D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Six Reasons Why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the Best

4As an old school D&D player and DM, I have many fond memories of classic adventures from the past. Ravenloft, Isle of Dread, and many others were among my favorites. As far as 4E adventures go, my favorite was Cairn of the Winter King. But having run my players through several sessions of Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I am of the opinion that it is easily the best 4E adventure, and compares favorably to such beloved classics as Keep on the Borderlands and Tomb of Horrors. Here are six reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is great.

1. The Deck of Many Things

The big maguffin/villain in Gardmore Abbey is the Deck of Many Things. This artifact is one of the most appealing in all of D&D, embracing the random nature of the game. The Deck has been around since the very early days, first appearing in the original Greyhawk supplement. Assembling the deck and debating about whether to draw make the Deck a great source of roleplaying opportunities. Plus, with 4E’s use of cards for powers and abilities, the Deck is a natural fit.

itw_20110705_6Even better is the inclusion of a gorgeously designed physical deck of cards to represent the Deck of Many Things. I love using props in my games any time I can, and the Deck has been a smash hit with my group so far. Finding new cards here and there throughout the Abbey has added to the coherence of our campaign. The Deck is interesting both in real life and in game, and one of the biggest reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is awesome.

2. Tokens, Maps and Dungeon Tiles

One of my biggest pet peeves is when adventures refer to miniatures, maps, or tiles that I don’t have access to. It’s nice to have a big collection of miniatures available, but with the old minis game out of print, and the new Dungeon Command series less than a year old, it can be expensive to find just the right one. Maps and tiles are much the same; sure, I can simply use what I have on hand, but it still bugs me when my best option is to draw a map on Gaming Paper.

dd_20110921_1Madness at Gardmore Abbey doesn’t have these problems. Sturdy tokens, similar to those of the Monster Vault series, are included for the most of the monsters and NPCs. A sheet of Dungeon Tiles enables the DM to create the encounters exactly as intended. (One nitpick: the tokens and tiles have a dull finish, not the glossy sheen of standard dungeon tiles and the original Monster Vault tokens.) Best of all, for those like me on the lazy side, excellent poster maps for important fights are also in the box. These are rendered very nicely, but still generic enough to be reused in the future. If you have access to the Monster Vault and the first Essentials Dungeon Tiles set, you’ll be prepared for each encounter in the Abbey.

3. Hits the Sweet Spot of 4E Levels

Though I’ve not had much experience running high level 4th Edition sessions, the problems with paragon and epic level games are well known. Increased options and combinations of powers for PCs leads to excessively long combats as well as broken gameplay. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of levels 6 to 8. Coming in on the upper half of Heroic tier, PCs have plenty of options and good survivability, yet at the same time, they don’t have a fifteen page character sheet to look through every turn. This makes for an adventure that balances challenge with simplicity to great effect.

Whether by intention or not, Madness at Gardmore Abbey follows the line of adventures in the Essentials series very well. Running the Red Box adventure, the Iron Circle material from the DM Kit, and the excellent Winter King adventure included with the Monster Vault will take characters to level 5. Gardmore Abbey would work pretty well right after this, and in fact the adventure includes story ties to these other adventures. For all intents and purposes, Madness at Gardmore Abbey IS an Essentials Adventure.

34. Ties to Other Planes

One of the biggest changes in 4th Edition D&D is the “nerfing” of the planes. No longer is traveling to a different plane restricted to high level characters with access to powerful magic. While still dangerous, 4E style planar adventures are possible for characters of more modest abilities. I see this as a net positive; anything that gets players into fantastic environments sooner is a good thing, in my book.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey has direct ties to two planes: the Feywild and the Far Realm. An entire quest chain with significant links to the Feywild is available, and can lead to further adventures in the plane of rampant growth. The Lovecraft-inspired Far Realm has directly intruded upon one location in the Abbey, with suitably horrific events playing out as players explore. As with the Feywild, you can easily toss in some bread crumbs here that lead to further exploration of the dread Far Realm later in your campaign. Extraplanar adventures have a big “wow” factor with players and this adventure gives you an easy way to head that direction if you so choose.

155. Features Iconic Monsters

Ask any person on the street what types of monsters show up in a fantasy setting, and you are all but guaranteed to get dragons as an answer. Madness at Gardmore Abbey uses a young red dragon in a showcase encounter. I just ran my players through it, and the fight was a gloriously challenging epic battle that lasted almost two hours. That’s far longer than I typically prefer, but it felt fresh throughout due to the almost video game-like stages of the encounter. I won’t spoil them, but suffice it to say that fighting a red dragon equipped with several cards from the Deck of Many Things is a fantastic experience.

And there’s much more to Gardmore Abbey than just one cool monster. Another iconic creature, the beholder, is a major antagonist, in a truly creepy environment. Orcs, another staple, make a significant appearance, as does an ettin, in a particularly memorable encounter that doesn’t have to be a slugfest. The catacombs beneath the Abbey are full of undead, one of my favorite types of monsters to use. Gardmore Abbey has so many classic creatures inside, it may as well be called “Monster Vault’s Greatest Hits”.

6. So… Much… Content!

Madness at Gardmore Abbey is intended for characters of level 6 to 8. There is more than enough adventure inside to be the entire focus of your campaign for these levels. You could use only the content inside and spend all of levels 6, 7, and 8 before you got through. An incredible amount of resources, encounters, NPCs, plot threads, and suggestions for smaller side adventures and quests are included. It is really more like a miniature campaign setting than a standard adventure.

6Since my group only plays once a month, and is level 8, I’ve cherry picked the more challenging encounters and quests to use at my table. I’d estimate I’ve only used about one third of the content by doing so. That leaves plenty of cool stuff available for the future. Madness at Gardmore Abbey is a treasure trove of interesting locations, characters, and challenges that can be swapped into nearly any campaign. Whether you use it all in a marathon adventure chain, or simply pick and choose, there is a wealth of useful material here.

As D&D Next is in active playtest, just over the horizon, support for 4th edition has fallen off dramatically. It’s a bit sad that Madness at Gardmore Abbey will likely be the final published 4E adventure. I’d love to have seen more like it, assuming the high quality of this module continued in further products. As it stands, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the final pinnacle of adventure design in 4th edition, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest adventures in D&D’s rich history.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons” Review

It has been quite a while since I reviewed any D&D material. As my campaign met more and more infrequently over the past months, I found myself purchasing fewer new products. So, I decided to look through some of my earlier items for review, and the first that came to mind was the first 4th Edition installment of the Draconomicon, focusing on Chromatic Dragons.

As we look to D&D Next, it may seem strange to look back at what was a relatively early book in 4E’s development. According to the product page for the book, it came out in November 2008, less than half a year after the core 4th edition books hit store shelves. From the perspective of a person who came into 4E through Essentials, the book looks quite different than what I am used to. For the most part, though, the book is still very useful, particularly the non-statistic content.

The first section of Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is titled “Dragon Lore”, a broad category that covers many separate topics. The first half of this section reads a bit like a biology textbook, detailing the physiology and life cycle of dragons. I felt the book gave a bit too much detail, stuff that was not immediately useful in a campaign, but the following pages on draconic motivations, society, and the relationships of dragons to the gods are more easily integrated.

The second section of “Dragon Lore” looks at each specific variety of dragon in depth. The differences between the various dragon colors have been emphasized in the past few editions of D&D, from an art perspective, at least. These pages give lots of information about what, apart from looks, makes each color unique from the rest. I appreciated this very much, as will most DMs who use a variety of evil dragons in their campaigns, and who want them to feel distinct from one another.

The “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the second major portion of the supplement. Unsurprisingly, these pages are among the most useful in the entire book. Sample encounters are provided, in both combat and skill challenge form. A few new traps are listed, most appropriate for dragon lairs but easily dropped into any adventure. I am especially fond of the pages devoted to adventure hooks, quests, and even two full-length campaigns all heavily involving dragons. Regardless of which version of D&D (or, I suppose, any other RPG) you are using, there is plenty of inspiration to be had here.

Another excellent resource in this “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the detailed rules for creating a dragon’s treasure hoard. Though intended for the large treasure parcels associated with dragons, these charts and guidelines are useful for any large hoard. Sample parcels for each level are included, but the best part are the different options and suggestions for interesting valuable items. Using art objects or fine materials instead of piles of gold coins in your treasures makes your fantasy world seem that much more real. A handful of draconic artifacts, including the Orb of Dragonkind, a favorite of Dragonlance fans everywhere, are also detailed here. The guide wraps up with new rituals and a nifty section on the magical properties of dragon parts.

Next, the Draconomicon spends a hefty number of pages on “Dragon Lairs”. This section is a mixed bag. Though the background information and maps are quite useful, it’s painfully obvious that the encounter design is very early in 4E’s development. Still, there’s plenty of good stuff here, but be prepared to do some serious tweaking before taking it to the table. Nine different adventures, each eight pages long, are presented.

  • Ruins of Castle Corvald – 5th level, young white dragon
  • Cliffside Lair – 6th level, kobolds and a young gray dragon
  • Feywild Lair – 9th level, eladrin and a young green dragon
  • Where Shadows Fall – 16th level, Shadowfell based vampiric dragon
  • Heart of Darkness – 18th level, Underdark lair of an elder purple dragon
  • Volcano Lair – 19th level, elder red dragon guarding a “doomsday device”
  • Tomb of Urum-Shar, 27th level, underground ziggurat of an ancient brown dragon
  • Abyssal Lair – 28th level, a deathmask dragon in the Blood Sea
  • Regnant Fane – 29th level, Tiamat’s eggs guarded by a dracolich and polychromatic black dragon

The remainder of the book, just under half of the total page count, is devoted to “New Monsters”. I got the impression that everything draconic that didn’t fit into the first 4E Monster Manual was crammed into this section. Sadly, the statistics for these monsters are in the early monster block format, very hard to use in play. Also, this was written before the MM3 changes, so extensive alterations might be needed, particularly for paragon and epic tier foes.

Details about brown, gray, and purple dragons begin this section. These creatures are hardly new to the game, previously being known as sand, fang, and deep dragons, respectively. Stats for various ages of these beasts are provided, as well as tactics, lore, and sample encounters for each.  Following the “new” chromatics are entries for wyrmlings of the various colors, in case you want your PCs to beat up on a baby dragon sometime.

Planar Dragons come next. Dragons, as such an integral part of the game, can be found on almost any plane your group might visit. The dragons listed run the gamut from incredibly evocative to quite mundane in theme. An example of the former would be the Frostforged Wyrm, a white dragon captured by demons and forced to wear painful armor plates, constantly being nailed on by small imps. An evocative image to be sure! Blight dragons, shadow dragons, and the various Feywild dragons are also worthwhile additions to your adventures. The dragons of the elemental planes, too, are quite interesting, and thematically appropriate given dragons’ strong ties to elemental magic. The dragons from the astral plane, though, seem quite vanilla compared to the others. They deviate very little in theme or mechanics from their standard brethren.

Several varieties of undead dragons are also presented. The fan favorite dracolich appears in no less than four separate varieties. A few other standard monster types are grafted onto dragons as well, including wraiths, zombies, and vampires. Following these horrors are a few dragon related monsters, and these are hit and miss. More kobolds are always nice, and the Kobold Victory Table is as awesome as it sounds. Abishai are here, and rightly so. But some of these monsters are really stretching it; draconic parasites and drakes are dull, at best. On the other hand, living breath monsters, embodiments of draconic elemental power, certainly make up for the less compelling creatures in this section.

Perhaps the best part of the Draconomicon, from a lore perspective, is the “Dragon Hall of Fame”. Eight different dragons, well detailed and suitably villainous, are available to be used in your campaigns. Each one of these would be a fantastic catalyst for an adventure, or perhaps even as the theme for an entire campaign. My favorites include Ashardalon, Cyan Bloodbane, and of course Tiamat herself. While the mechanics on these villains are probably woefully outdated, the motivations, backstory, and tactics presented for each are very inspiring, no matter what edition of D&D you are playing. A few templates and alternative powers are the last pages in the book.

So what’s the final verdict? There is so much fluff here, it’s hard to not find something you like. If you play D&D, chances are you like dragons, and the Draconomicon is a vast resource for story and potential villains and encounters. It’s unfortunate that the book came out so early in 4E’s lifespan, as most of the crunch included here really needs updating before it can be used directly in your game. To me, I found the fluff elements alone worthwhile. Being an older book, it is likely available used at your FLGS or online; I paid around $12 for my copy a year ago. If you plan on using dragons heavily in your game, and don’t mind adjusting or, in high level scenarios, entirely remaking stat blocks, Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is certainly worth a look.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

What I Learned from Making an Epic Tier Dragon

As I discussed in a recent post, my group had a one-time “flash forward” session where they played as 25th level versions of themselves. Overall, the experience went very well; my players had fun, and I certainly did as well. One of the highlights for me as the DM was being able to use my Gargantuan Blue Dragon figure in an encounter. The “mini” looks fantastic, and is easily my favorite among the Icons figures I have (sadly, no Colossal Red Dragon for me…yet).

Knowing I wanted to use the big blue dragon in the battle, I decided to twist the players’ expectations a bit and present it as an ancient blue dragon with a red bloodline (inspired by the Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons book). In my campaign, the PCs have been learning about Tiamat’s plan to breed together these mixed-bloodline dragons in order to create hybrid two-headed dragons as her special servants. I went to the custom Monster Builder to come up with stats for the oldest of these mixed-blood dragons: Apzu (name stolen from Babylonian mythology), an enormous blue dragon, infused with the twin elemental energies of fire and lightning, a consort of Tiamat herself and one of the most powerful dragons in existence.

Immediately, I ran into a problem. The ancient dragons in the Monster Builder used the old, pre-MM3 layout and stats. I decided that customizing the highest-level Dragons from the Monster Vault was the best plan, since these were very-well designed solo monsters, and used the new, more dangerous damage math. I was leary of using the Builder’s new customization features alone to scale the dragon up, so I also took a look at Sly Flourish’s epic-level dragon, Shademaw, which was presented in a tutorial with some excellent epic-tier advice. I used an elder blue dragon from the Monster Vault as the base, and tweaked it by adding in some red dragon characteristics. Here is what I ended up using, along with some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t.

Traits were fairly easy; there wasn’t too much to do here. I kept the full lightning resistance, and added in a similar amount of fire resistance, based on Apzu’s red bloodline. Action Recovery and Instinctive Slash are both great ways to shake off the most brutal status effects, so I kept them in unchanged. Uncontained Lightning was very flavorful, but the damage was fairly low. I’d probably change it to 15 or 20 lightning and fire typed damage if I had to do it over again.

Apzu’s standard actions were only slightly modified from the elder blue dragon baseline. After having used this monster in the wild, though, I would change two things. First of all, Gore was about useless. It simply doesn’t keep up with the damage output of Claw, which can be used twice each action. I believe I used Gore one time, just for variety’s sake, and while the flaming, lightning-infused horn strike made for an interesting description, it did an underwhelming amount of damage. To fix this, I would remove Gore and add in the Bite attack from the elder red dragon instead. The grab and ongoing damage effects of that attack make it significantly different from Claw, but not inferior to it. The second ability I would change is the blue dragon’s Breath Weapon. Being limited to only three targets isn’t great, and “dazed save ends” is redundant with Thunderclap (see below). I would revamp this by using the stats from the elder red’s Breath Weapon, retyped as both fire and lightning damage.

Minor and triggered actions are where Apzu received the most changes compared to the elder blue dragon template. Based on the advice given in the Shademaw tutorial, I changed the spell-like powers to be minor actions, significantly adding to Apzu’s damage potential. Flame Burst is simply a renamed and re-typed Lightning Burst. Thunderclap was good enough to be used unaltered. I stole the Tail Strike power from the elder red dragon. All three of these abilities worked fairly well, but I was a bit disappointed in Tail Strike. It quite simply never triggered. I suppose I should have moved Apzu around more, in the hopes of triggering it. Perhaps changing it to a knockback type effect, triggered the first time an enemy came within three squares, might work better. Still, these minor and triggered actions combined to make Apzu a very deadly opponent.

Here is the revised stat block for Apzu, taking into account the changes listed above. I’m new at altering monsters like this, and certainly quite inexperienced with Epic tier, so let me know if you see there are any issues with it. As the name of this blog suggests, I would love to learn how to be a better DM!

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Can A Leader-Less Party Work?

As is becoming typical, Monte Cooke’s latest Legends and Lore article sparked quite a discussion on Twitter.  Many folks didn’t like the “requirement” for having a cleric in the oldest editions of D&D, and some felt the same about the similar need for the leader role in 4th edition.  Is a leader class, specifically a class that has access to good healing skills and abilities, an absolute must in 4E?

When I began my campaign earlier this year, our role balance was about perfect: one of everything, and an extra striker.  The player of our shaman moved away over the summer, though, prompting a summer long break.  Once we started back up, we didn’t replace the shaman, leaving us with two strikers (thief and slayer), a controller (mage), and a defender (cavalier).  This unbalanced party has actually done fairly well, but tweaking had to be done, some of it behind the scenes, some more readily apparent.

Perhaps the most obvious tweak is a reliance on the healing powers available to the cavalier.  I’m lucky that my group’s defender has such abilities; it would be much more difficult if my son was playing, say, a knight.  The cavalier makes a fair healer in a pinch.  Strike of Hope doesn’t look too impressive from a healing standpoint at first, but when you consider that it can be used every round, all the heals for two here and five there really begin to add up.  Bond of Protection, Restore Vitality, and Righteous Shield are other invaluable skills.

Even for parties that don’t have any leader-like roles, there are many other options available for healing.  Second wind allows any character to use a healing surge once per encounter.  A downside to second wind is that players dislike using a standard action to “just heal”.  For dwarves, this is not an issue, as they can use second wind as a minor action.  Consider making a house rule that second wind can be used as a minor action for all races.  Such a solution should be used with caution, since if it doesn’t work out, it will be tough to sell going back to the old way to your players.

Thankfully, less extreme solutions are also available.  An ability similar to the dwarf perk is included, appropriately enough, on sets of dwarven armor, which allow the bearer to regain hit points as if they had spent a healing surge as a daily free action.  I made sure both my slayer and cavalier had access to dwarven armor early in the campaign, since it is an uncommon item of fairly low level.  There are sets of armor and other items with similar abilities that could also be used; this article at Dungeon’s Master lists a few for heroic tier.

Potions are another option.  Long a standard of D&D, these flasks and vials filled with all manner of restorative elixirs and medicines can help keep heroes upright and in the fight.  Quaffing a potion takes only a minor action, which will make your players happy.  The healing provided by potions isn’t as good as having a dedicated healer around, naturally, but, as with the paladin’s healing abilities, a little bit here and there really adds up.

I’m not too familiar with recent release Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, but the potions in that tome are said to be significantly better than their older counterparts.  These healing potions should be sprinkled liberally in your loot tables, crafted by the party’s magic-users, or even purchased outright at local shops, if your vision of the game world allows it.

Most of these suggestions involve alternative methods for direct healing.  However, there are some other ways to solve the leader-less party problem.  Generally speaking, if a party is taking less damage, while dealing out more damage, they will need less healing.  So what are some ways we can make this happen?

Let’s concentrate on taking less damage first.  This may seem obvious, but characters with higher defensive values, hit point totals, and healing surges can survive longer than characters with lesser abilities.  Suggest to your players that they take feats that directly improve their AC and other defenses, such as Improved Defenses or Unarmored Agility .  Toughness provides precious additional hit points to any class.  The additional healing surges provided by the Durable feat are not quite as useful, but still help.

There’s much that can be done on the DM side, too.  Perhaps the most important is to use the inherent bonus system from the DMG2.  Coming into 4E from the Essentials line, I was unaware of this system, which basically gives characters baseline bonuses to attack rolls and defenses that scale with level.  The system was intended to ensure that all characters stay “balanced” regardless of the magic items they have access to.  It can be a headache to make sure that you’ve given the appropriate loot, so be sure to check that “Use inherent bonuses” box in the Character Builder.  Your characters will have better defenses, which means less healing is required.

Some readers may balk at this suggestion, but “min/maxing” characters for damage dealing is another good way to lessen the need for a leader.  If characters hit more often, and do more damage on hits, they will kill monsters faster, and consequently take less damage.  Dead monsters don’t do much damage!  Master at Arms and Elven Precision come to mind as key feats for increasing hit percentage.  Taking a look at the character optimization forums at the main WotC site is probably a good idea, as is using the aforementioned inherent bonuses.

Role balance can help mitigate the lack of a leader.  In my campaign, we have two very effective strikers.  The thief and the slayer do massive amounts of damage, and often kill enemies before they can get in too many hits.  Not all campaigns will have this luxury, but any leader-less campaign will likely have doubles of some role.  A group with two controllers could be very effective, using debuffs, forced movement, or area damage to mitigate the damage the party takes.  A two-defender party might work too; having two characters with high AC, hit points, and all manner of defensive tricks would certainly keep overall damage low.

The balance of monsters you throw in front of the leader-less party can also have an impact.  Brutes are a nice choice, as they are very easy to hit, though that can backfire since they also hit back very hard.  Using more minions and less standard monsters can also help.  Avoid using soldier or elite monsters, with their high AC and hit points.  Every missed attack by the players means more damage the party takes.  Solo monsters are similarly difficult, but they are supposed to be dangerous anyway.  Make sure your characters have some potions or beneficial environmental effects available for big solo boss fights.

So, is it a requirement in a 4E campaign to have a leader role in the party?  Certainly not.  There are many ways to make up for a lack of healing abilities.  Seed your adventures with potions and items that allow characters to heal or use healing surges.  Encourage your players to maximize their damage dealing and mitigation capabilities.  Use lots of brutes and minions, and scale back on soldiers and elites.  An “unbalanced” party can work very well, making for an exciting campaign, with a just a few tweaks here and there.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

Plastic Stands + Monster Tokens = Awesome

4E D&D is different from its forebears in many ways, perhaps none so much as the emphasis on tactical combat.  The battle map is a prerequisite for most combat encounters, and you need some way to keep track of player and monster movement.  For the Essentials products, which were my introduction to 4E, tokens are the primary method for doing this.  A huge variety of tokens are included in the Red Box, DM Kit, and Monster Vault.  You can easily run an entire campaign using only the tokens included in these boxed sets.

Though the tokens are great, I like to use miniatures whenever possible.  They are somewhat easier to use in battle, and they certainly add much to the game’s visual appeal.  The drawback is that they are far more expensive.  It would cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to purchase a collection of minis that could compete with the aforementioned set of tokens.  Most DMs don’t have the budget to do this, and so the typical D&D tabletop probably includes both miniatures and tokens.

This compromise is all well and good, but the fact is that the two don’t work together very well.  Minis are easiest to distinguish from the side, while tokens can be difficult to distinguish unless you look straight down at them.  Tokens can even be confused with small Dungeon Tiles features like braziers or barrels upon first glance.  If only there was a way to get those tokens standing upright so they were easily distinguished from map features and looked better standing next to miniatures…

Thankfully, there is.  I found a nifty little product at my friendly local game shop, the rather plainly titled “Plastic Stands” from Fantasy Flight Supply.

Included in this package are ten clear plastic stands that are the perfect size to hold your tokens upright.  The package cost around $4 at my game shop, which seems a bit expensive for what are, in essence, cheap little pieces of plastic.  On Amazon, they are a little more expensive. However, I found the cost well worth it, since the tokens look so much nicer when standing up this way.  The bases fit easily in a one inch square, just right for medium-sized tokens.

I used these stands in my last two sessions, and they were a big hit.  The art on the tokens looks great next to the miniatures.  I much prefer having a stand-up token representing a lizard man warrior instead of reusing the same miniatures that were, say, orcs last week.  We simply ignore the bloodied side of the tokens, and use the same mini hair clip condition markers we have for the miniatures.  The only drawback to the plastic stands is that the tokens don’t fit snugly on all of them, for whatever reason.  A bit of clear nail polish on the stand’s two tabs should solve this problem rather nicely (a good trick I picked up fixing loose joints on super hero action figures and Transformers).

You can, of course, fit in larger tokens if you wish.  Large sized tokens like the carrion crawler in the pictures are quite intimidating when standing upright.  The only issue with this is the stand doesn’t take up the full space of four squares.  Perhaps gluing a few of these clear stands to 2″ wooden disks from a craft supply store might be a good idea.  Huge tokens fit in the stands, too, but the base problem is even worse.  It seems most tokens I use regularly are medium sized, though, and the bases work perfectly for these.

I am very happy with using these clear plastic stands for tokens on my battlemaps.  It may seem like a small improvement, but it really makes a big difference in actual play.  The tokens are easier to move and blend in much nicer with standard miniatures.  If you can’t afford a huge library of miniatures, but want a more 3D appearance to your monsters and villains, tokens on plastic stands can work very nicely.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“One Fight Per Night ” in 4E D&D

I’ve got two sessions of D&D under my belt after our summer hiatus.  The group is now smaller, with only four PCs, so I had expected that fights would be quicker and I’d easily be able to get in two per session, based on a 3 hour session.  I thought this would work out well, since often, before, we’d only get in one fight a night due to the length of combat.  I figured 45 minutes per fight left an hour and a half of random chit chat and role playing.   Another consideration was the pace of advancement; I wanted the group to level up at nearly the same rate, even though we are now meeting only every other week.

This plan has not worked out well, at all.  The primary reason seems to be the length of our sessions is now considerably shorter.  We’ve been much closer to two hours max for both weeks so far.  There have only been two combat encounters, one per session, due to these time constraints.  There has not been a conscious decision to shorten the sessions, it’s just different this time around.  I don’t see this change as a bad thing, but I’ve had to reevaluate my goals for each evening of D&D as a result.

“There can only be one…”
With a hard limit of two hours, there’s really no way to get in more than one “normal” combat encounter.  Even with a group of four (Essentials thief, slayer, cavalier, and mage) fights last at least 45 minutes.  Admittedly, I have been bumping up the challenge a bit by pitting the party against foes balanced for a standard 5-PC group.  But still, fights take a while, even with initiative trackers, open monster stats, and easy-to-play classes.

After turning it over in my head for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that one major combat encounter per night is going to work out just fine.  There are lots of benefits to this scheme.  If I have a full two weeks to plan one single encounter, I can spend more time making it something special.  I can find or create better maps, look for monsters and villains with interesting powers and abilities, or even write up a bit of flavor text ahead of time.

One fight per night also avoids another pitfall of my previous sessions.  Many times, I would feel obligated to cram those two fights in each week regardless if it made sense for the story or not.  Often, the group would take a different path than I expected, which made it tough to rationalize the fights I had prepared.  Or, sometimes the exploration and roleplaying took quite a bit of time, and I felt like I had to rush to get to the next encounter, instead of letting it progress at a more reasonable pace.  But when there’s only one fight to worry about, I have a bit more freedom.

For example, last week, the group was exploring a cave that held a temple of Tiamat.  I had a fight with three abishai and a bunch of kobold minions ready to go.  As the characters explored, I described the rooms and pretty much followed their lead.  When it came to a natural point in the narrative, I plopped down my battle map and ran the encounter.  It didn’t feel rushed or out of place at all; I simply waited for the opportune moment instead of railroading in a heavy-handed manner to “get the fights in”.

Moving in sloooooowwww mooootiionnnn…
Of course, there are some drawbacks to only having one encounter per session.  Perhaps the biggest is the rate of experience gain.  Previously, the group was leveling up fairly quickly, from level one to level seven in 17 sessions.   That’s a level every two to three evenings of play.  Figuring PCs level every six to eight fights or so, that roughly corresponds to two or three combats per evening for our previous sessions.

So what can I do when the goal is one fight a night?  Going at that same rate of XP gain, my group would expect to level every three months, give or take.  That is far, far too slow.  Gaining a level is one of the biggest rewards a player can have, and generally means more to them than giving their character magic items or monetary rewards.  So I have to adjust the rate of experience gain somehow.

This can be accomplished several ways.  The key is to give them plenty experience for non-combat related actions.  I am far more lenient with awarding experience points for overcoming puzzles and traps than I previously have been.  I’ve started using lots of complexity one skill challenges, too.  Even something simple like crossing a chasm in a cavern can be handled this way.  It doesn’t take long to pass four skill checks, and you can “officially” reward XP equal to a monster of the PC’s level for doing so.  I typically bump that up a bit, just to keep the pace going.

Another adjustment I made, as I said earlier, is to spend more on my XP budget than I normally would.  I start off with the standard budget for five PCs, and often adjust upwards from there.  This creates fights that are somewhat more challenging, which is another plus, as there is a sense of danger and intensity.  I also use lots and lots of minions, often bringing them to the table in multiple waves, since they are easy to deal with while still making the PCs feel heroic.  The mage and paladin like fighting the minions while the two strikers concentrate on the tougher foes.  It’s a win win for everyone!

The “one fight per night” model isn’t for everyone, and I understand that.  However, it seems to be what my group wants.  Though I’d prefer a bit longer sessions personally, I am more than willing to accommodate my players.  If there was one thing that this long D&D-less summer taught me, it’s that a little D&D is far better than none.  With a few tweaks here and there, the one fight session should work out just fine.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Battle Maps

As of two Monday nights ago, I am officially running a 4E D&D campaign again.  After more than two months, all the members of my regular group, save one who moved several hours away, got back together for a session.  It feels great finally getting back into the swing of things after so many weeks.

One thing my time off convinced me of was that my DM style needed to change somewhat.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the feeling that each session has to be bigger, better, and more awesome than the one before.  While this is a noble goal, it’s also a recipe for burnout.  I am determined to dial it down a bit in the continued campaign.  I hope to balance my duties as a DM with my real life responsibilities a bit better.  One area in particular I want to scale back on is an essential to 4E: battle maps.

Ease Back on Expectations for Battle Maps
In my experience, nothing takes more time than taking care of the battle maps for encounters.  The map is such an important part of 4E D&D, I try my best to make sure its just right each time.  But why is it that DMs give so much attention to these maps?

A great map can immerse the players in the experience.  Maps can really make the game world come to life.  The feel of a desert map with sand, shrubs, and stones littered across it is quite different than that of a stone-floored dungeon with arcane runes and odd statues lining the walls.  A map is an aid to imagination, allowing the group to easily picture their character’s actions.  A good map adds to the sense of exploration and wonder that good campaigns provide.

As 4E emphasizes tactical miniatures combat, a good map is also important because it provides a challenge for the players.  When the map provides many hiding places, choke points, dangerous areas, and other interesting features, it becomes a puzzle of sorts, which the group must work together to “solve”.  A interesting map with cool terrain features is far more enjoyable than a simple open room.  Combat can be much more exciting on a map with interesting terrain features than on a simpler one.

Because the map for an encounter is so important, I emphasize three different aspects of it: making sure the map is visually appealing, interesting to play on, and that it matches my vision of the game world.  But meeting all three criteria is very difficult.  Even with the Gaming Paper Mega Dungeon Set, over a dozen maps from adventures and minis products, a Master Set and two older sets of Dungeon Tiles, plus a roll of Gaming Paper, many times I can’t find or create a map that looks cool, plays cool, and fits the environment the group is in like I want it to.

So what’s the solution?  Work harder?  Buy more maps?  No.  Instead, ease back on your expectations.  Prioritize what is most important to you.  Pick what matters most to you in a map and focus on that.  If you absolutely must have a map filled with interesting tactical choices, there are many options available.  Published adventures, including those on DDI, are great for this.  If you can’t use them outright, you can at least replicate the important features on Dungeon Tiles, Gaming Paper, or even the classic wet erase battlemat.  If you value looks and production values over anything else, there are dozens of choices available for you out there.  Just be prepared to lay out the big bucks for a huge library of printed maps or even the high quality Dwarven Forge sets.

In my case, the most important attribute for any map is that it feels natural, like it’s part of the adventure.  For example, in my campaign, the party is in the bowels of a mountain cave complex, so the battlemap shouldn’t look like a forest clearing or a boat near a dock.  In this case, I’d prefer a simpler map as long as it matches an authentic cavern setting.

I picked up a very nice Game Mastery Flip Mat called Darklands that fit the bill nicely.  One side had an interesting bridge location, while the other was much simpler, a wide open area with columns scattered around.  The bridge was a hit with my players, so I might reuse it at some point; maybe next time, the players will be on the other side wanting to get out!  The other, more open side of the map could easily be altered with dry or wet erase markers as needed in order to be reused often.  It was definitely worth the $10 at my local game store to have an easily customizable cave map like this in my repertoire.

Decide what’s most important to you in regards to battle maps, and let the other stuff slide a bit.  Homemade maps in full color with exciting terrain features and lots of intricate details take a long, long time to make.  If you can’t devote that kind of time to each map, decide what’s your highest priority (looks, tactics, etc.) and concentrate on that.  Not every battle map has to be perfect, and expecting it to be so is a good way to burn yourself out very quickly.