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Dungeon Building Resources

February 1, 2012 3 comments

O is for Oozes - courtesy of Goodman Games

It may be sacrilege to some loyal DMs, but I really like using published material. Most modules from WotC or Paizo are pretty well thought out and can be run with a minimal amount of fuss.

For the truly dedicated DM, everything must come from the creative pit of monsters and demons known as the DM’s brain. I think I’m ready to graduate to this level. I’ve assembled some resources that I feel get the creative juices really flowing.

I’m not one to just randomly roll on a table to get things going (that’s level III belt-of-many-colors DMing), I like to peruse those random tables for ideas and run with one. I’ve got two awesome books for just such an occasion, one more brutal than the other. First up, Goodman Games’ The Dungeon Alphabet. At $10 featuring art from Erol Otus, Doug Kovacs, Jeff Easley, among others, it’s a no-brainer. You need this book. Each letter has a different dungeon feature with different variations on that feature, i.e. D is for Doors, T is for treasure, etc. If you are brave enough to roll randomly on the tables for each letter you certainly can, but I like my dungeons to make some kind of cohesive sense, which doesn’t always happen on random tables; purely a stylistic choice.

Another resource in the same vein is Sersa Victory’s Fourthcore Alphabet. This is mainly geared towards very brutal 4e adventures, but really you could apply these to any dungeon you wanted to make more dark and deadly. It’s the same principle as Goodman’s, but pretty much everything in here will kill PCs right and left. If you have a group with players that are really invested in their PCs, this probably isn’t a wise choice. It is great for a one-shot, or if your players don’t mind rolling up a lot of characters and trying different things out. Not as much inspirational art in this one, but plenty of tables brimming with brutal ideas.

Designing interesting rooms can be a stumbling block for budding dungeon architects. Inkwell Ideas has the answer. Dungeonmorph dice and Dungeonmorph cards provide endless inspiration for chambers and can even make an endless dungeon if you desire. Typically, I just use them when I’m looking for interesting ideas for a particular room or if I’m trying to string a few ideas together. I find the cards to be a little more useful than the dice, but for the truly random DM, roll ’em up!

Hopefully these tips and resources will help you on your way to building your own adventures. What’s your favorite resource? Let us know in the comments.

Going Epic – Keys to building, playing, and concluding the epic story

January 25, 2012 5 comments

I’ve been gaming for decades now, and though I’ve seen the beginning of many campaigns in that time, I’ve seen very few endings.

As gamers, the start of a new campaign, regardless of system, always holds so much promise, and as GMs, we often plan an adventure or two ahead, with maybe some vague notions for the long term.  A good game is often continued at the behest of the players even after the first story arc is complete, and in my experience, campaigns tend to peter out more than closing in an epic finale.  I think it’s a misstep to approach it that way, and I have some thoughts about campaign planning that might address how to avoid anticlimax.  This week, we’re going to talk about Epic Beginnings, Endings, and getting from one to the other.

This issue is on my mind because a few weeks ago, we finished Paizo’s Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, which we started playing on a weekly basis in early 2008 with both novice and experienced players.  We started with PFRPG’s Alpha playtest rules and ended with the finalized version of the PFRPG.  While we took some time off here and there for different side-games, we played pretty regularly for the past few years, and went through 6 modules in that series, taking the heroes from 1st level goblin killers to 15th level giant-slaying saviors of the free world.

For about half of our players, it was the first time they had a character over 10th level, and certainly the first time they had played a character from 1st straight through to 15th. I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of characters I’ve played straight from 1st to 15th or higher, and for many of our group, it may be the closest they get for a while.

But more than that, as we shelve the campaign with no immediate plans to pick up and run with these characters again, it’s a rare moment of closure in an epic story arc.  So, how do we get to this Epic Finale?  Well, turns out it starts at the beginning.

Beginnings, as it turns out, are easy.  We have different expectations in what makes a good beginning, but the origin story allows us to build without a sense of continuity or history, and there is nowhere to go but up.  Usually at lower levels, game balance and play speed are less of a factor than with higher level play.  As you move towards higher level play, combats can grow in both complexity and duration, and both players and characters can wind up overburdened.

A little planning goes a long way to developing a memorable conclusion to your epic adventure arc, and keep things from stopping short or going beyond the natural life span of the game.  So, our first tip is:

BUILD YOUR ARC (Noah’s Rule)

Okay, so maybe Noah built a different type of ‘Arc’ but the principal remains key: Every epic campaign should have a beginning, middle and end planned from the outset.   A little structure goes a long way in keeping character motivations logical and consistent.  Some folks prefer things to flow more organically, but even a very loose framework with established goals for both GM’s and players will gently urge both towards an epic conclusion and not a meandering whimper.

I’ve played and run in plenty of games where the course of the campaign was mostly influenced by whatever the GM picked up at his FLGS that weekend.  That can still work, as long as you’re careful to integrate personalized connections with the module/scenario, and work in Arc related content in between non sequitur adventures.

With a solid yet adaptable framework in place, you have a pole star to guide your ship by, allowing you to step into the shoes of that villain when your players inevitably trash his well laid plans.  Keeping a logically consistent and flowing story arc will tell a better tale for your players and make your experience truly epic.

Tomorrow, we’ll dig deeper into that idea.  We’d like to hear your thoughts/tips/ideas about what makes a good start for a campaign, and how you build it to last.

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, Lore, Paizo, Pathfinder, RPGs, Tips

Gamma World – The good, the bad, the mutated

January 19, 2012 1 comment

The guys and I played through the 4e Gamma World box set last night, and had a pretty good time with it. The character creation process is certainly one of the highlights. The party consisted of the following: a Demon Plant, a Quickling Vampire, a Pryokinetic Anti-matter Blaster, and my guy a Regenerative Hypercognative.  We used the origins from the original boxed set as well as the Legion of Gold expansion.

We had a great time trying to conceptualize our characters and come up with post-apocalyptic arms and armor. My guy was using a sledge hammer as a two-handed heavy, and throwing cinderblocks as a ranged weapon. Strangely the demon plant elected to have a gun as a ranged weapon, as well as a pointy stick for melee. Probably most memorable was the Pyrokinetic using a 50-gallon drum as heavy armor. Fire in a 50-gallon drum? I don’t remember what he actually named his character, but I just started calling him hobo fire. It was awesome.

The actual encounters included with the original boxed set seemed a little arbitrary. They introduce you to some unique Gamma World bad guys like the Porkers and Badders, but they didn’t seem to have much to do with each other. Overall not a great starter adventure. The previous time I played Gamma World 4e, the GM (Gamma Master?) came up with his own stuff and it was way cooler than what was included.

The card mechanics of Omega Tech and Alpha Mutations were interesting. The Omega tech was a cool way to hand out “treasure” that gave the PCs some different combat options. Getting a different mutation every encounter was a little weird, but not as bad as I thought it would be. Overall, we agreed that if your PC had a power that worked really well with your character you could roll a save for it, the same way you do to salvage re-usable Omega tech. Some of the powers were a little game-breaking, so you wouldn’t want them to have access to it forever, but if you got one that just didn’t work for your guy you wouldn’t be stuck with it forever either.

Next week we level up, and I may try a different guy. Overall, it makes for a fun break from your average fantasy RPG. We may work on giving our game a darker, grittier feel than the typical Gamma World aesthetic as presented by WotC. We’ll let you know how it goes!

Categories: 4e, Gamma World, Reviews, RPGs

Dusting Off Gamma World

January 18, 2012 2 comments

All the buzz on the blogs is about 5e or DnDNext, wishlists of what to add, what to ditch, and what to keep. While we all wait to be invited to the beta test, Skyland Games is going to take a look at where 4e shined. While not being perfect, the 4e version of Gamma World is a great example of how 4e mechanics can be really fun. If you haven’t tried it yet, I would encourage you to do so. There is even a free online character generator (PS – that would be on my wishlist for 5e!) that allows you to roll up a completely random character or choose the values you want, or have rolled.

Since it has been out for a couple of years, fans in the blogging community have supported  the version with some great articles and tables. 4e Critical Hits has put together an incredible resource for 4e Gamma World material. Roving Band of Misfits has put together articles analyzing the monsters as published, as well as a guide to converting iconic DnD monsters for use in Gamma World.

There are tons of other resources out there, but this will get you started. The guys and I will be rolling up some crazy characters tonight, and I’m sure it will be a hilarious play report tomorrow. If you haven’t given 4e Gamma World a try, it”s a worthy diversion while we all wait for what comes next!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Gamma World, RPGs, Tips

4e Extreme – Multiple Epic Solos

January 17, 2012 4 comments

Dispater, courtesy of Troll and Toad

Last night was the last session of my reign as DM for the Scales of War adventure path. We’re rotating every module, which let’s everyone play and not succumb to DM burnout. Epic DMing is certainly a challenge as PCs are so powerful it can be difficult to even threaten them, let alone get close to killing them.

We were approaching the final battle of my module. The four PCs were 26th level and were galavanting all over Bahamut’s temple, clearing out the infestation of devils and trying to find a way to resurrect the slain god. Fairly epic stuff. The party steam-rolled several encounters, but made the mistake of not taking a short rest before they stumbled upon Dispater, one of the Arch-Devils of the nine hells. They cleverly sealed him back in Bahamut’s Vault, but he warned them he would be back.

The party proceeded to the bridge of Al-Sihal, where the the Archangel Zachariel was guarding the entrance to heaven from the mithral dragon Dakranad who wanted to assume Bahamut’s old throne and end the struggle with Tiamat. The PCs were guarding Amyria, a deva who was essentially Bahamut’s horcrux. They needed to defeat the dragon and take the lifespark Dakranad took from Moradin’s forge, and send Amyria into the great beyond with lifespark in hand. OK! Now we’re epic!

The battle was going pretty well for the PCs, as epic party’s tend to ruin solos without much trouble, when guess who showed up to snatch Amyria and take the divine throne for himself? Dispater! Bookending the party between two solos (three really, but Zachariel was neutral as long as you stayed away from him) on a bridge made for an awesome encounter. Had I pressed the issue and had Zachariel jump in, the party would have been in real trouble, but as it was the encounter was awesome enough. Not only that, the party used Zachariel as they slid their enemies close enough that he attacked them. At one point he banished Dispater to a pocket dimension of an acid rain-soaked island. Awesome stuff!

In the end, the party was victorious, and Bahamut was resurrected. Now I get to put my PC hat back on, and try a 27th level warlord! He’s healing two PCs per inspiring word at healing surge + 6d6! The next DM in rotation advised us that we’re going to need it!

If you’re looking to challenge an Epic party, throw the XP budget out the window. See what they *can’t* survive. I haven’t found anything yet. Two solos makes for a fun night!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Epic, RPGs, Tips Tags:

SCARAB – South Carolina Area Roleplayers and Boardgamers

January 13, 2012 Comments off

It’s finally here! The SCARAB convention begins at 3pm today. Most of the Skyland Games crew will be heading down Saturday for the day to play some Pathfinder Society games. I would encourage any gamers in the NC/SC/GA area who have some free time this holiday weekend to head to Columbia and see what it’s all about!

The convention runs from Jan. 13 through Jan.16. 4-day passes are $60 at the door, day-passes are $20. There is a “Kids Track” for gamers 8 to 14 years old, and a ton of games to play. If you run a pick-up game, stop by the registration desk, fill out some paper work, and you can qualify for a $1/hr rebate on your registration price.

There appears to be a large number of vendors and participants, and games of every type. We’ll have a full review of Saturday’s action on monday.

Categories: 4e, Board, Card, Dice, DnD, News, Paizo, Pathfinder, RPGs, Society

Pushing 4e to the limit! No Minions! No Mercy!

January 12, 2012 4 comments

Last night continued our 4e conversion of B4 – Lost City for our pirate campaign. Last night’s session was a lot more tough on the party than the first session. If you play 4e for any length of time, you probably meta-game a bit when it comes to minions. I’m certainly guilty in that regard. If the DM drops 10 or 12 minis on the map, and several of them are the same type of creature, its a good chance you’re going to start popping some one-hit-point wonders.

Want to see a little fear on a 4e player’s face? Drop a bunch of minis on the map, and watch for their reactions when none of them pop.

The party encountered their first faction of the adventure, and interestingly opened up two doors at the same time. In one was 5 members of the gang, the other had 5 members of the same gang and an obvious leader. Since neither the party or the gangs attacked, they parlayed a bit. Needless to say, negotiations failed.

The ensuing battle was pretty tense, but I find that 4e characters are a lot more resilient than the suggested XP budget of the Dungeon Master’s guide. This party is particularly tough, in that they have both an artificer, and a warlord. The party eventually defeated the opposition, but it could have gone against them if the battle hadn’t taken place in such close quarters. Its important to note, they didn’t kill every last one of them, but defeated their leader and more than half the men. The last four standing, surrendered.

To their credit, the party pushed on through several encounters without taking an extended rest. By the end of the night, the defender was out of healing surges and down to 4 hit points. I don’t think I can remember any 4e game in years of playing when the defender actually ran out of surges.

While we all wait to see what comes of 5e, why not push 4e’s limits? You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Pirates, RPGs, Tips Tags:

Talking Your Way Out… Fun? Skills before Kills

January 3, 2012 3 comments

The party has bashed and exploded all the contructs and guardians standing in their way. They chopped off all the heads of the hydra, sent the storm titan back from whence he came, and now it comes to this. The epic champions stare face to face with an aspect of Moradin in the secret soulforge, flanked on either side by massive clockwork juggernauts.

The illusionist starts pulsing with rainbows of energy, the half-orc fighter tests the edge on his legendary great-axe, the barbarian hefts his might maul, and… And?

The artificer convinces the aspect that we’re all on the same side here and none of this violence is really necessary. The aspect agrees and sends you on your way with a bit of advice on where to continue the quest.

While I agree that RPGs should be about options and not just an endless murder-fest, I feel like sometimes talking your way out of fights gets more praise than it should. After the party “defeats” an encounter in this fashion, it can be a refreshing change of pace if you’ve been slogging through endless fights (which can be commonplace in the epic tier) but it doesn’t generally make for the same sense of accomplishment as standing atop a pile of defeated foes.

Last night we had an experience much like the one detailed above in our epic Scales of War campaign. In retrospect, I should have used the tried-and-true comic trope of having the good guys fight the other good guys to a bloody draw before they can convince each other they are on the same side. This probably depends on the group but I’ve found that same players are reluctant to call off combat once those initiative dice hit the mat. Overall, it left me with a bit of a “meh” feeling.

What are your feelings on talking your way out of a fight? Refreshing change of pace? Anti-climactic? Let us know in the comments below!

4e Skill Fumble – House Rule

December 30, 2011 4 comments

We’ve been having so much fun with iCrit and iFumble, we were talking last session about fumble results for 4e skills. I suppose you could have a critical success, and in fact, my epic 4e Thief gained two successes in a skill challenge when I rolled a 20 on one, but really fumbles are more fun. At least for the GM.

Now before I raise the ire of all hardcore 4e players out there, I know that according to the Rules As Written, in a skill check a 1 is not necessarily a failure and a 20 is not a guaranteed success (though usually they qualify as failures or successes if the challenge is even moderately level appropriate), but put your books away. This is house rule time. As a bonus its presented in a massive table. What is D&D without house rules and massive tables?

A few of the obvious skills have failure conditions written in the rules already. Fail an acrobatics/athletics climb check, you fall. But what if you fell really awkwardly, or what if you fell on your head? What about massive failures at diplomacy or intimidate? I present the Skyland Games 4e Skill Fumble Table. Not only does it address consequences for failure, it has degrees of failure based on how far away from the DC the skill check landed.

It also addresses the somewhat irritating mechanic (to me anyway) that a ranger can fail a nature check, and due to the luck of the dice, a paladin could pass it. This will make someone think twice about using a skill they have no business attempting. It could certainly heighten the tension at the table during a skill challenge. There are few truly tense skill challenges I can remember from the many 4e adventures I’ve been on.

Check it out, and let us know what you think if you end up using it: SkillFumble1

— Edit: An astute reader pointed out I am terrible at mathematical symbols. This I freely admit. Updated the PDF to remove obfuscation. —

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Lore, RPGs, Tips Tags: , , ,

4e Party – Old School Mod Style

December 29, 2011 9 comments

Last night the pirates campaign got under way again, with my 4e conversion of B4 – The Lost City. I did my best to keep the spirit of the original, but since our party is made up of pirates at sea, the top of the temple was just above the water, rather than above the dunes. Unlike a lot of the more recent 4e mods in the Scales of War adventure path and certainly the Living Forgotten Realms mods, this was a much more traditional dungeon crawl. Originally published in 1982, the majority of adventures at that time were crawls.

It was refreshing for me, after playing a lot 4e over the past few years, to recapture some of the old school feel. Some might think that it would be difficult to challenge the party given the mechanics of healing surges and the relative power of 2nd level 4e character as compared to the power of a 2nd level 1e character. I countered this in a few ways.

First off, all the monsters they faced had 4e stat blocks. Several of them had already been restated and were waiting for me in the compendium, or monster vault. Others I needed to find a suitable substitute, but even that wasn’t tough. For instance, in one room the party encounters an enormous beehive with foot-long bees. While there aren’t any 4e giant bee stats, there are giant ant stats. Change their climb speed to a fly speed, stat-up an encounter-power sting, and viola: 4e Giant Bee.

The second way I compensated for 4e mechanics was to limit the short rests they could take. The basis for this adventure is that they are almost out of supplies and need to find food and fresh water to replenish the ships stores. I gave them a little food and one waterskin between them, that I told them would be good for two short rests until they could find more food and water. While most of the encounters were just a few creatures, each battle drained there precious resources, and made them actively look for ways to get food and water, which led to some awesome role-play opportunities. (Player: Can we eat bees? Me: You can try.)

A third aspect that was really fun to see again was the party checking pretty much any door they came across for traps. The mod did a great job of setting this up by leaving scattered bodies of previous explorers who had set off traps ahead of the party. Also, the first room they encountered one of the party fell through the floor to a chamber with several fire beetles. While the rest of the party descended to assist their comrade, the wizard sat back and hurled a spell or two whenever it was advantageous, only going in to the room after freezing the last beetle to a wall with a ray of frost.

Playing an old school mod also got the players in an old school frame of mind. Early on, one of the characters gathered up some old, sludgy oil that could be used as smoky flasks of oil. When the party encountered the giant bees, he had the brilliant idea of using the smoke from the burning oil to make the bees docile. When is the last time a 4e character in your game, scrounged up some material and used it to avoid a fight? Brilliant.

The pirates have managed to scrape together a little water, and they took the time to cook and send back some giant lizard they had freshly slain. To keep the crew fed, they’ll have to journey deeper into the underwater structure. The party found a stairway down, but wisely chose to explore the rest of the floor they were on before charging off into the unknown. It was a great session and I’m really looking forward to next week!

Categories: 4e, Adventure, DnD, Lore, Pirates, RPGs, Tips Tags: , ,