Sunday, May 30, 2010, 6:00 AM
For my camaign, I just created an arch villain by applying the warlord template to the ghoul creature and I produced a nigh-godlike powerhouse well beyond the experience the characters would receive for his defeat. On the other hand, tonight the characters are fighting a dragon which I had to bump up with two minion spewing traps in order to make it stand up to the fight. To make the dragon, by the way, I lowered its level using monster builder. I think, it's a level 4 solo now, instead of a level 5. I thought seriously of making it a level 7 Elite b/c I prefer elites to solo in every way.
What all this manipulation has highlighted for me is the strange way that D and D classifies its adversaries into the four roles Minion, Standard, Elite, and Solo. Minions are pointless, but I think are supposed to be--so the game mechanic seems to work there. Plus, minions used well, can be worth their points. I got a lot of good ideas from these people (minus me).
As for standards, they are...well...standard. A standard plus a template is an Elite and for me, that makes a lot of sense (for reasons that I'll go into in a minute). Elites, I think, are worth their points in general so long as you manipulate their powers (adding powers, turning encounter powers into recharges, changing damage levels, etc.). The leap up from Elite to Solo, however, seems to me to cause a real dip in the 'monster power to experience cost' ratio and for good reason.
First the problem
A Solo is equal to five creatures of its level in power, and one would hope, more. An Elite is worth two, a ratio that's easy to keep up--just double their potential for damage. Not so for Solos; you can't just multiply their power output by five, and so you have to find other things to make up with the obvious recourse to manipulation. You add encounter powers, you make encounter powers recharge, you give them more at will powers, etc., but does this really work?
Consider this: five standard creatures get to use their encounter powers 5 times during a battle. A solo with that power at recharge 4+ will probably use it 3 times in the average 6 round combat. A solo has 5x as many hit points as the average creature, but because it is a single entitity, it more easilly grants combat advantage. It will be hit more often, and if the party has the right character combo, it will take 17 extra points of damage to people like rogues. Also, while the creature can more easilly shake off effects with its +2 saving throws, it still suffers them and so dazed and stuns aren't spread between five creatures, but stacked on one.
The result is that most solos become sit down charlies. Once the players begin wailing on it, they continue until it the monster dead. Any advantages that the monster tends to have go simply towards extending the battle beyond the point where it would end enjoyably. This is, plainly put, no good.
Fixing the Problem
My assumption is that the problem is in the definition of 'power level' that undergirds this system: namely, that a creature with 5x as many hit points is 5x as powerful. This is not so. A creature that does 5x as much damage is more powerful--having more hit points may give the creature greater chance to do damage, but the relationship is not so direct as 2x hit point=2x damage.
When you apply a class template to a monster, it gains 2 encounter powers (one encounter and one daily, actually). This leaves the elite creature with, most likely 3 or 4 encounter powers. A solo shouldn't have less than four powers that are equivalent to these kinds of powers and ought to have at least one that resembles a character daily at its level. This would make it equivalent to a class-templated elite. Great. Now take the weakest of those encounter powers, and make it an at-will. Take the second weakest and make it a recharge 4+, third weakest and make it a recharge 6+, and take the most powerful and make it recharge when the creature is bloodied.
The next fix is that a solo gets only one chance to do damage per round as opposed to the five chances and equivalent number of creatures would get. This, again, is no good. The trick here, I think, is to take whatever was the creature's old 'at will' damage capability and turn it into an aura. The other option is, of course, to create another at-will that allows the monster to do 2x one of its at wills (this is already what most solos have, but if you promote one of their encounter powers to an at-will, doubling it becomes far more effective).
This last option isn't, as far as I'm concerned, very good. First, it doesn't actually double the creature's damage (which would fall short of the 5x damage capability that were expecting from a creature that's worth 5x as much as other creatures). The monster still needs to hit, and given that solos aren't particularly better suited to hitting than other creatures of their level, it means that the defender (if they're doing their job right) can effectively shut the monster down, or at least reduce its effectiveness drastically. Plus, if the creature has another at-will, which is a promoted encounter power, then it's probably better to use that. At the very least, whatever at-will the creature has, the most powerful should be the one chosen for the double attack. This is why I recommend, instead, the aura.
In terms of defense, I think it's safe to say that effects that have a 'Save Ends' component are too powerful agianst solos because it shuts down the encounter. My suggestion is rather simple. Allow the monster to make its save at the beginning of its turn. This will effectively mean that the effect will have one round less of an effect, but it will still allow these effects to come into play in the intervening actions before the creature's turn (especially if the creature is granting combat advantage).
Here's an example:
Saturday, May 29, 2010, 10:51 AM
I just read Steven Winter's Dungeon Column, "Wrapping Up." It's good and I thoroughly suggest reading it. However, it's funny because at some point in the article, he says, "To some extent, the blame for too-easy skill challenges can be laid at the feet of the "Skill Check Difficulty Class" table from the Dungeon Master's Guide (page 61). It's acknowledged that the DCs on that table should be higher. Armed with that knowledge, DMs need to take the bit between their teeth and make the adjustments they think necessary in order to inject the proper amount of risk into their skill challenges."
I have had loooonnnnnggg discussions (putting it nicely) with DMs on these threads about justifying abysmally low DCs and now the guy from Dungeon magazine is saying that the DCs listed in the DMG are too low for publishable adventures. Note, if the DCs in the DMG are too low, then why did WotC edit them in the DMG 2 to be nearly 10 LOWER than that? Who's right here, the guy who looks over adventures for publication or the guys who wrote the DMG 2? Which one of them is the mouthpiece for the new official D and D game philosophy?
Okay, clearly, as a writer and editor for Dungeon magazine, Winter has the job of telling prospective writers how to write good adventures. If he says that say, a DC of 20 is too low, then you should follow his advice rather than look to the DMG 2, which has edited that DC to 10, but the problem is, I think, worse than that. I think WotC needs to realize that D and D players and Dungeon Masters actually read the books--that they read things labeled "tips" and they take them seriously. When they see a table that changes DCs, they assume that the change was made for a reason and that this reason has something to do with making their games better. Well, as some of us have suspected, I think the wisdom of the D and D writing team isn't as infallible as one might hope and that D and D is not in some new position in which Dungeon Master rule interpretation is no longer necessary. It's just as necessary for the DM to tailor the rules to the game as it was in 3.5 if DCs are a function of DM invention.
In fact, whereas the old rules used to tell us, "hey none of this is set in stone, make it up as you need it," the new rules tell us, "all of this is set in stone so as to insure game balance, we cannot be held responsible for your game should you stray from the course." This means, sadly, that we who suggest rule variations are generally met with greater skepticism (which by the way, may be making our suggestions a little less whimsical and/or ridiculous, but that's a whole 'nother subject altogether). What Winter is suggesting is that, in fact, if you follow those rules that are supposedly set in stone, you will design adventures that aren't fit for publication. Wow!
So, taking that for what it is: an endorsement of DM caveat, I'd like to point to an earlier part of the article:
"The issue of "too dull" is a fine distinction to make. This is because it impinges on one of the top uses for skill challenges, which is to formalize seemingly mundane tasks and get characters through them with a minimum of fuss. That's not their only use, of course, but it's an important one.
Players have a way of hyper-focusing on trivial details, then derailing the action by asking endless questions and relentlessly following every dead-end lead. Skill challenges can alleviate that. In fact, they're ideal for it—but only when the situation warrants their use. If tasks are truly trivial, then it's better to just assume that the characters handle them and move on."
I really like Winter's writing. He makes a whole lot of sense, but let's face it: so long as he's telling DMs that they will need to ignore the DMG (and DMG 2) and arbitrarilly set DCs, then why not institute a long standing tradition of letting the DM tell the players that their suspicions are unfounded, that their interpretation is far fetched, or that they suspect that their hyper-focusing is leading them to choose an incorrect course of action. Basically, learn to say, "no." Whatever happened to saying, "look, I'm telling you that your character, because of his background, would probably know that what you're saying wouldn't be how it works," or "you get the feeling that this guy is on the level and not lying or a doppelganger." I mean, if you, as a DM are allowing your players to waste game time pursuing every blind alley, then the introduction of the skill challenge mechanic probably isn't going to do a whole lot to save your games.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010, 6:03 AM
I'm still thinking about traps. Again, these ideas here haven't quite congeled into some kind of exposition on the subject, they're a little closer to stray thoughts, but hey... Brainstorming and all that.
If an "encounter" is supposed to remove 1/5th of the party's healing surges (and here I'm using my own version of game balance) then it's fairly easy to get how much damage a trap should do. If the trap is itself 1/4 of an encounter then it should do enough damage to take away (on average) 1/20th of the party's healing surges. I suppose you could just do this by healing surges and simplify the whole process considerably, but that sort of gets away from what the traps do, in terms of game play.
Keep in mind, a trap is really a detriment to the resource management part of the game. Because the damage is generally dealt outside of combat, the characters are forced to decide whether or not to spend healing surges to cover it. If a character takes 10 points of damage and can heal 15 with each surge, then they are netting a loss of 5 hit points by using the healing surge before the next fight. On the other hand, if they don't use the surge, they enter the fight already 10 points down.
One major point to consider in all this, however, is the problem of effects, and it is here that I think traps can really come into their own as a dungeon feature. Let's face it, ongoing 5 or dazed doesn't mean very much in non-combat. In terms of ongoing damage, just do the damage initially--the idea of combat rounds is kind of pointless in these circumstances, and when you stop ticking off rounds, dazed, stunned, restrained, immobilized, even helpless become kind of meaningless (unless of course, combat starts). These are combat effects and they don't affect non-combat very well.
So, why not go with it? If traps, being non-combat, had their own non-combat effects, it would create an entire echelon of game considerations and make traps come into their own (which as of now, I don't think they have).
What kind of effects? Well, first of all I'd use the disease mechanic to describe the effects, with a Heal roll (or appropriate roll such as arcana, religion, nature, streetwise, dungeoneering, etc.) during every period of short rest (with total healing for most effects at periods of extended rest--just like with HP and healing surges). Second, I would make most of these effects non-combat/exploratory in nature. Reduce characteristics or skill rolls, force skill challanges to deal with crippling effects, implement limitations on healing surges spent non-combat, double the armor penalties to skills, etc.. I might include minor movement penalties (-1 say), but this is getting into combat effects: remember, no one wants to spend their entire next combat slowed.
Example: Panji Sticks
Used against the U.S. in Vietnam, Panji sticks or a Panji trap is basically a smallhole covered with leaves with spikes sticking up in the bottom (bamboo traditionally). So, step down in hole, impale foot. Ugly, ugly, ugly.
We'll make it a level 5 Lurker trap covers 4 seperate squares in a room (perception DC 22 to notice one of the squares, DC 27 to notice a pattern that reveals all squares, hits a +8 vs. Reflex against anyone who enters a square--a triggered square is no longer considered hidden). If I figure about 42 healing surges for a 5 person party with an average of about 11 hit points per healing surge, you get that a standard trap ought to do 18 points of damage on average ((42/25)*11) or total number of healin surges divided by 5 (as it is one of five encounters for the day) divided by 5 (as it is one fifth of one of those encounters) times 11 which is the average ammount of hp healed with each surge.
So, averages of 11: 2d10, 3d6, 4d4, 2d6+4. Take your pick. Going low (2d6+4), I would include the following effect:
Secondary attack: +8 v. Fortitude,
Heal improves DC 22, maintains DC 18, worsen DC 17 or lower
Targe is cured<--initial effect: Target must make medium difficulty Endurance checks to use dexterity based skills<-->Target must make hard difficulty Endurance checks to use dexterity based skills<-->Final state: character requires a difficult heal check (taking an hour) at Extended rest in order to fully recover from Crippled Foot
Sunday, May 23, 2010, 3:39 PM
The following thoughts about traps aren't exactly random but I'm not sure they add up to some kind of edifice. I'm putting traps in my campaign very successfully and I'd like to give some advice, but I'm not sure it all adds up to a "do this, then do this," set of instructions. Just some stuff to think about really.
Consider where to put a trap so that it doesn’t, daily, take out a few members of your hobgoblin guards. Do you put it in high traffic areas? No, obviously, because the chance of going off accidentally is too great and a trap sprung on the wrong person wastes both the trap and the guard it takes out. You most certainly DO NOT trap areas where visitors will be entertained. If you call the evil duke of Squugmuglia to your lair to discuss your upcoming plan to secretly infiltrate the court of Baron Goodguy, you don’t want his comic relief little brother setting off your “Blades of Ice” trap by sitting on the wrong part of the couch.
***NOTE*** There are those who claim that putting in traps outside of combat trains the players to crawl through a dungeon. I disagree. Putting traps in unrealistic places or giving players no logic to use behind figuring out where traps might be placed is what causes them to become overcautious. Making them thinking about their surroundings and the possible presence of traps in a realistic way increases the possibility for emersion in the game world.
Traps, especially traps that guard an item or area, are generally set at areas of entry. The reason is simple. Given any space, if you have a trap that hits an area, you want to make sure that an intruder is going to move so as to trigger the trap. You cannot be assured that intruders will investigate the fireplace. You cannot be assured that they will sit on the couch. You cannot even be assured that they will cross across the center of the room. However, you can be very much assured that they will use the door. Moreover, if the trap is triggered by opening the door, and the triggering mechanism is set behind the door, then the person triggering the trap won’t be able to see the mechanism through the door. Make sense.
Often, there’s this idea of a diamond on a dais and if anyone touches it, the temple falls apart (ala Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark). That’s fine, but consider: guarding one square generally means trapping the eight squares that surround it. Also, if you trap the pedestal, you allow would be thieves to examine it from all sides. They can look all around it and get a good idea of how to defeat the trap (just like Indie did!). Lastly, the problem with trapping the gem, or the priceless art, or the powerful throne (whatever) is that you risk destroying it with the trap. Trapped idols make for great movies, but in reality, the trap that destroys six generations of a building project and buries the priceless heirloom under 400 tons of stone turns out to be a little cost inefficient.
So, as two rules of thumb: put traps on doors and entranceways, not on cleared out areas, and if you’re going to put traps on “things,” understand that this logically means that a character who is being careful (and who takes time to look the thing over) will likely notice the trap.
The same is not true for hazards. Hazards generally should be located in areas of low traffic. This is because when one lays out a path, one avoids hazards. At the same time, if there’s a hazard in a hallway that the hobgoblins patrol, they are likely to, eventually, render it safe (put boards over it, burn it, knock it down, etc.).
Taken together this means that traps shouldn’t just be in an area, but areas that are out of the way, generally, and in places that are guaranteed traffic by intruders. If they are set in an otherwise high traffic area, the disarming mechanism is probably going to be fairly obvious (so that those hobgoblins can find it day after day).
Traps In Combat
Strictly speaking, traps generally aren’t set for use in combat. I think someone misconstrued what happens in films or the definition of “trap” when they started populating combats with them. I can see the idea that there are non-living things that do damage to people in combat, but “trap” implies that there are spots on the battlefield that seem harmless but aren’t. Only the overconfident would trap their own battlefield. Does the army ever fight on its own minefields? You drop a boulder on someone’s head precisely because you don’t want to fight them.
But what about movies? It doesn’t happen there either. Generally, in a movie what happens is that the hero notices the horribly deadly trap then the hero faces the monster. The hero, figuring out that the monster cannot be beaten on his own, lures the monster into the trap. This is Terminator, this is Han Solo and the asteroid field, this is Indiana Jones and it is James Bond. Often, the hero first survives the trap before luring the monster into it. Occasionally, the trap destroys the villain’s advantage and cancels itself out. Rarely, however, does the villain enter combat with a room that’s trapped of their own design. The obvious exception to this is a kind of solo controller who sits in the middle of traps or hazards and pushes the characters into them, but almost any monster that’s going to move about, doesn’t want to risk being thrown into its own spear gauntlet.
So, when should traps enter combat? Well, when the players are faced with overwhelming odds and need a trap to even things out….and as you all know, you should never do this in a role playing game. It makes the trap into the hero. Plus, it means that you’re pitting the characters against overwhelming odds which is a big no-no in D and D. That’s not my advice; that comes from all those pros who give tips in the DMG and DMG 2. As always, your mileage may vary. In my games I do this fairly often and it never seems to have the effect mentioned by the pros. Just saying. The trick is to let the trap bring the villain down to a manageable level or to make sure that the characters see the trap as just another weapon option in their repertoire. The more complex the trigger or description, the harder this is. You want, “if you make a bluff roll, he will take 3d10+4 damage,” not, “if you make a bluff roll, he will be entered into a skill challenge involving arcane, endurance, and thievery, 3 successes before 3 failures or he takes 3d10+4.”
Traps Out of Combat
The easiest way to imagine a trap outside of combat is to picture it as part of an upcoming combat that hasn’t started yet, because, in reality, that’s precisely what it is. Each encounter should remove 1/5 of the party’s resources (healing surges) and so, the trap is generally set up to help do this through a simple one time effect that is either disarmed, avoided, or triggered. If it happens, the damage the trap does should contribute to the next encounter. The danger of the trap is that it is more likely to deal this damage in one shot. Failure with a trap is more dangerous than failure in combat. On the other hand, after an encounter with a trap, the characters are likely to have time to spend healing surges. This gives them an advantage over the single use of a second wind that would be allowed if the characters had to face the trap during combat.
So, then, imagine an encounter with a trap. 4 characters at level 5 are supposed to face 800 xp worth of encounter. The trap takes up 100 and does a little bit of damage. After which, the characters next encounter is 700 xp rather than 800 and all is right with the world.
Otherwise the trap plays just like any other feature of exploration.
Thursday, May 20, 2010, 7:33 AM
...in which I talk about the possibilities of the Connecticut River as the Miskatonic.
A while back I suggested that I live in Arkham, which I suggested is likely in the Pioneer Valley (Miskatonic Valley). I said this because of the presence of a river, a valley, a big college, a relatively medium sized town, hill towns nearby, and an insane asylum. I think I'm still right about this, it's just the more I research it, the more I realize that Lovecraft pulled from a bunch of different places in Massachusetts to create Arkham, most of which are in central Mass (about 2 hours from the coast and 2 hours from New York). To my mind, after that point, they all sort of blend together since you can get from Vermont to Connecticut in about an hour of driving and you are in the Pioneer Valley (and following the Connecticut River) nearly the whole way. Saying, Belchertown (near Color Out of Space), MA rather than Braintree, MA (likely site of Dunwich) is sort of a moot point. In the Pioneer Valley, however, there are only four colleges that could stand in for Miskatonic--University of Massachusetts--Amherst, Amherst (both in the town of Amherst), Smith (in Northampton), and Mt. Holyoke (South Hadley). I would suggest that Miskatonic is either Amherst University or Smith--the stories support either, but the town seems more indicative of Northampton than anything else. The size precludes little towns and big cities. I think even Amherst is a bit too small (even though it has two colleges, it has very little else).
In any case, given what I'm saying here, I think you have to conclude that the Miskatonic is probably the Connecticut River. So, back story. Massachusetts's main industry has, up until around 1920, been textiles. Giant factories made of brick were erected along nearly any water tributaries and especially along the Connecticut river to drive this industry. I say this because it has two important things you should probably know so as to include Arkham in your Call of Cthulhu games.
First, the actual factory buildings: they're made of brick and they are massive. When the bottom fell out of the industry, the buildings remained. Some have recently been reused as shopping malls (to give you some idea of size), but in any case, you can't get rid of them without a truckload of dynamite and a wrecking ball. They're brick. This means that even in a mid to late 1920s CoC adventure, you are going to have countless abandoned husks lying around on the sides of waterways with windows boarded up just aching to have some damned cultist turn them into a den of evil.
Second, textiles produce all manner of toxic chemicals especially heavy metals. This has been the bane of the Connecticut River since the plants all closed, but...even better, there used to be enough toxins in the water to cause the river to grow a slight green color. Bad for the fish, but great for your adventures.