Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How tough is too tough? Encounter design in 4e

As with the prior article, if you're playing in my RPGX game and would prefer not to have your illusion of immersion damaged, you might not want to read this.  You've been warned!

Recently, I managed my first kill as a DM.  Killing a player is certainly not a goal of mine as a DM, and I felt pretty horrible about it.  In play by post games, in particular, players spend hours crafting not only their character's mechanics, but also their backstories and relationships.  Play by post as a medium is extremely good for encouraging deep roleplaying, and I've been fortunate to have a group of players who enjoy doing just that.  Therefore, it is no small thing to kill off one of their creations.

DnD 4th edition has a reputation as a system in which player death is extremely difficult to achieve.  In fact, the lack of lethality in 4th edition is one of its most common criticisms.  But without intending to do so, I managed to kill off a PC in what was intended to be a pretty uneventful encounter.

In this case, my players were working their way through a small dungeon based on a mini-delve created by Benoit over at Roving Band of Misfits.  They came upon a trapped door.  Without even bothering to check for traps, our party's Skald opened the door, launching a combat as a series of constructs came to life and attacked the party.  The biggest of the constructs rolled high on his damage dice on charge attack against our party's squishy thief, which pushed him just past his negative bloody value.  In one punch, he went from bloodied to dead.

I was pretty sad about this.  Thanks to the player's wonderful efforts to flavor the thief, he had become one of my favorite characters in the game.  And while his death has allowed for some excellent roleplaying opportunities for other characters, I still would probably have rather preferred that it not happen.  The party ended up abandoning the dungeon before they could fully appreciate the story around it, I think it hurt the group's enthusiasm for the game a bit to see that character die in a meaningless sidequest.

In any case, I've been trying to decide if my encounter design is to blame for what happened.  The DM Kit recommends the following distribution of encounter levels during each level:

  • 3 encounters at the party's level.
  • 1 encounter at the party's level - 1
  • 3 encounters at the party's level +1
  • 1 encounter at the party's level +3

Prior to this, I'd given my 1st level party three encounters, which were pegged at level 2, level 4, and level 2, respectively.  The first encounter was pretty easy.  The second was very challenging but do-able, especially because the biggest threat ran away at the end of the combat.  The third was a little scary (due to a lurker), but ultimately was over quickly.

This encounter with the constructs was technically avoidable.  Players could have rolled a series of thievery checks to disable the trap system on the door, though it would take good rolls from their thief to do so.  It was also possible to turn off the constructs with a combination of successful arcana and thievery checks during the combat, and the constructs were also set to reset if the players exited the room the way that they came (they tried neither of those approaches).  Finally, it was the only real encounter I had planned for the entire dungeon, and that the characters were fresh from an extended rest with full resources.  Therefore, given all of this, I pegged it as a level 2 encounter: hopefully challenging, and a punctuation mark on the mini-delve, but very much within their scope.

I only had four monsters to oppose my party of six:

  • 1 Thaalud Constructor (Elite Brute), de-leveled from level 5 to level 4 (350 XP).
  • 3 Iron Defender (Soldier), level 3 (150 XP each, 450 XP total).
  • Total XP budget: 800 XP (level 2 encounter cutoff is 750 XP for a party of six)

This seems pretty reasonable, even in retrospect.  If I made a mistake, it was probably in not de-leveling the Constructor enough.  Taking it down to level 3 would still allow it to be an imposing figure, but he'd have about 20 fewer HP (as an Elite), hit slightly less hard, and have slightly weaker defenses (which were already low--he's a brute).  And given that it was a sidequest, without any real bearing on the main campaign plot, I could have knocked off one of the iron defenders to get it into level 1 encounter territory.

In the end, though, even if I would have done these things, the constructor might still very well have killed the thief.  When you use elites, solos, or lurkers--enemy types designed to make attacks that do the damage equivalent of several rounds or opponents in a single strike--it's pretty easy to kill off a player without intending to do so.  In fact, the same thing almost happened in the prior encounter when I used a level 4 lurker against the party: a character was within 1 or 2 HP of her negative bloody value.  Those things hit hard!

Lessons Learned

It may well be true that 4th edition is less lethal than prior editions of Dungeons and Dragons.  But it certainly is still very possible to kill your players by accident!  When designing combat encounters in the future, I will probably be a bit less aggressive with encounter levels, and will pay more attention to not just the monster XP budget, but also the levels of the individual monsters in the encounter.

Setting a soft limit of party level +2 to the monster level seems like a good rule of thumb (even though I've seen +3 mentioned somewhere--which is what I did with the Constructor).  I'll also probably make plot-irrelevant sidequest encounters be built at the characters' level or lower.  If I'd done two iron defenders and a level 3 Thaalud Constructor, I'd still be at 600 XP (level 1 encounter for a party of 6), and my feeling is that the players would still have felt that it was a fitting challenge in that tomb.

That said, maybe what I did was actually pretty reasonable and I'm just feeling gun-shy!  Combat is supposed to feel scary, after all.  Monsters are dangerous and unpredictable tools for the DM.  The fact that their effectiveness is dictated on the randomness of dice rolls is part of what makes the game exciting to run: even the DM doesn't know how it's going to turn out!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

DMing with Improvisation

Improvisation is a big topic around the online DM community.  It is, for example, a key message from Sly Flourish's latest book, the Lazy Dungeon Master, and is the heart of countless how-to articles on DMing.  Good DMing requires one to take what the players give you interactively to spin a story.  Otherwise, players start to feel railroaded, which can ruin the sense of immersion in a living, breathing world that is so important to making a game work.

I've been DMing a game of my own for the last 6 months or so at RPGCrossing, and while I've been having a great time, it's become increasingly clear how important improvisation is.  As an example, here's a synopsis of what I put together as the opening chapter of my game, which is set in the Nentir Vale.

....If you're one of my players, you might not want to read this.  Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and all that. :)

My Anticipated Plan: River Rats Plague Lowtown Fallcrest
  • Amara Azaer hires the PC's as adventurers to solve the problem of an extortion ring in Lowtown, Fallcrest (the default 4e starting town).
  • PC's start poking around Lowtown near the Lower Quays, where a lot of the extortion has been happening.  Get ambushed by gang members, who are simply trying to rob them.
  • A shifter who spies on them during the battle sneaks away, and PC's follow him to the Bluffs on the other side of lowtown where they have a minion-filled battle outside the River Rat's hideout.
  • PC's find incriminating evidence in one of the buildings at the bluffs linking them to Kelson of the Lucky Gnome Taphouse.
  • PC's confront Kelson at Lucky Gnome, have a boss fight, win the day, save the town, and move on to bigger and better things.

What Went Wrong: The PC's Go Off the Rails

After receiving the quest, the PC's decide to bait the thugs by posing as a rival gang at the Lucky Gnome Taphouse.

Are you kidding me?  The very first thing the PC's decide to do is go to the home of the Big Bad?  This was a blast.  Kelson, who was tending bar when the PC's showed up, made some great bluff rolls, and immediately began making plans to deal with the PC's once they arrived.

I also invented a new character, Arya, who was playing dice games (i.e. gambling) in the corner of the room.  She was based on an enemy I'd already planned to feature in the first fight, but she never had any real personality or background before there was a need for her to populate the bar.

Springboarding off of something that one of the NPC's said about the gang potentially having infiltrated the Fallcrest Guard, the PC's took steps to entice crooked guards to show up.  This included recruiting one of my PC's to spread word of a new gang operating in the area among the guard.

I hadn't thought this through when my NPC said it, but I was planning to throw a couple of guards into the final battle to justify that statement.  The PC's really latched onto it, though.  So, I instead opted to create a pair of crooked guards, which I named Horace and Jasper (Jasper was female, though), who promptly showed up at the bar and started harassing the PC's.

I was a little worried about whether it was too convenient that the players' plan would work so well.  But if nothing else, it seemed like a good way to get them out of the bar once the crooked guards left.  This actually worked brilliantly. The thief in the party immediately followed the guards to a safe house that I invented in Lowtown.  After he was subsequently captured, the rest of the party followed, and I had my ambush battle.  

I decided to try to lead the party back to the Lucky Gnome now, with Kelson heading off to the hideout near the bluffs to organize the gang's effort against this new thread.

Rather than head back to the Gnome, the party decided to send Jasper, who they'd captured, to entice her leader...who they had not yet identified as come to the safe house to parlay.

Little did the PC's know--though perhaps they should have guessed--but Kelson already knew what they were up to.  Therefore, rather than show up to have a conversation, Kelson showed up with the full strength of his gang behind him to wipe out the PC's.  This was a tough fight, but it ultimately resulted in Kelson (somewhat controversially...more on that some other time) fleeing once his gang was decimated.

I hadn't planned for the party to meet Kelson until they hit their third battle in the sequence, but the story demanded it.  I also hadn't planned for him to escape, really, but I wanted to get the group out to the bluffs to get access to an optional sidequest that I wanted to be available to them.

Of course, given that they'd already fought Kelson, I needed a new threat at the bluffs.  Therefore, as a means of linking them into the next bit of story, I grabbed an Iron Cicle Spy from the Threats to the Nentir Vale monster manual and placed her in the bluffs.  Unbeknownst to me when I started, it turns out that Kelson was actually in cahoots with the Iron Circle!  What a great segue, right?

Lessons learned

I spent a lot of time planning, write out descriptions, etc, before the game began...and ended up doing almost everything differently.  What began as a simple little sequence of three battles, with a loose story, became much more as we went.  New NPC's emerged out of necessity, and entire links between plot points developed out of thin air.  While there were some issues with execution here and there, on the whole it became a far more interesting experience than the thing that I'd originally planned.  This improvement was a direct result of the players' contributions to the plot, and the reactions required on my end to make it work.

So, for all of my planning, the most useful bits that I came up with in advance were simply who the main bad guys were, and what specifically they'd been up to until the moment the campaign began.  Everything else came down to playing my NPC's as they would behave, given their motivations and what they knew minute by minute.  Fortunately, in a play by post format, I, as the DM, have the time to get my thoughts together so that I can zag when my players zig.  Something like this would be a lot harder to pull off in real time at around a table!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Taric Tannershall, take two: Warpriest of Pelor

This is a revised version of Taric, customized to fit Elwen's version of the DnD Encounters season Beyond the Crystal Cave.  The build is fairly similar, but his background and RP sample is completely revised to fit the campaign.

Character Name: Taric Tannershall
Race: Human
Class: Warpriest of Pelor (could also easily convert him to a paladin (cavalier) if needed, though my preference is the cleric)
Alignment: Lawful Good
Gender: Male

With above-average height and an athletic build, Taric can be an imposing figure. On the battlefield, he radiates the brilliance of his god as he pushes through his foes with sword and shield, clad from head to foot in shining armor. Nevertheless, his facial features are fairly soft, and are punctuated by kind eyes that often set those around him at ease.

Strong, compassionate, forthright, and devout, Taric embodies the teachings of Pelor. Yet while many of the Clergy seek to proselytize at every opportunity, Taric has found that he is far more effective in accomplishing the goals of his god--and in so doing, winning new devotees--by instead leading by example. As a result, he has earned a reputation in the poor districts of Sybaran as a caring man who is willing to help those in need while asking little in return. At times, he is probably a bit too willing to help; in the past, he's found himself manipulated by those who would take advantage of his selflessness.

The Tannershalls are a minor noble house within Sybaran. The excesses of Taric's great-grandfather unfortunately left the family destitute, with few resources beyond the value of their name. This, however, proved enough to help the family get back on its feet. Starting with virtually nothing other than their name, Taric's parents played the politics of Sybaran with great skill. Other houses found that when they need to gather support within the modest noble court of Sybaran, the Tannershalls are often willing to cast their lot to those who can provide them material wealth in return. And by keeping their ears alert to gossip, along with no small amount of guile, the Tannershalls have managed to foil those families who might seek retribution when double-crossed. From an early age, his older brother and sister, Cedric and Dalia, also demonstrated tremendous political competence, and thus house Tannershall is known as a small but rising power.

Taric was the youngest of the family, born a full 10 years after Dalia. While the rest of his family engaged at court, Taric often spent time on the grounds of the local temple. A half-elf priest there named Garren, an extended relative of the Tannershalls and former adventurer, would watch over the boy. Garren played games with him, told him stories, and even taught Taric basic weaponcraft as he matured.

As Taric came of age, he found the life of his family, marked on all sides by the need for political gain, was a poor match of his sensibilities. Indeed, while he had basic competencies in custom and culture, his parents often treated him as a liability, asking that he do little more than smile and nod at social functions. As a result, at 18 years of age, and with his family's blessing, he joined the Priesthood of Pelor.

There, he found his calling. He proved an excellent student of his chosen god, and almost immediately forged a close connection with Pelor. As he completed his studies, he volunteered to work not with the nobility--as he certainly could have done given his connections--but rather to follow Pelor's charge and work instead with the poor. He became a champion on the streets of Sybaran, working with both citizens and the guard to drive out gangs of ruffians and establish social support systems within the city. While he always tried for a diplomatic solution to hostilities on the street, he also was known to accompany guardsmen when they were forced to clear out a den of criminals. Word quickly spread of the young cleric, shining in battle as if illuminated by the Sun, fighting back with divine radiance against those who would take advantage of the downtrodden.

When Count Varis Sybar put out a call for adventurers to help maintain the peace between Sybaran's neighbors, Taric volunteered the next day. There was, of course, still much to do in the slums of Sybaran, and he was reluctant to put that work on hold. Nevertheless, as he believed that Pelor revealed in a dream, war between Crystalbrook and Sildaine's elves had the potential to do great harm to the region. Indeed, were the fighting to spill over into Sybaran's borders, it was the very poor that he'd worked to protect who would suffer the most.

Role-playing sample: 
The moon was still shining brightly in the sky as Taric rose from his bed, a make-shift cot within an equally make-shift house. He looked up at the night sky through a hole in the roof before setting to work. In a small trunk nearby, he collected several small artifacts: a sun-shaped pendant, which he placed around his neck, a book of scripture, and, perhaps the only item he possessed that belied his family heritage, a mechanical timepiece. Those in hand, donned in robe, stepped outside, and climbed a ladder up to the roof.

Gazing about, he could see and smell the slums around him starting to awaken. A trickle of people made their way through the streets: some leaving for the day, others finally returning home. Looking to the east, he could just make out the first hints of dawn. He sat cross-legged upon the roof, left hand grasped around the holy symbol at his neck, and immersed himself in familiar ritual. As the minutes ticked by, he read softly the creed of his god, though he knew it by heart. "I will alleviate suffering wherever I find it, just as sun of mercy shines upon those in need. I will bring Pelor's light into places of darkness, showing kindness, mercy, and compassion. I will be watchful against evil, just as the Lord of Light casts his gaze to the earth throughout the day."

As he completed his prayers, the sun peaked over the horizon. Following custom, he focused just below the horizon, averting his eyes from the power of his god. As he meditated in the glory of the morning light, he had a vision of a great conflict. Elves warred against man, bow against shield, forest against plains. And caught in the fury, he saw the slums of Sybaran burning.

The vision faded as the sun cleared the horizon, leaving Taric to his thoughts. There was still much work to do in the slums. But the announcement of Count Sybar's call for adventurers hung in his mind, as did the image of his town burning. He knew what he had to do.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Harmony Dawnchorus, Pixie Bard

This character is the first that I've ever submitted who did NOT make the cut into the game.  It's been almost a year since I started playing at RPG Crossing (formerly Dungeons & Dragons Online games), so I guess that I was due!  But it probably isn't my best effort...or, at least, not my most compelling hero.  The application was for a Pixie-only game, and pushed whimsy and charm.  I'm sad not to get in..but at the same time, I'll readily admit that I was going to have a hard time executing this character.  She plays pretty far from my strengths.

Character Name: Harmony Dawnchorus
Class: Bard
Role: Leader
Theme and/or Background (if any): Fey Beast Tamer (for both!)

Appearance/Personality: With flaming red hair, pointy ears, glimmering wings, and a radiant voice, Harmony is the definition of charming. Strangely, she seems more or less oblivious to this, content to linger on the periphery of crowds, and rarely taking center stage. She's not shy, really, just blissfully unaware of her gifts and skills--even incredulous of those who would try to convince her otherwise. When she begins to sing, however, all eyes and ears turn to her.

Born the daughter of the renowned pixie minstrel, Sagegrass Dawnchorus, Harmony grew up in the shadow of her two older sisters, Melody and Cadence, who were five and seven years to her senior, respectively. Both were heralded as prodigy musicians, and her father had spent most of her life touring pixie communities and performing, leaving Harmony with extended family.

Her aunt Appleblossom lived near the edge of an enchanted pond, where, among the dragonflies, young faerie dragons darted through the sky, chasing after little bugs, small birds, and each another. Disenchanted with formal musical training, she spent the years prior to this adventure playing among the faerie dragons, and eventually befriended one: a beautiful creature with wings that, when the light passed through them, shone like emeralds. Together, they spent much of a season darting among cattails and sneaking up on frogs. Inspired by her companion, she would often sing nonsensical songs as they played.

As the years went on, she spent more and more of her time with Emeraldwing. At the same time, the ties to her family became more distant, as her father and sisters hadn't returned to visit her since leaving on tour a year before. As she came of age, she began to feel a sense of wanderlust. Time spent exploring the pond and nearby environs with her faerie dragon friend had given her a taste for the adventure that might lie in the world beyond, and she had just begun to seriously consider leaving on a journey of exploration when King Sunfire spread word of his impending proclamation.

RP sample:
Flushed from their race across the waterlilies and glistening in the warm sun, Harmony alighted on a large toadstool. Emeraldwing, her faerie dragon companion, landed next to her with a coo. She laughed merrily as she rubbed the dragon's snout. "Some day I'll beat ya, you cheat!" she teased the dragon, who seemed to chuckle, unfurling the crest behind its head before it shook its head in the negative. She sat back, folding her wings down under her back and resting on her elbows as she gazed into the blue skies above. She sighed. It wasn't really a sigh of contentment, as much as she enjoyed their games on the shores of this pond where she'd grown up.

"You know..." she cooed, as she turned to her companion. "There's some kind of big announcement happening tonight. King Sunfire himself will be speaking. Everyone's talking about it, and rumor has it that it's something to do with the Murkendraw." The dragon shorted derisively as she uttered the name of the cursed swamp. "Yeah, I know. But I think we should go! Who knows? It might be exciting to hear what's going on! Maybe they figured out some way to stop that Rotten Ethel!"

The dragon looked nonplussed at the idea. "Oh, come on you old stodgey-stodge! I hear all the cool pixies and dragons will be there..." The dragon snorted again. Harmony responded by singing a frolicking, playful tune. "Pixies and dragons, fur-balls and wagons, drunkards and flagons, to miss would be an...infraction!" Harmony giggled. "Oh, I know it doesn't work! I'm just playin'" The dragon seemed to chuckle a bit, before lowering it's head, almost in a shrug. "So you'll come with me? Oh great! We haven't been to town in AGES!" With that, she pulled grabbed hold of the dragon's front legs, flapping rapidly up and pulling the beast along with her. "Let's go!" she called, letting go of her friend and taking off for town.

Why you want to play this game: I've wanted to experience this adventure ever since I saw it in Dungeon. I really only gave it an overview, and don't remember specifics. I don't think that I know anything that would spoil it for me or for anyone else. I'm pretty good about avoiding metagaming.

Notes on the build:
* I've built her as a "Cunning Bard," and as such there is some off-turn movement stuff that we'd need to talk about during combat. Virtue of Cunning, in particular, is a power that lets me slide an ally 1 square when they are missed by an enemy attack. I think we can coordinate that to keep it from being disruptive--maybe even let you make the decision about where they shift if you feel that you can do that--but it is something that could potentially slow the game down. Similarly, Majestic Word allows me to slide an ally 1 square with a heal. If they are going to have input on where they slide to, it could slow things we might have to all make some decisions in advance to try to coordinate this.

I could potentially go a different route with her build, but I don't see her as a weapon user unless she has to be. But singing songs and shooting some kind of pixie/bard magic with her wand? Yep, that fits.

* She's a fey beast tamer, but I'd like to reflavor the displacer beast as the faerie dragon. It can work exactly the same way as written, mechanically. But my preference would be to make two changes if you're up for it. 1) make it tiny instead of medium sized, and 2) allow it to fly (same height restrictions as pixie flight). But if you're not comfortable with that, I can run it exactly as described in the rules. Maybe the dragon hurts its wing or something so that it can't fly.