Are you using Companions (from DMG2)?

If so, check out this handy “Companion Sheet” by @Weem.

Nice and clear with space for 2 companions per page. I expect to be using them soon in my game.

Categories: Ramblings

Sandbox vs Safety Rails

June 20, 2010 11 comments

Note: this blog has moved to where you can find this article still just fine right here.

A couple of days ago ThadeousC posted a seemingly innocent tweet that asked the following: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?”. The ensuing discussion was spirited and occasionally intense. I wanted to get involved, but 140 characters was far, far too limiting for a topic such as this. So as part of a blog carnival, here’s my own feelings on the subject.

Here’s your blog carnival rules.

1. Your post must be on topic.

2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)

3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.

4. No name calling.

Having read the prior two articles they both come from the perspective of sandbox being a predetermined world where the PCs can go anywhere and encounter anything while safety rails is assumed to be DM guided so the only things you can encounter are “level appropriate”. Personally I think this is the main flaw with the core question, the situation isn’t so black and white.

In establishing a campaign I think it is a good idea to establish areas where some things might well be found. Powerful monsters make more sense when they have known locations and you have a rough understanding of how they interact with the setting. For example in my campaign setting I have a place called Griffon Pass, you can guess what is found there, so while PCs of any level could go there both I and the players can tell what the risk is in braving the pass. I have other areas where I know the general type of monster, giants in mountains, orcs in the outer regions of a forest, undead in its heart and so on. All of this lets me theme encounters to an area should I need to because the players decide wander off the campaign’s path.

Then there is my campaign, Heroic tier is the story of the PCs struggle against a growing orc army and their ultimate confrontation with the army and its commander. As a result there are a lot of encounters with orcs. At low levels it was orcs and goblins, at higher levels it is orcs with trolls, and ogres (and soon giants). It is readily apparent that there is a lot of scope for the safety rails approach to running this game.

So now there is both “sandbox” and “safety rails” in my campaign.

But the safety rails are not always safe. The thing is that you don’t have to always have to have encounters that are appropriate to the character’s level in the game. In fact it is best to have encounters that are below, above and at the appropriate level. If you want to challenge the party with something they must run away from there is nothing to stop you doing it inside the constraints of your campaign’s plot. In fact that is the best way to do it, as part of your plot. It even makes a great way to introduce a villain! This is one of the reasons ThadeusC and Wolfsamurai have supported “sandboxing”, but it works even better if the players have a reason to want to go back and beat something that directly matters to the plot, rather than something they “just bumped into”.

So the goal, I think, should be to have a sandbox in which your campaign unfolds. Then in the plot you should use a range of encounters to create appropriate tension. This is exactly the sort of thing WolfSamurai talks about in his example of infiltrating a city to rescue people and kill the cult leader. From the player’s perspective the city was a death trap, from the DM’s it was easily a series of at level encounters. The city is the sandbox, the actual encounters happen in the safety rails.

The trick is convincing the players there are no safety rails, which is easiest done by using a range of encounter levels.

First Post by ThadeousC:

Second Post by WolfSamurai: Phelanar’s Den

Third Post by Obsidian Crane: (You’re Reading It!)

Fourth Post by dkarr: dkarr’s LoreMaster Page

Fifth Post by Adam Dray: adamdray’s LiveJournal

Sixth Post by Tracy H.:

Seventh Post by Deadorcs: Init or What?

Eighth Post by Brian Engard: Gamecrafter’s Guild

Ninth Post by NewbieDm:

Tenth Post by DMSamuel: Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails?

Eleventh Post by TheAngryDM: D&D 4e Advice with Attitude

Twelfth Post by Colmarr: The Astral Sea

Categories: DM Theory

Getting Motivated

Well the busiest week of the last 3 months for me at work just finished so I have time for DnD again. That said I have to admit it is hard to be motivated right now, but I found motivation tonight: nothing quite like learning that someone is getting use from your ramblings to motivate you to keep sharing them. 🙂

So I’ll be getting back into it soon, on the cards I have an article on languages, and part 2 of the Iuchiban Campaign series, then I hope to get a couple of actual encounters done again (yay holidays).

Categories: Ramblings

20 Questions

June 19, 2010 3 comments

Recently Chris Simms asked “What do you know about your #dnd character? Favorite color? Birthday? More? Less? What?” on Twitter, and this got me thinking about these sorts of questions and how I develop a character.

My characters tend to develop on an ad hoc basis, as they are forced to make decisions or answer questions I fill in their personality as I go. I rarely have a full background or anything sketched out, and this works fine for me by and large. I see characters as a loose framework meshed together between mechanics a picture and sometimes a few other key ideas. This lets me look at that framework in my head and figure out how the character will make decisions.

But there are other means of approaching this and one that I like was first introduced to me by Legend of the Five Rings (L5R): The Game of 20 Questions. You can read the original questions and the basics of L5R character creation here, and AEG produced a similar set of questions for their other games as well, and while many are specific to L5R the list of questions can be adjusted for other games as well – like DnD.

Here is an example of “20” generic questions you might answer about your character:

  1. Is the character married and to whom?
  2. Does the character have children (or want to)?
  3. What other members are there of the character’s family?
  4. What does the character think about their family?
  5. How would others describe his appearance?
  6. Does the character have any prejudices?
  7. What is the character’s main motivation?
  8. Who is the person character trusts most?
  9. What is the characters greatest strength and greatest weakness?
  10. Does the character have a code of behaviour and what is it (or why not)?
  11. Does the character belong to an organisation?
  12. To whom does the character owe the most loyalty?
  13. What are his favorite and least favorite things?
  14. Does the character have any recurring mannerisms?
  15. What about the character’s emotions? (Is the character emotional or cold? Do they have a dominant emotion?)
  16. How would the character handle a subordinate’s improper behavior?
  17. How would the character’s parent’s describe them?
  18. What is the character’s highest ambition?
  19. How religious is the character?
  20. If you could, what advice would you give the character?

Another example taking the L5R questions and adapting them for an Eberron game (intended to be answered before you get to the crunch):

  1. Does the character have a Dragon Mark (and which one)?
  2. Does the character belong to a House (and which one)?
  3. How would others describe his appearance?
  4. Is the character a warrior, a spy, or a politician, or something else?
  5. What is the character’s main motivation?
  6. Who is the person the character trusts most?
  7. What is the character’s greatest strength? Greatest weakness?
  8. What does the character think of  the Prophecy?
  9. What is the character’s opinions of the Houses?
  10. Is the character married and do they have children?
  11. Does the character have any prejudices?
  12. To whom does the character owe the most loyalty?
  13. What are the character’s favorite and least favorite things?
  14. Does the character have any recurring mannerisms?
  15. What about the character’s emotions?
  16. How would the character handle a subordinate’s improper behavior?
  17. How would the character parent’s describe them?
  18. What is the character’s highest ambition?
  19. How religious is the character?
  20. If you could, what advice would you give the character?

Of course you can also answer simple questions like their favourite colour as well, after all it doesn’t pay to get the answer to that question wrong. 🙂

Categories: Game Theory

Iuchiban Campaign – The World Part 1

I know the Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) setting pretty well, more than well enough to run games there “off the cuff” and so it is easier for me to look at it rather than Dragonlance, which I haven’t taken a serious look at for 15 years or so. As a result I’ll be looking at the ideas for the Iuchiban campaign first.


The first thing to do is work out what world you are going to use. If you are going to use the L5R setting of Rokugan there are a lot of things to consider in adapting this campaign to DnD 4E. Rokugan is a psudeo-Japanese setting, it is easiest to imagine it as “Japan spread over China”, a huge land ruled by an elite warrior caste with limited magic. Taking Rokugan to 4E would require a lot of “refluffing” of things if not large scale homebrewing. Due to this I will not be endeavouring to transfer Rokugan to 4E, but rather use the campaign for inspiration for altering the 4E “default” setting.

The key elements of the campaign:

  • Iuchiban was a powerful wizard who used magic to create undead armies and conquer much of the world. He was defeated by heroes, and imprisoned in a special tomb. He escapes that tomb using previously unkown magic and begins recruiting new followers and building a new army. By chance he is discovered before all his plans are ready, and again over thrown and re-imprisoned, this time allowing for his special powers. Iuchiban is imprisoned because he has discovered an alternate path to immortality which allows him to posses the bodies of others as long as his heart (location unkown) is not damaged. All of this happened a long time ago.
  • There are necromantic cultists that worship him as a god, and follow his “teachings”.
  • Even from his prison he can send messages to his followers in dreams, appearing as an “Oracle of Blood”.
  • The initial campaign will be based in a city, and the later portion will be a wilderness treak and dungeon crawl.
  • There are a number of special items needed to access his prison.
  • The City is (in)famous for never having been conquered, but rather having conquered several armies.
  • The cities major export is opium (both medicinal use and illicit use quality products).
  • The city is incredibly corrupt.

These key elements give us quite a bit to work with in terms of setting up the game, and you will notice they are all very generic, rather than tied specifically into the setting of Rokugan (even though many of them are key points for that setting).

Monster Themes

There are few monsters in the setting the major themes are going to be demons (Oni) and undead. However most of the enemies are going to be PHB races.

  • One of the key ideas in L5R is that demons can be bound by name to the person who summons them, doing this makes the demon more powerful in the world, but it also needs its summoner to die to escape. This can be used easily enough, by taking existing demons and giving them new powers etc to allow for their new status.
  • Another idea is that zombies can be controlled by placing a porceline mask over their face when you create them. This is easily enough explained by ritual magic in 4E, and gives the bad guys some interesting tools.
  • Also undead are really scary, while zombies ideally shouldn’t get the “fast moving” approach of recent horror flicks the “Rise Again” power seen on Hobgoblin Soldier Zombies should definately be used when dealing with them. Perhaps tweaking it to make it a feature of zombies with the porceline masks, so that it will feel more like they are only killed by critical hits! (Though obviously killing 1 zombie 3 times will still work, describing that last “kill shot” as taking the head, or breaking the mask will do it as well.)

The City of Lies

In the L5R setting Ryoko Owari, also known as the Emerald City (for its green tinted walls), or the City of Lies (for the many intrigues it hides) is a major holding of the nefarious Scorpion Clan (master Ninjas, decietful politicians (even more than normal ones), those who guard the shadows of the Empire). The city straddles a major river, the wealthy merchant, and noble families on one side and the poor merchants, tradesmen, and disenfranchised on the other. There is also an island in the river between the two halves of the city which holds the “floating world” or entertianment district for the wealthy and nobles.

The city is ruled by the Scorpion Clan, but in Ryoko Owari things are never that straightforward. The Scorpion are divided into two factions, and there are a number of other factions represented among the noble houses. The following groups make up the noble families that have influence in the city and suggested 4E adaptations of them:

  • Scorpion: Bayushi – the rulers of the city in title. These are politicians of the worst sort, backed by the city’s army and ninjas! They control the majority of the opium production.
    • Race: Tiefling
    • Favoured Power Source: Martial
  • Scorpion: Soshi – the cousins of the Bayushi. They would like to control the city but lack the political capital to sieze control for themselves and so must work from the shadows. They are politicians, magic users and priests.
    • Race: Tiefling
    • Favoured Power Source: Arcane
  • Crane: Doji – wealthy and tradition bound. This family controls many of the legitimate business not tied to the opium trade (which is controlled entirely by the Bayushi and Soshi), they are mostly polticians or swordsmen.
    • Race: Eladrin
    • Favoured Power Source: Martial
  • Lion: Akodo – a tradition bound family of virtuous warriors. This family struggles to keep influence in a city of corruption. They are peerless tacticians and well respected for their virtue.
    • Race: Dragonborn
    • Favoured Power Source: Divine
  • Crab: Hida – a family considered brutish by the other families. In a DnD game their money would come from adventuring which their family members are want to do regularly, which causes the other noble families to respect them little.
    • Race: Goliath
    • Favoured Power Source: Primal
  • Unicorn:  Shinjo – a family that several hundred years ago once ruled the city, until the Bayushi camly claimed it back (with no war). The Shinjo are horse merchants and well respected for the quality of the steeds they produce.
    • Race: Human
    • Favoured Power Source: None
  • Dragon: Mirumoto – a family who have largely left worldly matters to the others, and are as monastic as they are noble. As such the other families pay them little head, which suits the Mirumoto fine.
    • Race: Githzerai
    • Favoured Power Source: Psionic

Player characters should be from one of the noble families, giving them standing and influence in the city. In particular after early events in the campaign they should be promoted to the position of “Emerald Magistrate”, essentially the “police of the nobility” and as such the most powerful body outside the Bayushi’s control. This makes the characters critical to the city, but not the absolute authorities, and also puts them in the middle of the cities political games, as the family with the most influence (legitimate or not) runs the city!


So at this point we have a rough outline of hte history of the campaigns major villain and how he relates to the world. We have a broad outline of the city, and some notes on how to alter things to take advantage of 4E concepts and preconceptions. We also have a few notes about monsters to help in designing encounters later on.

Next time I will take a more detailed look at the city, and make notes about things that are “must haves” to bring across.

Categories: DM Theory

4E Inspired by..

I have been thinking about a campaign to run and recently thadeousc asked on Twitter what people’s favourite modules were and my initial list was quickly:

  • Living Forgotten Realms module Silver Lining – I love the NPC that goes along with the party.
  • BECMI modules – Rahasia and Castle Amber – I actually used Rahasia in my campaign converted to 4E.
  • Legend of the Five Rings RPG modules – Night of 1000 Screams and Tomb of Iuchiban – I love the way they interconnect with each other and the City of Lies boxed set (which is arguably another adventure in itself).
  • AD&D module – Dragons of Despair also known as DL1 – again the NPCs are awesome, especially those gully dwarves.

The last of these got me thinking about running the whole Dragonlance Chronicles as a 4E DnD game, but not necassarily as a game set in Krynn, and while writing this I realised I could do nearly the exact same thing with the City of Lies etc from L5R.

The thing is to take the key elements and adopt them to make a compelling story for your characters where they overcome great challenges in the face of expanding evil etc etc. Both of these campaigns offer that concept in spades: in DL you have Tiamat turning the eggs of good dragons into the Draconians and using them to wage a war of conquest over Krynn. In City of Lies you have an evil cult attempting to free their lich like master from his prison so that under his guidance they can conquer the empire etc.

So I’m going to start taking a look at adopting these two campaigns into 4E, I’ll start with the shorter Iuchiban campaign from L5R, and then move into the longer one of Dragonlance.

Adopting both of these requires examining the setting, and the core assumptions of 4E and what you care going to do with them in relation to the original settings of the modules. For example in Rokugan (the L5R setting) there are really only humans available as a PC race, and quite a number of classes shouldn’t exist. Dragonlance of course has as part of the initial core premise “no Divine powers” in particular healing magic is incredibly rare, something very against a lot of the 4E assumptions.

I will continue to post encounters but now they will be in the context of one or both of these campaigns, or my current campaign in my Shattered Lands setting. These however will be “as they occur” rather than trying to produce them all the time.

Hopefully folks find these campaign development articles useful as well.

Categories: DM Theory


Sorry that I’ve been quiet for a while, a mix of things has combined to leave me high and dry for DnD ideas to share.

Fortunately I’ve discovered a little project for DnD that should keep me going for a while.

Categories: Ramblings