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Categories: Ramblings

The Mad Troll

July 8, 2010 1 comment

Encounter Level 10 (2200xp)

This encounter is from my home game, and is one the party has when they go out to cause trouble for an approaching army. In essence through their actions and the actions of some NPCs that they are working with the initial plans of an Orc Chieftain have been foiled, and now as heroic tier comes to a climax they are faced with an army of orcs and other monsters approaching the town whose survival will secure the region the characters call home.  However this encounter could easily be tweaked for use as the start of something else because its opening scene should leave the party wondering what the orcs are looking for and why they are looking for it even as they battle.

Read aloud or paraphrase:

You have found what you seek, a patrol separated enough from the army that you can eliminate them without drawing a larger force to their aid. This patrol though is a little strange as they come into view through the trees, it is clear they are searching for something as a large orc leads a troll around on a heavy chain, and many other orcs scour the ground for something.


1 Scargath the Mad (Elite Troll Skirmisher)
1 Durosh’kan Bloodrager (Elite Orc Brute)
8 Orc Warrior (DDI)

  • For 4 PCs: Lower Scargath’s level by 1.
  • For 6 PCs: Add a Durosh’kan Bloodrager

Features of the Area:

Illumination: Encounter is assumed to happen during the day, and so is well-lit. Should the encounter happen at another time several of the orcs will be carrying sunrods to facilitate their search creating bright illumination.
Pool: Light blue areas are difficult terrain, dark blue areas are impassable except by swimming (DC10)
Mud: This dark brown area is difficult terrain. Creatures that end their turn in the mud become grabbed (Fort 17 Ref 20 for escape attempts).
Rocks: Are difficult terrain.
Ruined Wagon: is 5′ high and is impassable. However creatures may climb (DC10) or jump (standing DC50, running DC25) onto it and move over it, for which it is difficult terrain.  Creatures can crouch behind the wagon to gain total concealment. The Wagon provides superior cover to creatures adjacent to it from creatures on the opposite side of the wagon.
Tree Trunks: Are impassable and can provide superior cover.
Tree “Canopy”: Represents the area affected by the tree and its roots, and is difficult terrain.
Small Trees: Provide cover for creatures in their square and are difficult terrain.


The tactics are fairly simple, all the enemies essentially charge and try to engage a PC, with Scargath picking the closest PC initially, and the Bloodrager aiming for a striker or leader if apparent. The Warriors then scatter among the remaining PCs and try to help the Bloodrager and Scargath by providing flanks when possible, or making “Aid Another” attacks to add +2 to the attacks of the Bloodrager and Scargath.

Ending the Encounter:

The encounter ends when the Bloodrager and Scargath are dead, any remaining minions immediately flee at their fastest rate (provoking OAs if appropriate).

Categories: Heroic Tier

Durosh’kan and Allies

Categories: Monsters

Shawna Lestorm

Name:Shawna Lestorm
Race: Human
Class:  Sorcerer
Height: 5’ 6”
Weight: 145lb.
Age: 26
Hair: Platinum Blonde
Eyes: blue
Complexion: lightly  tanned

[Full Character Sheet on iplay4e]

Background: Shawna was what might best be described as a curious child, perhaps adventurous, though her mother often had far harsher words for the girl. Growing up in a wealthy family in the lake port of Dennovar gave her both freedoms and responsibilities few others would recognise. Yet she was one to waste one and neglect the other.

The fact that her teen years were dominated by even more trouble after she was struck by lightning while playing on a boat during a storm, just made things worse for a while. Few could believe that she lived at all, and then when her magical abilities began to manifest things just got more complicated (and involved the accidental death of her father’s favourite dog).

All of this combined to make the young “lady” be deemed as unmarriageable in the town, and so now as a young woman she remains unmarried. The fact that her father died six years ago and the responsibility for the family’s affairs passed to her older brother (Tothias) just made her life easier. She no longer had a need to find a spouse so the few parties held each year by the nobles no longer even required she maintain a pretense of seeking one, and as one of the town’s beauties she never lacked for attention from those so interested.

But these little parties did little to keep Shawna amused, and the worsening financial situation of her family meant that her brother could not afford to let the resource she represented go to waste. So it was that he struck a deal with her, she could marry if she wished and whom she wished if she would turn her charms to securing trade partners and opportunities for the family outside of Dennovar. So it is that for four years now Shawna has travelled along the Dawn Way securing her families interests. A task that she finds everywhere from monumentally dull to exciting, the problem for her brother is that her idea of exciting is starting to become more and more “fighting bandits and other troubles” that pester the caravans she travels with on the road.

What her brother doesn’t know is that Shawna also has a propensity for avoiding the wealthy along the road and seeking the “excitement” that being among the common folk gives. The fact that she clearly doesn’t fit among them just makes it all the more fun for her.

Personality:  Shawna is an active person and is happiest  when a number of her  senses are engaged. Uncomfortable with routine  and resistant to  boredom, she likes to mix things up just for the fun of it and  can be  relied upon to do the unexpected. Non-judgemental and preferring  to be  guided by her own desires, she is happiest left to her own  devices,  using a hands-on approach to perfect her skills in magic. She loves a  challenge and will try almost anything once.  “You only get one chance  at life, don’t waste it” is her catchphrase.

Description:  Even in her “common” clothes Shawna stands out from other people, she  is an unmistakably beautiful woman, as her platinum blonde hair  cascades down her back, even when tied into the loose braid she prefers.  Her blue eyes can be a little sharp, an effect only enhanced by her pet  dragonling perched on her shoulder staring at other people like they  are food (which is admittedly also kind of cute considering the  familiar’s side).

Character Builder Summary:
====== Created Using Wizards of the Coast D&D Character Builder ======
Shawna Lestorm, level 1
Human, Sorcerer
Spell Source: Storm Magic
Background: Society – Noble (+2 to Diplomacy)

Str 10, Con 12, Dex 16, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 18.

Str 10, Con 12, Dex 16, Int 10, Wis 10, Cha 16.

AC: 13 Fort: 12 Reflex: 14 Will: 17
HP: 24 Surges: 7 Surge Value: 6

Intimidate +9, Arcana +5, History +5, Diplomacy +9, Bluff +9

Acrobatics +3, Dungeoneering, Endurance +1, Heal, Insight, Nature, Perception, Religion, Stealth +3, Streetwise +4, Thievery +3, Athletics

Human: Arcane Familiar
Level 1: Superior Implement Training (Lancing dagger)

Bonus At-Will Power: Lightning Strike
Sorcerer at-will 1: Storm Walk
Sorcerer at-will 1: Acid Orb
Sorcerer encounter 1: Pinning Bolt
Sorcerer daily 1: Shocking Magnetism

Fine Clothing (2), Adventurer’s Kit, Cloth Armor (Basic Clothing), Lancing dagger
====== Copy to Clipboard and Press the Import Button on the Summary Tab ======

Categories: Characters

Social Elements in Fantasy

July 2, 2010 3 comments

“One thing that often surprises me is how much, and yet how little, we change when we create fantasy worlds. For instance, we often radically change the look and feel of the world. We add new wondrous species, awe-inspiring locales and epic legends. However, rarely do we change the fundamental underpinnings of our societal structure such as our views on gender, race, and disability. In these aspects, our worlds are more likely to mirror our reality than our desire.” SarahDarkmagic, The Promise of Fantasy

This harken’s back to my recent article on languages ( What did you say? ), a lot of the answer to this question is that we just do not think about these things in detail when we are building worlds, in fact many people don’t think about these questions in detail in looking at our real world either.

Consider for example these two videos: Aimee Mullins and her 12 pairs of legs and Aimee Mullins: The opportunity of adversity it is unlikely that many of us have considered Aimee’s perspectives on these things, and even reading the comments posted below her talks makes some stark revelations about how people react to these situations. So it isn’t really surprising that this stuff doesn’t turn up in our games.

Now of course some game systems (World of Darkness, L5R, BESM) all cater for playing characters with a physical impairment, but even then the settings are either modern, or have a very “you shall not be stigmatised” response to physical impairment. DnD in comparison stays right away from this stuff.

An important thing to remember of course when looking at DnD is that it is a high fantasy game in the mold of the space operas and swashbuckling adventures like Star Wars, the Three Musketeers. Certainly there are great lashings of the Lord of the Rings and similar, but even in the Lord of the Rings by and large the characters die, or go unharmed (Frodo is the exception). Further in all these settings, and the core genres that DnD is drawn from and inspired by there are bigger things to worry about than many of the social conflicts of our modern era, and even of the historical eras that provide fuel for the game settings.

Why are you worried about skin color – when there is another actual race of creatures in the next valley who do want to eat you? Why are you worried about gender equity – when the woman down the road really can burn you to a crisp with a flick of her wrist? Why are you worried about any of that stuff – when a truely evil alien entity wishes to consume your whole world and the souls of every living thing in it because they taste nice as hors d’œuvres?

This is really the heart of it. DnD isn’t really about social questions in its core assumptions, and the answer to many of the questions Sarah asks is “because it isn’t that important to what the game is about, and it is in no way deliberate”.  The latter being more directed at the why aren’t 50% of adventurers female – the answer is largely obvious in that 50% of the game designers are not female, and so just think up male characters more often, add the fact that “gender bending” play is frowned on (I’ve had female DMs tell me I cannot play a female character for example because “I will not do it right”…) and it is even less surprising that male players mostly conceived male characters.

So is there any value in addressing these things in developing a setting?

I think the answer to that question is more complicated, than the answer to the question of why they don’t turn up in DnD games. The first thing you have to ask is “why will this matter in the game?” if the answer to that question is “it will not” it probably isn’t worth putting any further time into considering it – build your game to your audience. For example I’m thinking of starting a Zombie Apocalypse game – social considerations are very unimportant to the game, getting solid mechanics worked out to support the idea on the other hand is very important. On the other hand if I want to run a game focussing on the political intrigues between two nations taking the time to establish the society and culture of those nations by looking at their attitudes towards women, disability, slavery, magic, religion etc is going to be important for establishing the differences. The danger with engaging with this is making value judgements and placing one position in the role of “good” and the other in the role of “evil” (oh that is another reason WotC keeps DnD away from this stuff). The main issue is you need to be sure of the values you are going to be highlighting and contrasting.

L5R stumbles into this problem from time to time, on the one hand the setting tries to reflect certain traditional Japanese (in particular) social expectations, eg a samurai’s wife stays at home and runs the estate (notice that there are 2 assumptions in that 1 expectation!). Yet at other times it flies directly in the face of this and turns that on its head to the point that “Good little Matsu Wife” is a joke among the player base for the husband of a Matsu samuraiko. The problem is the setting tries desperately to avoid making a judgement one way or the other and so skirts the issue other than some generalised statements about “normal” and the PCs being “special”.

So in setting up a campaign where social expectations and cultural values are going to matter the DM is going to have to take the time to figure out what the values are that are going to matter, where they stand on those things, and how that is going to be reflected in the setting.

There are two basic ways to handle this, the first is “egalitarian vs stereotype” the other is “shades of grey”.

In egalitarian vs stereotype, one group has the best of modern values – no discrimination, equal opportunity for everyone etc etc it might even have a democratic government system. The other group adopts what are seen as the worst negative traits from history, women as objects, slavery (with very poor treatment of slaves), killing of the disabled etc etc. This sets the tone very clearly and allows the PCs to make a clear contrast between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” (note I didn’t use evil!).

In the shades of grey setting you use more traditional values mixed with some modern values, each group has values that the players may agree or disagree with, such that it can be hard to choose which group is “best”. This one is going to be the hardest one to set up and run well, and would be something I would only attempt with players I knew well so that I wasn’t tromping all over someone’s values when I made group X the “hero” and group Y the “villain”.

Still next time you are designing a world I think it is worth considering the social elements of the game, in my own world building I draw heavily on historical societies to provide frameworks for my geo-political regions: Ancient Rome, Egyptian Empire, Medieval Europe,  Celtic, Viking etc all turn up in one way or another in my setting work, because my players are familiar with the general concepts and it is easy for them to grasp. But I still don’t get into the details of things like gender equity (it exists though), and so on – those things are not the focus of the game, my games are about “saving our land” and similar things, and “our land” is always set up to be better than the alternative (everyone is a zombie, everyone is orc slaves (which are eaten, abused, etc), everyone is sacrificed to a mad evil god or a worshiper).

Categories: DM Theory

Old School Roleplay & Skill Challenges

June 30, 2010 1 comment

Today I read (belatedly) @SarahDarkmagic’s article There’s No Role Playing in 4e and couldn’t help but think “that was a skill challenge”. Sarah specifically mentions wanting to make the session based on a skill challenge, but not knowing where to start, she also mentions being inspired by @newbiedm’s Red Box (Basic DnD from the 80’s) game. As a person who started DnD with that red box back in ’84 I can see the thread between those “old school” games and 4E skill challenges, and it is one of the tricks to running a good skill challenge.

What Is A Skill Challenge Really?

Well at its heart a skill challenge is a decision tool for DMs. A handy way of deciding when it is reasonable to move on, be it because the PCs have achieved a goal or failed to do so. That is it at heart. The result of this is you have an easy tool to assign xp to an essentially RP activity.

Skill challenges are definitely not railroads or straightjackets, the way many see them as.

Looking at Sarah’s game and its plot element of “investigate the disappeared” all that is needed to make it a skill challenge is deciding how many successes are needed to have enough information to proceed to the next point.

Let’s say we pick 6.

Winging It Old School

Ok so all we have is a plot, and a number of successes, doesn’t sound too much like a skill challenge yet. Still it is plenty to go to the table with if you know your plot well enough. (Incidentally this is why it is hard to just “write a good skill challenge”.)

So you start the game and the PCs start doing their investigation. Maybe, as in Sarah’s case they split up and do their own thing. Oh no! You only have 5 PCs at the table – that isn’t a problem, just change the number of successes to succeed to 4! No one other than you will know, and you will forget soon enough ;).

So then you can get on with the RP, maybe you call for a roll here or there to help you make a decision, those rolls are the ones that will count for success in the challenge. Now the trick is not to deny the PCs information, let them learn it so that the whole plot can move forward. The key is that you can manipulate time! (And again no one will know other than you.)

So maybe they all get a successes, hey only 1 more and they have 6! So having learnt all they can (in their reasonable opinion) they regroup at the Inn and do some more RP. They interact with the innkeeper and make some social rolls – there is that chance for the last success! Now they have 6 successes so the innkeeper makes a suggestion that will lead them to the next clue.

But what happens if they come back with 3 successes and 2 failures – well the innkeeper still gives that last chance.

What about if they got 3 failures?

Then the innkeeper can still make the suggestion but now when the PCs follow it up they arrive only in time to get suspicious about what is going on, not witness everything.

Now some folks would say that isn’t an interesting failure, but the truth is that running the challenge this way is likely to be invisible to the players, and so the only one who will even realise there was a failure is you!


So here is the core of it, all you need for a skill challenge is a problem for the PCs to solve and an idea of what is needed to solve it to get the number of successes. Over-thinking it and trying to bolt mechanics to it rather than letting your players dream up the solutions is not only a lot of work, it might well inhibit a fun session of RP.

We used to play DnD with less rules, keep in mind that the rules are only needed to resolve problems and give you ideas. If everyone is having fun at the table then don’t stop that to enforce a rule – go with the fun and call the rule up when it is really needed.

Categories: DM Theory Tags: , , ,

What did you say?

Language is an important part of culture, but it is also a terribly impractical thing in a game. In the real world we have things like the tribe in one valley speaks an entirely different language to the tribe in the next, but in a game world, while entirely realistic this is just annoying, and often easily circumvented by the PCs (Comprehend Language for example).

So how do you justify having a “common” language that is readily understood by most if not all the world’s inhabitants? Well the answer I think is Empire, and 4E handily comes to the party with this in its core concepts and Nerath.

You take an Empire that entirely dominated the region the adventures take place in and have the Empire have a single language – cf the British Empire as a real world example. This then gives you that basis for a common language.

Racial languages then become more important in establishing the culture of those races and their identities as ‘not belonging’ to the empire. Use of the common language is a matter of practicality from when your neighbour was larger than you and learning their language let you prosper from trading with them. Even if you have the Empire be monolithic and say that it once ruled all the lands racial enclaves would still exist where the racial language would be used – either openly or secretly.

Settings like Rokugan exploit this idea, everyone in the Empire must speak the Empire’s language or else they cannot communicate with millions of people. In DnD the idea of the fallen Empire is rampant, Forgotten Realms is the only major DnD setting that lacks a unifying Empire (yes I know there have been Empires in the Realms but none have unified enough of the land mass under them to establish a truly common language that would persist into the modern era).

So why do we care about this?

Well our real world experience tells us that people in different lands speak different languages, and we are often left with the question of “what is common?” as knowledgeable players question why everyone speaks the same language.

Determining the ‘why’ of common helps explain the ‘how’ of the setting, because language is such a key component of our ability to prosper, both through trade of goods, and more importantly the retention and exchange of knowledge.

Taking the 4E default setting you immediately get some obvious hooks. The common language of the PCs is likely closely related to that of Nerath, and the existence of long-lived races like elves and dwarves helps reduce the language drift. So we now have a reason why ruins that are hundreds of years old have a language in them that modern PCs can still understand. Maybe it is a bit like reading Shakespeare today, but you can get the meaning of it.

Then there are the really old ruins from Bael Turath and Arkhosia, they can have their own languages. In fact them having different languages is important as a means of differentiating the two cultures and their ruins. Now Arkhosia seems to be a prime candidate for having Draconic as it’s language, another language that would have limited drift (as even in times of extinction from a region dragons being very long-lived will keep it alive and relatively unchanged). In comparison Bael Turath should have its own language, while some might have spoken Supernal much of the Empire’s existence would be based on a more mundane existence and thus language. Now Turathian isn’t in the PHB so it may be a matter of practicality to have Supernal act as the language in ruins from the Tiefling Empire. Now this means characters have a reason for learning Draconic, and Supernal later in a campaign if those languages are important for understanding what is going on in the ruins your bad guys are using as a base (or if you do time travel etc). Or if nothing else those languages are now more a part if the setting as characters use Comprehend Languages to understand those ancient scripts.

(Primordial serves a similar role in looking at even older ruins as well.)

This brings me to a lot if the point of this, in most DnD games it is my experience that languages are seen as “modern” much like people see languages today in the real world. As such because they often exist separately to a culture they are not something that helps build a world and create links, and thus immersion. By using languages in specific ways and having people react to common for its association with the last Empire (or the Dragon Kings or whatever caused its adoption) that gives it depth and stops it just being another thing on a character sheet.

Categories: DM Theory