Tuesday 25 December 2012

Happy Holidays!

Om nom nom - Beholder Pie!
My friend cooked this pie for one of our epic weekenders: two days of solid roleplaying to mark the culmination of a campaign arc. Tonight, as the Christmas turkey digests and we reach for that extra glass of port, let's remember the reason most of us play: to catch up with friends, break bread together, and have fun. Usually it's not the adventure that matters most, it's all the great times that go with it. I wish you all a happy holiday, and ask you to join me in a toast to 2013 - may it bring good gaming to us all!

Wednesday 12 December 2012

G is for Grell

Grells are levitating horrors whose dangling tentacles secrete a paralyzing poison. They like to lurk high up in caves, dropping silently on their prey and hoisting them up to the ceiling, where they rip them to pieces with their sharp beaks. As a species they live together in weird "hives", communicating in a semi-telepathic language of chirps, squawks, and thrashing tentacle gestures. Each hive is run by a Patriarch, whose orders are passed on to the common workers by a caste of Philosopher Grells.

Strange that Grells feel the need to philosophize, given that all they do is eat people. Maybe they're looking for meaning. Judging by the picture above, they certainly seem to enjoy eating people - in fact, they find it pretty bloody humorous. That's okay. We find them humorous too, with their silly brain heads and daft beaks.

The internet tells me that Grells were invented by Ian Livingstone, which is pretty cool. As a kid I was fanatical about his Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, and even wrote letters begging for this-or-that to be included in future titles (probably Vampires! or More Wizards!). I actually met him later on in life, and had one of those silly moments where I just shook his hand and smiled instead of saying how much his books meant to me. Anyway, I'm far from alone in my fandom - in fact, Jonathan Green's got a kickstarter going on right now to create a commemorative book for their 30th anniversary. If you have any interest in gamebooks - even the history of D&D - I'd suggest you head over there and pledge!

Sunday 9 December 2012

Dungeon 209: Tears of the Crocodile God

A sacrifice to Bansouk's vicious Crocodile God finally meets her maker...

Just a quick post to let you know that my first adventure is soon to be published in Dungeon magazine. Back in March I pitched Tears of the Crocodile God through the DDI submissions channel. I heard back from them shortly after moving to Guildford, and spent much of June writing and play-testing. It's been a personal goal of mine to have an adventure published in Dungeon, so it's fair to say I'm over the moon! If you're a subscriber, I hope you'll enjoy it, and maybe find some use for it in your own games.

Best of all, this isn't the only adventure I've got coming - after submitting the final draft, the folks at Wizards have been in touch with more work, and I now have more projects in the pipeline. Though Beholder Pie will be baking at a lower temperature until I'm done, I'll try and post updates when I can. The good thing about adventure design is that it keeps you thinking about the game, so there's lots I'd like to share. Until then, I hope you'll join me in raising a tankard to the Crocodile God - may he forever wallow in the blood of fallen adventurers!

Saturday 29 September 2012

F is for Firenewt

Firenewts were a race of bipedal, lizard-like marauders that lived in deserts and arid mountains. Their raiding parties would strike out from volcanic lairs in search of tasty human captives, which they'd take back as food for their larders. As a species they were barbaric, tribal and thoroughly evil. Somehow, I don't think Stacey's illustration fully captures this.

I use the past tense because firenewts eventually went the way of the dodo, as far as the game goes. I guess D&D can only support so many  lizardmen (or "lizardfolk" as we're inclined to say now, to avoid discriminating against lizardgirls). Most likely they were usurped by Salamanders, which in reality are newts, and were once thought to have an affinity for fire. So they're the same thing really. In terms of lore, I suppose I prefer the elemental Salamanders (though I think they need the word "man" added to the end of their name).

As she was drawing them, Stacey decided that Firenewts like to dance, which is what this one is teaching his boy. So I suppose that adds something new to their lore!

Sunday 5 August 2012

Don't Panic!

Craig J. Spearing's cover to Kobold Quarterly 22
Things have been a little quiet around here recently, but normal service shall be resuming soon. I've just started a funky new job, and right now we're in the process of moving across country to our new house. Expect a more regular posting schedule once we're fully back online.

That's not to say things haven't been busy in the kitchen though! First off, we had an article published in the Summer issue of Kobold Quarterly"The Scaled Steamhall" is a mystical bath-house that caters to the cream of Midgard's Mharoti Imperials, even serving as a hatchery for the Sultana's dragon cavalry. Beyond flavour and adventure hooks, the article also provides some crunchy 4E content in the form of magical "wyrmspa treatments", stats for dragon mounts (which may have inspired the issue's wonderful cover), and some old-school dungeon maps by Stacey. With interest in 4E apparently flagging in some quarters, I'm quite proud we've kept the fires burning here.       

Labyrinth Lord: a tome of old school goodness.
I also won a prize for my entry into the one-page dungeon competition, which won the "Best Eye Beams" category (surely the best category of all!). The Tomb of Snowbite Pass also got special mention by the guy who runs the competition, who praised it for its classic old-school feel. Somewhat appropriately, it won me a copy of the Labyrinth Lord RPG, which I'll be sure to give a whirl as soon as we have some free time! I've promised to draw more one-page dungeons when I get the chance, so expect some additions over the next few months.

Beyond this and the move, there's been one other exciting iron in the fire that I'll (hopefully) be able to tell you about soon. Until then, take care, and stay tuned! 

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Small but Vicious Dog


I don't know about you, but animals don't seem to last very long in my games. Often it seems that the moment somebody gives them a name, it's just a matter of time before they croak.

Take Bagsy, the loyal mule eaten by goblins after being left alone outside the Keep on the Shadowfell. Or Stumpy, the trihorn behemoth burned alive in a reckless fire started by our warlord (Stumpy actually survived with extreme burns, which made it kind of worse). Or the "small but vicious dog" listed under the Rat Catcher's starting gear in Warhammer: I've probably seen more of those kick the bucket than actual rats! Over the years I've lost count of how many riding horses have been crushed by avalanches, ridden off cliffs, or just caught on the wrong side of a fireball - and don't get me started on familiars.

Of course, I'm to blame most of the time. Killing a pet is probably just a cheap way to crank up the pressure, so I end up treating them like red shirts, or those rookie cops who're just about to get married. Perhaps I'm just haunted by a scene from My First Ever Adventure (I was nine!), when my brother's character asked a local woodsman if he'd seen his horse, and the DM told him the guy was wearing suspicious-looking horse-ear slippers - a stroke of genius that I've possibly been trying to emulate ever since.

Still, sometimes it's just down to the nature of the game: D&D has lots of explosions, and animals are usually pretty frail. Which is great if you just lurve killing animals, but sucks if you want to play a classic "man and his dog" concept. Thankfully 4th Edition is quite good at abstraction, so it's easy enough to come up with a set of rules where they simply can't be hurt. So long as your loyal companion isn't a fighting dog, I think it's fair to give them a handful of flavourful utility powers, yet keep them pretty much off-map during combat (incidentally, this sort of thing is one of the reasons some people hate 4th Edition - but let's not go there thankyouverymuch).

Check out the rules below. It's a matter of taste whether or not you demand a feat to get these powers, or just hand them out willy-nilly. I'd be inclined to go for the latter, so long as the player invests some time bringing the animal to life at the table.

Thursday 31 May 2012

May of the Dead: Lords of the Grave

"That's not a knife... That's a knife"

And so May draws to a close. Here in the UK we've had some beautiful weather, with well over a week of glorious sunshine (an oddity for Britain). The birds are singing, the flowers are in bloom, and the house I'm staying in has its own swimming pool (if a week of sunshine is an oddity, this is a temporal paradox). None of which is particularly appropriate for the gruesome May of the Dead blog carnival. Thank goodness for lone maniacs, eh?

I don't know if you've been following the blog carnival, but there've been some fantastic contributions. Here are a handful of my favourites:
Roving Band of Misfits brought us Horde Zombies. The twist here is giving zombie minions a resurrection power somewhat akin to a troll's, bringing them shambling back to life on their next turn. I'm not so keen on the encounter power (I throw minions around like confetti, so it's a pain to track anything on them), but I love the overall vibe here.
That Robed Guy gave us the Z-Virus, a brutal zombie contagion. I picked this one out not so much for the rules (though they're perfectly serviceable), but mainly because - as That Robed Guy says - your standard zombie doesn't have an infected bite in 4E (or in any other edition, as far as I know). Which is odd when you consider how common it is in the movies.
Fantasy Paper Miniature Models created some papercraft monsters that immediately brought a big smile to my face. Similarly creative was the wonderful Sarcophagus created by Terrain Wench. I'm big on props, so I really enjoyed checking out the construction process here. 
DMG 42 gave us a complete board game with the Siege of Barovia. I initially got a hint of Zombies!!! from the rules, but the more I thought about them, the tighter they became. I'd like to play this someday.
Going Last unleashed the catoblepas onto 4E, giving them a trait that forces all living creatures in sight to make death saves at the end of every turn. One of the main characters in my old 3E campaign died to a catoblepas, so the monster's always held a place close to my heart. Never known how to pronounce its name though. Cat-o-BLEP-as? Cat-OH-blepas? I usually go with Cat-OB-le-pas. 
D&D Weekly worked up a couple (!) of adventures for the carnival, the second of which had a ghost pirate theme. Brilliantly this included a ghost parrot that mimics the voices of its enemies during battle, drawing their allies out of formation. Who's a pretty boy then? 

For myself, I submitted the Death Knight as a racial variant to the Revenant. Over the past few weeks I've invented some new powers to accompany this, primarily triggered by Tjaart trying to take "Wild Talent Master" for his death knight ("three free powers!!" - hardly the first time a player has tried this). When Stacey drew the wonderful picture you see above, I decided to write it up into a new article. See what you think!

Sunday 20 May 2012

E is for Ettercap

Ettercaps are weird, spiderish creatures that spin sticky webs to capture their prey. With their dinner trussed up and ready to eat, all the Ettercap has to do is sidle over and administer the killing poison bite. They click well with giant spiders, which they keep as pets, or rear as hunting dogs. The 3rd Edition Monster Manual suggests they also keep normal spiders as humans keep bees, although they can't exactly do it for the honey.

The 1st Edition Fiend Folio is very specific that an Ettercap's spinnerets are located "near the anus". I find that detail unnecessary and unsettling, as now I can't shake the image of Ettercaps spinning webs from their bum cracks. 1st Edition Ettercaps are also far more human, basically described as hairy, pot-bellied hobos who spin webs from their bums. I prefer the "insectification" that Ettercaps received in later editions, especially 4th (which added an extra pair of arms to make them even more spiderish). It's the 4th Edition version that Stacey's gone for in her illustration above, which she has lovingly called "Daddy's Girl". 

Thursday 17 May 2012

Mass Combat Revisited

So - does this get your geek going? 

The armies of Therund had breached Snowbite Pass and begun their descent into the Nentir Vale. With snowstorms howling about them, the generals agreed to separate their host into two legions, one bound for Winterhaven, and the other for Fallcrest. Learning that a dragon had laid claim to the highlands ahead, they risked sending a messenger through its territory to Winterhaven. He returned with news that the town still held, but Lord Padraig had ridden to Fallcrest, and was now besieged by the Burning Banner. With time now of the essence, the generals agreed to cross the Gardbury Downs and reunite their legions for the liberation of Fallcrest. The war had just begun.

...and we'd been playing for about ten hours. If there's one thing to be said for my new campaign battle rules, it's that they're slow. Still - as the picture above demonstrates - they do make for a pretty sexy set-up, and with a bit of pruning I think I can make them play faster. It was certainly a great collaborative effort by the group, with everyone pitching together to draw up banners (and print them out!).

In the end we didn't get round to playing an actual battle, but I had my mass combat rules ready just in case. Way back towards the end of last summer, we used these to run the Battle of Moonstair - in fact, they're pretty much the reason I started this blog. Up until recently that first post has consistently pulled in more hits than any of the others (although now pipped by Stacey's ABCD&D!). I guess a lot of people out there are looking for mass combat rules.

Anyway, I've recently given them a significant overhaul. I've changed the dice resolution so it uses D20s and AC (which feels much more D&D), and cleaned up the maths by adding weapon bonuses and exception-based traits. The battle cards are now categorised into troop types rather than explicit units, and I've added a few more cards to support readying and "banking" initiative points. Perhaps the biggest change of all is allowing each troop to perform multiple actions in the same round, which massively changes the way it plays.

Have a read!


Tuesday 1 May 2012

May of the Dead: Death Knight

Dead but not buried.... Swaard of the Trollhaunt!
Things have been a bit "undeathly" around here recently. First off, I introduced Methragor's Skull into our 4E campaign, framing him as the leader of an orc army besieging Fallcrest. We also saw the return of our recently dead ranger, who came back as the terrifying death knight you see to your left - his latest incarnation in quite a long line, and one that drives his character even further into our story. Then, around the same time that Swaard of the Trollhaunt was clawing his way back from the dead, the guys over at Going Last invited us to contribute to their May of the Dead blog carnival: a coincidence which led directly to the article you see below.

I can't see many people wanting to introduce a death knight into their campaigns, so I've tweaked the fluff to make them more accessible (and bring them in line with my own campaign world). I'm quite keen on their benefit replacements too: especially the unholy flames power, which I've (hopefully) balanced somewhere between the revenant's dark reaping and a dragonborn's breath weapon. 

Anyway, see what you think! I certainly had fun writing it, and I think we can all agree Tjaart came up with a truly fantastic piece of made-to-order artwork. Also, be sure to keep an eye on May of the Dead throughout the month, so you can check out what the other contributors come up with! I certainly will be.

Sunday 29 April 2012

One Page Dungeon: The Tomb of Snowbite Pass

The Tomb of Snowbite Pass - Click to enlarge!
I had some time free this afternoon, so I thought I'd have a go at the One-Page Dungeon competition. This particular tomb comes from a recent adventure in our 4E campaign. I was quite proud of the puzzles during play, and I thought the whole thing felt quite classic (although my players complained it was a little easy). Still, it was an enjoyable evening's play, and I had fun doing up the map today. My only regret is that I couldn't squeeze in the reverse-gravity trap that they fell into on their way to the icy goblet!

Stacey was really quite impressed with this map, and suggested that I post more of them up here. What do you think? I quite like laying out dungeons like this, as I find they're great to run at the table - allowing me to glance down and visualise things immediately instead of poring through text. Who knows? If you like this one, maybe I'll do up a few more!

For now, click the link below for the print version - including a printer-friendly black and white version.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

The Drums of War

Wizards' map of the Nentir Vale, adapted for campaign play! (click to enlarge) 

At long last we've reached the finale of King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, and I've decided to end it all with a big battle. In our campaign, the Nentir Vale is under attack from an army of orcs called "The Burning Banner", so the party led a desperate mission to Therund to call for reinforcements. Now, with Moonstair saved and Skalmad dead, they're returning home at the head of an army. To complete the adventure (and reach level 14!), they must rout the invaders from their homeland.

Ever since we ran the Battle for Moonstair, I've been yearning for a set of rules that would allow us to command troops over distance, manage simple supply chains, dispatch messengers: all the top-level strategic elements of a military campaign. The role-playing equivalent of Medieval: Total War, but flexible enough for a story to run alongside the strategy. In recent days, I've been asking the guys to draw up little war-banners in their spare time, while I've had a pop at working up some rules.

We'll be using the campaign map above as our board. I nabbed Rather Gamey's awesome "hexamogrified" version of the Vale map, and then annotated it with key locations from "Threats to the Nentir Vale", the "Hammerfast" book, and our own ongoing campaign. Stacey also extended the mountains to the west of the Vale, as in our game the Stonemarch is much larger. 

I'm really looking forward to seeing this in action, as it's been a great group effort. At the moment, my rules are very first pass - far too scrappy to show here in detail! - but they'll be undergoing trial by fire this weekend, and I'll be sure to report back once we're done. For now, here's a quick peek at my top-level overview. I sometimes find that writing a summary like this beforehand helps my thoughts stay focussed during the design.

Sunday 22 April 2012

D is for Dracolich

A dracolich is a dragon that has traded its own mortality for diabolic power, raising itself as one of the undead. Even as its body decays into tatters, its soul remains preserved in a well-hidden soul jar, or phylactery. When its body is destroyed, it reforms again near the phylactery just a few days later. Only by destroying the phylactery can the dracolich be properly slain.

Now, dragons practically live forever as it is, and are extremely powerful. So they'd have to be fairly power-crazed to go through the ritual of lichdom, right? Especially if they're only wee, like the adorable little wyrmling Stacey has drawn above!

Friday 13 April 2012

Feeling Lucky?

Here's someone who could use a lucky roll...
It's funny, Stacey seemed surprised when I said I was posting about "luck rolls". Turns out she thought they were part of the core D&D rules, which shows how long I've been using them. Pretty much forever, I think.
Calling for a luck roll: When you're unsure about how things should pan out, ask one of your players to make a "luck roll" by throwing a D20. If the result is high, the odds work in their favour. If it's low, complications arise. 
Simple stuff really, and I'm guessing you do something similar in your own games. In fact, you could argue that my luck roll has its origins in random encounter tables, or - more precisely - the Luck skill in Call of Cthulhu. You'd be right, but as it's probably the single most important rule I use, I still think it's worth writing about.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Enemy Elite: Methragor's Skull

Methragor the Red was famed for his mastery over humankind. Though young, his path to power was carved by an immense network of spies, robbers and assassins, many of whom had no idea they were working for a dragon. Methragor's Machiavellian schemes made him a deadly adversary, but it was his cruelty that finally brought him to the attention of Orcus, Demon Prince of Undeath. The dragon's penchant for periodically eating his most favoured servants appealed to the demigod, who offered him lichdom in return for undying service.

Stripped of his earthly body, Methragor now appears as nothing more than a jawless dragon skull. Such appearances are deceptive though, for in death as in life, Methragor relies on his puppets. When the dragon's skull is worn as a helmet, Methragor immolates his victim and raises their body as an undead vessel for his mind. In battle he surrounds himself with devout orcish warriors, each one sworn to sacrifice their body should his current vessel fail him.

Today Methragor serves Orcus, but his scheming ways are far from over. He longs for a way of escaping his servitude; and with an eternity to plot, remains confident he shall someday find one....

This week's guest art comes from Paul Worster, a really nice guy who I worked with at Frontier Developments. Paul is a talented 3D artist who shared my pain on the sadly-cancelled Outsider project, and more recently, on the much more successful Kinect Disneyland Adventures (where I did some work as a writer). This generous submission to the Pie took me completely by surprise this week, but look at him! I couldn't be happier working with this creepy villain - and now my players have another memorable adversary to fear. As for Paul, do make sure bookmark his stunning website, and drop by his blog. There's lots more great stuff to see! 

Saturday 7 April 2012

The Tyrant of the Imagination Pt.II

A soul passes on from the funeral pyre...
"Raise Dead" makes Monte Cook question the afterlife of the D&D world. If magic can bring back the dead, how accessible is it? Don't gods care about souls being swiped from under their noses? If resurrection carries nothing more than a monetary cost, why don't wealthy kings live for ever? I think it's odd such questions are brought up without mentioning 4th edition, because part of its cosmology was actually created to answer this. As James Wyatt and Jennifer Clark Wilkes wrote in Worlds and Monsters: 
For 4th Edition we wanted a system that is much more powerful, open, and sophisticated than D&D's official cosmology has ever allowed before, one that DMs can easily use, customize, or even ignore, depending on their campaign's needs. It has to support the idea of souls, and adventures built around them, but it must provide a solid reason for why most people are not resurrected (when was the last time you read a fantasy novel that featured heroes continually returning from the dead?)   
Hence the Shadowfell. In 4th edition, the progress of the soul after death is detailed explicitly: first it passes into a gloomy echo of the world called the Shadowfell, where it lingers for a while before passing on to "somewhere else": a fate even the gods can't explain. Some souls rebel against this, exerting their will to pass back to the land of the living as ghosts or revenants. Only those who pleased their deity in life may join them in the Astral Sea, where they abide for centuries in their god's dominion. Others are fated to return to the world to fulfil a great purpose.

Boo! I'm back.
And there it is: destiny. A concept so ingrained into 4th Edition that your final levels demand you choose one. It's a source of some contention: the system doesn't work so well for campaigns where you start as a villager, progress to a mercenary, and end up lord of a small border fortress; instead, you start as a hero, become a champion of your world, and end up nothing less than a demigod. Some may not like this, but it does neatly answer the resurrection question: in 4th Edition, you return because you have a destiny to fulfil.

In my campaigns, the Raise Dead spell is more of a legend. Most temples keep a crumbling scroll under lock-and-key, using it symbolically as part of the burial ritual. It's extremely rare - almost unheard of - for the gods to actually answer, but if they do, the costs can be paid to bring the hero back. News of their resurrection travels far and wide, bringing them great attention. In play, such events go a long way to supporting the campaign's epic nature. In fact, death is often the biggest driver of my plots:

  • The barbarian raised with a dead druid's staff, who returned bearing the soul of a long-forgotten god.
  • The wizard who gambled with the god of chance, and travelled back in time to save her dead companions.
  • The ranger who died in a haunted city, and came back as a ghost.

Each of the above cases was unplanned for, and went on to define the campaign: in short, like everything that happens in a roleplaying game, death and resurrection are best seen as a story hook. As I argued in my last post, there's a definite a game-play need for Raise Dead. With the "fluff" side so easy to explain, I think it makes sense for the spell to be codified as part of the core rules, not presented as an optional module.

NB: Thanks to Tjaart for the illustrations here, and in the last post!  

Wednesday 4 April 2012

The Tyrant of the Imagination

Swaard of the Trollhaunt, Ghostmaster of Hammerfast - now approaching his fourth incarnation.

Monte Cook recently posted about the role of Raise Dead in 5th Edition, arguing that peril is best supported if resurrection is rare, and proposing a two-pronged solution to character death: get the cleric to cast a "revivify" spell in the moments after, or undergo a costly ritual that can only be performed when the stars are in conjunction (or similar). He also brings up that old chestnut: "if Raise Dead exists, why don't the rich live forever?".

I think 4th Edition covers the story side quite well. I'll explain why in my next post, but first let's look at those thorny game-play issues. It's tempting to take a somewhat gamist view here (as I think Monte does): risk only exists if there are negative consequences to balance against, and punishment adds value to success. Under those principles, the benefits of springing back to life are countered through depletion of valuable resources, removal of powers, or significant setbacks (waiting until the stars are right!). At their most extreme, "perma-death" is touted as the de facto way of playing.

My first problem here is that D&D relies heavily on chance, and as such, it simply isn't very fair. Gamers accept punishment only if they feel they've deserved it, and chance working against you isn't a deserving fate for anyone. On a similar tack, making resurrection all rare and special works fine if you died holding back an army of demons, but it's not so cool if you died falling from a tree. Then, of course, we have the issue of player investment. Unlike most games, RPGs are designed for campaign play: multiple sessions spanning weeks of real-time. If a game is quick, we tend to be more forgiving of chance. But what if you're carrying that randomly-imposed penalty for months? As for permanent death, I think it hangs the game on a hook of hack-slashery, where treasure is the only reward and death the only punishment, and I'd guess most campaigns are more invested than that. I don't know anyone who's sacrificed their character because they knew the cleric could revive them, but I have known players quit outright if their heavily-invested character dies permanently.

So what to do? Put plainly, I think the current system is fine: a chunk of cash, an extended rest for the ritual to be performed, and a small penalty that lasts for a few encounters. In my experience, players only bother with resurrection when they're heavily invested in their character. Why punish somebody's investment in your campaign by insisting that they "start over"?

When an adventurer dies, a player can choose to have them grievously wounded instead. The character is removed from play until the end of the encounter, at which point they return to where they died and are restored to 1 hit point. Any temporary conditions suffered at the time of death are removed, but permanent conditions remain.
The character suffers a grievous wound penalty until treated: -1 to all attacks, skill checks, saving throws, and ability checks. Treatment can only take place during an extended rest, and requires mystic salves. The component cost is 500 gp for heroic tier characters, 5,000 gp for paragon tier characters, and 50,000 gp for epic tier characters. Treating fresh wounds is more costly: any treatment made before three milestones have passed doubles the component cost.

Saturday 17 March 2012

C is for Carrion Crawler

We've had some debate over whether we should include creatures with more than one word in their name. After all, B may stand for "Brain", but it doesn't stand for "Mole". In this case, we've got two Cs, so we're both happy.

Carrion Crawlers are horrible worms that feed on the dead and lay their eggs inside corpses. They're also efficient hunters of the living, using tentacles coated in paralysing gum to subdue their enemies. Interestingly, the 1st Edition crawlers don't have a bite attack, and their poison doesn't actually deal damage. In fact, they don't even appear to have mouths. This is a million times creepier. I imagine their paralysing attacks are completely unfelt, anaesthetising the nerves instantly, like the bite of a leech. Once they've subdued their prey, maybe they lay their eggs inside the still living bodies? This is probably painless too. In fact, once those hatchlings start to feed, I don't imagine you'd feel that either...

Later editions added mouths (fair enough), and fangs (which seem wrong to me). Now they look a little silly, much like the cute pair above. Aw, bless!

Friday 16 March 2012

Draw Vecna Day

My computer kindly informs me that today is "Draw Vecna" day. At least, it is according to Twitter. Some talented bloggers have joined in, including James Stowe, whose work I greatly admire. In the spirit of this holiday, now seems an appropriate time to share Stacey's interpretation of the "Father of Lies". Unfortunately we're not on Twitter, so we can't really join the party. Looks like it's just you and me.

Funnily enough, Vecna plays a pivotal role in our campaign right now. After months of hiding his eponymous hand under a glove, the last session saw our ranger tragically cut down, just as he'd found a way to rid himself of the curse. I called things to a halt just as the glove was torn from Vecna's still twitching hand, exposing the treachery to the whole party. Amongst them was our cleric of Ioun, who isn't likely to appreciate the news. It was, as we like to say in England, "a real Eastenders ending".

I've also been having fun with Vecna's backstory. Since the start of the adventure, the ranger has been carrying a magical lantern haunted by a beautiful ghost girl. Over time, the two have fallen in love (he himself is a Revenant; the "Ghostmaster" of the haunted town of Hammerfast). The girl has little memory of life, knowing only that her father killed her. So far, we've had two more Eastenders moments based on this: the first being the revelation that her father is actually Vecna, and the second being the discovery that he used her body as his own phylactery. Kind of twisted, but hey, it's Vecna.

I also made the lantern useful in its own right. These last few months I've been bringing lots of homebrew items into the campaign, some of which I may share here one day. For now, here's the lantern. Thanks to Tjaart for the picture - and I promise we'll find some cool way of bringing your character back!

Sunday 11 March 2012

B is for Bullywug

Bullywugs are a warlike race of bipedal, swamp-dwelling frog things. They live in disharmony with their environment, often overfishing or outstripping their hunting grounds until their whole tribe is forced to move on or starve to death. Such debauched behaviour is taken a step further in 4th Edition: now their very presence warps and pollutes their homeland, perverting it into a "dismal echo" of what it once was. In a stroke of off-kilter design genius, killing a bullywug actually causes you to regain hit points, as though the land itself were thanking you! Sadly, such blessings are entirely out of whack with their cute, Kermit the Frog appearance.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Group Templates

The Yellow Banner doing what it does best - bringing the thunder!

"The maths is broken". It's a common complaint heard on the message boards - monsters from the first two Monster Manuals don't pack enough punch, especially at high levels. Wizards of the Coast consequently errata'd their official rules on monster creation, lowering defences and upping damage across the board. But was it really needed?

Yes, it was. In fact, I'd say it doesn't go far enough. True, damage for paragon and epic tier monsters wasn't high enough - but I think that's only half the problem. What encounter groups still lack at higher levels are power synergies and "gotcha!" powers.

Take my group. Every encounter, there are no less than three interrupting powers they can use to screw with an enemy attack. The ranger can make a disruptive strike, dealing damage to the monster and imposing a penalty to its hit roll. The battlemind can perform a lightning rush, gaining a free attack and taking the blow if he hits. The paladin can use guardian's counter, swapping places with the target, taking the hit himself, and then gaining a free counter-attack. Potentially, all three could even be used on the same attack. These are what I call "gotcha!" powers:

Me: "Lord Fatbeard laughs cruelly as he closes on the wizard. He raises his mace and..."
Tjaart: "Disruptive strike. Hits 37 AC. 24 damage, -6 to hit."
Me: "...damn."

In my opinion, the balance here is pretty screwy. As players go up levels, they gain greater and greater power variety. This versatility isn't shared by monsters - as they go up in levels, their power variety remains pretty much the same. Sure, their damage output goes up, but I don't think that's enough.

Again, take my group. Right now, we have two leaders (one dual class, one pure), but even so:

  • I'm adding +10 to all pre-Monster Manual III damage.
  • I frequently chain two encounters together into one.
  • Two of my players are cursed, meaning that whenever one takes damage, the other gets stung for half. 

Yet I still find it difficult to challenge them.

The attached rules are designed to counter that. The basic idea is to provide a set of "group templates": special power sets that are shared between all creatures in the group. By applying one of these templates to the group, they all gain access to a special trait and a number of shared powers (mostly interrupts and reactions). At higher tiers of play, power versatility increases. I've not tested them yet - I'll be trialling them this weekend - but hopefully they'll give my encounters a bit of added punch!

See what you think:

Sunday 26 February 2012

A,B,C,D (and D)

For a while now, Stacey's had this plan to illustrate the alphabet according to D&D - the sort of thing you'd see hung on a classroom wall - with grown monsters for the upper case letters, and baby monsters for the lower case ones. The idea came from a children's illustration class she attended last year, where her tutor set the challenge of bringing letters to life. With 'Beholder Basic' gearing our thoughts towards kids, now seems an appropriate time to share the first.

Achaierais are massive, 15-foot tall flightless birds that prowl the Infernal Battlefield of Acheron. Despite their Sesame Street features, they're actually thoroughly evil, and delight in torture. They speak Infernal (in high-pitched squawking voices, I imagine), and can belch out clouds of black, maddening gas. Sounds to me like someone was smoking some of that mad gas themselves when they cooked them up.

Keep posted for "B is for...". With so many great contenders, who knows what we'll see? (one clue: it's not a Beholder).

Friday 24 February 2012

Beholder Basic: The Cleric

"No swords or bows and arrows can be employed, for the cleric is forbidden by his religion from the drawing of blood."

For Beholder Basic, you'll see I've boiled the list of skills down to just four.
Athletics: Want to leap up onto that balcony? Hold your breath underwater? Lift that portcullis?  Then test your Athletics.
Lore: Decipher that coded message? Recognise the ancient king in that carving? Activate that magic portal? Lore. This skill encompasses Arcana, History, Nature and Religion.  
Perception: As it was. Use Perception to spot traps and secret doors, or hear that assassin sneaking up behind you.
Stealth: For when you want to sneak up behind them. Also incorporates Thievery, so you can now use Stealth to pick locks and disable traps. Basically, everything sneaky.
Of course, this means some omissions. There's no Heal - in 4E, I feel the cost of spending an action is enough, and the DCs are so low anyhow - and no Dungeoneering (who uses it anyway?). Perhaps most noticeably, all the social skills have gone: Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate and Streetwise. My reasoning here is simply to encourage role-playing - get kids acting out social encounters rather than relying on dice - so I suppose that's one aspect where Beholder Basic plants its feet firmly in the Old School.

In a similar sense, Sandy and I have been having this ongoing discussion about whether or not Perception should be in the game. Rather than rolling dice, he argues that players should describe where they're searching. For instances where a roll may be preferable - such as searching for an invisible enemy - the DM just sets a DC for a flat D20 roll. I'm on the other side of the fence for now, but I may change my opinion. What do you think?

Thursday 23 February 2012

Beholder Basic

"Bruno the Battler smashes open a dungeon door and is confronted by a big goblin in chainmail armed with a scimitar."

Here's something silly I've been working on. What if there was a bone-simple version of 4th Edition that kids could play? That slaughtered some of the sacred cows - like ability scores - and shamelessly hard-wired collectible fortune cards and tokens into the core? And what if - just for the hell of it (or perhaps in protest against all this "back to basics" stuff flying about) - we kit-bashed this monster into the oldest edition of D&D available: the original D&D Basic Set?

You see, the other day I discovered that I own the "Holmes Edition" of D&D: one of the original boxed sets, printed in 1978. I've never actually played it - I was three years old at the time of release, so the best I could've done was chew on it - but reading it now is quite an eye-opener. I cut my teeth on the red box, published almost ten years after the original pamphlets, and I think it's fair to say they'd tidied things up by that stage. In comparison, Holmes sounds like it was written by a madman. Still, despite its scatter-shot approach to layout and tone, it's not without charm. In particular, reading this edition shows me that some of our sacred cows aren't as holy as they seem. Take races, for example. Here we find a wonderful column that suggests:

"At the Dungeon Master's discretion a character can be anything his or her player wants him to be. Characters must always start out inexperienced and relatively weak and build on their experience. Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, halflingish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man." 

And people complain about "the circus coming to town"? Also note, "halflingish" - really quite beautiful.

Overall, reading Holmes made me wonder what I'd like from a basic set today. I've bought both the Revised Red Box and the Pathfinder Beginner Box, but in truth I think that both of them are flawed. They're trying to teach overly complex systems to an audience that's really too young to get it. Equally, I don't think the answer is to go back to Original D&D. Rules-wise, 4th Edition was a pretty lean beast, and - despite the hate - introduced some new toys to the box that I think our kids would really get on with. Power cards, for instance. I think it's a shame to throw these out in favour of graph paper and pencils. What I want - and I'm not talking 5th Edition here - is to see a basic version of 4th Edition that's somewhere between the D&D adventure boardgames and the role-playing games, but fully playable in the "old-fashioned" way; i.e. without tiles and miniatures.

The character card you see above - artwork care of Sandy! - represents what I'd work towards:

  • Heavy emphasis on cards and counters, much like WFRP 3rd Edition. Players have a character card that they lay in front of them, which they use to "socket" their power cards to.
  • No ability scores (the use of arrays and skills has made them obsolete in 4th Edition, in my opinion). Instead, fixed bonuses for defences, supplemented by class-specific gear cards.
  • An even further boiled-down set of skills: now refined to just four. 
  • Less Hit Points for an even more lethal experience.

Who knows, maybe I'll take it further, and actually write this thing up? Take that as a warning.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Enemy Elite: Chudda Feg

This obese cyclops is the bludgeon of the fomorian government. When trouble flares in the crowded slums, Chudda Feg delivers a message spelled out in blood, bile and broken bone. Against the hated eladrin he is a juggernaut, screaming from his trap like a missile flung from a trebuchet.

Chudda was reared in the slave pits of Behol, where his prodigious size and lumpish mind made him a prized gladiator. His fury on the sand caught the eye of the fomorian statesman Magg Ra Bhrune, a rising star in the city’s regime, who took him on as bodyguard. Here he earned a brutish signature: tearing the arms off those who defied his master.

Chudda’s mutations stem from this dark habit. Sent to intimidate a local drug ring, he stumbled into a meeting with their hidden supplier: an Aboleth working for the Fifth Coil. Undaunted, Chudda exacted his orders, tearing off the Aboleth’s barbed tentacles as his prize. When the Fifth Coil came for him, they grafted those same tentacles onto his shoulders, and held open his one eye to the screaming horror of the Far Realm. His mind shattered, Chudda Feg was thrown back to his master as a crude warning of what was to come. Now, his only use is mayhem. He no longer understands the act of killing: instead, it has become a curious reflex. Who knows what madness whorls in his mind now? What horrors that eye has seen?

This week's artwork comes from Jason Hickey, art director of Cobweb Games and Thoroughly Nice Chap. Jason and his brother Sebastian recently published their own role-playing game, Chronicles of Skin, using money raised from a particularly successful appeal on IndieGoGo. I got my copy through the post the other day, and it's a thing of beauty. Go and buy one for yourself this instant!   

For me, this has been a fantastic opportunity to design to an image, which isn't something I do often. Jason's pic initially made me think Brute, but ultimately those tentacles turned him into a Controller. Forcing motion during combat is one of 4th Edition's strengths, so I thought I'd play to that. I'm also quite proud of his name, which is a homage to two favourite creatures from my youth: the Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, and the Lord Weird Slough Feg.  

I threw Chudda Feg against my players over the weekend, giving me a chance to playtest him in earnest. He was pretty nasty, but I felt he needed some tuning. The monster you see to the right is the result of that. 

Sunday 12 February 2012

Jaggerbad Skyhouse

In January I had my first article published in Dungeon magazine: "Jaggerbad Skyhouse", a tavern strapped to the back of a colossal iron dragon. I've been waiting for months to see this published, as I actually wrote it back in June 2010. I remember my initial submission was very spontaneous. I was browsing the D&D website during my lunch hour, and noticed that their submission window was just about to end. I fired off a quick pitch and then promptly forgot about it. As it happened, I struck lucky: they were doing a new series on taverns, and my submission looked like it may fit the bill.

The "Jaggerbad Skyhouse" (or "Nucleuft") as it appeared in my 3E campaign log. Note the guns!
Jaggerbad Skyhouse was first conceived back in my 3E days, where it served as an exclusive flying hotel for the Gnome King. No planar travel, and certainly no Summer Queen, but the atmosphere was the same. I played a one-on-one adventure there with my friend Giles, whose gnome illusionist unravelled a high-flying assassination plot conducted by a shape-shifting succubus.

I figured I'd need a twist to tie it into 4E lore, so I made it skip between planes and connected it to the Court of Stars. One of the things I really like about 4E is that push towards planar adventuring in the Paragon and Epic tiers, so I figured DMs could use something that actually gets them there. I also love the feywild, so I wanted to write something that felt true to that. Lastly, I knew Giles would curse my name forever if I didn't slip Miramar in there somehow: so there she is, number 10 on the NPC table,"Gnome Illusionist riding a Beholder" (Stacey's 4E character also smuggled himself in at number 4: "Turbaned, gold-painted dwarf").

One of the great things about submitting to Wizards is wondering who they'll get to draw your cover art. In my case, I got lucky. They commissioned Adam Paquette, and if you've seen the picture, I think you'll agree his rendition of the Jaggerbad is truly wondrous (sadly it hides behind the paywall). On the day it was published I was headed down to Cornwall, and it went live just as my taxi turned up. I risked missing my train while my painfully-slow internet connection spooled the picture through - but it was worth the wait, and I had a smile on my face that lasted the whole journey.

Bracken would like you to join him on an adventure...

I think the article's gone down well. I've had a great comment here on the blog, and the comments over at the Wizards site and on EN World have been incredible.

Last year, I introduced the Skyhouse into our ongoing 4E campaign. For my players, it was like being part of an early screening. As it happened, only one member of the group made it on board, so I had the other players take on temporary roles. Interestingly, the character that made it belonged to Giles (so for sanity's sake I took his 3E character off the random NPC table!)

The encounter we played was intentionally very weird, with a strong fairytale theme. It's sometimes difficult to pull these ones off: you have to counterbalance all those twee moments with a healthy dab of darkness. In a sense, if you're going to lay on some Labyrinth, you'd better serve it with a side order of Pan's Labyrinth.

Anyway, I thought it would be a nice present to write it up and serve it as a companion piece to the Dungeon article. So here it is: a side-trek for any level that takes your players on a strange, dreamlike journey through the tavern's upper floor.


Thursday 26 January 2012

The Hinge's Handle

The mysterious, and yet ultimately annoying, "Hinge's Handle".
There's clearly been some sort of mistake. I recently entered RPG Superstar 2012 - the industry's equivalent of the X Factor - yet somehow my magic item didn't make the final cut. Surely a clerical error? Either that, or the sheer originality of my submission simply blew their minds.

Sadly not. Now the lights have come up and I stand nervously before the judges. "This is a really annoying item", says one, whom I naturally assume to be Simon Cowell. "You're making too much work for the GM", snaps Paula Abdul. The crowd snickers. All that's left now is for me to make some hissy, retributive comment and flounce off-stage.

They're right, of course. It's great that Paizo runs this every year, and in all seriousness, it's a massive undertaking for the judges to reply individually to every item they receive. I just hope that GMs look beyond their own submissions, and view the competition for what it truly is: a creative gold mine. Just reading through the final 32 - and the rejects pile - has given me a stack of solid items to introduce into my campaigns (won't my players be pleased!). But beyond that, its given me ideas for villains, organisations, even whole adventures. There's a lot of talent out there.

So what did I submit? Well, I'll be the first to admit my item is a bit "gonzo" - and does put a lot of work onto the GM's shoulders - but hopefully it facilitates some creative thinking at the table. That's the hallmark of a good wondrous item. Unfortunately for me, it's also fairly abundant in those suggestions that beat me to the cut!

Still, I suppose there's always next year.

Monday 16 January 2012

Drowning in Rules

Have at you, internet! (thanks to Tjaart for the pic)
Eh? What’s that? You didn’t know they’re making a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons? There now, I’m sure we’ll still find a use for you around here somewhere. Sharpening our pencils, perhaps.

Of course, you should have heard the internet exploding. Just when we thought the Edition Wars had reached an uneasy impasse - its soldiers settling down to a peaceful Christmas dinner in the trenches, perhaps even a spot of footie on no-man’s land – then, blam, here we go again. 

Here at Beholder Pie we remain optimistic. We’ll be participating in the play-test, and I’ll be reporting our findings. As the rules get clearer, we may even start playing a few one-shots between campaign sessions. I'm looking forward to it. If "D&D Next" succeeds in reconciling our community's fractious differences, the hobby as a whole benefits – and for that, I’d happily see a few of my sacred cows slaughtered.

My predictions? Well, loads of people are saying they’ll be able to “port” their 1E character into a 5E game, or pitch a 2E thief against a 3E rogue, but personally, I think that’s reading too much into it. When Monte Cook says “your 1E-loving friend can play in your 3E-style game and not have to deal with all the options he or she doesn’t want or need”, I believe he’s talking about play styles, not rules. I’m guessing what we’ll see next year is a core set of rules heavily based on 3E and 4E - but just very, very basic. An “Essentialising of Essentials", if you will. Then, a bunch of optional modules to cover all the varying situations a campaign throws at you, presented for varying levels of simulation (which is where 3E sensibilities come into play). As for playing highly-customised characters alongside simpler characters, compare the Essentials Slayer to the Weaponmaster fighter. I think we’ll be seeing more stuff like that.

Still, in this time of reflection it’s interesting to compare how some of those older rules sit alongside the new ones. Take drowning, for example.

In 4th Edition, swimmers last three whole minutes before running out of breath. Thereafter, they need to pass a DC 20 Endurance check each round or lose a healing surge, followed by Hit Point loss. If we assume our swimmer is a 1st level wizard with no skill training, that’s a 95% chance of failure every round. Even if he fails every check, it’s still going to take him twenty six rounds to drown after running out of breath. To put that into perspective, with a swim speed of 3 our wizard can swim 512 metres underwater before drowning – or just over ten lengths of an Olympic swimming pool.  

I’m no athlete by any means, but I grew up near the sea and I’m a relatively good swimmer. Diving underwater, I can hold my breath for thirty, maybe forty seconds before I start to freak out. Three minutes? Not a chance. Now, I’m not opposed to bending the rules of reality if the payoff is good – but here, I’m not sure what this rule is actually doing. For determining how long you can hold your breath out of combat, it’s simply broken. In underwater combat, that three minute “buffer zone” is meaningless – a single blow and you’re onto the endurance checks. So why have it at all?

According to my Rules Cyclopedia, an average swimmer in Basic D&D lasts fifty seconds before he runs out of breath. After that, he could drown any round (50% chance first round, with a -5% penalty each round thereafter).  In Basic, each round equals 10 seconds, so the longest he could go after running out of breath is one minute forty. 

This is a great example of Basic doing it better, but it doesn’t take into account skills. For 4th Edition, I’d use something like this...

Given a few moments to prepare, an adventurer can hold their breath for a number of rounds equal to their Constitution score (or half their Constitution score if they are performing a strenuous activity such as swimming). Once out of breath, the character must succeed on a DC 10 Endurance check. Success buys them another round, but raises the DC of their next check by 5. If they fail any of these checks, the character is now dying.   

Saturday 7 January 2012

Lost in the Labyrinth: An Alternate Storyline

It's almost time to wrap up my Thunderspire Labyrinth series, and look to new things. Amongst other more mundane resolutions (see: waistline), I've committed myself to gaming more this year. I want to play a complete campaign of Gears and Gunpowder in ten parts, one session per month, and get our main H-E campaign as close to Epic as possible. I want to play more, write more, and - most important of all - submit more. This month is a bit of milestone for me, as I've got my first published article coming out in Dungeon magazine! It's really given me the kick I need to take this stuff more seriously, so here's hoping you'll stick around for the ride.

So. Thunderspire. Thus far all we've done is re-imagine a few of the NPCs. Now it's time to take the bull by the horns and look at the adventure as a whole. As far as encounters go, I think it's got some of the best so far. You'll have a fun job converting everything over to MM3 maths, but beyond that it's all pretty cool, especially the Well of Demons. No, the biggest problem, I think, lies with the story.

As written, you've effectively got three "acts". The first ends at the Chamber of Eyes, where we learn that the McGuffin (the captives), has been taken to the Horned Hold. The second act takes us from the Horned Hold to the Well of Demons. However, the link into Act 3 ("Interlude 2") is somewhat clumsily shoehorned into this section. Paldemar - this dude we know nothing about - decides to destroy us, because "we could pose a threat". When we take the fight back to him, the chances are we'll miss his big plan completely. After all, the only clue seems to be a bull's head floating in a vat...

When I played this, I kept the same sequence of locations, but shook up the story. My main changes were:

  • The captives are now Lord Markelhay's daughter and her servants. Sure, it's "Rescue the Princess", but it adds a whole lot more gravitas to the chase.
  • The enemies are the Mages of Saruun themselves. For years, they have been trying to unlock a door at the heart of the labyrinth, and now they hope to trade Markelhay's daughter for the key.
  • Behind the door is, you guessed it, a primordial. If they manage to open it, all hell breaks loose.    

I'll be the first to admit it's not particularly original, but in my defence I was looking for that "classic D&D" feel. Not to say it doesn't have a few neat flourishes - final battle in a chamber containing a moving map of the labyrinth made from smoke? Yes, please!

Anyway, see what you think. I like to think it holds together better as a narrative, at least.