Thursday, 29 December 2011

Lost in the Labyrinth: Brugg Na Brogg

"What yoo lookin' at, Hooman?"
Brugg really needs to be an Elite. Given his role, he's likely to end up getting in the faces of most parties, but as written he doesn't really pack a punch at all - he's just a bog-standard ogre. I'm glad my group never faced him in combat, as they'd have flattened him in seconds. The Brugg you see below uses Monster Manual III maths, with a few custom power combinations I've had fun with before. His goblin lickspittles are inspired by the blue thieves from the Golden Axe video game: whack them, and they'll drop coins. Here though, that property comes with a nasty twist...

As can be seen from the flavour text, Brugg has a bit of an inflated ego - and a soft spot for pretty girls. When we played, we had a lot of fun with Brugg's leering approaches, his bride-to-be's attempts to delay their marriage, and the clever way she turned him against the mages. Hopefully you'll have similar fun if you use him as such in your games. Should it come to blows, Brugg and his six goblin lickspittles equate to a level eight encounter for five players: a suitably tough fight for this adventure.


The hulking ogre Brugg Na Brogg works as head enforcer and master tax collector for the Mages of Saruun. Accompanied by his scampering tide of goblin lickspittles, Brugg is a hated figure within the Seven-Pillared Hall. Those who dare call him “two bites”, as he always takes two cuts of every profit: one for the Mages, and another, smaller cut for himself.  When accompanied by the masked Ordinator Arcanis, such hatred turns to dread, for this means that Brugg has been ordered to kill, and someone shall soon pay ultimate price for defying the Mages of Saruun.    

Brugg is more intelligent than your average ogre, and years of collecting taxes have earned him a measure of street smarts. In fact, Brugg’s status, and the trust the Mages supposedly invest in him, has given him a warped, elevated sense of self worth. Brugg believes he is the “Hero under the Mountain”, and as befits a hero, he requires the finest foods, lodgings, silken sheets for his cot – and a beautiful bride. In this last respect he has yet to find a suitable candidate, so any pretty female who enters the Hall may find themselves on the wrong end of his amorous approaches.

Thankfully, Brugg isn't looking for a breeding partner. Instead, his lover is required to wash him, comb his knotted hair, and swoon over him in public. Brugg is amenable about the terms of their arrangement, but only to a point: for example, his bride may be granted some time to herself, or can perhaps buy her way out of certain responsibilities, but defy him and he’s liable to bite her head off.  Even so, those looking for protection within the Hall, or hoping to spy on the Mages, could find the partnership advantageous… 

Brugg's lickspittles are also an oddity. Whereas most goblins can't count above three (with anything above that just being "many"), these inbreeds possess an uncanny ability to count coins. Fill their hands with gold, or scatter silver on the floor before them, and they'll value it in a heartbeat. Brugg uses them to verify payments and carry the loot back to his customhouse. For their own part, the goblins despise him, but are too afraid to show defiance: when Brugg acquired them, he made a show of eating their seventh brother in front of them as a warning. 

Monday, 26 December 2011

Loot, glorious loot!

Ooo, look! This pic is a sneak preview from "Halls of the Dead King",
Beholder Pie's first free adventure. More on that in the New Year! 
Come in, sit down, and help yourself to a glass of mulled wine. I'm taking a break from my "Lost in the Labyrinth" articles to make a contribution to the blog carnival over on Daily Encounter. They're hosting a series of articles on loot, so here's hoping they'll pick up on the article below and copy it over. At least, I think that's how it works. I'm new here.

So, without further ado:

“There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.”
King Osric, Conan the Barbarian (1982)

What adventurer does not dream of the glittering treasure hoard of the dragon? Piles of gold, jewels, and enchanted items:  the lost relics of ages long forgotten.  It’s not for nothing that such an image currently sits on the cover of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

Yet it’s interesting to note that in history as in legend, treasure often means more than just gold. In ancient Britain, kings and chieftains would commission fine jewellery from the Mediterranean, to be worn as a display of wealth, status and majesty – even carried to the grave.  In Rome, rings were worn to denote rank, with sumptuary laws dictating the metals you were entitled to wear. Other cultures bind their faith into precious metals and stones. In Islam, for example, it’s considered taboo for men to wear gold. In short, for as long as treasures have been crafted, people have ascribed meaning to them.  

In our games, such wondrous relics most often end up as plain old loot: “fluffy currency”, if you like. Players have been conditioned into dividing their treasure into just two categories: magic items and bankable loot (which most often goes towards buying more magic items).

DM: “You hold a set of jewelled nesting dolls, each crafted in the image of the goddess Erathis, one made of jade, another of ivory, and a third made of onyx”.
Player: “Nice. How much are they worth?”
DM: “As a set, about five thousand”.
Player: “Sooo... shall I just add that in gold to the treasure sheet?”

We need to stop treating treasures as fluffy currency, and start viewing them as an opportunity for story.  Let’s take The Hobbit as an example: whilst the book introduces magical treasures like the One Ring, Sting and Glamdring, ultimately it’s the Arkenstone that drives the story. This vast gemstone means more to Thorin than mere wealth: it represents heritage. It’s an heirloom, a symbol of office for the King under the Mountain, and Thorin will do anything to recover it.

The following tables are intended to get you thinking about treasure as an engine for story. Once you’ve rolled to determine your treasure, roll again for a hook, and then for a benefit. If we’re lucky, adding properties like these to our treasures will encourage our players to treat them as more than just cash stamps.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Lost in the Labyrinth: Surina

My motivation for redesigning Surina and Darkseeker was to give them powers that accentuate a defining trait. Darkseeker's a werewolf, so he gets lupine powers. Mezzothraxia's presence on the battle map reminds us that Surina's made an infernal pact.

Focussing characters around a single mannerism, talent or "schtick" is something I picked up from work. When I write a bio now, I always start with something like "Noah, the Nervous Professor". That way our artists have a strong theme to work around. Add too many traits beneath that header, and the concept can get muddied.

When designing NPCs, try gearing powers around their schtick. If they're cowardly, give them a power that makes them retreat when certain triggers occur. If they're brash, it keys off overwhelming odds. Determine what makes them different, and then bring that out on the table. Guaranteed, your characters will be more memorable. 


The Seven-Pillared Hall is loud with whispers. Grimmerzhul spies wrest knowledge from their Deepgem rivals, while House Azaer and the Mages of Saruun speculate in secret on the Underdark markets. To prosper, one must learn to pan truth from a river of rumours. In this matter, nobody is more valued than Surina of the Guttering Flame.

Surina operates as a knowledge broker, moving like a wraith from the Taphouse to the Halfmoon Inn, and through all the stalls between. What she doesn't learn first-hand comes to her from others. Guildsmen trade rumours with her like-for-like, and beggars bring her scraps to mull on. For the broker, the returns are worth more than the expense. These days the Grimmerzhuls come to her first, as do the Azaers. A single, well-placed lie, and they'll turn against each other like dogs... 

Surina's Secret
Unknown to the denizens of the labyrinth, Surina heads the Guttering Flame, a militant splinter of the church of Erathis. To the Flame, the Underdark represents a hand poised beside the candle of civilisation, ready to snuff it out at a moment's notice. Those who deal with the darkness invite oblivion, and must be destroyed. Having infiltrated the Seven-Pillared Hall with her brethren - a half-dozen cultists posing as beggars and market traders - Surina is playing the long con. She's worked her way into a position of influence, and now hopes to bring down the Hall by seeding a war between the dealers. She's gambled everything on this - even her own immortal soul. Her daring pact with Asmodeus has brought more than power; it's given her the perfect cover. With her hated imp on her shoulder, even the traitorous Drow trust her.

Only the Mages of Saruun remain inscrutable. Surina cannot advance her plans until she knows their weaknesses, and she'll do almost anything to find out what they are. If the PCs have an opportunity to move against the mages, Surina joins them in a heartbeat.

Introducing Surina
When Surina hears of their arrival she makes it her business to learn everything she can about the PCs. If their objectives are just, she may even approach them with an offer of aid. Surina makes a powerful but dangerous ally: few know better how to wring the hall's secrets, but cross her and she'll make their stay very uncomfortable indeed.

Irrespective of any deal, the PCs can always call upon Surina's services as a knowledge broker. For a bag of 200 gold, she'll provide the answer to any one question: the location of the Bloodreaver's secret hideout, for example, or a backdoor into the Grimmerzhul trading post. For 10 gold, Surina can sell the PCs a rumour (roll a D10 and consult the table to the right). Whether these actually bear fruit is up to you.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Lost in the Labyrinth: Terrlen Darkseeker

H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth has been the best adventure so far for my group. I loved the Seven-Pillared Hall, its characters, the labyrinth that surrounded it, and the clash of cultures it suggested. This said, the adventure itself does require some tweaking.

"Lost in the Labyrinth" will be a short series of columns about improving the adventure. I'm going to take a closer look at some of the NPCs, examine the Seven-Pillared Hall in more detail, maybe even have a go at suggesting an alternate plot arc for the adventure.

We'll see what happens.

Nobody knows Saruun Khel better than Terrlen Darkseeker. For decades, this hard-faced hunter has earned his keep as a guide, leading caravans down to Silvershield hold, to the dark city of the Grimmerzhul, or anywhere between. His prices may be steep, but he's renowned. Those who travel beyond the safety of the Seven-Pillared Hall are always advised to speak to him first.

For 200 gold, Darkseeker can lead the PCs anywhere within the Labyrinth – even fight
alongside them. In keeping with the Companion Character rules from Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, he should be controlled by one of the players during combat. Outside of combat, he remains under DM control.

Good luck getting more from him than business, though. Darkseeker comes across as a cold soul, always on edge, with a fire in his eyes. Before hiring him, players must swear to obey his rules: be silent, be alert, and never stray from his path. Defy him, and they’ll quickly find themselves alone in the dark...

Darkseeker's Secret
Those who follow Darkseeker risk more than they know. Two years ago, while exploring one of the labyrinth's many lost vaults, the hunter was subjected to a terrible curse. Darkseeker didn't know what had happened at first: all he knew is that for days afterwards he would awaken with blood on his hands, and hazy memories of violence. Now, at last, he understands.

Whenever Darkseeker ventures too close to the chamber, or the full moon shines upon the land above, he transforms into a frenzied werewolf (use the stat block from the Monster Vault). Over time, he's learned to control the curse as best he can, even exploit it. The turnskin venom that poisons his bolts is in fact his own saliva, and when he wishes, he can even force his own transformation. If he knows he's going to change beyond his will, Darkseeker wraps himself in silver chains until the fever has passed.

To uncover the curse, PCs may hear one too many stories about caravans lost in his care, or witness him surreptitiously licking his bolt-heads. He may refuse to work on the full moon, or refuse to venture anywhere near the chamber that cursed him. At worse, he may even transform in their presence.

If they prise the truth from him, Darkseeker will beg the PCs for help (see Echoes of Thunderspire Labyrinth, from Dungeon 156). Succeed in lifting the curse, and they'll have earned an ally for life.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Firing to Suppress

No, I haven't forgotten about my Gears and Gunpowder campaign (although we haven't started it yet either). I'm still mulling over ideas for themes, and jotting down notes for the general setting.

I've an idea for the campaign that has echoes of the 100 Bullets comic series. Corruption, cartels, and a conspiracy that dates back centuries (I won't say any more than that, for fear of spoilers).

Thankfully, thinking about gangsters and gunfights has given me some ideas for updating my firearms rules. So, with that in mind, I give you my new rules for suppressive fire. Now you can shout out "cover me!" and have it actually mean something.

When making a ranged weapon attack with a firearm, you can choose to fire to suppress. Only firearms fitted with a magazine can be used for suppressive fire.

Firing to suppress: When firing to suppress, you take a -2 penalty to your attack roll, and must fire one or more additional rounds of loaded ammunition. These additional rounds automatically miss. After the attack has been resolved, the target must pass a saving throw or become suppressed until the end of their next turn. For every additional round that was fired, they receive a -1 penalty to this saving throw.

Hitting the dirt: The target can choose to fall prone as a free action when they make their saving throw. Doing so grants a +5 bonus to the save, and cancels all penalties imposed by multiple shots.

  • You grant combat advantage.
  • Your speed is halved.
  • Enemies have partial concealment if they are 5 or more squares from your position.

Creatures can also use the Aid Another action in combat to help an ally suppress their enemy.

Aid Another (Standard Action)
You fire one or more rounds of ammunition at an enemy to turn the next ranged attack made against them by one of your allies into a suppressive fire attack. All rounds that you fire automatically miss. Any firearm can be used for this purpose, including those that do not have a magazine.

The ally does not gain the +2 bonus to their attack roll that is normally granted by aiding, but does not need to fire to suppress. Once the attack has been resolved, the target makes a saving throw as though it had been targeted by a suppressive fire attack. When calculating the saving throw penalty, additional rounds fired by aiding creatures are counted in addition to those that may have been fired by the ally.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Rhônic Saddle

Brixton stares into the face of death yet again...

I killed somebody the other week.

Hush. Though it would be particularly wonderful to confess to murder through the medium of a poorly-subscribed RPG blog, this particular slaying occurred in-game. I killed Sandy's character. Killed him good, in fact. With a dragon.

Now. A lot of people will tell you DMs shouldn't ever use Coup de Grace. It's unfair, and it looks like you're picking on your players. Ignore them. 4th Edition characters are tough, and sometimes the only way to kill them is to get your licks in when they're down. Especially if they deserve it.

But this sudden turn of events left Sandy with a bit of a dilemma. Should he bring his character back, or roll up a new one? Death is often an opportunity for reinvention, but in a way Brixton was beginning to scrape the barrel. In the past, he'd come back as a vampire (which the rest of the party promptly slew), as a stoic paladin who lasted for about ten minutes, even as a cursed assassin wreathed in shadow. Where could he possibly go next?

I think I came up with something fairly unique (well, I did until Sandy pointed out I'd basically lifted it from Raymond E. Feist's Magician). I'd been meaning to give Brixton his first magical artifact for a while, and the dragon's lair was the perfect place to find it. When he died, he fell within inches of the most powerful item he'd ever seen. Perhaps a splinter of that artifact's power could pull him back? Maybe even bring him back with a rekindled purpose?

The Rhônic Saddle is imbued with the spirit of a long-dead king: last ruler of a kingdom of boasters, thrill-seekers, and horse-masters. Those who ride it gain great power, but also suffer a terrible curse. The king's spirit whispers to them in dreams, long-forgotten by morning, but subconsciously compelling them throughout the day to perform deeds of glory and daring.

Give in to these urges, and they risk death at every turn. Deny them and the curse takes control, forcing them to act against their will.

Being a mount slot item, this artifact may have limited usefulness in your games, but who knows? It could be just what you're looking for. We've not played it yet, so there may be some kinks to iron out, but I'm fairly confident it will work well at the table. See what you think.

Thanks to Sandy for the image of Brixton at the top of this post - definitely my favourite he's done so far. And thanks to Stacey for spending this afternoon drawing the saddle. It's exactly as I imagined it.

(If you're playing in my game, you may not want to read this. Spoilers, spoilers)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Illusion Cards: Gloaming and Day of the Dead

Ah, it's you. How have you been? Marvellous.

Here are two more cards for my Deck of Illusions. I guess we're about halfway there now, and I'm loving the symbolism that Sandy's cooked into this pairing. A pool of spilt blood, a candle about to be snuffed, and an army of marching moon-heads. What can it all mean?

Maybe something, maybe nothing. A while back, I congratulated him for including exactly 13 spears on one of his cards - and it honestly came as a surprise that he had.

In a way, I do a similar thing in my D&D games: include random symbolism on the spur of the moment, and build in meaning later on. In our present campaign, Splug returned from the dead with a mysterious map scratched into his back, Swaard heard a strangely-worded prophecy when he died, and Dia discovered she was the legendary "Starfallen". In each case, I dropped these in with no idea where they'd lead, and thought up meanings later (in some cases, years later). Occasionally, hooks like these lead to wonderful things that make me look clever in retrospect. In other cases, they're simply forgotten.

A handful of things that have worked well in previous campaigns:
  • The strange feeling you're being watched. Later on, this can be attributed to near enough anybody.
  • A mysterious gift left on the doorstep. Who it's been left by - and why it's been left so mysteriously - can be slotted in later.
  • Strange tattoos found on the bodies of slain enemies. These are ultimately uncovered as marks of a cult/secret lottery/whatever.
  • A device with no obvious meaning. Later on, its purpose is revealed when it suddenly starts glowing/ticking/summoning devils.
Simple stuff really, but some of my best stories have grown from these. Even better, many of them have grown from my players talking about the possibilities around the table. I may be smiling and winking mysteriously, but really I'm thinking "bloody hell, that's a great idea!"

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Aegis of Ages

This week's article is all about the Stunned condition: a much-maligned rule that's fallen out of favour of late. Back in the heady days of the original Monster Manual, stun appeared all over the place. Dragons, for example, used to stun their opponents as part of their Frightful Presence attack. Nowadays, in the halcyon age of the Monster Manual III, they simply don't.

Not that ditching Stunned is a real issue to me (although I have to say, ditching Frightful Presence is). Nobody wants to miss out on their turn, especially with rounds sometimes taking upwards of ten minutes to rotate. The concept may have a precedent in card and board game design, but Dungeons & Dragons isn't a game of Uno.

We've had similar issues in my 3rd Edition campaign, with a PC called Hamish: a half-orc fighter/barbarian played by my good friend James. Hamish has a really bad Will save, and no matter how many Periaphs of Wisdom or Iron Will feats he bolts on, he simply always fails those charm saves. It's like the dice are playing to his character. Hamish has been possessed, scared off, dominated, charmed - the works. And consequently, James has spent a long time waiting for conditions to wear off. Hours. Days, probably, if you add up all the adventures we've played over the years.

The last time Hamish got possessed it was by an ancient sorcerer queen called Akasi. We ended the session on that cliffhanger, so I had a good while to think about what could happen next. We don't get to play so often nowadays, and I didn't want James sitting it out. So I had an idea: instead of being lost, Hamish's mind could be banished into a labyrinth carved into the wall, where it would be hunted down by ravenous spirits.

Whilst Hamish's body rushed about under Akasi's control, our sorcerer managed to project her own mind into the labyrinth to aid him. So we ended up with a battle taking place simultaneously in two locations. It was pretty intense, and allowed James to play without actually controlling Hamish directly.

When thinking about Stunned, my mind went back to that Akasi encounter, and I wondered if we could do a similar thing in 4th Edition. In the end, I came up with the encounter provided here, which we ran at the finale of the Battle of Moonstair.

In brief, the party went up against a grimlock champion who carried a sentient magical shield. Every time the shield Stunned them, it hurled their minds back in time to fight its previous owners. If they could beat the champions of the past, the shield would grant them an edge in the present. To fully test the concept, I modelled the grimlock champion around the original Monster Manual's most notorious stun-beast: the Dracolich (updated to Monster Manual III maths).

Of course, the trick only works once: it's by no means a "fix" for the Stunned condition. But hopefully it'll be a memorable encounter for your group - as it was for mine.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Illusion Cards: Thieves and the Archer

Behold! Two more cards for my Deck of Illusions.

Neither of these turned out quite as I expected, but I'm pleased with them both. I love how the thieves give the impression of being slightly clumsy - but who's betting those magic daggers still cut deep?

Actually, I'm surprised Sandy picked these cards to draw up next, as neither played a particularly prominent role in our game. The Archer wasn't even drawn: it was one of just two cards left after Devlin met the Master. Thieves appeared near the end of H3: Pyramid of Shadows, drawn as the Company battled through a tight maze of haunted passageways. It should have been perfect timing - allowing them to sneak past the banshees that roamed the maze - but sadly Sephirius was having one of those games, and just couldn't shake off the immobilising effects of their screams. So they couldn't leave him.

Splitting the party is famously bad tactics for most D&D players (not least, abandoning party members). Just the suggestion of it gets certain members of my group aghast - probably due to a famous incident back in 3rd Edition. Whilst exploring a besieged citadel tower, two 10th level characters decided to leave the others and quickly scout a stairway alone. "Should we be splitting up?", asked one. "Meh. We can take it", said the other (and that's an actual quote). Three rounds later both PCs were dead: one lying mangled with a broken neck, the other being absorbed by a Lovecraftian Moonbeast. That's eighteen seconds.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Thaumatic Themes: Ragwheeler

In truth, I thought about transferring "Tabletop" over to 4th Edition back when it first came out. I spent a few weeks in autumn 2009 working up my own classes, but then things picked up in our main campaign, and I realised people weren't going to want to switch. I'm glad now we didn't - the last three years have given me a much clearer understanding of the system, and I'm in a better position now to start a homebrew campaign. But those early class ideas became the basis of the themes I'm looking at today. Or, at least, they did until Sandy and Mike got involved. Damn them.

The problem with game designers is they always want to design their own stuff. Stacey loved the "Bombardier", but when I presented Sandy with the "Deathcrook" - another of my old classes I'd boiled down into a theme - he wasn't quite so sold. Personally, I couldn't understand why not: a class that could steal the souls of those it killed, and use them as fuel for necrotic attacks - even summon them as minions? What's not to like?

However, when Sandy mailed me through a near-complete theme of his own devising, I had to swallow my pride. Because his creation - which we named the "Ragwheeler" - was something special: a slave bound to its masters through a deadly shackle. Powers aside, what I loved about this was the flavour. Reading his description of the work-slum, I really got an image of what these poor blighters had to live through - and that's exactly what a theme should do.

But don't just take my word for it: take a look for yourselves. I'm really looking forward to seeing this in action!

If you like it, or have any suggestions, please drop me a comment. This time, I promise I won't delete them! (I'm still getting used to Blogger, as on Friday I accidentally deleted all of the previous comments whilst playing around with the dashboard. Doh.)

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Deck of Illusions

The Deck of Illusions is kind of the ugly, unloved twin to the Deck of Many Things. Whilst it shares the same design - pull a card from a deck to produce a random, magical effect - there's none of the risk that makes Deck of Many Things so thrilling to use. Essentially, all the cards are the same. You just summon an illusion.

I suppose the fun bit is coming up with how to usefully apply these illusions to your situation. This lich could be used to scare off your enemies, but it could also engage them in conversation, right? Perhaps even trick them into following it?

Sadly, no: the second edition rules seem to imply that the illusions aren't even under your control ("The illusions perform normal routines and respond to attacks - they should be played as if they were real creatures"). Back then, the vast majority of cards basically had a single use: scare the pants off your enemies from afar. Kind of sucks if you pull the Pixies card.

3rd Edition clarified the rules so that the illusions reproduced the effects of a Major Image spell, but locked into a predefined form. I guess we can actually control them now, but as they were relatively easily disbelieved with a save - at least, they were in my experience - I still view the deck as nothing much to write home about.

For my 4th Edition game, I thought this artifact deserved a reinvention. When creating the deck, I had a couple of design goals in mind:
  • I wanted to give each card an effect that had a clear use in combat. A few of these could be bad for the user, just like the Deck of Many Things. One of them - the Master - could even be deadly.
  • I wanted to preserve the ability for players to think up clever ways of controlling their illusions. In the end, this worked best as an at-will artifact power, separate from the card powers.

As you'll see, it turned out very differently to the old Deck of Illusions. I think you'll find it useful in your games: our group's wizard used it to great effect throughout H3: Pyramid of Shadows, so I've had a chance to rebalance the powers after seeing them in play. Oh, and check out the lore for the Prince card - after all his adventures, I couldn't write this up without mentioning our own, friendly wizard at least once.

It goes without saying that you're missing a trick if you don't print out the cards yourselves and provide them to your players as a proper handout. To that end, Sandy's working through the deck now, polishing up the card designs and presenting his own spins to each one. I'll be presenting his designs here on the blog over the next few months, after which I'll wrap them up into a single, made-for-print doc.

Lastly, if you do use it, make sure to drop me a line here and let us know how it went. It would really make our day to know our deck is being used at other tables!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Swords of the Storm God

"Wux tepoha thric tiichi"

John speaks Draconic. He looks at me with a completely straight face, and then hits me with a string of gruff, dragonborn gibberish. The best bit is, he doesn't translate. There's always a pause, and I'll have to say "uh... meaning?", and he'll mutter something like "I will smite you down and display your ruin for all to see what the treachery of blood costs" - and I swear he looks a little disappointed that nobody got it first time.

John gets his translations through the draconic translator. If he's tapping away on his phone between turns, he's usually cooking up another dose of draconic. His character once had a long conversation in draconic with an ancient storm dragon. Beforehand he'd shown me a list of questions, I'd prepared a bunch of answers, and he'd written some lines he could drop in if things went badly. All the way through, we were passing these notes to each other, explaining what we were saying. It was crazy.

Anyway, John plays "Sephirius", a dragonborn paladin of Kord. Way back when we were playing H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth, Seph got a hold of the Orb of Light, an undead-slaying artefact that embedded itself into the blade of his sword. I had this idea for bringing a lich into the game, and the Orb seemed the perfect way to lead them to it. But as the final confrontation loomed, I had a dilemma: how could I maximise Seph's chances of dealing the final blow (which I knew John would love), and - with the quest coming to an end - present an epic "consolation prize" for when the Orb moved on to a new wielder?

The circle is complete. Now crack open the crits.

John's big on Kord. When the going gets tough, he's even been known to assemble the "Circle of Kord": a dice-rolling pen designed to channel the power of the storm god. Seph himself is the quintessential paladin: like his diety, he's quick-to-anger and at times ruthless, but always fights with honour. Seph's journey began with earning his spurs as a paladin, and I figured that it was time to up the stakes.

When the lich dropped to a quarter hit points, the powerful Orb of Light opened a portal to the Astral Sea: hurling Seph and his opponent into Kord's arena, high atop Mount Venya. Here, before his god, Seph fought the last rounds alone.

Sephirius Stormclaw in the Arena of Kord

Sephirius triumphed, and as a prize, the god of storms himself hammered out a great warblade. Seph named it "Kluurok Uuenbir": Divine Thunder.

Check it out below: it should work in any game. Oh, and many thanks to John for letting me use his artwork this week!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Thaumatic Themes: Bombardier

"Themes" are very popular at the moment. In case you've missed them, they're templates that sit above your chosen class, and grant bonus powers throughout the heroic tier. Each theme also has optional Utility powers you can swap out with those from your main class.

In many respects, they're a lot like a Paragon Path, or an Epic Destiny. Themes first surfaced in the Dark Sun Campaign Guide, and thanks to their popularity, Wizards soon released a set for general play through DDI. Most recently, the Neverwinter Campaign Guide featured a bunch of themes for the Forgotten Realms. So, it looks like they're here to stay.

Themes are great for bringing out the unique aspects of your campaign world. For example, if you're playing in Forgotten Realms, your mage could choose to be a Renegade Red Wizard. Or, your entire party could choose to be "Harpers": members of a secret society sworn to fighting evil.

For my rebooted campaign world, making some unique themes seemed a great way to flavour the party. Recently I've been working closely with my players to flesh out the themes they'd like to play, and over the next few weeks, I'll be previewing them here. Stacey's "Bombardier" is the first: a regimental soldier schooled in the use of firearms. This theme works alongside my custom rules for firearms, which I detailed in the recent Gears and Gunpowder article.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A World of Gears and Gunpowder

I’m starting a new campaign soon.

On top of my bi-weekly game, I’ve decided to start up another campaign for Friday nights. This gives me a chance to finally convert “Tabletop” over to 4th Edition: the homebrew world I built for the last edition.

Start small, and work outwards- the guiding principle behind any new campaign

It’s a daunting undertaking, but starting a new campaign is certainly the best way to go about it. In fact, it gives me a chance to trim the world back to its barebones. With new characters (and new players!) there’s no legacy to get in the way. I can start again, and that’s liberating. I can pick the best bits, and focus on them. In Hollywood terms, it’s a reboot!

So how do you go about explaining a new campaign world to your players? Well, at work I’ve pitched a bunch of concepts to publishers, and I’ve learned that most people don’t like to read. I’ve seen the glazed look on their faces as they skim a concept doc, and fielded countless calls from bosses to “just boil this down to a one-pager”.

Not that I condemn them. In fact, they’re right - I don’t like reading either. If we sit down to play D&D, the last thing I want to do beforehand is trudge through a 100-page treatise about your world. Or a 10-page treatise, for that matter. No, if I'm to read anything at all, I want it all on a single page, damn it!

So without further ado, here’s the one-pager for my rebooted “Tabletop”, now called "The Riddle World". That’s nine points that spell out the lore of the world, all on a single side of A4.

But how does this gumpf actually affect the game? I guess, for me, back in 3rd Edition, it was heroes wielding pistols, battles atop chain-rails, and dangerous journeys into the null-magic that really defined my world. So “thaumatic power” and “fluctuating magic” were two systems I absolutely had to design before we began.

And here they are, for you. Hopefully, with a bit of imagination, you’ll find some use for them in your games!

Herein you'll find full rules for firearms, and a smattering of Steampunk items (including, to my knowledge, the first ever D&D bicycle rules!*)

Here you'll find rules for running fluctuating magic fields - which could be handy for an adventures set near a planar rift. Or maybe you could bring them into play for a magical storm, or an eclipse?

* Yes, that's right. D&D Bicycle Rules!!

Monday, 5 September 2011

D&D Mass Combat Rules

“I thought this was going to be crap, but it’s actually pretty good”

Such was Stacey’s confidence in working my custom wargaming system into our group’s ongoing D&D campaign. Right now, we’re about a third of the way through “P1: King of the Trollhaunt Warrens”, and the town of Moonstair is under attack from Skalmad’s forces. Instead of running the encounters by the book, I thought it would be neat to play the raid as a tabletop wargame. After all, they'd built a trebuchet. They’d trained up the guards and placed burning oil on the walls. One of them had even dropped a thousand gold on a ritual to recruit reinforcements from Celduilon.

The battle for Moonstair begins

Luckily, I had some confidence in the system I’d created – as it was inspired by another. About five years ago I worked for a video games company down in Bath. Our boss was one of the designers behind the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (or “Warfruppa”, as it’s colloquially known around here), and one of the perks of the job was access to his magnificent gaming table. Every Tuesday night we’d stay on for a session after work, and it was here that he introduced me to the “Piquet” war gaming system.

It’s brilliant. You see, most war games have got it all wrong. You take uniform turns, one side after the other. You choose which unit to move, and when. It’s all very clinical. Real war isn't like that.

In real war, orders get delayed or misinterpreted, opportunities arise unpredictably, and reconnaissance is unreliable: what military strategists refer to as the “Fog of War”. Piquet models this really well. However – and this is really important for D&D – it does so in an exciting, “gamey” way. Instead of choosing which troop to order, you draw cards randomly from a “sequence deck”. Each card costs an action point to draw, and lets you move just a single troop type. Moving individual units costs even more points, so you need to think carefully: move your heavy infantry now, or hold out for that perfect cavalry charge? Sometimes when units get into trouble you’ll find yourself burning points just to pull the right card – wasting opportunities for other, perhaps more valuable, actions.

I've great memories of those sessions down in Bath. Gaming on a full-sized table with proper scenery and professionally painted troops is something else. In fact, it’s possibly the catalyst to my crack-like addiction for pre-painted D&D miniatures.

These are just the singles: the dupes live in boxes in the garage

For my D&D mass battle rules I mixed a bit of Piquet with a bit of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and ended up with something fairly unique. The rules here are tailored to our Moonstair fight, but you shouldn’t have any difficulty statting up your own troops. They'll also work with any edition (or system for that matter). For the Moonstair map, I grabbed the DDI map for the module, overlaid a grid in photoshop, and printed it out over two sheets of A3. We used D&D miniatures to represent each unit, and pennies for Action Points.

Overall, it played out really well. Drawing cards was fun (they cheered when the trebuchet came out!), and they split dice rolls between the group. I’ll be doing it again for sure – and I've a bunch of ideas for how to improve it. I'd like to feature multiple decks (maybe movement, tactics and combat), giving players a little more control over what's drawn. I'd also like to put in cards that create ongoing effects, or can be held back for the right moment (a bit like Tide of Iron). Whatever happens, I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!

Oh, and credit where credit’s due – be sure to check out Piquet's expanded, official rules. They’re a small company, so they could use the custom. Have a think about shelling out for the pdf – if you like wargames, you won’t be disappointed.