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.