Tag: dungeons and dragons

Story First, Then Numbers

Well, my attempt to put aside GMing doesn’t seem to be going so well; for the past few weeks I’ve been grinding away on a campaign idea that won’t leave me alone. It’s nothing new under the sun– essentially a Lord of the Rings clone, with the main item of note being that it really is a Lord of the Rings clone, right down to singing (well, chanting) goblins and all sorts of detailed fiddly world notes and linguistic flourishes (like as an elvish dictionary that I use for creating consistent, meaningful place names and such). Assuming I can pull it off, it’d be very much a literary campaign, rather than a gamey one.

One of the issues with it, however, is finding the balance between making the world distinct from the Generic D&Dland of every other game, and making so much work that I might as well be running some other game. For instance, I don’t want there to be bags of holding, fireballs, and magic missiles flying around, so I banned arcane casting classes for PCs (except for bards). But I also made that important thematically: arcane magic is the arrogant imposition of the caster’s will over the natural order of the universe, and as any good Tolkien scholar knows, that’s bad juju. Divine magic, by contrast, is allowing yourself to be the conduit of a higher power and is essentially a humble thing. The exception to this is loremasters (i.e., bards), whose study of the world has taught them how to skillfully work within the natural order, rather than to just override it, so to speak.

Admittedly, it’s kind of a kludge. But again, it’s striking a balance between the needs of the story (i.e., flashy, blasty magic should be rare and mostly in the hands of badguys) and the need for an easily playable game (I don’t really want to spend a month editing the spell list for every class in the universe).

The biggest place where this is going to be an issue, in the long run, is going to be in scenario design– because D&D (and by D&D here I mean Pathfinder, but you get the drift) has an established progression of standard foes by level, e.g., kobolds, then goblins, then orcs, then gnolls, then hill giants, blah-blah-blah. But I don’t want to use that standard progression. In fact, in this setting, large swaths of the usual Monster Manual menagerie just don’t exist or are very different from the usual canon. (Chromatic vs. metallic dragons? What does that even mean? And what is this “astral plane” of which you speak?)

This means I can’t just call up call up the bestiary and start picking random critters to toss in and build a scenario around that, nor would I want to. I’m building the skeleton of a story here (with the players providing the flesh and soul), so I need to come up with what will be there and then make numbers to suit.

For instance, in one of the very early scenarios for the campaign I have in mind for the players to be confronted by an ettin as a dangerous “boss encounter.” (Why an ettin? Because they’re cool, strange, frightening monsters that fit the folklore/fairy tale/epic fantasy feel that I’m going for while still being unusual and exotic.) Unfortunately, a by the numbers ettin is CR 6, way way over the heads of any starting party.

For a regular campaign, as a sacrifice to ease of prep, I’d just say “screw it” and go with an ogre instead. But like I said above, this campaign is different. This campaign is a story first, and for the encounter I want, it pretty much has to be an ettin. What to do? One possible answer is something I’ve talked about many times before: reskinning the monsters.

I mean, I could just take the stats for an ogre, swap out its Iron Will feat for Two-Weapon Fighting, give it an arbitrary +4 to Perception checks, describe it to the players as having two heads, and call it an ettin.

Alternatively, I could craft a workable “Lesser Ettin” monster that hits the CR spot I want by stripping hit dice and stats off of the standard ettin. That would probably take 30-60 minutes all told and give me a new critter I could use indefinitely.

Either approach will satisfy the needs of this particular campaign and I haven’t yet decided which one I will use. But the crux of the problem is that either one takes more time than simply taking an existing critter and running with it– and prep time is what killed gaming for me before.

I’m not sure what to do about that problem. It’s every clear that my brain wants to do this game and isn’t going to leave me alone until I at least give it a shot. But I barely have time to do the things I’ve already committed to, much less add a time-consuming delve into Deep Fantasy Geekery that will only be enjoyed by a handful of people.

On the other hand, I could always use the variant statblocks I come up with for blog content. 😉 Maybe I’ll start doing Monster Monday posts where I put up the critters I’ve come up with… after the players fight them. 😉

-The Gneech

Encounter Building in Pathfinder


A couple of my friends have mentioned being a little shaky on the process of building encounters in Pathfinder, which is probably a residual effect of the “WTF?” model of EL/CR in D&D 3.x. So I figured I’d write up some quickie notes for it here.

The good news is, you don’t need wonky calculators or bizarre algorithms to build encounters in Pathfinder. It’s an easy-peasy three-step process and can be done with a pocket calculator or even just a rough eyeballing. There’s a nice summary right here on the d20pfsrd site, but I’ll go ahead and write it up here anyhow.

Step One: Average Party Level

This is just what it sounds like, the average level of every member of the party, rounded to the nearest whole number. (So, for example: Ftr 3, Clr 2, Rog 3, Wiz 3 = 11/4 = 2.75 = 3.) There is one wrinkle to this:

  • If the party is 3 or fewer characters: APL = APL-1.
  • If the party is 6 or more characters: APL = APL+1.

For the purposes of building an encounter, the “party” consists of any characters who are going to help the PCs. So if the local constabulary is going to come running to the PCs’ aid (say, four level 3 warriors), they should be factored in. Thus, using the sample party above, the final APL would be (Ftr 3, Clr 2, Rog 3, Wiz 3, 4*{War 3} = 23/8 = 2.9 = 3, +1 for being 6+ characters =) 4.

“Well hold on,” you might say. “All those disposable NPCs only add an effective +1 to the APL? But I want a big fight that will tear them up!” Well that’s easy enough to deal with. If you’ve got a party full of redshirts that you don’t mind obliterating in order to make the encounter big and dramatic, you simply up the challenge rating (CR) in the next step.

Step Two: Challenge Rating (CR) and XP Budget

Encounters are rated as “Easy,” “Average,” “Challenging,” “Hard,” or “Epic.” In any given adventure, most (but not all) encounters should be either Average or Challenging, with a few Easy ones thrown in for variety, then trending towards Hard as you build up to a climactic finish. You should only use Epic encounters very sparingly, because they will almost certainly kill PCs.

Once you’ve determined the APL in Step One, determining the encounter CR is easy:

Encounter Difficulty CR
Easy APL-1
Average APL
Challenging APL+1
Hard APL+2
Epic APL+3
CR is expressed as a whole number for 1 or higher. CR 0 = “1/2”; CR -1 = “1/3”; CR -2 = “1/4”.

Thus, for our example APL 3 party, an Average encounter would be CR 3, while a Challenging encounter would be CR 4. An Epic encounter would be CR 6 and might very well be a TPK.

Once you know the CR, you then use that to figure out your XP budget. You’ll use the XP budget to “buy” critters or hazards to put into your encounter.

CR XP Budget CR XP Budget CR XP Budget
1/8 50 6 2,400 16 76,800
1/6 65 7 3,200 17 102,400
1/4 100 8 4,800 18 153,600
1/3 135 9 6,400 19 208,400
1/2 200 10 9,600 20 307,200
1 400 11 12,800 21 409,600
2 600 12 19,200 22 614,400
3 800 13 25,600 23 819,200
4 1,200 14 38,400 24 1,228,800
5 1,600 15 51,200 25 1,638,400

So for our sample party, a Challenging encounter (CR 4) would have a budget of 1,200 XP.

Step Three: Build the Encounter

From here, you simply “buy” critters, hazards, skill challenges, etc. with your allotted XP budget, starting with the most expensive item first. Everything than can be an encounter element should have an XP value (listed right in the stat block for things that have a stat block). For instance, say you wanted our sample party to have a Challenging encounter with an ogre and his goblin cronies. Your XP budget is 1,200, so you might then build the encounter like so:

Encounter Element XP Budget
Ogre (CR 3) 800
Goblin Adept 2 (CR 1/2) 200
Two Goblins (CR 1/3) 270 (135 ea.)
Total XP Value of Encounter 1,270 XP

Yes, it sneaks over budget, but not by much, and you can always mitigate that with environmental conditions (perhaps the goblin cronies run away at 1/2 or fewer hit points or as soon as one is killed, for instance).

Encounter Design Philosophy: More Bang for Your XP Buck

The way the d20 system in general works (and to some extent, the way all tabletop RPGs work), you’re almost always worse off outmanned than outgunned. So don’t use a single CR 4 opponent to build a CR 4 encounter, because the PCs will quickly swarm over it and stomp it to jelly unless you’ve really beefed it up. Instead, think in terms of encounters with multiple foes, such as the ogre and goblins example above. Granted, the goblins in the example are mostly speed bumps that will probably die in the first round or two– but that gives the ogre another round more than he would have had to be interesting on his own.

Remember also, that Average and Challenging encounters aren’t there to actually defeat your players. They’re there to whittle ’em down. “Resource management” is a big part of the D&D/Pathfinder game system. It’s not the ogre that finally defeats a PC… it’s the cure spells the party ran out of in the last room.

More Encounter Design Philosophy: Making the Most of Minions

One downside of XP budgets is that you always run out of XP way before you have what you feel like are enough critters. Especially after you’ve noticed that critters that are a CR of 2 or more levels below the APL tend to have a really hard time hitting PCs with much of anything. What to do? We need some “minion” rules for this!

…Well, no, not really. It actually works fairly well with just a bit of tweaking.

First, if you have 9 kobolds swarming over a PC, for the love of Mike, don’t roll nine d20s hoping one of them will get the 20 they need to hit that PC. Have six kobolds use Aid Another instead of attacking directly: suddenly you have three kobolds each with +6 to hit, which is much more dangerous!

Second, use your minions where they’re most effective, i.e., going after the squishy party members. Nine kobolds swarming a fighter = nine soon-to-be-dead kobolds. Nine kobolds swarming a wizard = a wizard who’s in trouble. Three kobolds grappling a wizard with +6 = a wizard who is completely shut down.

That said… don’t bother adding elements that are CR-5 or lower to an encounter. Or if you do, treat them like flavor text and don’t actually bother with the math involved.

Rewards (Experience, Treasure, etc.)

This depends on your campaign model. The default is to divide the XP value of the encounter equally among those who participated in it. To keep characters in the general vicinity of the expected wealth per level, you should also either place treasure in the encounter (“Loot the bodies, yay!”) or arrange for the party to receive the appropriate amount of treasure as a quest reward (“The ogre and his goblin cronies didn’t have anything but fleas, but the duke had a price on their heads of 1,000 gp!”). The amount of treasure each encounter earns varies depending on the Slow/Normal/Fast XP option chosen for your campaign, and that info can be found here.

And There You Have It!

Really, that’s it in a nutshell. Very simple– much simpler to do than it actually was to write down. There’s more nuances and all sorts of add-on topics, particularly on the topic of ad-hoc APL or CR adjustments for terrain, gear, etc., but most of those boil down to judgement calls anyway. If you’re fighting ice giants in a lava pit, guess what: their CR is actually much lower than it would be if you were fighting them in a blizzard, and you should adjust accordingly. Similarly, if that ogre is armed with a +4 vorpal humanslayer… he’s probably higher than CR 3.

So get on out there and build some encounters! 😉

-The Gneech

Dragging Into the Dungeon

So in case you haven’t heard the news, there’s officially another new edition of D&D in the works. I’ve been largely indifferent to the news for a variety of reasons that have more to do with my trust (or lack thereof) for WotC’s commitment to it than anything to do with the “dream team” of designers they pulled together to work on it or my feelings towards D&D/gaming generally.

That said, I did feel some glimmerings of interest today, as the Critical Hits Twitter feed live-tweeted a chat happening on the WotC website. You can find a pretty good summary of the key points on Trollish Delver, except for what I actually thought was the most potentially interesting aspect of it: namely the concept of modular design.

The model the development team is going with is a very simple, streamlined “core game,” with all sorts of add-on “modules” you can use or ignore at will. Like a crunchy, tactical game? Add the “miniatures mode” rules. Prefer a skill-heavy, intriguey game? Add the “story mode” rules. etc.

This is a big, ambitious idea and in a lot of ways the perfect cure for what made 4E such a debacle, if they can pull it off. My experience with 4E was that it “allowed” other modes of play beside miniature-pushing, but it certainly didn’t “support” or “encourage” them. This also dovetails nicely with the points mentioned in the Trollish Delver summary about getting away from “copy-and-paste” characters and making a broader, more diversified art style.

There was a definite vibe in 4E that “All OTT Action All the Time! With Flying Chainsaws and Explosions and Veins Popping In Your Forehead!!!” was the only way to play the game, and everything else was doin’ it wrong — much to the annoyance of the large swaths of gamers who (like me) didn’t particularly want to play it that way.

Anyhow, I’m not exactly ready to jump back on the D&D train yet. As I say, my issues largely stem from a fundamental distrust of WotC, who in response to directives from Hasbro freaked out and blasted the game I once loved into something barely recognizable. Honestly, I don’t like there being as much money involved in D&D as there is, because that always causes people to turn greedy and stupid.

However, I am warming up to at least the concepts driving the new edition. It’d take a lot to make me willing to switch from Pathfinder at this stage, especially given the fact that I’m not actively running anything at the moment, but I am now at least interested in hearing more about it.

-The Gneech

I’ve Never Forgiven the Barrels for Killing My Son

So a while back, a friend gave me his copy of Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerfaildale, because he couldn’t get it to run on his computer. And since I’ve been jonesing for a little goblin smackdown, I decided to give it a shot. [1]

Daggerdale is basically like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or Everquest: Conquest of Norrath, a multiplayer action game with the trappings of D&D … throw yourself at goblins and mash buttons ’til they die. Theoretically it should be prettier than those, being newer, but it’s basically the same thing. The only problem is, the makers seem to have decided that instead of just making a similar game in the same genre, they would just do a wholesale copy/paste and call it a day.

These games don’t generally mess with a complicated plot, right? Well, the makers of the game apparently decided to go with that “etcetera, etcetera” mindset and really just phoned it in. There’s some evil guy named Rezlus in a tower who is gonna do some bad thing or other. He’s always the evil Rezlus. Or maybe “The’Evil” is his first name. What is Rezlus like or about, other than evil? No idea, except that he’s blue. And apparently worships Bane. But really, that’s enough, right? Anyhow, obviously, y’all gotta knock off all that evil, so !Galadriel teleports you into a dwarf mine so you can smash barrels and even occasionally fight a goblin. (Presumably !Gandalf was busy.)

Barrels. Really. Why. They even have the “barrel-maker crying that people keep smashing his barrels” joke. Didn’t Bard’s Tale put that bit to bed, like ten years ago? Maybe they’re depending on gamers having a short memory. The first level past the tutorial consists of nothing but a bunch of dwarves standing around while you smash all their barrels. (Smashing barrels is optional, of course, but you’ll want those health potions later.)

So you have your choice of four characters in the game: the burly white fighter guy, the white elf archer chick, the white dwarf cleric dude, or the androgynous white halfling wizard. [2] Each one is lovingly rendered in shades of sepia, and looks like they’d rather be doing anything else than going on this adventure. I kinda want to gripe about the lack of options here– I’m partial to male elf fighters and female human clerics (for instance), but none of the other games in this genre really give you a choice (Gauntlet II at least gave you color options…), so I guess there’s no point in that.

I should point out, that you don’t necessarily stay sepia. The high point of the game, in terms of low points, had to be when my character picked up a suit of armor that turned him into the Iceman from Marvel Comics. And by this I don’t mean he was wearing blue armor, I mean his entire body turned bright blue, including his skin, eyes, and hair. I know, fantasy game, magic, yadda-yadda, but wow. Even D&D usually tries to at least keep a little grounding in its quasi-medieval setting. Did some designer really want to be working on a superhero game instead? It was here that it went from “playable if weak” to “just plain silly.”

Anyway, the game’s nomenclature is all lifted from 4E, but it doesn’t mean anything. I fought “level one minions” with 24 hit points, “controllers” who just stood there and beat up on you, and so forth. You have all the usual Strength/Dex/Con stuff, but it’s all pre-set and doesn’t seem to actually do much. You fight by clicking the attack button until everything around you is dead, and defend yourself by guzzling health potions. I don’t know what the multiplayer is like, because that would have required getting another copy for Mrs. Gneech and I wasn’t willing to actually spend any money on it. We can do the same thing only better by pulling out the old Baldur’s Gate platformers or Gauntlet: Legends.

In short… meh. Don’t waste your time.

-The Gneech

PS: Oh, did I mention that the disk appears to contain nothing but an installer that downloads the game from Steam? Whee!

[1] I more or less hung up my dicebag earlier this year, at least as a gamemaster. I’d still love to play if I could find a local game, but I haven’t exactly been actively searching.

[2] Halfling wizard, really? I don’t get the gaming community’s fervent desire to include halflings but OMG can’t have ’em be hobbits, no, no! Really, guys, the only reason to include halflings is because they’re hobbits. If you don’t like hobbits, leave halflings out all together. They’re superfluous otherwise.

Button of Charisma +4 Now Available!

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-The Gneech

Old-Schoolifying the Pathfinder RPG

Well, the “sandbox” bug is going around the gaming community and it’s bitten me as well. I’ve decided to see if I can run and enjoy a sandbox game for a while. [1] And, as sandbox games are a very “old-school gaming” idea (like “1978 blue box old-school”), I have implemented some house rules to underscore this aspect of it.

First and most obvious, is to use the “slow progression” XP chart. Leveling back in the old days took forever, and a new level was a big deal when it finally hit.

Second, and related to the first, is to institute Class Training. Once upon a time, you didn’t hoard gold in order to purchase magic items, you had to spend it in order to go up a level. As I recall, none of the games I was ever involved in actually used that rule, because you had to earn the XP and spend the money for training, which seemed like paying for the same ground twice. But from a game-design point of view it does have some interesting wrinkles, not the least of which is that giant gems behind obvious deathtraps suddenly become enticing, instead of something that the players shrug at and move on as not being worth the time expenditure. (“Let’s go find some monsters to crack open for XP, shall we?”)

In order to avoid the “paying for the same ground twice” feeling, my house rule is very simple: between adventures the players can “trade in” treasure, at the rate of 1 GP = 1 XP, on “training.” Whether that training was actual drilling at the martial arts academy, studying tomes in the library, or blowing it all on ale and wenches, doesn’t really matter. The point is that treasure is now actually useful for something besides just buying another +1 for your battleaxe.

Third, and this one is a little more out there, is that a character may not progress past 10th level in any single class. At 11th level, should the game reach that point, they can multiclass, or they can take prestige classes as desired, but 10 is the cap for every class. This means that a lot of upper-end class abilities are just not available, and unless you are in a prestige class that gives the “+1 spellcasting level” there is no way to ever get a 6th-level or higher spell. It also mucks around with spell penetration at higher levels, so if that becomes a problem I’ll probably either nerf critter SR or provide some other way around it, but we’ll get to that later.

The next step, for me, is to create a bunch of hooks and/or adventure sites ranging from levels 1-5. Back when the model was “the DM has a signature dungeon,” you’d pretty much create a single dungeon where the first level had critters with 1-2 hit dice, the second level had critters with 2-4 hit dice, and so on downward, and the players would either fight, sneak, or negotiate their way through going up or down … and the GM would repopulate the place periodically to account for the new vacancies in dungeon population created by rampaging PCs. I have in mind to get around this by having a small handful of thematic “dungeons” where most of the action will take place, and the PCs can bounce around from one to another as they see fit. As they “get to know” these dungeons I’ll add new locations and probably toss in the occasional “big event” adventure for variety.

The key to it all, however, and something I’ll need to make sure to impress on the players, is that they’ll be the ones driving the campaign plot, in as much as there is one. As such, I may institute something similar to the “goal” mechanic from Ghostbusters: each character has a self-defined but explicit and measurable goal, and when they achieve something related to that goal, they get a bonus reward (probably in the form of XP). For example, a wizard might have the goal of “study magic phenomena,” and whenever they encounter something weird (like a magic fountain randomly tucked into a dungeon room for no apparent reason) they get an XP bonus for figuring it out. A fighter might have “defeat notable foes” and get bonus XP for fighting bosses, that kind of thing. Knowing the players’ specific goals can also give me ideas for encounters to throw at them. If the paladin has “slay demons” as their goal, I know I need to put demons into the game; if the rogue has “pick pockets” as their goal, I need to put them into situations where pocket-picking is feasible. That kind of thing.

I’m hoping this will be fun and a bit different. I’m also hoping that this will get me back in my GMing groove again for a while, ’cause I always miss gaming when I don’t get enough.

-The Gneech

[1] As for exactly what that entails, the definition is pretty vague. But my interpretation is mainly that instead of coming up with plotted adventures, I simply create a setting and a handful of “adventure locations” and let the players figure out where they want to go and what they want to do there.)