When the Real World Intrudes…

We, as DMs, have limitless control over the worlds we create with our players, but the real world is a completely different story. Sometimes it can be hard to get a group of people with different schedules together to play, but every now and then the really world will really hit someone in your group hard. Hard enough that it’s going to change how your group has to play. As DMs, not only do we have to be great storytellers and gamers, we also have to have skill with people management. When a players issue changes your game, here are some things you can do.

Talk to them. Make sure they understand these changes aren’t their fault. Let them know they aren’t a pariah or anything stupid like that. These changes are for the betterment of the group, not to make someone feel alienated.

Get their input. Get them to talk about the solution they’d come up with. Letting them help will make them feel less like it’s their fault. Their solution will both make the group see their helping and make them feel like their helping, and at this time, it’s all about helping.

Don’t stop your game. Maybe you need to take a quick break or something, but DO NOT stop playing. This is probably the worst thing you can do. Do what it takes to keep your game going. The game might be just as important to your player who’s having the problem as it is to you. Who knows, you game might even help them feel better.

To New Beginnings!

I think my favorite session in a campaign has to be the first one. I always introducing the world to my group and forcing them together. This one was especially sweet because we’d spent so much time making characters and the world.

I’ll admit that I had been a bit worried as to how my new group would take to the game. They were all new players. They had played with me once before and that was the extent of their experience. I’d met them through a theater group I’d recently joined and they’d asked me to DM for them when they found out I could. We used my worldbuilding method to create a world and I wrote a nice little first session for them. It went far better than I could have imagined.

First a little background on the world. The country this campaign happens in is called Illycera. It was once an empire, but it’s been torn apart by a civil war. It’s isolated from the rest of the continent and is experiencing supply shortages.  The empire worships Bahamut, while the rebels are worshipers of Tiamet. All of the players have been touched by this war somehow. At the start of the campaign, the players have found themselves on the Bahamutan side in what could be the final battle of the war. The Bahamut government has decided to throw as many resources as they can at this fight. To that end, they’ve hired the Wyrmbreaker Knights who are lead by Ordon Bloodmoon.

When we were making the world, I added a circle for a character of my own, Ordon Bloodmoon. The players knew he was going to be their enemy going into the campaign and they know eventually they’re going to have to stop him. I was worried they might act when he was the bad guy when their characters first met him. They didn’t. They’re all naturals and it’s awesome. They not only took to the game quickly, but they started roleplaying at a level I hadn’t seen at a table in years. I had to cut two fights from what I’d prepared because they were so into it.

The battle is taking place at the Temple of Tiamet; it’s believed that if the Bahamutans take the temple, the war is over. The players and Ordon have been tasked with infiltrating the temple. They enter and the players find that Ordon has his own agenda and no real interest in winning the battle. The players witness as Ordon blatantly murders the high priestess of Tiamet and destroys the temple with the help of his pet necromancer, Vinalia. She summoned an undead dragon that went on to destroy the temple as the might of the Wyrmbreakers slaughtered what was left of both armies.

Overall, the new group really took to this beginning. They freaked when they realized there was a dragon buried under the temple. They really enjoy the roleplaying aspect; they loved talking to every NPC they met. And while the group does have some speed bumps, they can be fixed. And I’ll be sure to tell you how I do that soon.

Happy Holidays!

Hey everyone, sorry I missed last week’s post. Between starting a new D&D group, rehearsing for my new improv group, and getting ready for Christmas, it sort of fell by the wayside. From now on, when I’m going to miss a week, I’ll make it known here. Speaking of, I will not be posting next week or the week after. I want to wish everyone the best possible holiday, no matter what holiday you celebrate.

Making characters with my new group recently, I realized that new players don’t always have the easiest time with their first character. I guess I hadn’t before because I’d always either been on the same level as them or had another person who knew the game as well as I did to help. It got me wondering: how could I make this easier?

I think the way to make creation easier for any system is to segment it. What I mean is break it up into parts for your players. Using D&D as an example, that would mean you do stats, skills, gear, everything separately. I also mean that you should keep the extraneous or unneeded choices away. So if one of your players is a Rogue, show them only the best feats for a rogue. This process takes more work on your part, but it pays off during the creation process.

So, with the proper prep, you can make the process of creation much easier on your first time players. It’s all about asking the right questions, knowing your stuff, and making decisive choices (believe me, they will waffle a lot). Also, never hurts to have multiple copies of your core book.

So, when next I write, it’ll be 2013 (unless the Mayans are right) and I’m going to start with a story about my new group and a brand new campaign building system made by yours truly. Hope to see you all next year!

What a Twist!

While running the first adventure for a group of new players, I noticed something questionable about the ending. The adventure was a published adventure that Wizards gave out two years ago at Free RPG Day to promote the Dark Sun setting. The adventure is really well put together; the players fight in the gladiatorial pit and investigate a murder that happens shortly after. They’re trying to impress a group known as the Veiled Alliance, who the governor that tasks them with solving the murder is a known member, and the end comes and they find and capture the murderer. And then, the adventure breaks down because the man responsible for the murder is a member of the Veiled Alliance. Yeah…

What. A. Twist.

This made me wonder: what is the proper use of the twist in Dungeons and Dragons?

I think it only really works when this sort of thing is at least plausible. When you have a twist come out of left field it kind of ruins the effect.  A proper twist is a surprise, but the kind of thing where when you look back it makes sense. Think about the end of the Sixth Sense. Throughout that film, the viewer is given countless hints that Bruce Willis is dead. Now, compare that to the end of Saw, where you have to justify pretty much everything about that situation. Which do you find more satisfying? The hinted at turn in the story or the sudden jarring change? The reason, in my opinion, that the Sixth Sense is better is because you given all the information, but lead to believe it’s not about Bruce Willis.

My favorite twist is to have a trusted (or sometimes not so trusted) NPC turn on the party. But I never just have this happen. I always give them subtle hints, but keep them on their main task. It’s not about the weird problems they’re having with this NPC, it’s about stopping their antagonist. This works because I use a red herring.

A red herring, for those who don’t know, is a false lead. In the Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment is the red herring. You’re lead to believe this movie is about the psychologist trying to help the boy. But, the movie is really about the boy helping the dead man. A good twist can’t exist without some misdirection. When planning a big shake up for your players, don’t be afraid to lead them astray. If you have them thinking one thing and blindside (with proper set up of course) with another thing they may have not been expecting, their minds will be blown.

But, be careful. Two things to keep in mind here. One: too many twists will frustrate and confuse your players. Two: players love being rewarded for being smart. If one of your red herrings is well set up and your players are really buying into, change your plans. Your players will eat it up.

Dragon Snacks #1

Welcome to Dragon Snacks, my new monthly feature here at Dragons in the Kitchen. Sometimes I get cool ideas for adventure hooks or jumping off points that just don’t merit an entire post. Sometimes I have things I want to talk about, like games, products, or things I’m working on, that also don’t deserve an entire post.  And sometimes I just have ideas to throw into the ether. This is what Dragon Snacks is going to cover. Every month I’ll give you three morsels that will hopefully help you with your gaming life.  Without further ado, here is the first installment of Dragon Snacks:

When was the last time you played a D&D adventure about ghosts? I was thinking about this the other day and I really couldn’t place an adventure I’d played, seen, or heard others talking about where ghosts were the major antagonists. Some adventures will have ghosts thrown in, but they never take a starring role. If you look at the Monster Manual, they seem like more of a pain in the ass than anything. But, if you treat it as more than number and throw in the lore ghosts become really interesting. The one thing that sticks out to me is possession. Imagine, players possessed by ghosts…

Swarms of vermin can make a viable adventure.  Why do adventurers always have to fight the wizard in his tower or the zombies that come at night? What a beleaguered village asks a group of passing adventurers to help with their rat problem? What if a city is so desperate to be rid of their plague of crows they put a bounty on the birds? The cool thing here is that it can stand as its own adventure or be a portent of something more powerful on the horizon.

I prefer minis. This might be obvious from reading my blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever put it into black and white. So here it is, given the choice between a game that uses minis and one that doesn’t, I will almost always pick the game that uses minis. I guess it just helps me visualize combat better. I always like it when players have a mini just for the character they’re currently playing (I do this). It makes me feel like they’re more invested in the game when they took the time to buy and paint something that will only ever be that one character.

The Four Vital Parts of a One-off Adventure

Whether it’s a quick diversion for your regular group or a dungeon to excite your friends, the one-off adventure is an integral part of the role playing experience.  What is a one-off?  A one-off adventure is an adventure that doesn’t affect the ongoing story that usually isn’t longer than a single session.  The best one-offs have four vital parts: A great hook, an interesting locale, proper length, and an exciting set piece encounter.  Let’s take a look at each of these and I’ll give some examples to help your brainstorms.

A Great Hook: You need to entice your players properly.  A lame hook will lead to a lame game.  Just because the characters and locations in this adventure won’t be seen again doesn’t mean you can be lazy.  Trust me; they don’t want to face the nameless wizard in his tower in ‘the mountains’.  They’d rather try to stop Immeral Imenethil, eladrin artificer, from making his deadliest creation or seek the temple of the Sun Dragon deep in the southern swamps to find the a legendary blade or to stop the Lizard King, dragonborn warlord, from raising an army of lizardfolk to wipe the nearby village from the map.  Give them a good reason to do it and they’ll buy into the adventure and have a blast.

An Interesting Locale: Just as important as a great hook is the setting for your one-off.  Again, don’t send them to another wizard’s tower.  Tombs, abandoned fortresses, ancient temples to forgotten gods, these are all steps in the right direction.  Add some history to liven those places up and you’ve got yourself a great locale.  Immeral Imenethil’s workshop is set up in a repurposed dwarven tomb.  The Temple of the Sun Dragon is full of reptilian skeletons.  The little details make the memories.

Proper Length: There is nothing worse than setting up a game with your friends and having to stop three rooms before the grand finale.  It’s important to know just how long you’re going to have and plan for it.  More importantly, plan your beginning, middle, and ending (I’ll go more into this later).  If you know there’s going to a break in the adventure plan for that too.  One last tip, people like to eat every four to five hours.

A Set Piece Encounter: I like to talk a lot about what I call ‘set piece encounters’.  Set piece encounters are those big fights, the fights you hint at, the grand finales, the ones your players talk about for years.  Every one-off needs one of these, preferably at the end.  A well thought, challenging battle will tie the entire adventure together.  Unique traps, epic terrain, power elites with deadly bodyguards, and one of a kind solos can all lead to unforgettable battles.  When the players finally encounter Immeral, they battle him in his trap laden laboratory, when they meet the Lizard King he battles them with his honor guard by his side.

When you give your players a great adventure, you give them lifetime memories.  So, even when it’s just for one night, don’t skimp on your adventures.

My Greatest Monster Hits

I’m going to start this post by asking you to bear with me and the walls of roughly formatted text.  Monster Builder (the original, not the awful new one) doesn’t play nice with WordPress.

I was going through some of my notes from my current and past campaigns and thought I’d share some of the monsters I’m particularly proud of and the stories behind them.  First up is Black Claw. I’ve written a lot about him here, here’s how he was when I used him for the first time (the first session of the Eberron Campaign):

Black Claw of the Red Jackals

Level 2 Elite Controller (Leader)

Medium natural humanoid (shifter)

XP 250

HP 70; Bloodied 35

AC 18; Fortitude 16; Reflex 13; Will 18

Speed 6

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +3

Perception +5

Low-Light Vision

Traits
O Bloodlust • Aura 2
Each ally within the aura gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls.
Standard Actions
m Claw • At-Will
Attack: +7 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 1 damage.
m Quarterstaff (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: +7 vs. AC
Hit: 1d8 + 5 damage, and the warshaper slides the target 2 squares.
M Claw Flurry • At-Will
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper makes two claw attacks.
Minor Actions
R Unleash the Beast (charm) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10; +6 vs. Will
Hit: The target makes a melee basic attack against an adjacent creature of the Ashbound warshaper’s choice as a free action.
Aspect of the Beast (healing, polymorph) • Encounter
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper assumes the form of a primal beast. Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper gains regeneration 5, its speed increases by 2, and it can make claw attacks. While in this form, the Ashbound warshaper cannot make quarterstaff attacks and cannot use unleash the beast.
Razorclaw Shifting • Encounter
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper’s speed increases by 2 and it gains a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex.
Skills Endurance +6, Intimidate +7, Nature +10
Str 16 (+4) Dex 14 (+3) Wis 19 (+5)
Con 11 (+1) Int 9 (+0) Cha 12 (+2)
Alignment unaligned     Languages Common

For this, I just renamed and dropped the Ashbound Warshaper on page 136 of the Eberron Campaign Guide three levels.  When they fought him again, he had just fallen under the possession of an otherworldly entity.  Here’s that version:

Black Claw of the Red Jackals

Level 4 Elite Controller (Leader)

Medium natural humanoid (shifter)

XP 350

HP 104; Bloodied 52

AC 20; Fortitude 18; Reflex 15; Will 20

Speed 6

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +4

Perception +7

Low-Light Vision

Traits
O Bloodlust • Aura 2
Each ally within the aura gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls.
Standard Actions
m Claw • At-Will
Attack: +9 vs. AC
Hit: 2d8 + 2 damage.
m Quarterstaff (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: +9 vs. AC
Hit: 1d8 + 6 damage, and the warshaper slides the target 2 squares.
M Claw Flurry • At-Will
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper makes two claw attacks.
Minor Actions
R Emergency Healing (healing) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10 (targets one ally); +9 vs. AC
Effect: The target regains 5 hit points and can make a saving throw.
R The Eyes Have It (weapon) • Recharge
Effect: Black Claw makes an eye ray attack chosen randomly from the following list. Using an eye ray does not provoke opportunity attacks.1—Fire Ray (Fire): Ranged 5; +4 vs. Reflex; 1d6 + 3 fire damage.2—Exhaustion Ray (Necrotic): Ranged 5; +4 vs. Fortitude; 1d6 necrotic damage, and the target is weakened until the end of Black Claw’s next turn.
R Unleash the Beast (charm) • At-Will
Attack: Ranged 10; +8 vs. Will
Hit: The target makes a melee basic attack against an adjacent creature of the Ashbound warshaper’s choice as a free action.
Aspect of the Beast (healing, polymorph) • Encounter
Effect: The Ashbound warshaper assumes the form of a primal beast. Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper gains regeneration 5, its speed increases by 2, and it can make claw attacks. While in this form, the Ashbound warshaper cannot make quarterstaff attacks and cannot use unleash the beast.
Razorclaw Shifting • Encounter
Effect: Until the end of the encounter, the warshaper’s speed increases by 2 and it gains a +1 bonus to AC and Reflex.
Skills Endurance +8, Intimidate +8, Nature +12
Str 17 (+5) Dex 15 (+4) Wis 20 (+7)
Con 12 (+3) Int 10 (+2) Cha 13 (+3)
Alignment unaligned     Languages Common

I added a power from Boontah, Goblin Champion (found in issue 177 of Dragon) to reflect the influence of the entity within Black Claw.  Both versions were challenging and fun according to my group.  The new power really hooked them.  When he started shooting lasers from his eyes, my players were confused, but intrigued.

Next up is a creation of mine only known as the Murderball.  The Murderball is all me from the ground up.  It’s a massive construct that transforms into a spiked ball.  Here it is:

The Murderball

Level 7 Solo Brute

Huge natural animate

XP 1,500

Initiative +6                          Senses Perception +3
Whirling Blades aura 1; Creatures that start their turn within the aura take 5 damage.
HP 425; Bloodied 212
AC 22; Fortitude 26; Reflex 20; Will 19
Immune fear; poison; disease
Saving Throws +5
Speed 6 (8 while in ball form)
Action Points 2
m Fist Slam (standard; at-will)
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d6 + 5
M Grab (standard; at-will)
The Murderball grabs an enemy and places them in itself to be ripped up by internal blades. A grabbed enemy is immune to murderball’s aura.  Only one enemy can be grabbed at a time.
Reach 2; +8 vs Reflex; target is grabbed -2 to escape checks
 Frenzy (standard; at-will)
The murderball may make 1 grab and 1 fist slam attack or 2 fist slam attacks per turn.
 Internal Blades (free; at-will)
The murderball tears apart a grabbed enemy once per turn.
+12 vs AC; 3d8 + 5
 Tranform! (standard; at-will)
The Murderball transforms from body form to ball form or vice versa.  In ball form, grab cannot be escape and murderball gains a +2 bonus to ac.  It can no longer make Grab or Fist slam attacks if in ball form.  It cannot make a trample attack in body form.
M Rolling Trample (standard; recharge 6)
murderball moves its speed, through enemy spaces.  Each enemy moved through takes the following attack
+10 vs AC; 3d6 + 5 and the target is knocked prone. Miss: Half damage and the target is slide 1 square.
 Reinforcements (immediate reaction; encounter)
When the murderball is first bloodied, he releases 4 Incomplete Forge Drakes to assist in the battle.
Alignment Evil Languages Common
Str 19 (+7) Dex 16 (+6) Wis10 (+3)
Con 25 (+10) Int 10 (+3) Cha 13 (+4)

Paul still talks about this one.  All of its abilities were extremely active, meaning he’d grab a player, move a player, or roll through a group.  I’m still proud of this one.

Finally here’s the villain of my last campaign.  She fought that group four times over the course of the heroic tier.  She increased in power right along with them.  She was always a bit different but had the same core group of abilities.  Here she is when they encountered the first time:

Sorena

Level 5 Elite Controller

Medium shadow humanoid

XP 400

Initiative +6                          Senses Perception +3
HP 126; Bloodied 63
AC 19; Fortitude 21; Reflex 19; Will 20
Saving Throws +2
Speed 6
Action Points 1
m Scythe (at-will; standard) • Weapon
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d4 + 3
M Life Sapping Scythe (at-will; standard) • Necrotic, Weapon
Reach 2; +10 vs AC; 2d4 + 3 necrotic damage, and the target is slowed until the end of the hobgoblin warcaster’s next turn
M Cage of Gloom (recharge 5 6; standard)
Sorena makes a scythe attack. If the attack hits, Sorena makes a secondary attack as strands of shadow coil around the target.
+7 vs Reflex; the target is restrained (save ends)
C Deep Shadow (encounter; standard; sustain minor) • Necrotic
Aura 2; thick, writhing shadows surround Sorena. Sorena and any other shadow creatures in the aura gain concealment. In addition, enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 5 necrotic damage, and enemies (including flying ones) also treat the area within the aura as difficult terrain. Sorena can sustain the aura as a minor action. However, the effect ends if she uses shadow jaunt or moves more than half her speed on her turn.
 Shadow Jaunt (encounter; move) • Teleportation
Sorena teleports 3 squares and becomes insubstantial until the start of her next turn.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Common, Abyssal
Skills Acrobatics +11, Stealth +11, Thievery +11
Str 12 (+3) Dex 18 (+6) Wis 12 (+3)
Con 15 (+4) Int 18 (+6) Cha 15 (+4)
Equipment Scythe, Leather Armor

And here’s what she looked like when they fought her for the last time:

Sorena Darkfeather, Mistress of Shadows

Level 13 Solo Controller

Medium shadow humanoid

XP 4,000

Initiative +12                        Senses Perception +9
HP 524; Bloodied 262
AC 27; Fortitude 29; Reflex 27; Will 28
Saving Throws +5
Speed  6
Action Points 2
m Scythe (standard; at-will) • Weapon
Reach 2; +18 vs AC; 2d4 + 5
M Life Sapping Scythe (standard; at-will) • Necrotic, Weapon
Reach 2; +18 vs AC; 2d4 + 5 necrotic damage, and the target is shrouded in gloom
 Come to my Aid! (minor; recharge when minions are dead)
Sorena summons 4 Shadar-kai grunts.  When all are dead, she’ll use this power again.  They act immediately after her in the initiative order.
M Cage of Gloom (standard; recharge 5 6)
Sorena makes a scythe attack. If the attack hits, Sorena makes a secondary attack as strands of shadow coil around the target.; 2
+15 vs Reflex; 2 the target is restrained (save ends)
 Shadow Burst (minor; encounter) • Cold, Necrotic
Close blast 3; +17 vs Reflex; cold or necrotic damage, Sorena chooses for each attack, and the target takes ongoing 10 damage (save ends); 2d8 + 6
C Frightful Presence (standard; encounter) • Fear
Close burst 5; targets enemies; +15 vs Will; the target is stunned until the end of Sorena’s next turn. Aftereffect: The target takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls (save ends)
C Mark of Terror’s Grasp (free, when first bloodied; encounter) • Necrotic
Close blast 3; +16 vs Fortitude; 3d6 + 6 necrotic damage, and the target is immobilized (save ends)
 Fearful Pulse (minor; recharge 5 6) • Cold, Necrotic
Targets only those under the effects of Frightful Presence, Shadow Burst and Mark of Terror.  Target takes 10 cold and Necrotic damage.
C Deep Shadow (standard; sustain minor; encounter) • Necrotic
Aura 2; thick, writhing shadows surround Sorena. Sorena and any other shadow creatures in the aura gain concealment. In addition, enemies that enter or start their turns in the aura take 5 necrotic damage, and enemies (including flying ones) also treat the area within the aura as difficult terrain. Sorena can sustain the aura as a minor action. However, the effect ends if she uses shadow jaunt or moves more than half her speed on her turn.; 2
 Shadow Jaunt (move; recharge 4 5 6) • Teleportation
Sorena teleports 5 squares and becomes insubstantial until the start of her next turn.
 Shrouded in Gloom
While shrouded in gloom, a creature takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls and gains only half the benefit of healing effects.
Alignment Unaligned Languages Common, Abyssal
Skills Acrobatics +17, Stealth +17, Thievery +17
Str 16 (+9) Dex 22 (+12) Wis16 (+9)
Con 19 (+10) Int 22 (+12) Cha 19 (+10)
Equipment Scythe, Leather Armor

Feel free to use any of these monsters in your campaigns and let me know how they work out for you.  If you make any changes or improvements, I’d love to hear about it.