Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mob Rules!

It's over, it's done 
The end is begun 
If you listen to fools, 
The mob rules...

      ...Black Sabbath - The Mob Rules

Greetings, All!  

So here's the thing.  I was going through the lists of monsters in the Monster Builder tool the other day, and started to think about swarms.  When you think about swarms, the mind often jumps to vermin-like creatures such as rats, snakes, and spiders.  I however, was looking for a different kind of swarm.  I wanted to see what I could do with swarms of humanoids, better known as "mobs".

Mobs can be a common hazard for heroes.  Whether they're being hunted by angry villagers, chased by determined guards, or surprised by fanatic cultists; mobs represent a threat since they combine the resources of several weak individuals into a large single-minded entity.  Difficult to disperse without area attacks and effects, a mob's brutish demeanor can only be defeated with staunch determination.

The next few posts here on Initiative or What? will deal with some mob types I've come up with.  Each of these posts will take a look at a type of mob, skinned for each tier of play.  

Today, we'll look at Angry Villagers.  Why are they gathering like that? Why are they so angry?  Why are they carrying pitchforks?  Why oh gods why is there fire?


Now...an interesting thing happens when you finally manage to disperse a mob of Angry Villagers.  Check these out:

Now I guess all we need is to team these misguided villagers up with a flesh golem from somewhere...

When I return, I'll take a look at brute squads (mobs of soldiers). 

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sandbox vs. Safety Rails - A Mini Blog Carnival

My good and fellow blogger, @ThadeousC, brought up a pretty interesting topic the other day on Twitter.  What good Thadeous mentioned is whether or not a DM should place accessible encounters that the players are forced to flee from.  Thanks to the resulting discussion, Thadeous decided to blog about this topic on his own website, and start a mini blog carnival to boot.

Two camps formed up pretty quickly after that first Tweet.  One camp insisted that the sandbox was the only way to go, that an open world for the characters to explore was the most logical duplication of a real "exploration" experience.  The other camp insisted that only by guiding the narrative "the safety rails", could you create a shared story that the players would truly enjoy.  The implication here, is that with a shared narrative (the "safety rails"), the heroes would always encounter just those sorts of things they were capable of defeating. 

After watching the interplay back and forth between both camps for awhile, I decided to weigh in on this topic myself.  You're going to find that I'm a bit of a fence rider when it comes to this topic.  What I hope to do in my contribution to this mini blog carnival is to explore the merits and drawbacks of each camp and let my readers decided for themselves.

The Sandbox

The Sandbox is a style of playing whereby the DM creates his setting and places various encounter areas based on the overall flavor of his campaign.  There may be dragons in one spot, an evil kingdom in another spot, and a kobold camp down the road.  The encounters are placed so that the world is interesting, but little consideration is given to how those areas will relate to the heroes.  Thus, while those kobold campers might be pretty easy for low level heroes to take care of, the dragon a few miles over is going to be an entirely different story.  Here are some features of the Sandbox style campaign.

The Sandbox is friendlier to a DM's campaign setting.  The heroes are forging their own story, so the DM has less to do in regards to narrative.  After all the base work is done, the DM can slap a map down and basically say, "here you go". 

The Sandbox is open territory.  Motivated heroes can use elements of the Sandbox to build real lives and families for themselves. 

The Sandbox more accurately reflects how the world works.  Heroes have (usually) grown up there and know a little something about the local area.  If they want to experience the world, they have to explore.

The Sandbox is labor intensive for the DM.  A wide variety of adventures have to be made available so that the heroes always have an appropriately leveled quest they can undertake.

In a Sandbox campaign, it is quite easy for a band of heroes to encounter a situation that is well beyond their power (and level) to control.  The only option in these cases (usually) is to run like you've never run before.

The Sandbox can be manipulated by clever heroes.  Heroes of high level could (theoretically) take over their old home towns when they become powerful.

The Sandbox can be prone to power vacuums when an iconic place setting in the Sandbox is defeated by the heroes.

My analysis:  The Sandbox is fun, but only for motivated players.  The DM must have a massive amount of campaign information available for a Sandbox campaign to truly come alive.  The DM must also be very good at providing "leads" to the players in order to seek out adventure.  The leads must be varied and subtle, as anything else leads the heroes on to "The Safety Rails".

The Safety Rails

This is Thadeous' term for a style of playing that is more episodic and story driven.  The DM provides a series of adventures that are designed to take the heroes through a particular story arc.  Some vague and broad information about the world is known, but the only area of interest to the heroes are those areas that relate to the current adventure. 

The Safety Rails are less labor intensive.  As long as the DM can provide a series of stories that connect together (in even the vaguest of manners), the adventure can continue.

The Safety Rails are very easy for a player to deal with.  You're along for the ride.  You may be helping to make some of the story happen, but you don't have to feel responsible for whatever events unfold.

The Safety Rails don't waste much of the heroes' time.  Whatever drops in their lap, they can pretty much be sure that's what they're supposed to be doing.  There's no mucking about with "should we follow up this rumor?  What if it's too dangerous" part. 

The Safety Rails pretty much guarantees that the heroes will succeed.  It might be dangerous, you might lose a hero or too, but overall the party will almost always defeat its current foe.  With this type of campaign, you almost have to.  Otherwise, what would be the point?  The story must go on, and the heroes have to help write it.

The Safety Rails don't allow much "real world" interaction between the heroes and their world.  They may "save the day" from time to time, but they're not worried about their "daily bread" because before you know it, a new adventure will drop into their lap.

The Safety Rails can easily turn into a "DM railroad" where the players pretty much give up all narrative control and go along with whatever story the DM provides.

The Safety Rails can be tiresome if the story arc continues for some time unabated.  "Are we still trying to find the McGuffin of Evermore?  We've been looking for that forever!"

My analysis:  The Safety Rails is probably a much easier way to play than the Sandbox.  It's less labor intensive for the DM, and less investment for the casual player.  However, players that want a more immersive experience are going to be disappointed in this style of play.  They will probably feel trapped and not in control of their own destinies (even if they're doing cool stuff to save the world).  In addition, the DM must work not to make the story arcs too extensive or they can get boring.

It is possible to combine these two methods of gaming, but it's a give-and-take process.  In recent years, the advent of MMO computer games have given us the illusion of a Sandbox while really guiding the player onto the Safety Rails.  Unfortunately, MMOs can use a conceit that DMs really can't.  Let me give you an example from my World of Warcraft days.  In WoW, your player can pretty much walk/ride/fly to any point in the game universe.  However, if you stray too far from an area of your level, the creatures you encounter will have a very visible "skull" icon above them, indicating that they were at least 10 levels above you.  Such a power difference is a very visible indication that you shouldn't mess with such creatures.  No such conceit exists in Dungeons & Dragons.

How have I handled this conundrum?  Well, I sort of do what the MMOs do.  I don't place stickers over my creatures that say "Tread Not Here, For There Be Dragons", but I do grant the illusion that characters are free to go where they'd like.  At the same time, I "goose" the players with obvious leads (adventure hooks) so that they don't go wandering off unattended.  It seems to work pretty well with my players.  I haven't really polled them (although I should), but I suspect that if asked they're more happy with the Safety Rails, than they are with a Sandbox.

For further information on this topic, I encourage you to take a look at the following blog posts:

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monsters from the Tomb of Horrors

As many of my readers know, I've been working on a 4e revision of the Tomb of Horrors (not the WotC version due out later this year).  I decided to take a quick break from designing the full encounters and take a moment to identify all the monsters in the Tomb and get them designed in the Monster Builder.

There are only about a dozen identifiable monsters in the Tomb of Horrors.  That's not too many, considering that the original module had over 30 encounters areas listed.  With such a light load, I thought it would be interesting to just list all of those monsters here.   This will make for a pretty long blog post, so feel free to scroll past the ones you're not interested in, and make sure you click on the image links for a better view of the image.

Presented in their original encounter order:

Encounter 8:  Mutated 4-Armed Gargoyle

I basically re-skinned an existing gargoyle in the Monster Creator, gave it a couple of more arms (and hence attacks), and balanced it for the encounter.  Here's my version:

Encounter 13:  12 Large Asps

With the way these creatures were originally presented, they really functioned more as a swarm, instead of individual creatures.  I re-skinned an asp swarm from Monster Builder, and came up with this:

Encounter 13:  Giant Skeleton

This one was pretty easy.  Take a brute-like skeleton from Monster Builder, give it a large size and give it the ability to attack twice in a round as specified by the original module.  Here's my version:

Encounter 18:  False Acererak

This one was tricky.  This false version of the dreaded demi-lich could only be harmed by a specific item (available in that encounter).  Thus, it had to be heavy on resistances and immunity. However, at the same time, I had to make it vulnerable to that special item.  Here's the result:

Encounter 19:  Gray Ochre Jelly

This one was pretty basic.  Re-skin the original ochre jelly found in the Monster Builder to the appropriate level.  Oh, and color it gray.  Here's the result:

Encounter 21:  More Asps

Occasionally (at least according to this encounter), a treasure chest yields a big mess of snakes.  I re-skinned my asp swarm, made it smaller, and reduced the level and damage of its poison.  This was the result:

Encounter 22:  Siren

This creature was probably the most difficult to come up with.  Currently, the Monster Builder doesn't have a Siren-like creature.  So, I had to take an appropriately leveled fey creature, and modify its powers and abilities to be similar to those found in the 1st edition version of this creature.  I actually kind of like what I came up with:

Encounter 26:  Fire Resistant Mummy

The original module calls for the mummy to wearing a Ring of Fire Resistance.  Instead of dealing with creating a magical item for that, I simply gave this mummy (a mummy lord in all actuality) some resistance to fire.  Here's what it looks like:

Encounter 27:  Animated Weapons 

This one was also a bit difficult.  I had considered making the area a trap, but the nature of the attack made it difficult to format as a traditional trap.  Instead, I created these as constructs, animated by the will of Acererak.  They increase in power, each time you enter the room, so I created 8 versions.  Presented below are the stats for the 1st & 8th "power levels" of these animated sets of armor:

Encounter 29:  Wights

This is another creature that pops up as a result of doing something to the existing environment.  In this case, attempting to polymorph any of the blood coming from the Mithril Vault.  As the encounter is dangerous enough, I created these creatures as minions:

Encounter 30:  Efreet

This creature pops up from a sealed urn.  I simply re-skinned an existing Efreet from the Monster Builder and made it an appropriate leveled challenge for the encounter.  Here's the result:

Encounter 33:  Dust of Acererak

While 4e has provided a stat block for the original demi-lich, Acererak, there are elements in this final encounter that have escaped the rules.  I created the "Dust of Acererak" in order to duplicate events that take place in the Tomb.  Look carefully at the stat block, it has a special mechanic:

Encounter 33:  Ghost of Acererak

In a similar vein as the Dust of Acererak, the Ghost of Acererak fulfills a needed gap in filling out the final encounter.  Here is how I imagined that creature:

Encounter 33:  Acererak the Demi-Lich

For the final encounter, I decided to create an alternate version of the 13th level monster that exists in the Monster Builder.  Either version gives the same amount of experience points, but are slightly different in flavor.  Feel free to compare them:

Monster Builder Version

My version

Well, there you have it.  All of the monsters in Tomb of Horrors re-imaged to fit the 4th edition of the rules.  As always, I'd love to have your feedback on any of the creatures presented here.  Enjoy!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Building Blocks of Success (Not a Business Seminar)

Greetings, All!

As most of my current readers know, I'm all about cool tabletop terrain.  As a result, I'm a huge fan of Hirst Arts Castlemolds.  The nice thing about Bruce's molds is that you can build quality terrain for a much lower cost than what you can buy from Dwarven Forge.  Now don't get me wrong, the stuff produced by Dwarven Forge is very awesome.  However, my RPG allowance doesn't really afford me the possibility of buying the number of sets I'd want to have for maximum flexibility.  With the Castlemolds, I can build exactly what I want, when I want it.

Enough with the plugs, though.  I thought it might be interesting for my good readers to see the process I go through when building terrain with these types of materials.  What you'll see below is a series of photographs (previously linked on Twitpic) that I snapped the other day while I was casting blocks. 

Before I do that, though, a of note about the pictures. 

I live in a 2 bedroom town home.  As a result, I don't have a lot of room.  I use the dining room table to cast on, and a couple of TV trays to dry bricks on.  As cliche as it is, I play in the basement.  I have dedicated gaming space there, though, which leaves little room for crafting.  If the space you're seeing in the photos looks a little cramped, that's because it is.  My dream is to one day have my own climate controlled workshop where I can cast all year long.  However, the dream of awesome terrain cannot be delayed, so I work when and where I can.  Enjoy the show!

I have eleven of Bruce's molds.  Today I'm just using seven of them.  Two wall builder molds, three floor tile molds, and an accessories mold.  This is what thing look like before it gets all messy.

See the white scale in the back?  I measure out the plaster product I use (a quasi-dental stone known as Merlin's Magic™) with that.  Then I add the right proportion of water and mix it all up in the flexible mixing bowl you see in the upper right-hand corner of the picture.  As you fill the molds, the plaster runs everywhere.  Newspapers are pretty much mandatory.

Unlike regular plaster, dental plaster is pretty heavy and settles to the bottom of the mold pretty quickly.  As a result, excess water almost immediately pools on top.  A quick layer of paper towels absorbs this water when the molds have been poured.

I don't have an "action" shot of the scraping process, but this is the result after the molds have been scraped free of the extra plaster.  This is an important step.  Scrape too hard, and your pieces dry with a concave surface and hence won't hold a glue bond very well.  Scrape too little, and your pieces will have a slight "hump" which prevents them from stacking nicely.  This problem isn't a big deal if you're using Plaster of Paris, because PoP sands down pretty easily.  Harder plasters do not.  Try belt sanding a 1 inch block sometime.  Not a lot of fun.

This final image is the result of the afternoon's work.  The picture you don't see is another action shot of me removing the little pieces from all the molds.  This is sometimes a fairly delicate process.  Some of the pieces are fragile, and even with stronger plasters, can break pretty easily.  After that, comes the clean up.  You rub the extra plaster off the molds, shake them clean of any debris, and then lay out clean newspaper for the next cast.  Next, you clean up your mixing bowl.  I went with a flexible mixing bowl for good reason.  You see, the plaster stone I use hardens like concrete.  Scraping a rigid bowl is simply not an option.  However, a few quick squeezes of the flexible bowl, and all the junk plaster comes right out.

I did 21 casts (7 molds, three times each).  Quite a bit of building material, actually.  I set the pieces out to dry on the newspaper for at least 24 hours in order for them to cure properly.  By the way, I pitched this idea on Twitter the other day, but I'll do it again here.  Drying would go much quicker if I had an electric food dehydrator.  Hook me up with one, and I'll build and ship you a free dice tower. 

Well, that's pretty much what I have going today.  I'll be sharing more of this process (particularly the building and finishing of terrain pieces) in later posts. 

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Tomb of Horrors Update - 06/10

Greetings, All!

This is just a brief update to let you know I've added a couple of additional documents to the Tomb of Horrors collection I'm building.

In addition to encounter areas 1 & 2, I've also completed an introduction and encounter areas 3 & 4.

Feel free to click on the "My Publications" link on the right hand side of this page.  You'll find all the Tomb of Horror stuff there as well as a lot more 4th Edition crunchy goodness.

As always, I appreciate any comments you might have.


Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Harrowing Halls -- A Brief Review

I know I'm three to six months late to the party on this one, but since I went out and spent some money on a product the other day, I thought I'd give it a very brief review.

If you read my blog regularly or follow me (@deadorcs) on Twitter, then you know I'm a DM that's pretty into terrain.  My go to stuff for this is Hirst Arts, but of late, I've been thinking about how to make terrain building go a little quicker.  Tiles of various kinds (while pretty) didn't hold my interest because they were only 2D.   Early this year, though, Wizards of the Coast released "Harrowing Halls".  Harrowing Halls contains tiles that are primarily geared towards the interior rooms of inns and castles.  The set contains a large assortment of the standard 2D tiles you normally get.  However, Harrowing Halls also contains new elements - 3D elements.

I won't go into a lengthy review here.  For that, please visit my fellow blogger, NewbieDM.  He's got the full low down here.  Feel free to go read that and come back.

Back?  Great!  I was pretty sure (being into the 3D) that I was going to pick a set up, but instead I picked up two sets instead.  I wanted to see just how much terrain you could build with a couple of sets.  Beyond getting two sets of the regular pretty tiles, you can also build the following:

Stairs (10' x 20')  - 2

5' tall Platform (20' x 20') - 1
5' tall Platform (10' x 20') - 2
5' tall Platform (10' x 10') - 1

10' tall Platform (20' x 20') - 1

10' tall Platform (10' x 20') - 2
10' tall Platform (10' x 10') - 1

Table (5' x 10') - 2
Table (5' x 5' square) -1
Table (5' x 5' round) - 1

Doors (closed) - 2

The wins?  Well, with two sets, that's actually quite a bit of terrain.  They're sturdy enough for miniatures, and will even hold sections of plaster terrain that I make with the Hirstarts stuff.  The stairs create a nice platform for miniatures to stand on, and I'm thinking I'm going to reverse engineer the design so that I can build better Hirst Arts stairs.  Overall, I'm impressed with the sets I got and look forward to future 3D offerings from Wizards in the future.

The drawbacks? Well for me, to get a comfortable and flexible amount of the 3D terrain, you need to really buy two sets.  One set just doesn't give you the flexibility you should have when designing set pieces.  The door pieces are basically flat "closed door" pieces with stands that prop them up.  I thought they were a bit cheap looking and poorly designed.   They knock over way too easily.  The tables were pretty slapped together as well, but if I sacrifice some flexibility in construction, I can use glue to stabilize the tables, and they'll work pretty well.

I'm looking forward to utilizing this terrain in the future, and I might even start collecting more of the 2D pieces as well.  They are very pretty and with two sides, can  be pretty flexible for table top use.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Who's Mapping?

So it seems last night I played a little Dungeons & Dragons with @newbiedm and a crew of experienced DMs as his players.  The roster filled out with myself (@deadorcs), @DMSamuel, @ThadeousC, @SarahDarkmagic, @gamefiend, & @chattydm. 

I knew that getting a group of experienced and engaged players (and all bloggers to boot!) was going to be quite an experience.  I wasn't disappointed.  NewbieDM ran a great game, with only an overland map to really guide us.  We did a little exploring, a little role-playing, and got to kill a monster or three.  All in all a fantastic time.  My character, Toma, performed well and was not bashful at taking things to task when "stuff needed killin".  Such is the life of a Dwarf.

By the by, NewbieDM gives great Hobgoblin. 

After the game ended for the evening, the group (sans ChattyDM) stayed on the line and began to discuss how the game of Dungeons & Dragons had evolved over time.  Of the group online at the time, DMSamuel and I were probably the oldest players, although many of us had used the OD&D rules before.  That discussion was fantastic, and we stayed up almost another hour to share each others' wisdom. 

This morning on Twitter, that discussion continued somewhat (as things on Twitter are want to do), and the subject of mapping came up.  One of the primary differences between OD&D and it's historical descendant, 4th Edition, is the level of abstractness in the game.  A few of our players struggled with accurately visualizing the battlefield since in 4e, you don't really have to use a grid map.

As I thought about these differences, it occurred to me, that even since my first days of playing the game (set the Wayback Machine to 1980, Sherman), I've always drawn a map of the dungeon we were exploring.  Such a map was almost always drawn on graph paper, and the mapping responsibilities were usually given to the most patient and careful drawer.  One square equaled 10 feet and you were annoyed when the DM was using a map that included 5 foot alcoves or diagonal walls that weren't 45° from corner to corner of a square.

The game play was still abstract, but since you had a map, (with a scale) you could easily visualize where your character was within that room.  You didn't even have to use miniatures.  Since all of the rule effects were in 10' increments (except outdoors where it changed to yards), it all worked quite nicely.  However, occasionally, you could get into arguments about whether or not this monster could reach that far , or if that spell effect was really going to catch you where you stood.  All resolvable with time, trust and understanding, of course, but players don't always bring those skill sets to the table.

I think the 4th edition fixed a great deal of that.  It combined a way to simplify combat without sacrificing the visual accuracy gained at using a battle grid and miniatures.  The 3.0/3.5 version of the rules was on track, but complex rules variants made actually running the combat a nightmare (at least for me).

All this background and history is what brought me to this idea.  Why not take an old school process like having one of your players draw a map and combine it with a new school process of using dungeon tiles.  As the DM would describe the dungeon (cave, temple, mine, etc), a player would map out the said area with a stack of nearby fairly generic dungeon tiles.  Mapping the area in this fashion would accomplish a number of things:

1)  Dungeons become "explorations" once again.  Yes, you're using dungeon tiles, but you're not laying them all out at once, thus eliminating potential spoilers.

2)  The DM can effectively "hide" certain terrain features by replacing a "generic" tile with one of his own special tiles.

3) The DM can easily add 3D features (doors, chests, beds, etc) as desired without taking additional time out of the game.

4)  The DM can spend more time on the story, and less having to draw out (or lay out) every little detail of the area up front.

Combining player mapping with dungeon tile use seemed like a eureka moment for me, but I'm sure some of you might have thought of this before. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.