the entire time I was updating this blog regularly. And not even on that page. So I’ve decided to start updating this blog again, and I’m going to try to stick to a proper schedule again. Not entirely sure what that schedule will be yet, but expect to see more content on here starting next week.

I’m shifting the blog from focusing on new DMs to being more broad in teaching the art of Dungeonmastering in general. It’s part art and part craft and it requires a lot of skill. Some people seem born with the ability, and some learn the hard way through experience. I’m going to try to share my 20 year experience in running games of various systems and genres with various sizes and style to make things easier on you. Hopefully, your games (be they Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, MechWarrior, Eclipse Phase, Paranoia, or anything else) will run more smoothly and be more fun for everyone involved.

And for all you new readers out there, feel free to comment on anything. If you think I suck, tell me exactly why so that this blog can improve. I’m only doing this for you, so if there’s something you don’t like, let me know or it won’t get better.

And thanks for checking out Dungeon Mastery.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 8:01 AM  Leave a Comment  

Review of Dungeon Tiles DN3: Shadowghast Manor

I received the Dungeon Tiles DN3: Shadowghast Manor as a promotional mailing from Wizards of the Coast, so I thought it was only fair that I do my part in promoting the product. I can’t write an Amazon review until the official release date, and I don’t have any other venues to write about it, so I decided to dust off this old blog and post it here. Also, I’m about to start a new campaign, so I’ll probably be posting more once again.

Anyway, back to the new Dungeon Tiles set…

Image from with link to the product

I think it may be my favorite small-set of Dungeon Tiles I’ve seen.

The tiles themselves are what you’ve come to expect from the line. The cardboard is very thick and sturdy, the art is good and the same style as the other Dungeon Tiles products (so you can mix-and-match sets without clashing), and the tiles are easy to punch out without damaging. There are six double-sided sheets total, with tiles the following sizes:

  • 8×8: 4
  • 8×4: 2
  • 8×2: 3
  • 4×4: 4
  • 4×2: 5
  • 2×1: 1
  • Other: 4

The “Other” listed above is something I haven’t seen before on the Dungeon Tiles. It’s a tile that’s meant to represent terrain but isn’t part of the “1 inch square” style. They’re about 2 inches long, but only half an inch wide. One side is a wrought-iron fence while the other is a dungeon wall. They appear to be meant to be used as edge borders for pieces that don’t have a wall or possibly laid on top of other tiles to create terrain without covering up the existing tile completely. Either way, it’s a great addition to the set.

This set focuses on a macabre mansion vibe on one side and a tomb/catacomb on the other. On the “dungeon” side of the tiles, there are exactly three (if you don’t count the mini-tiles) that do not have a casket or tomb on them, and even two of those have skulls. The “mansion” side of the tiles has a gothic horror feel, with small details like Celtic-influenced patterns on the stone floors, spiderwebs in the dark corners, and even roses hanging from the walls on a couple.

The only real downside to this set is that it is not a stand-alone product. This was meant as an expansion product for use with the other Dungeon Tiles Master Sets, and it’s obvious in the packaging. The six card tiles have a paper folder around them and are shrink-wrapped, but that’s it. Inside the “folder” are two suggested map layouts you can use, but there’s no storage options. If you already have one of the Dungeon Tiles Master Sets, this won’t bother you because you’ll probably just end up dumping the tiles into the same box anyway. But if this is your first Dungeon Tiles purchase to test out the product, you’ll want to make sure you have a box or heavy-duty gallon zip-top bag to store the tiles so they don’t get lost. Also, I’m not sure Wizards waited so long to release these as they would’ve fit in great as tie-ins for the Heroes of Shadow and Shadowfell sourcebooks released in Spring of 2011, rather than the Feywild-theme books currently being released (Fall/Winter 2011).

Overall, this is my favorite Dungeon Tiles product so far. The tiles have a unique feel to them, but are still generic enough that they can be used with the other Dungeon Tiles products without issue.  I wouldn’t recommend them as your sole Dungeon Tiles first purchase unless you’re running a horror-themed game like Ravenloft, but they’ll make a perfect addition to the other Dungeon Tiles products.

Here are a few pictures I took of the set as I unboxed it. I apologize for the poor quality of the images and for the cat hair on my bed, but I was excited to get these opened and didn’t realize how poorly the pictures turned out until after I’d already popped out all the tiles and added them to my growing collection. The art in these images is copyright Wizards of the Coast and published solely for review purposes with their kind and generous permission.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 1:04 AM  Comments (4)  
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Definition of a Geek

Or nerd or dork or whatever moniker you prefer. I’m going to list some activities and you tell me whether or not they’re geeky.

1. Sitting around with a bunch of friends playing a Fantasy game, using statistics and guesswork to figure the odds to score the most points and win the game.

2. Discussing the intricacies of different designs, going into minute detail on the advantages and disadvantages of different options and modifications.

3. Playing in an immersive MMORPG which requires questing with your friends in order to upgrade your items.

4. Regularly spending hours with friends discussing plot points and character motivations for a genre series.

Alright, time’s up! NONE of these activities are considered by the mainstream population geeky, nerdy, or dorky. They’re considered perfectly normal activities that perfectly normal people do.

1. Fantasy Football/Baseball

2. Muscle car shows/magazines

3. Farmville

4. Twilight

The strange thing is, each of these can also describe an activity which IS considered geeky/nerdy. Pokemon, case mods/overclocking/OS customization/programing, World of Warcraft, and Star Trek/Star Wars/Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Firefly/Dresden Files/Doctor Who/etc.

So tell me, what exactly is the difference between a grown man pretending he’s Tommy Lasorta trading players in Fantasy Baseball and a guy playing Magic: The Gathering?

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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I’m Not Dead Yet!

Yeah, my players will find the title funny because I have a unilateral ban on Monty Python jokes at the table.  However, I just wanted a quick post letting you know that, even though I haven’t updated in a while, I haven’t abandoned the blog.  I just don’t really have anything to say at the moment.

Published in: on March 16, 2011 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Where Are the Gamer Girls?

L, who plays in my weekly game with her husband S, posted a Facebook post about our game last night.  “Playing dungeons and dragons with 5 guys and Im the only girl. Having lots of fun. Why dont more girls play this game!? I love it!”  Capitalization and punctuation errors aside (like I said, it’s Facebook), she raises a valid point.  Why don’t more girls play Dungeons and Dragons?  Most of the girls I know have some experience with the game or others (typically White Wolf’s World of Darkness games).  And even though they’re self-avowed gamer geeks, they still shy away when I invite them to the table.  Sure, this subject’s been beaten to death, but as you can tell from this blog, I’m hardly above beating a dead horse.  Why don’t more girls game?

Let’s see where most men get their start playing D&D and see if we can extrapolate.  Pretty much everyone I know was introduced to D&D by a friend.  Even before they started playing, they had strong geek/nerd tendencies.  Of my first introductions to the game, one was a member of the Math Club in school, one played Nintendo obsessively, one was a massive Trekkie (and pray you never screwed up and called him a “Trekker”), one was into anime before anyone even knew to call it “anime” (Robotech, Voltron, Battle of the Planets, etc.), one was coding his own operating system for his Amiga, and one spent all his time writing little stories in notebooks and never finishing them (oh wait, that one’s me…)  We all got into tabletop gaming around the ages of 12-15, and were all introduced by other friends.

Now, what do 12-15 year old socially awkward males who are getting the short end of the puberty stick who are already social pariahs due to their leisure activities tend to have in common?  Wanting to fade into the background and stay unnoticed anytime a girl is within 50 feet.  Girls were more terrifying than anything else at that age, and I never held an in-depth conversation with one until I got my computer connected to the local BBS (get off my lawn!).  It’s not that I didn’t like girls or didn’t want to be around them.  It’s just that I automatically assumed they wouldn’t want to be around me, and that crippling fear of the moment I did talk to one and she shooed me away like an annoying fly kept me from ever attempting a conversation.

However, it would’ve been a Bad Thing if a girl had decided to join our games back then.  Talk about a sheep in the wolf’s den.  Remember the line from Revenge of the Nerds after Lewis scores with the cheerleader chick?  “Jocks only think about sports.  Nerds only think about sex.”  Honestly, that line isn’t very true.  All boys around that age are thinking constantly about sex.  It’s part of the whole hormones kicking in package.  The difference between the geeks and the popular boys is that they get experience talking to girls and are rejected less often, so they have experience in how to deal with talking to girls.  If there had been a girl in our gaming group, it would’ve been a nightmare of each of us in turn (if we even waited that long) awkwardly hitting on her because she had to be cool if she wanted to play with us.  And, of course, that would’ve ended horribly both for the girl’s impression of gaming and for our friendships.

Well, we’re not in grade school anymore.  Why aren’t girls picking up the game when they get older?  Some of them are, but the problem is that there is still a massive social stigma to gaming with the general populous.  Ask random people what they think D&D is and you’ll get some wild answers, most of which won’t be flattering to the gamers themselves.  I’m sitting here typing on a blog I’ve been running for three months now about a hobby I’ve partaken in for over twenty years of my life, my twitter account (Abstruse, if you’re curious) is filled with me posting about D&D, I post updates about game time on my Facebook, and probably a quarter of my massive library of books are gaming books, proudly displayed in my living room right under my Robert B. Parker collection.  Yet I still danced around the subject of my Sunday night plans when talking to a girl.  “I’m having people over.”   “Oh, what for?”  “Oh, just game night.”  “Really?  Video games?”  “No.”  “Board games?”  “Not really.”  “What game then?”  And I felt cornered, absolutely refusing to want to admit I was playing D&D.  Oh, and it’s not just girls.  I went through the exact same conversation with my co-workers before as well.  Because admitting to playing D&D is admitting to being “one of those guys”, and you feel like people are automatically going to make assumptions about you whether or not they actually will.

I’ve gamed with literally hundreds of people over the years.  Only five of them have been female.  One was the game store owner’s wife.  One was the girlfriend of one of our regular DMs.  Two were my girlfriends at the time.  And L, who plays the Mage in my current game, is married to S, who plays the Barbarian.  The first two I can’t speak about (though I have strong suspicions), but both of the girls I dated gamed occasionally before I met them but weren’t actively involved in a game, and L wasn’t actively playing in a game when I knew her before she met S.  I’m not saying there’s a pattern here, but it’s definitely something to explore.  And even though none of them were especially bad at gaming, all of them suffered from inexperience (with the exception of L, who seems to have gotten over the learning curve of 4e with flying colors and took out more baddies in last night’s game than the rest of the group combined, even leaving out the minions).

So why don’t girls play tabletop games, CCGs, role playing games, etc. more often?  Everything I’ve said is a perfectly reasonable explanation up until the past 5 years or so.  My Facebook gets updated constantly by my female friends’ Farmville accounts, with two more updating automatically from World of Warcraft and City of Heroes.  There are all-girl professional gaming groups and several gaming clans.  I can go out on the town and listen to girls talking about Playstation and X-Box games.  Can you even count the number of times you’ve seen a girl on the bus or in a coffee shop with a DS or a smartphone game?  Gaming isn’t the problem.

D&D itself gets a lot of the blame when I others touch this topic, but even that’s not true anymore.  Chainmail bikinis are a thing of the past and female characters are no longer the typical eyecandy or damsel in distress.  The learning curve for D&D is lower than its ever been in the history of the game, so there’s no longer a “nerd’s only” stamp with quadratic equations and archaic tables to figure out simple tasks.  The famous Gygax lame puns and scatological humor are gone from the game, and the rulebooks don’t require a thesaurus to read anymore.  So D&D’s not the problem.

Remember that cultural bias against D&D I mentioned before?  It just doesn’t exist for women.  People may make assumptions about me when they find out I’m a gamer, but those same assumptions aren’t applied to female gamers.  Everytime I’ve seen a girl gamer out herself to someone who isn’t a gamer, the confession is met with confusion and a lot of questions rather than an upturned nose and an end to the conversation.  Geek culture itself is “in” right now.  When I go to the Alamo Drafthouse to see some cult movie like Evil Dead, Troma movies, or Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies; half the crowd is female.  The female gamers I know who are out?  It’s treated like a badge of honor they wear proudly, and it makes them more attractive to even non-gamer men.  So it’s not the cultural bias.

The fantasy genre itself might’ve taken some blame before three cultural milestones happened.  The three Lord of the Rings films grossed a combined $2.91 billion.  Harry Potter became the hottest selling book for adults in years.  And that was just until the Twilight series took over.  Stroll down the fantasy aisle at the bookstore sometime, almost all the authors of fantasy novels are women.  Then go look at the Romance and Mystery sections because I’m sure a few of the urban fantasy novels got put over there as well.  TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and the ill-fated Dresden Files skew heavily into female viewership (some have even speculated that Dresden Files was canceled in part because of the large female demographic of the audience for a network full of advertising targeting the 18-35 male demographic).  You could even make a very good case that shows like Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and the Twilight films were solely made to target their loyal female viewers.  And that’s not even getting into anime fandom, which skews heavily to the female almost across the board.  So it’s not fantasy.

It’s definitely not the gaming atmosphere.  Maybe it’s my Alton Brown influenced infatuation with cooking, but if you took the D&D out of my games, it would be a dinner party.  Most of the female gamers I know even look at it this way, hitting up Whole Foods or cooking a large spread for their gaming group with everyone bringing a dish.  When I go out with my friends, we’re always inevitably talking about sci-fi or fantasy TV, movies, and books regardless of gender.  Yet only one of them is coming to my games.  And it’s not an aversion to role playing either because this same group also loves doing Murder Mystery games, which is basically just rules-light LARPing.  And they go all-out with rented costumes and everything, which is only half the effort they put into Renaissance Festival outfits.  So it’s not the gaming atmosphere.

Is it the dice?  The minis?  The character sheets?  Some leftover “D&D and Magic: The Gathering are for boys and ponies and Barbies are for girls” training from childhood?  The specific words “Dungeons and Dragons”?  I honestly don’t know.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  My generation had too many hurdles to go through to get into gaming if you weren’t part of the club already.  Perhaps it’ll be easier for girls who are in their teens and 20s now.  Who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, the gender gap will lessen as the years go by.

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 3:00 PM  Comments (4)  
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Adventure Interruptus

Tonight, I did something I’ve never done before.  I ran a pre-published adventure.  I talked about this before, but I ran into a little bit different of a problem this time around.  I’m used to pulling all-nighters.  Game sessions usually run until everyone’s nodding off or I’ve run out of material.  Due to scheduling issues, I’ve had to schedule my games on a weeknight.  And since we’re not in our teens and twenties anymore, we had to stop – not because someone was too tired or because I couldn’t pull anything else out of my ass – because someone had to be at work in the morning.  And it happened mid-game.  I’m going to talk about the first half or so of “Storm Tower”, the adventure appearing in Dungeon Annual 2009 and Dungeon Magazine #166 (D&D Insider account required to view the adventure) written by Chris Perkins and popularized by being the adventure in the second session of the Penny Arcade podcasts.  If you haven’t listened to the podcasts or read/played the adventure, some of this may not make sense to you.  Just keep pushing through, I really do have a point.

It wasn’t anyone’s fault.  Combat wasn’t too slow and things didn’t take any longer than normal.  The only problem was that everyone got too into things.  The first three hours of the session were all role play.  The PCs met John Briggs, the mayor of Briggfell (yes, I will post that write-up as soon as I’m finished with it).  And they had a lot of fun hating him.  I intentionally made the guy as annoying as possible, a boisterous former adventurer who bragged constantly about his life.  He committed a cardinal sin in the player’s eyes.  He asked them about their stories, then interrupted them to tell them about his adventure which was similar but much more dangerous, thrilling, and exciting.  I had to start glossing over the events of the night to keep them from killing him in the middle of the tavern!

After that, they got lucky.  I think I actually improved one bit of Chris Perkin’s adventure.  In it, he had an idea that Sorik Orvash would be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out why he’d lead the PCs to the site if he was.  So he created this weird situation where the doppelganger is posing as a dwarf hostage who “escapes” then attacks them from behind and…it’s a bit of a mess, and I even Perkins said he wasn’t happy about it.  You can even see his desire in the podcasts to have Sorik be a doppelganger, but he couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense.  Well, I managed to.  Sorik Orvash made it back to town to tell them about the attack on the watchtower Goldenhawk.  However, Celk the doppelganger followed him, killed him in his sleep, and took his place to find out how much he’d told the city guard (Nathan Farringray of Fallcrest in the adventure, Sheriff Thiek of Briggsfell in my version).  After taking the dwarf mason’s place, he was unable to figure out a way to escape and report back to Jeras Falck without raising suspicion.  So he had to keep playing the part.  Thanks to the players setting up a watch each night (and having a Drow in the party, who is aware of his surroundings while in his trance), he couldn’t attack them in their sleep.  He figured his best move was to wait until they were distracted fighting the watch Falck set up and attacking them from behind.

However, the dwarf in the group figured out something was wrong.  The suspicion spread, and eventually they all did well enough on Insight checks to suspect him of duplicity.  I set up an impromptu skill challenge whereby they tried a combination of Bluff (to fast-talk the fast-talker), Insight, Diplomacy, History, and even Nature (the argument was made that the dwarf in the party would know about physical features of dwarven settlements or dwarven folklore to trip him up).  Once successful, they attacked him.  After a bit of torture (and a LOOOOT of Insight checks, since I had the doppelganger lie as a knee-jerk reaction), they figured out the whole story and even got some info about what they’d be facing in Goldenhawk.

All of that together ate up three hours of game time, and they hadn’t even gotten to the damn tower yet!  But everyone was having fun so I went with it.  They fought the guard set on the ground and had a curbstomp battle down below (the only reason anyone got badly hurt was the dwarven Warden decided for some reason to make his initial attack against the Chomper and then pulled it adjacent to him! In his defense, both the Mage and the Artificer did miserably on their Arcana rolls to figure out what it was, not even getting the most basic info.  But the killed all the big enemies within two rounds, and had to spend the rest of the time mopping up the bandits on the scaffolding.

At the end of this battle (and of course looting), a couple of my players realized it was almost 11 PM and, having work in the morning, needed to leave in order to get enough sleep.  I was feeling tired, but more than ready to keep going.  Unfortunately, everyone shared their opinion and I was forced to do something I really don’t like doing – ending  a session without an Extended Rest.  What this means is that there will be additional bookkeeping.  I have to put a lot of trust in the palyers.  They hadn’t used their daily powers really, so I don’t have to worry about that.  However, they do have Healing Surges to worry about.  Then there’s remembering clues seeded early in the adventure (and no, I’m not quite going to post those yet…never know if any of them are reading this, and if you know the adventure, you know what I’m talking about).  As much as I wanted to go on, I can understand their position.  I wouldn’t be happy if I had to work on four hours sleep, even if it was for gaming.  So I guess I’ll just have to go with it.

Of course, they seem to be having a bit too easy of a time so far.  And to make up for that, I’m going to have a full week to come up with new and horrible ways to make that final encounter just that much harder for them…Mwuahahahahaha!

Gridless Miniature Combat for D&D 4e

There is some awesome terrain out there for miniature wargaming.  Of course, it costs an arm and a leg, but it looks amazing.  You can even make your own using foamcore and model railroading supplies for fairly cheap but a lot of time investment.  Say you also play Warhammer, BattleTech, or something like that and want to re-use your awesome, expensive terrain in your D&D game?  Sucks to be you!  Or does it…  The rules for combat in 4e are based around 1″ = 5′.  That’s the key thing you need to keep in mind.  The actual investment you need?  Pipe cleaners, yarn/string, and a tailor’s tape measure.  That’s it.

First thing you have to do to remove the grid from D&D is realize that it’s going to change a few things in the game.  Thanks to the far less complicated but less realistic “diagonals are the same as anything else” rules in 4e, range is going to be reduced.  Areas of effect are going to be reduced.  Zones are going to be reduced.  Why?  Because a circle isn’t a square.  On the plus side for you old school gamers, cones are back!  Let’s go into detail.

For determining range and movement, you now count inches instead of squares.  Use your tape measure and something that’s Ranged 10 is now 10″.  You can make things easier on yourself by cutting a piece of string in the number of squares your character can move (4″ for heavy armored dwarves, 5″ for light armor dwarves or heavily armored anyone else, 6″ for light armored anyone else and heavy armored elves, and 7″ for elves).  You want to move from where you are, you put one end of the string on the edge of your mini base, lay the string out, then move the mini to the other end.  This also works for things like getting around corners and avoiding obstacles.

Zones and bursts are now spheres (not circles, more on that in a moment) based on diameter, with just a little fiddling.  Take the burst number, double it, and add 1.  That is the diameter of the sphere.  Burst 1: 3″ diameter.  Burst 2: 5″ Diameter.  Burst 3: 7″ diameter.  This can be made easier by using pre-measured pipe cleaners and dropping them on the board.

Blasts become cones once again.  Whatever the blast size is, it’s now a cone with a 90 degree angle that ends on the originating character’s base.  Okay, that sounds a bit complicated, so let’s break it down once again using pipe cleaners.  I’m going to talk about a Dragonborn’s breath weapon because it’s the most common close blast most players will come across (and it’s the only one I remember off the top of my head).  That attack is a Close Blast: 3.  In order to convert this, you take two 3″ sections of pipe cleaner and connect them at a 90 degree angle (like two sides of a square).  Take a third piece and make a curve, connecting that to each of the open ends on the angle you made.  Voila.  You now have a cone.  Place the point of the pipe cleaners against the base of the originating mini and that’s it.

All measurements should be made from the edge of the mini’s base.  Make sure your players know this in advance so they use circular bases rather than square ones for their minis.  If any portion of a mini is included in a blast, burst, or zone; that creature is considered “in” the blast, burst, or zone.

All ranged burst/blast/zone measurements are to the center of the effect.  Don’t nitpick this too much though or you’ll be getting out microscopes when your Rules Lawyer complains about being in the dragon’s breath attack.

Here’s where things get fun.  These rules work in 3D too.  Fall off a cliff, measure it.  1d10 falling damage for every 2″ high the cliff is (round down).  You’re shooting at something flying, 1″ = 5′.  Area of effect gets a little hazier, but just remember that a cone is a cone and a circle is a sphere.  Whatever it is, turn it sideways.  Sure, the vertical ranges will be off a little (as the typical idea of a Fireball, for example, is a hemisphere), but if it bothers you more than a diagonal being the same length as a side on a square, make a second batch of pipe cleaners in half sizes for vertical measurement.

I haven’t put these rules into full effect anywhere and probably won’t.  I did use a smaller version when I had a fight with the PCs climbing the side of a cliffs and it worked okay then.  Most of this is just stuff that’s been on my mind for a few months, wondering how hard it would be.  I’m not an expert at writing rules by any stretch and I’d like to think that someone else could fix this up into something very usable.  Hell, someone may have done it already.  But I think it would add an extra dimension of reality to the game if you tried getting rid of those little lines on everything.

Published in: on March 7, 2011 at 7:45 AM  Leave a Comment  
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DM Worksheet

Sorry the posts are a little lacking these days, but I’m completely reorganizing my notes as well as cleaning the apartment.  I’m also working on a town for my campaign I plan on releasing as soon as I finish up all the notes.  However, I do have one little thing to give you guys.  It’s a DM’s worksheet.  Yeah, it doesn’t look like much, but it’s a lot of good information to have at your fingertips during a game.  No more spoiling passive perception/insight checks by asking everyone what their skills are, and you won’t have to interrupt your NPC’s monologuing to ask what your method actor’s vowel-challenged multisyllabic character name is.  Hopefully you’ll find some use for it.

DM Worksheet in PDF format.

Nentir Vale – Wouldn’t Want to Live There

The Points of Light campaign setting for D&D 4th Edition seems on its surface very generic.  I guess that was the point, as it was meant to replace Greyhawk as a setting that anyone could drop their game into without having to worry about massive backstories and over 30 years of history cluttering everything up.  They’ve also only detailed a few very small areas of the game world, so you can drop whatever you like into the world as everything outside those two or three sections are sparsely detailed at best.  There are, though, many details about the game world that make it a fun place to adventure but not somewhere I’d ever want to live.  Points of Light means exactly that.  The entire world is darkness with only a few bits of civilization.  Let’s work our way up the tiers exploring some of those features.

Outside cities and towns, it’s wilderness.  You want to go from Hammerfast to Winterhaven, even though they’re only about a week’s travel apart (give or take a couple of days depending on your method of travel), most of that is wilderness.  Sure, you can stop at Fallcrest and the Five League House for the night, but that’s only two stops out of six you’ll have to make on your trip.  There’s bandits, wandering creatures, and mobs of goblins and orcs who will waylay travelers.  So any traveler will have to have some sort of protection just to go from city to city.  Empires spread through the lands in ages past, building outposts and temples left and right.  After these empires fell, their towers and keeps fell to ruins and were taken over by the creatures that took over the wildlands between cities.  So all the things they steal from travelers are deposited there while the leaders sit in luxury with all their treasures.

Since the cities and towns are so far separated and the roads are so dangerous, they’re rarely in contact with one another and the only news from different towns comes from the rare travelers and adventurers that pass through.  News outside the local area?  Even more rare.  Towns can be overrun and cities wiped off the map by arcane misfires and no one would know for months if not years.  Your players want info on the town they’re about to go to, so they ask around.  Maybe they metagame and pick up that Hammerfast book.  Oops, that info was in a library in Fallcrest written five years before.  Since then, the dwarves and orcs had a massive war that destroyed the living city and it’s now a haven for the undead.  Or maybe a gnoll cult took over.  Oops.

So you go into one of those temples or keeps that were abandoned and kill the goblin hordes that took it over.  However, most of these buildings also had basements and dungeons built under them.  Inside those dungeons are creatures that the things that stalk the travelers don’t want anything to do with.  Slimes and molds are the least of your concerns when you have beholders, dragons, and demon cults taking up residence.  And of course, it’s exactly where adventurers want to go because that’s where the mages and clerics of empires past hid their powerful magic items and artifacts before they abandoned the outposts…or worse.

Then there’s the planes.  Sure, your character may be from the Faewild.  You might even have bloodlines from the Shadowfell.  But that’s a completely different story from actually visiting and exploring these other planes.  Rules on the Shadowfell are due out this year.  But from the looks of things, the longer you stay in the Shadowfell, the more the darkness there seeps into your soul.  And all those evil beasties you were worried about before when you went underground?  Where do you think they came from?

Oh, and it gets worse.  Sure, there’s evil demons and gods spreading their influence throughout the lands.  By the time you start getting to Epic tier, you’re going to actually start dealing directly with those evil beings.

Yeah, that’s nice and all.  But let’s go aaaaaaall the way back to Heroic tier and one of the creepiest things about the Points of Light campaign world in my opinion.  You’re a Warlock?  You’ve made a deal with the devil for your powers.  One of your fellow PCs is a Warlock?  They’ve already sold their soul, what makes you think they won’t sell yours?  And sure, that phrase is literal with Infernal and Dark Pacts and slightly more (but not quite) metaphorical with Fae pact.  But what about Star Pact?  Surely that’s got to be just kinda cool, to channel the power of the stars.  No no no no no.  That’s still a pact.  How do you make a deal with a star?  You don’t.  Look up at the sky on one of those nights you’re having to camp out.  It’s lovely, all those twinkling stars.

Except those aren’t stars, at least not the balls of plasma we think of in our world as stars.  No.  Each one of those pinpoints of light are actually Lovecraftian cosmic horrors of unfathomable hunger that watch.  Everything.  Yeah, that’s right.  Every night you camp out under the stars, you’re being watched by literally thousands of ancient horrors who want to devour you.  And that Star Pact Warlock sleeping across from you?  Made a deal with one of those creatures for his/her power.  So that means you’re sharing your adventures with a Cthulhuian cultist.

Oh, that not horrible enough for you?  Like I said, only two areas of the world have really been mapped: Nentir Vale and Elsir Vale (from the Red Hand of Doom campaign).  There’s a human empire somewhere south of Nentir Vale that may or may not have any real power and there are goblin hordes to the north.  That’s about all that’s described of the rest of the world.  You want to have a massive desert and pull creatures from Dark Sun?  Have at.  Maybe this world has an exact clone of Waterdeep or Castle Ravenloft.  Perfectly reasonable.  Because of the aforementioned lack of information about the outside world, it’s very possible that the entire world has gone to crap and only Nentir Vale exists as an oasis of life.

Points of Light is hands down the most plug-and-play game world that D&D has ever had.  It’s a new DM’s dream.  I can make the world whatever I want and no one can argue.  Forgotten Realms, I have to deal with over a hundred novels and short stories, almost all of which have been read by my roommate while less than five of them have been read by me.  Dragonlance has been rebooted so many times with things working differently in each iteration that tiny things can break reality for your players if they’ve been following, like a continuity error in a movie.  It’s enough to drive you insane.  But Points of Light can be whatever you want it to be…as long as it’s deadly and dangerous.

Full Disclosure Note: Due to me only skimming Dungeon for ideas I can steal for my campaign, I confused the Red Hand of Doom campaign with the Scales of War campaign.  I’ve edited the document to repair this error, but I also wanted to acknowledge my dumbassery rather than try to hide it.

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 4:48 PM  Comments (3)  
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