Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Map, Your Way - A Proposal


So I'm at the office, busily working away on those things that you do in an office, when my friend, Alex, IMs me.    He works at the same office, and also happens to be a member of my game group, The Dead Orcs Society.  Alex is a casual DM himself, and has been interested of late, with the new dungeon tile sets Wizards of the Coast are releasing with the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line.  Alex is also interested in the DDI tools, and we've had frequent discussions about what WotC might do with their online assets.  

Today, those two interests combined to form what I hope is a pretty cool idea.  I told Alex to throw it up on the WotC forums to see what others have to say about it (not sure if he'll do that or not). I also asked him if I could do a blog post about it.  He told me, "Yes".  So that's the point of this post.  Just wanted to cover that.  The following idea is his:

Alex proposed that WotC create (as one of their DDI tools) a tile mapping tool that would allow you to either draw your own maps OR use any of the existing tiles from WotC's current and previously released sets.  WotC does have a tile mapper, but it's my understanding it's not really updated with new tile sets (I might be wrong on this point).  Here's the kicker.  Once you create your map, you could send it to WotC who would print the tiles for you and ship them to you.  Basically, you build your dungeon (using their tiles), and WotC would print it off and ship it to you (for a fee, of course).

The model isn't exactly new.  LEGO® has been doing this for several years, now.  You can build an object using their online tools, and they'll count the bricks, add up the cost, and send you the model.  It's not a cheap process (you pay a premium), but it apparently gets plenty of use, since the feature is still available.  Beyond the usual corporate reasons (money, resources), I'm not sure what reason they'd have for NOT wanting to do this.  Just in case though, here are a few reasons they should:

  • WotC could continue to sell old tile sets - Many of the encounters and published modules use these older (and now rare) tile sets.  A customer could recreate those online (using the online tile mapper) and have it shipped.  Essentially, WotC would be getting money for a product they no longer sell.

  • Print on demand is a reasonable technology - While it's true that WotC could simply store dungeon elements in a big warehouse somewhere, it's more practical to just have them printed to the cardstock on demand.  With laser cutting, each dungeon set is packed and shipped for you, as though you ordered a boxed product off the shelf.  

  • WotC could make money hand over fist - Well, that might be an exaggeration, but there's money to be had, charging a premium for this kind of "on demand" product.  I'm not an expert on the subject, but I suspect they could make enough to cover their printing costs.  You could even charge by the tile, like LEGO® does.  Maybe they charge $.25 for a single tile item (a boiling pot tile, whatever), or a $1.00 for a 2 x 6 corridor tile.  I think the demand would be high enough, you could work out a profitable system (and still make it attractive to users).  You could even build the online tool so that if forms a certain size template.  You could charge by the template, allowing the user to put as many tiles as possible in the proscribed space.

Obviously, such a program would not replace the current tile sets that WotC releases.  Like LEGO®, their model builder program hasn't stopped them from releasing scores of sets each year.  A program with dungeon tiles could work the same way.

If you're listening, WotC, give this some consideration.  Imagine your customers laying out their own custom dungeon using YOUR dungeon tiles.  It would be a BIG deal!  Thanks, Alex, for such a great idea.  If WotC hires you, remember the little people that helped make you famous, okay?

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Bit of Cartography, Eh?

Greetings, Readers!

I'm heading into a long weekend with my amazing wife, Anna (@FELTit on the Twitters), and thought I'd leave you with a little mapping inspiration for the weekend, since I don't know how internet dark I'll end up being (it's Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, so who knows).

If you've read my blog for long, you'll remember that I'm the DM for a couple of games now, and both of those games are set in a world called Gaia.  Right now, the two different gaming groups are gaming in separate parts of the continent (called, unsurprising enough) the Shattered Continent.  

The first gaming group, The Dead Orcs Society, games in the region that was formerly the Kingdom of Renard.  After the Rendering, the kingdom fell apart (the capital is now a ruin), and all that remains are various city-states.   It is into this land that I shoehorned the Nentir Vale region described in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide. Take a look at the map, you'll see some familiar names (do click on the graphic for a larger image):

My second group, which has fewer players, is called my Small Group (they have yet to decide on a name for themselves).  The land they adventure in is a bit further south, and is called Florence.  It's government managed to stay more or less intact after the Rendering, but many areas were destroyed.  The various towns and villages all swear fealty to the king, but pretty much run things as they like, locally.  The adventures placed here are from the Chaos Scar series presented by Wizards of the Coast.  I've only used the adventures, and sort of a unifying hook.  In my campaign, there is no real "Chaos Scar region").  Here's what Florence looks like (again with the clicky for the biggie):

I don't really count cartography as being in my skill set.  I use a number of different online tools to construct the basics for my maps, then use Macromedia's Fireworks to add additional features and text.  For these maps, I used an online hex mapping program called Hexographer from Inkwell Ideas.  It's a great program, and really comes in handy for overland mapping!  Once I have the basic terrain down, I import the graphic into Fireworks (I know, I know.  There are better graphics programs out there.  I use Fireworks because I'm comfortable with the tool set).

A good map is invaluable to a DM for helping to set the tone for a campaign.  When I see places on a map, my mind jumps to all the different possibilities the terrain and place names generate.  Whether you're using online tools or just scratching it all down on notebook paper, mapping is a vital part of the DM experience.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Integrating the Sandbox

I currently run two games as a DM.  The first one is my Dead Orcs Society game.  That game has a fairly linear story line.  I don't like to use the term railroad, but the story arc is pretty well defined, and it would throw things out of kilter if the PCs decided they wanted to go off and do something weird.  It's not a bad thing, because my players recognize this, and so we're all in mutual agreement with regards to how that game is going.

That game, however, is not the one I want to talk about today.

My second game, my "small group" game, features just my wife (@FELTit), and another couple we're friends with.  When I started that game, I wanted it to be more of a sandbox game.  I wanted the PCs to be able to choose from several different paths.  The game would play itself out based on what quests the PCs encountered.

The only real issue I had with this idea, was that I didn't know how best to communicate to the PCs, where the quests were located.  The MMO method, where quest givers have a brightly colored exclamation point above their head, doesn't really translate well to the table top.  In addition, I didn't want to feel that I was leading my PCs on by having them just "bump into" the various quest giving NPCs.  I saw two issues.  The first one, is that the "oops, I just ran into you, here's what I want you to do" method is a bit contrived.  The second issue, is that the  method has a tendency to make the PCs jump at the first thing that will put coin in their purses.

The method I hit upon was to use a newsletter.  With a newsletter, I could present information about all the adventures in a veiled way.  The articles are written in such a manner, that the PCs are encouraged to follow their own leads.  Additionally, a newsletter isn't out of the question for a "points of light" campaign (which mine is).  The Old West (before the advent of the telegraph) was a similar "points of light" situation.  However, the Pony Express existed at that time period and enabled communities to communicate with one another.  I see no real reason a small printed newsletter couldn't be transmitted to various communities in my own campaign area in the same fashion.

I think I've hit on a pretty effect method of driving PC activity.  However, don't just take my word for it.  Have a look yourself.  Download the .pdf of the first newsletter RIGHT HERE. (right click on the link & go to "save link as". It will download the .pdf directly).  In order to make a little better sense of the newsletter, here's an accompanying map to the region (click the map to get a larger image):

If a lot of the info in that newsletter seems familiar, it should.  Most of the adventures hinted at in the newsletter are from the "Chaos Scar" series published online by Wizards of the Coast.  Some things have been changed, of course, for my own campaign; but all the 1st level Chaos Scar adventures (I believe) have been represented.

As the heroes in my campaign continue to advance in level, new editions of the newsletter will be released.  In fact, it's quite probable that the heroes themselves will (at some point) end up as subjects in the very newsletter they use to find their next job.

Let me know what you think!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Skill Challenges - A Necessary Follow-up seems I wrote a little blog post a few days ago, explaining how I wasn't a fan of skill challenges, because of the "mechanical" nature of the structure, and the way they are presented in the rules.  I received several great comments on the post (thanks, everyone!), but I wanted to clear up a few issues of concern the post generated.

First. I never intended to imply anything specific regarding how most DMs run their skill challenges.  It's quite apparent to me that most DMs ARE NOT running skill challenges as they are presented in the source material.  I should have made that clearer in the post.  I'm glad to see the mechanical nature of the presented skill challenges is being interpreted by DMs as a framework for the encounter, NOT a method for running the encounter.

Second.  I want to re-emphasize that I think Quinn Murphy's (@gamefiend) work in skill challenges is some of the best stuff I've seen.  Contrary to what might have been interpreted in my original post, Quinn has been able to take the original concept of the skill challenge and stretch it to some amazing places.  Please go read his blog (At-Will) and see what I mean!

Third.  I had a brief discussion about this topic with Sarah Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics).  She told me (and I think it's good advice) that while my "re-writes" of the example skill challenges I wrote were nice, she thought it might be even more helpful, if some general advice regarding running alternatives to skill challenges were presented.  That way, new DMs (on which she's an expert) can get a better handle on what I'm talking about.  It's a good idea, and I'll mull it over.  Some of the comments I received on the original post seem to indicate that I was still working with skill challenges, I was just defining them in another way.  That point leads me to this one:

Fourth.  On the DM Roundtable Tuesday, our group was lucky to have Chris Sims join us.  I don't need to restate his RPG credits here.  Chris was nice enough to drop by.  During our discussion on skill challenges, he made what I thought was an important point.  "Skill Challenge" is just a name.  You don't call combat encounters "Power Challenges".  I think (and of course, correct me if I'm wrong), that what Chris was saying, is that any kind of an encounter that's not a combat encounter could be considered a "Skill Challenge".  That doesn't mean it has to be framed or spelled out with specific mechanics.  For my part in this discussion, I need to embrace that.  It's easy to get caught up in the name, and I think it's easy for new DMs to perhaps do the same.

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Skill Challenges: A Differing Perspective

Skill challenges. Along with defeating monsters and completing quests, skill challenges form the third side of the XP triangle for the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Designed as a framework for non-combat encounters, skill challenges allow a DM to create a scenario where the heroes can overcome a challenge using their skills (hence the name) and without necessarily resorting to combat. Skill challenges are usually designed to fit into the flow of the story, and are thus given an XP rating to reward the heroes for their success.

I’m not a fan.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to offer a great deal of respect to those DMs that have embraced the skill challenge mechanic and have made a science out of building new ones. Folks like Quinn Murphy (@gamefiend) and Paul Unwin (@pdunwin) strive for excellence when creating skill challenges, and for questions about them, they are a fantastic resource. Look them up on Twitter. They’re good cats.

Despite these efforts, however, I can’t help but feel that skill challenges are a clunky mechanic; a sort of artificially manufactured framework for game actions accomplished through simple role-playing, basic skill checks, and what I call “hidden quests” (I’ll get to that last term in the moment).

Illustrated below, are a couple of re-imaged skill challenges using the actions I would take in my own game. I’ll reference the location of the original challenge, and present my alternative to the skill challenge referenced. Again, let me reiterate that I don’t think I can do it better. However, I do believe I can do it different, and in a way that’s less disruptive to the flow of play.

For our first challenge, let’s explore the encounter with Sir Keegan from “Keep on the Shadowfell”. If you don’t have this adventure, it can be downloaded for free, from Wizards of the Coast. During this encounter, Sir Keegan (an undead warrior), threatens to attack the heroes if they don’t convince him they’re on the side of good. Take a moment to review that skill challenge and come back.

Okay, all set? Now…here’s how I would handle the encounter.

Skill Challenge Redux: Sir Keegan 

Set Up: The encounter begins as shown in the adventure, with Sir Keegan leaping out of his tomb to confront the heroes. He immediately challenges the entire group to prove their worth. Initiative is rolled, but only to provide for combat should it break out. Players can act in turn, or talk at once. Sir Keegan addresses the characters as if he were really surrounded. He makes gestures that indicate that he would speak to the heroes. A parlay, perhaps.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves a discussion with a powerful creature. The DM should choose skills appropriate to a discussion. In this case, those choices should be: Bluff, Diplomacy, & Intimidation. The hero can gain a +2 bonus to his skill check if he first watches Sir Keegan speak to another hero & also succeeds a DC 15 Insight check. The hero is required to interact with Sir Keegan BEFORE rolling the check. The nature of the interaction is what determines which skill is appropriate. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: A character succeeds in convincing Sir Keegan of his worthiness if he succeeds with a DC 15 skill check for the appropriate action within the conversation. In other words, if the character tries to be “tough”, this DC 15 skill check will be against Intimidation.

Failure: If Sir Keegan feels that more than half the party is unworthy, he’ll attack. Combat proceeds normally from there. Essentially, that means that in a five player party, if three fail, combat will ensue.

You’ll notice the encounter works out the same way, but with less artificial posturing. No need to declare a “skill challenge”, no need to quiz players on what skill they’re using. It’s more organic.

Okay, here’s another example. This one is an example of a physical skill challenge. It’s called “Navigating the Tainted Spiral”, and is found in an adventure that can be downloaded from Wizards of the Coast (this one might require a DDI subscription). It’s from an adventure called, “The Tainted Spiral”. When you’ve read that skill challenge, come on back.

Skill Challenge Redux: Navigating The Tainted Spiral 

Set Up: The encounter is set up in such a way that the heroes must successfully navigate a series of confusing, winding tunnels in order to progress further in the adventure.

Useful Skills: This encounter involves the use of physical or knowledge skill in order to succeed. I’m okay with the skills suggested for the original challenge with the exception of Arcana. Thus, Dungeoneering, Nature, or even Perception skill checks could be possible for this encounter. It’s possible (even probable) that a player will attempt to use a skill not specified by the encounter. Challenge the player to explain how they’re using the skill. A good rationale for the skill, should allow the skill to be used. (Note: this should be a caveat to all such encounters. Reward creative play with at least attempts, even if they’re not ultimately successful).

Success: Have the players choose a hero that is trying to find their way through the maze. If the hero succeeds a DC 15 Dungeoneering or a DC 20 Nature check, they succeed and find their way through the maze of tunnels. A successful DC 20 Perception check allows the hero to add a +2 to his Dungeoneering or Nature check.

Failure: Each failure of the above skill check costs 15 minutes of game time. After each interval, the DM should see if the same hero would like to continue to make checks, or if another hero would like to step in. As an option, each failure could mean an encounter with a wandering group of monsters. For the purposes of this adventure, the heroes would encounter additional Fell Taints.

Again, what I’ve tried to do here, is to simplify a largely mechanical experience into a more organic one. No announcements (except for one like, “you’ve been wondering these tunnels for awhile, and you now seem to be lost. What do you do?”) need to be made, and no break in the game flow need commence. If you think that the heroes deserve additional XP, simply add it on to the next encounter.

Speaking of XP, I am reminded that I mentioned something called “hidden quests”. Even before MMOs placed little exclamation points above certain NPCs’ heads, there have been quest givers. Perhaps it was the king of the land, or the crusty innkeeper, or even “the old man from scene 24”; regardless, it’s usually quite clear when the heroes have a quest to perform. In many scenarios, the successful completion of these quests rewards the heroes with XP. At the same time, however, there are also little parts of the adventure that deserve rewards, even though it’s not directly part of an actual quest.

Let me give you an example. While working on a quest, the heroes investigate a local teamster who just might be smuggling flumphs into the city for some horrible scheme. You’d like to reward the players for discovering this tidbit of information. The original 4e way would be to design a skill challenge around the investigation, create all the accompanying conditions, and assign some XP to the challenge.

Not me. I call little parts of the story like this, “hidden quests”. The DM knows that such things will have to be done to move forward with the story, but doesn’t advertise them with a big yellow exclamation point. You really don’t need a skill challenge for this kind of thing.

Instead, I would simply role-play the investigation and have heroes make various skill checks where appropriate (bribing a shipping clerk, threatening a guard, etc.). It’s simple, keeps play in motion, and doesn’t require a great deal of overhead. In addition, if I felt that accomplishing this little story task was important, I’d add some additional XP to the total for the eventual quest it helps complete. No muss, no fuss.

Again, let me state that I have great respect for those DMs that create and run skill challenges. For some, the ability to wrap up a task normally accomplished by role-playing and a few simple skill checks with mechanics, is an exciting and vital part of their gaming experience. I wish them great success in these endeavors. They’re just not for me.

Until next time….

Game excellently with one another.

PS: I have to admit, this article was one of the most difficult I’ve had to write, since converting my blog over to one about Dungeons & Dragons. I love the 4e game and continue to play it. I struggled with how to present this information, because I know that a number of my blogging friends have embraced the skill challenge, and have done great work with them. I hope I have not offended them, or made them think their work was pointless. Perish the thought. My wish continues to be that you “play your game your way”.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Dwarven Forge: Here be Dungeon Terrain

As I continue to consider how best to tackle this skill challenge issue I'm been grappling with; I thought I'd post a little diversion and share with you all the very cool dungeon terrain I received courtesy of my hard earned allowance and the good folks over at Dwarven Forge.

I picked up the Room & Passage Set.  I've heard great things about the Dwarven Forge stuff, and have salivated after it for years.  In order to encourage drool amongst the rest of you, I thought I'd do a big unboxing (they're all the rage these days, right?) of the set.  So without further ado, here's the Room & Passage Set by Dwarven Forge: (click the pic for the larger image).

After unpacking the outer & inner cardboard boxes, I ended up with these two Styrofoam cases:

Open the lids, and here's what you'll find:

The foam cases were kind of nice.  Here's a closer look at the first case:

...and the second case:

Here are the pieces I received in the set.  First is 1 Intersection & 2 T-Sections:

Next up, 4 L-Sections of corridor:

On to some smaller pieces.  2 10' corridor sections, and 8 room corner pieces:

You get 7 wall room pieces.  It's a odd number, but it's what was in the set:

I was impressed with the assortment of room floor tiles.  There are 10 in this set:

Finally, this particular set included 3 doors:

Although it's only one set, I was impressed I was able to create a small encounter area with it.  Actually, the little map I created could actually be used as 2 or 3 encounter areas.  Here's a pic:

The same set up from another angle:

The verdict?  Well, I think it's fair to say, that the stuff is pretty great.  Plenty of reviews have been done, so here's my quick run down of the pros and cons.  


Great colors, excellent detail, heavy "solid" pieces, flexible design.  This set is absolutely gorgeous.  It's showpiece stuff, and sets the bar for folks like me that often use Hirst Arts blocks to create our own terrain pieces.  Assuming adequate funding, I'll buy more sets like this.  There's a reason these guys are at the top of the list when it comes to quality terrain.


Expensive, overseas manufacture (but most everything is these days), inconsistent edging (individual pieces don't match up as closely as I would have liked), & wonky doors (I understand they have a new door design coming out this fall, I look forward to seeing  that.  The current design seems ill thought out).

Well, that's my unboxing.  I hope you enjoyed this close look at an actual set from Dwarven Forge.  I'm sure my players will love it!

Until next time...

Game excellently with one another.