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Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Tactics and Preparedness

The best tool I have found as a DM is what my baseball coach used to call a ‘soft hands’ approach, which meant moving your hand back as you caught the ball, yielding to its approach to make the catch smoother and less painful.  Likewise, as a DM, I find it best to give the plot some leeway for the players.  If I give they select an option that I didn’t expect, I’m not going to plot-hammer them back into place, I am going to let them run with it.

Recently, my players were exploring the Underdark, and after making a friend in a drow NPC, they were offered a chance to return to the surface by his father, the archmage of the city of Fenzybyl.  I had assumed that my players rampant distrust and hatred of drow would compel them to examine this deal in greater detail, to find out why this powerful (and evil) man wanted them gone so bad.

Instead, they agreed (even with the price tag of a Geas enforced favor to be named at a later date) without hesitation.  Hmmm…now, many DM’s would have had something go wrong to prevent this from occuring, or reveal part of the plot to keep them from running away from it.  But not me.

No, I let them return the surface (via the Astral Plane), and Pinic the Archmage succeeded at his ploy.  What exactly he was planning is anyone’s guess.  I can think of a number of reasons for getting rid of the players in this fashion.  Their could have been removed because they would have gotten involved in something nefarious that he was planning.  Also, a couple of travellers who were there and are suddenly gone make for convenient scapegoats.  Hell, you could blame them for almost anything bad that happened, say, right around the time they vanished.  But I digress…

When this happens, I don’t recommend vengeance on the players.  But there is a debt to a certain piper, and he is relentless in his demand for his payment.  And when the players have to pay this karmic debt, make it sting.  You put a lot of work into your plot, and if they don’t look at it close enough, then they should be reminded to look a little closer.

Did I lose a massive amount of plot work from the planned Underdark excursions?  Yes.  But, this is the time to take a step back and look at things objectively.  Most of my plots will still be useable, and if I can’t get them into this game, I’ll have the notebook till doomsday, and I can always use them later.

And while the price the PC’s pay will be steep, I’m going to make sure that I examine it objectively, and make DAMN sure that I don’t give them more than they (and the story) deserves.  And if I take a perverse joy in putting the (justifiable) screws to them?  Well, I’m only human.

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In the gaming justice system, there are two separate and distinct organizations.  The writers who create the game rules, and the dungeon masters who enforce them.  These are their stories.  Well, one of their stories, at any rate…

BUM-BUM ba ba ba ba BUM…

                I wish I had an intro song with cool saxophone music.  But since I don’t, I will try and make do with iron-fisted judgment.  I was recently inspired to document some of my house rules by this article here.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who has been a GM for some time.  So now I am working on creating a comprehensive list of my house rules.  Since some of these come up in the Valt campaign, I feel I should share the whys and wherefores on my house rulings.

The Case
                Iema, a 12th level bard, portrayed by Phil, recently was confronted with a deck of many things.  His card draws resulted in a -1 to all of his saves, and 50,000 XP.  This XP would be enough to increase Iema’s level to 16.  As the DM, I was familiar with a past D&D game where the players were only allowed to increase one level per game session, no matter how much XP they were entitled to.

The Arguments
                Spring put forth the first argument: Iema took the risk of the deck.  Included among those risks is permanent destruction of the soul.  I as the DM would be acting unfairly if I denied him his rightful reward.
                However, in this case the ruling I remembered was no house rule, but was instead a by-book ruling.  The Players Handbook, page 144, has the ruling.  No player can advance beyond a single level in a given game session.  Artifacts, however, are capable of breaking a great many rules.

The Decision
                For this decision, I took a look at why players love the Deck of Many Things.  Back in first and second edition, level gains were far more difficult than they are now.  Players were willing to draw from the deck for the tremendous XP it offered, since gaining a level could require hundreds of thousands of XP.  This is no longer the case.  If this was second edition, and Iema had drawn the card at a lower level, where the amount would have gained him multiple levels, I might have allowed it.  But here and now, in the day of normalized XP due to the CR system, I have to do the hard thing and rule that Iema only gains one level.  He increases to 13th level, and is placed a single XP from 14th.
                As a consolation, I decide to rule that the XP gain from the card draw is separate from the XP gained at the end of game.  Iema will earn a second level from this game session, as opposed to the four levels the card would have earned him.  Once again, justice is served.

For those looking for more information about this game session, I direct you to a game synopsis better than one I could write.

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D&D and Vampires.

So help me, I will do my best to get through this entire post without a single ‘Twilight’ reference.  Not because I have any kind of love, loyalty, or respect for the series.  No, its because Stephenie Meyer is a Mormon, and I’m afraid of Danites.

Okay, so name me three vampires from Dungeons and Dragons.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Got ‘em?  Did you come up with Strahd von Zarovich, Kierkan Rufo, and Jander Sunstar?  Me too.  Okay, now name a fourth.  Got one?  Me neither.

As much as I hate group think, vampires are played out.  Once the staple of fantasy villains, they have become so overdone that I find it hard to use them anymore.  Of course, the flipside of that token is that they are so archetypal, and so well made for the fantasy setting, that I find it hard not to use them.  So within my games, vampires tend to be second-tier villains, minibosses if you will.

Now, for years I have had several problems with the vampire.  While I love the template of 3E, it had quite a few holes in it.  Fortunately for me, Libris Mortis answered quite a few questions, filling in the gray areas nicely.

My first big problem that I couldn’t solve with research was the grappling problem.  See, vampires have an ability to drink blood, and thus reduce Con, with a successful pin.  Which requires a grapple check.  Tragically, vampires do not posess Improved Grab, which makes them the only monster I can think of with a grapple dependant ability but no way to initiate a grapple.  (Since it provokes an attack of opportunity, and if the attack succeeds, the grab fails.)

For other DM’s facing a similar conundrum, I offer the following solutions.  The first solution I came up with was to give the vampire Improved Grab.  The second was to take away the PC’s ability to make the attack of opportunity.

For the first option, there are several sub-options.  Making a vampiric druid works out so-so, since they tend not to have as much staying power as I would like.  Much like real druids, they work better as support characters alongside other vampires.  A form such as crocodile or bear provides the needed special attack.  I have also tried the Drunken Master prestige class and since the vampire can utilize his energy drain attack with any natural weapon, including a monk’s unarmed strike, this works well.  Allowing a vampire to use blood to fuel his Drunken Master abilities not only works, but makes sense (I think).  The option I tried most recently (see Spring’s post) involved a human fighter who had been given the feral template (from Savage Species) and then the vampire template.  This also worked well, especially with the pounce.

The second option (denying the attack of opportunity, which would deny the bloodsucking fiend the chance to fiendishly suck blood) is likewise diverse in its application.  The easiest way is to provoke an attack of opportunity by moving around in the target’s threat zone, suck up an attack of opportunity from movement, and then go in for the grab. (Even if the victim has Combat Reflexes, they are not allowed a second attack of opportunity.)  Other options include attacking someone who is not holding a melee weapon with which they are proficient, or attacking someone who is flat-footed, both of which deny the character their ability to make attacks of opportunity.

Both methods can work.  I find that the first (giving the vampire more mojo) works better if you expect them to die quickly, since it gives them the chance to do their horrible business fast and early.  Whatever you’ve added to them also likely pads out their hit points and gives them some other unlife-extending abilities.  The second works best if the fight should be a longer one, since it relies more on tactics than giving the hideous monster more power.

The other main problem I had with vampires was the negative levels.  I have always been leery of energy drain attacks, since the numbers looked like they could jump off the page and murder a character faster than I could rip a sheet in half.  But, as it turns out, the energy drain attacks weren’t all that bad.  No one failed a save and had to erase a level.  Everyone got access to restorative spells, and everything worked out for the best.

With all these things in mind, it shouldn’t be hard to design a unique vampire, and a legitimate strategy for him to slake his unholy thirst.

Yes, I said Danites.  The secret sect of Mormon assassins?  Yeah, those guys.  Seriously, those books and movies and lunchboxes have made billions of dollars.  Where else do you think that money’s going?

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I love game props.  Letters that are meant to have been written in character, maps, the whole shebang.  For a long time, I have wanted to run a Deck of Many Things encounter using an actual Tarot deck.

So, along comes Spring.  Not only does my lovely-and-adoring-girlfriend-yet-wife-to-be have a Tarot deck, she has two!  So I got to pick through them and find the one with the better pictures.  And let me tell you, the Robin Wood Tarot deck is awesome for this purpose.  Ninety percent of the cards used in the Deck of Many Things have illustrations which give a very accurate representation of what is about to happen to you.  I liked seeing the expression on the drawing player’s face between the point when he looked at the illustration and when we looked it up.

Also, Encounter!  Since this campaign looks like it is going in a ‘wandering-through-the-wilderness-Star-Trek-Voyager-style’ kind of direction, I figured I needed an actual encounter table.  I can now honestly say I am working on a comprehensive Underdark encounter table.  I hope to make it suitable for all levels, but it might just be for higher level characters.  Once the group is OUT of the Underdark, I promise to post the table as a resource for other DM’s.  (Of course, since I seem to be the only DM who is still a chest beating, knuckle dragging third edition player, I don’t know how many folks would get any use out of it.)

Since last game was Spring’s first experience with the Underdark, I thought that it would be a good time to show her WHY no one wants to go there.  I think I have done a fairly good job of painting a terrible picture of the dark underbelly to the typical D&D world.  Which brings me to my triumph from last game.  The PC’s got beaten up and robbed by hook horrors!  Why am I so excited?  It was the first time I have ever had a random encounter where the PC’s got defeated, yet still lived through it.  Having been on the receiving end of a few ‘beaten and robbed’ scenarios in my day, I must say it felt good to be the one on the kicking end.  Not that I would seek such a scenario as a DM (which would be wrong) but I am certainly not above taking a small amount of sick pleasure in such activities when they do come along through natural happenstance.

Still not up on the recent activities?  Check out Spring’s blog for up to date game synopses.  (Well, reasonably up to date.  Give her a break, she works like sixty hours a week.  What do you guys expect her to do, blog every game the second that we wrap up?  Geez, give her some breathing room you jackals…)

Till next time (which will be later tonight or sometime tomorrow)

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The Unexpected

      Many times, I have heard people comment that I run a good game.  To be honest, I think that’s true.  But I didn’t get that way by being talented.  My first games were terrible.  I got to be a good DM by being a very bad one, and learning from my mistakes.  One of the lessons I have learned over the years is that you have to be prepared for anything.
      I have seen players in a number of games decide not to take a certain course of action because they think “the DM doesn’t want/didn’t plan for them to do that.”  To be honest, I hate that excuse.  A good DM should be able to adapt to anything the players decide to do.
      Any plot I have is nebulous at best.  My plots for my campaigns tend to be a loose if/then arrangement, which tends to work out fairly well.  If you look back over the course of the game, I can point out several examples.  Most of the NPC’s that Natalia opposes or runs around with could have gone either way.
      If Natalia had decided that she liked Virbiene and Vueliss, then the story would have been different.  To be more specific, Vueliss and Virbiene would not have been evil.  They would have been goodly (okay, Vueliss would have been neutral) and some other figure would have been the villains.  I have notebooks full of information the PC’s don’t know.
      What many DM’s don’t seem to realize is that information the players don’t have is information the player’s don’t have!  They can’t call me on it, since they don’t know I changed it.  I’m not saying I make the whole thing up as I go along, but I have multiple different ideas for ways the game could go, and I stat up NPC’s and monsters once it becomes clear that such things are needed (usually one or two weeks before it comes up).
      But sometimes, the players throw a curveball at you.  Now, I never give my players an impossible situation.  Almost every conundrum the players encounter has at least one (and usually three, that’s my benchmark) ways to solve it.  I also try not to force the players down one of those paths if they come up with a different solution.  Which brings us to the Underdark.  Now, escaping Fasset through the Underdark is something I never, never thought that PC’s would do.
      Probably because it’s insane.
      When Phil suggested going through the Underdark, I was shocked.  I took a step back, and threw them a little bit of RP that I could hem and haw through while I mulled the Underdark over.  I also excused myself to grab a soda and hit the bathroom, in order to gain a brief amount of time to figure some necessary details out.
      The first conclusion I came to was that I am awesome.  I wanted Fasset to seem hopeless and scary, but how terrible must it seem to my players when they think that going through the myriad horrors of the Underdark (drow, duergar, illithids, hook horrors, gibbering mouthers, tanaruks, umber hulks, green slimes, grell, drow, earth elementals, deep dragons, aboleths, troglodytes, kuo-toa, drow, cave trolls, kobolds, goblins, and oh did I mention friggin DROW?) seems like a good idea in comparison?
      So, I guess goal achieved on that front.
      The second conclusion I came to was that I could handle this.  So I went back to my old notebooks of ideas I never got to use.  See, with my method of DM’ing, I always wind up with more ideas than ever get used in any given game.  So I am never short on ideas when I need them.  It didn’t take long to find several that could be adapted with minimal effort to be used in an Underdark scenario.
      Once the game was over, I went back to the books, started to refamiliarize myself with the specifics of the Underdark (and all those terrible things I mentioned).  And of course, I filed all the things I had charted as possible plot scenarios away.  Since they didn’t get used in this game, I can always use them in another.

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No more kid gloves.

Good game today.  I learned a couple of somethings today.  One, the Lasher prestige class from Sword and Fist is pretty sweet, although it is better suited as a support role, with a big nasty fighter in front of it.  And two, Nycaloths are badass.

Now, a lot of monsters have to be field-tested in D&D.  You see, some creatures don’t provide the challenge that their difficulty that their CR indicates.  Some of them are far more powerful than their CR indicates.  Some require special circumstances.  Driders, for instance, are very poor random encounters.  In my experience, if the drider hasn’t had time to prep some spells and prepare an ambush position, they won’t live up to their CR.

Nycaloths, by the way (MM2) earn their CR of 10 in spades.  They definitely go down in the book of ‘Use This Monster Again.’

As a side note, I am getting really really tired of demons failing their roll to summon other demons.  I’ve only ever seen it work once.

But the real reason for this post is this: I’m through fucking around.

No, I’m serious.  Ever since my beginning as a DM, there have been some lines I have been unwilling to cross.  Some abilities I have looked at in the Monster Manual and always said “Hmmmm…that seems too powerful.  It’d just wipe the entire party.”

But here recently I have had one too many encounters where a big nasty boss went down without a proper fight.  And so now I find myself like a hockey goalie wading into a fist-fight.  The gloves are coming off baby!  All those monster abilities that I found to be more dangerous than I was willing to use, they’re all fair game now.  Negative levels, paralysis, huge poison damage, Insanity, Dominate Person, you name it, I’ll use it.  The only way to find out if it is too powerful is to actually wipe out a party with it.

Oh well, omelets and eggs and all that…

I think it all comes down to fear.  In the past, I was too afraid to use legitimately dangerous abilities against the PC’s.  Well, the hell with it.  Time to nut up and bring the pain.

Cue up ‘Eye of the Tiger’, ‘Princes of the Universe’, or ‘Let the Bodies Hit the Floor’.  Which ever one floats your boat.  Because from now on, we’re playing in a world where the safety features are disengaged, and the PC’s are staring down the barrel of no-shit, for real monsters!

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I thought I would take a moment to talk about Valt in it’s role as a story setting.

Every veteran gamer has seen a dozen and one game settings, and knows that each one is different from the other.  Spelljammer was a game of “You got sci-fi in my fantasy!/You got fantasy in my sci-fi!”.  Ravenloft was the game about hopelessness, despair, and powerlessness.  So what separates Valt?  What are the key things that the world (as a story setting) is about?

Polarization– The first and foremost element of Valt is a feeling of “Us vs Them”.  Even if the players don’t want to take part in it, they are part of an ‘Us’.  Many ‘Us’s’, in point of fact.  And to each ‘Us’, there is a ‘Them.’  It’s like a giant food web, with the players trying to avoid being eaten by all the conflicts around them.  Often times in Valt, the PC’s will be forced to work with someone they hate in order to fight an force that views both parties (the PC’s and their enemies) as “Them.”

History– There is a lot of known history in Valt, and more that has been lost.  The return of the lost and forgotten enemy is a common factor, meaning that researching the history of the world is usually necessary.

No man is an island– The PC’s aren’t the only adventurers in the world.  Many times the party will run into other adventuring groups operating in their area.  Sometimes the two parties are existing cotangently, both sides pursuing their own adventure arcs.  Sometimes they can find themselves in competition.  On rare occasions, they might find themselves in opposition.

Betrayal– Valt is an evil world, filled with evil creatures.  This pervasive wickedness creeps in everywhere, and touches everything.  At some point in every Valt campaign, the PC’s should be betrayed by a trusted friend and ally.  (So much the better if it is one of them.)

Continuity– Typically, after every Valt game I advance the timeline a century or two.  The actions of the PC’s matter, and shape the world.  For instance, the Scaled Emperor was never supposed to rule over Fassett, but the game ended before the PC’s got around to dealing with the threat.  What the PC’s do, and how they do it, has long lasting effects.

Artificiality– Valt isn’t supposed to support life.  Whatever the nature of Silduggis, his malignancy has spread to every corner of the world, and everything is tainted by it.  Nature itself tends towards evil, and the environment of Valt is a harsh one.  Sentient races cannot co-exist with the land here, they must conquer it.

Fear of the unknown– The residents of Valt fear what they don’t understand.  New ideas are regarded with suspicion, and ‘outside’ people or ideas are immediately suspect.  Which leads to…

Tradition– The people of Valt tend to take a ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude, which means that bad problems usually get worse, and spiral out of control before anyone does anything about it.

No respite– Very few deities offer any kind of happy afterlife.  Generally, death is something to be feared and avoided.  This makes most people even more jaded and bitter the older they get, and has a particularly nasty effect on hero types, who are faced with the slow realization that they are doing a whole lot of good for very little reward.

Nothing is pure– There is no black and white in Valt.  Even the most upstanding and stalwart champion should have something in their past they feel horrendously guilty about.  Heroes are going to sometimes do bad things, and villains are going to sometimes do good things.  Many adventures in Valt revolve around ‘moral gray areas.’

These are the key themes in Valt.  Some of them I like to use in any game (especially the last one).  Some of these are unique to Valt.  I hope they help to clarify a little of why I do what I do.

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