Thursday, June 14, 2012, 6:13 AM
May 27th (I copied what I had posted on the forums to here, so I can have all my playtest reviews together)
This was actually my second playtest, but first as DM. There were only 2 players, but each ran 2 characters. So the only character left out was the wizard. After the looked briefly over the character sheets we were ready to begin.: Session Summary
The group decided to enter through the goblin caves, and made their way towards the first guard room (17). After taking out the goblins there with no difficulties, and seeing the stairs leading up they set up a makeshift barricade with the spears in the barrel to have a warning if something came from this direction and doubled back.
Doubling back they found the next guard room, and the rogue and cleric managed to shoot down the 2 goblins that tried to get to the secret door, with the last one pounding on the door when they smashed him. Listening at the door, the heard the sounds of the large creature on the other side, that ended up just walking away from the door when no one opened it... Then the defender cleric decided to kick it down, and seeing the ogre the slayer took the shot with his crossbow... Though both the slayer and the knight took some heavy damage, nobody dropped, and they managed to defeat the ogre. It was quite impressive, and I'd really like to thank the flatter math for making such a thing possible. The only spell was the crusaders strike of the defender. So with a 5 pound bag of silver from the goblins, and a 50 pound sack of coins from the ogre they took their first 10 minute rest.
Moving onwards afterwards the halfling snuck ahead finding the warren filled with goblins. Undetected so far, they decided the best way to handle it was have the halfling fire a shot into the middle and then run back to the corner intersection in the hallway to fight them there. The goblins came in waves of 5 to 6 with more coming in each round. During this battle both slayer and knight were rendered unconcious, but via potions and cure light they were brought back up. The last 6 goblins ended up retreating back to increase the numbers in future encounters.
Having spent their hit dice already and used all their healing capabilities (and sacks of coins they hadn't taken the time to count anyways) they decided to call it a day and head back to town to restock.
Their total in game dungeon diving was about 2-3 hours (about the same as real time) before they had to retreat (or risk carrying someone out soon).
Without knowing why the dwarves and halfling had higher damage than the rules would have pointed to, we weren't really sure what to do for the new weapons they picked up. The group really didn't have too many difficulties, since the defender could put himself front and center with the slayer and the others could fire over his head. So until the ogre they hadn't suffered anything other than superficial wounds. Once they actually took a few hits though the healing was gone quickly.
Healing spells were the only spells that mattered, if they hadn't fought the ogre crusader's strike would have been pointless since everthing died on a hit anyways.
Survival is based on disproportionate attacks, defenses, and hit points. The monsters had pretty consistant poor initiative rolls, resulting in most being dead before doing anything. Then when the goblins were only able to hit 25% of the time they were little more than speed bumps.
The skills system was easy enough, the characters were good from a numerical stand point (fighting goblins we didn't get slayer killing even on a miss though). The enemies were really the problem, the ogre was a great battle, but they survived mostly from luck which is fine.. Afterall the are level 1's fighting an ogre. The room vs 22 goblins was great as well but by doing them in waves I realize now that it turned them into 4th edition goblins.. Goblins that took 3-4 hits to kill. If I would have sent all 22 at once they would have massacred the party.
So this might seem harsh, but we had fun and it's a good start. Criticism is more useful than praise though for improving a system. Overall it was a nice step back to simplicity from 3rd and 4th, but it went a little too far back to simplicity. It seemed more like dodgeball, where the characters were doing fine, but once they got hit in a couple of encounters it was over.
Friday, August 27, 2010, 8:19 AM
Continuing on from last time (actually I'd written this all in one post, but it failed to save all of it).
So the party descends the spiral staircase, leading deeper into the earth. After a while it straightens out into a long corridor. The group travels in darkness down this carved tunnel covered in frescoes from long ago. They are unable to identify who actually carved this, but since many of the scenes depict dragonborn (but with wings) they can only assume.
Finally they reach the entrance to an immense hall (From this point on, this is on a map using MapTools, only there could I pull off a map of this size). Their sunrods fail to penetrate far enough to gauge the actual size of the cavern, but they do see row upon row of stone statues (think terracotta army), the features are a cross of dragon and human. The barbarian and avenger of the group are able to feel slight rhythmic vibrations through the earth, like breathing. Looking around the avenger is able to tell that with each breath out, stone and dust falls from the walls, and with each breath in, the debris is sent skittering across the floor to join with the outermost statues.
A brief pause to reconsider whether or not to continue, before they begin moving their way down the walkway between the ranks of stone sentries. They walk quite a ways down this walkway, their sunrods continuing to only illuminate more and more statues (moved to the edge of sunrod light about 5 times so ~100 squares). Finally they find a new feature, a stone archway. Careful examination shows that this used to be the entrance to the chamber, and the chamber had eroded back all that way over time. Also through the archway, and about 20 feet up, a dim light could be seen. Moving closer they then were able to see a stone stairway, leading up to a platform where a dimly glowing orb rested on a pedestal.
The group moved to the base of the stairway, where finally their light illuminated a gigantic statue of a sleeping dragon (the platform was close to 20 squares in diameter, with the dragon curled up filling the majority of it). At this point, only the bard walks forward, with the avenger trailing by a few steps, the rest stay at the base (or a few steps further away). The bard spends a few minutes examining the orb, sensing powerful magics, but also something else... Intelligence. The orb is sentient, but at this point seems unaware of the groups presence.
With this knowledge, the bard braces himself and lays his hand upon the orb, "OH, there's someone here, Hi! Wait... Uh-oh," is heard within his mind. While the avenger notices the slightest shudder pass through the statue. The bard of course has some very pressing questions: Is this a prison, or a sanctuary; A Sanctuary most definitely. Is that Contremis; Yes.. But I'm afraid he's waking up, I lost my concentration. Are we in danger; He's never happy when he wakes up.
As the bard stands entranced by the orb, the statue is becoming more apparently active, till finally sheets of caked dirt and stone begin to slide from its sleeping form. Can you put him back to sleep; I'm afraid he's grown quite resistant over all this time. What are all of the statues; Contremis grew bored as he dreamed. Who put him to sleep; Contremis did himself. Finally the eyes of the dragon open, and the statues themselves begin to animate. (In answer to a player's question.. No eye that is larger than you are could be considered friendly.) Tremors begin to radiate throughout the area.
Now to take a break from the story, to lay out the mechanics this will be using. The bard has to use a minor action per round to converse with the orb at one question one answer... So without action pointing at most he gets 3 questions. The orb is fairly childlike, and very friendly, so it's not actively trying to confuse or hinder the bard.
Contremis is a level 14 Adult Earthquake dragon (remember level 5 party), with solo hit points, and a ridiculous size. But since its waking, its effectively dazed and weakened. Its aura has been changed instead of increasing size (its always the size of the chamber), the damage scales 5-10-15. But it can also roar, causing debris to fall from the ceiling dealing level appropriate attacks.
The statues are 2 hit minions with resist 10. So the first hit will remove the resist 10, and lower the AC by 2. The second hit, or thunder damage destroys it. But they only have a speed of 2, so they pretty much just march, once in a while closing for an attack. I hadn't planned on it, but the statues ended up like traps, with the players dodging through opportunity attacks (Its actually fun rolling 8 opportunity attacks at 4 damage a piece).
At this point the dwarven runepriest and barbarian begin to back down the walkway. The warforged fighter moves up to shield the bard, hoping the bard is doing something, just staring at the orb. The elven avenger jumps back down to try and hold back statues, only realizing as soon as he takes his attention from the tremors (attacks) he falls painfully to the ground.
...More to come...
Wednesday, August 25, 2010, 8:13 AM
So my campaign is wrapped up, much sooner than I was planning. The group has decided to goto a shared campaign world, so that each DM doesn't have us recreating characters and starting over. So my campaign ended, with the beginning of the end (was supposed to be the end of the chapter anyways).
I wanted to post about this encounter though, because I thought it really got to the players, and I mean that in a good way.
So the group (level 5) had been brought to a goblin warren by a goblin seeking their assistance in freeing his people. From the descriptions of the slavers, they sounded similar to the rogue bands, and armies that the group had dealt with so they couldn't ignore this possible threat. They had fought 3 groups of the band, 1 in the campsite on the surface, and 3 others deep in the warrens. Each of the 3 were guarding a large wheel with letters inscribed. Once cleared, and the clues from various papers and journals were assembled, they found the word "Contremis" needed to be spelled out. A few Religion/Arcane/History checks revealed: Contremis is an incantation used in many earth moving rituals, the word Contremis appears in some ancient manuscripts of religion pre-Golden Age (all races united). Contremis was one of the Guardian Dragons that ruled over the world pre-Golden Age.
So with the reminder that, earth moving rituals would make clearing out any cave-in they were to try pretty simple. Especially if whoever was on their way had the maps that they had. So opening the seal, and hopefully finding a way to lock down whatever might be inside, or take it before others arrive was their best hope. So the group split into 3 groups (a benefit of larger parties) and each headed to a wheel to begin the sequence. A three way combat as they were trying to open (using the wheels spawned golems to stop them), finally opens a central room between the three wheels where another large golem awaits to finish the encounter.
The pedestal he stands upon takes some Religion/Arcana/History (DC: 20) checks as well to open, with some nasty damage from misreading (< 15 = 2d10, < 20 = 1d10). Finally it recedes into a spiral staircase leading even deeper.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010, 11:55 AM
I'd started this blog at blogger.com, but decided it be best to use this here since it's already set up. So I moved my previous entries into here, and this is now my first entry on this site... I plan on trying to post something weekly, but we'll see...
This skill challenge the one from Mike Mearl's Life During Wartime articles. Unfortunately I was not able to run it until nearly a year after his article (it wasn't my turn to DM). I won't go into too much detail of the actual challenge, since its more or less all in the article. But I will point out the parts that stood out the most.
Preparing for the Assault
This worked out good except for one point. Someone failed their check, the wizard with a few soldiers was searching through the remains, and rolled abysmally low. The result of this, was everyone else did pretty well at helping prepare, while the wizard was obviously down that he'd spent the day and had nothing to show for it. So looking forward, possibly I should have done more here, had them make more than one roll, or allow for a partial success range. One dice roll ruined his character's day, a little too abstract.
To sum it up, it was a little too easy for the first session. With the bonuses that people wracked up in the preparation, they're one near failure, they were able to turn into a success. With the lack of failure, the battle never seemed as threatening as I wanted it to be. They were incredulous that their 20 men and themselves were holding off this assault force of over 200 men. My players are also still adjusting, and having difficulties coming up with what to do when I look to them. So I usually end up listing off skills they can do and how they'd work... Very meta-game... More than anything else this is what bothered me as a DM.
Battle within the Battle
What the players did love though, was the second combat. With the second combat, I stole a page from D&D Encounters. Twitter buffs or rather random occurrences that alter the battle in some form. So every round I had a table of 6 different things that I would roll on to see what would happen. A couple of rounds large exploding fireballs landed in the middle of the battle (I had plotted spots on the field before the session, that I then rolled for where to land them). During one round the soldiers holding the gate started to falter, and started a skill challenge to assist them (or they'd break in 2 rounds). A page from Gabe of Penny Arcade, minor action Diplomacy/Intimidate to inspire them to hold it once per player's turn. And one round, an explosion kicked up a large dust cloud that blinded everyone (save ends)... The last sounds bad, but I allowed minor action heal checks to remove the affect from yourself. And towards the end, the hippogriffs were making their pass over, with the archers firing down. So the players were able to get some shots in at them before they flew out of range again. Basically these random effects made the combat seem to be just a small section of the chaos these characters have been dealing with all day.
So that was the first session. I had already planned on upping the challenge, by making 6 forces instead of 4 (with the last 2 being undead of the previous regiments). But they were trampling the challenge too much. So I decided going into the next session I would start out by taking out one of their squads, this was due to just the general fatigue, and injuries, they weren't dead... just unavailable (I didn't want to give them an auto-fail, just help sustain their disbelief). Now they had to choose where they were going to take that -5 penalty hit to their checks. So for skill difficulties here's what I've learned:
Set your difficulties high (Hard+3), if they're too high give larger bonuses for assisting. Give larger bonuses the more elaborate the description of what they do or how they assist. The second part will help bring the skill challenge alive even more. And with large parties (mine averages around 6-7), its very likely that you will have a prodigy for each skill.
It was too late to do anything about what really bothered me though, the metagame. But I did find my answer for the next time I do a skill challenge (through my wife who I complained about it to). I had the captain right there in a sick bed, instead of me as the DM telling them these are the skills and what they can do. I should have had the captain give her recommendations:
"You'll need to lead the battle, and guide the efforts of the troops, keep them focused. You'll also need to assist the artillery, without a leader they won't be able to keep the focus where they need to. Then of course the wall, you'll have injured to deal with, as well as just holding the invaders off for as long as you can."
These would have started the players in the right direction.. to ask more in-character questions, instead of meta-game questions. So the recommendation is this: Give the players a resource to provide the directions of the skill challenge.
Tying up the Battle
The next session went much better due to one thing.. They failed! A cascade of bad rolls led the next session, as they failed the tactical, then the artillery (with 1 less squad), and finally holding the gate. So one regiment inside, one regiment of undead on the outside, another regiment of undead arising in the back. Things looked grim, and finally it looked like the impossible odds this was supposed to look like. The next round though they succeeded, I didn't put a cap on successes with the leadership one, but I made that the last success needed for the artillery (with the 1 remaining hippogriff fleeing). The regiment on the inside managed to kill a squad as they were defeated. So now they only had 2 squads.. but didn't need any artillery, so more or less the same place they were before.
Also finally, I had a player think outside of the meta-game information they were given. Since the wizard wasn't needed on the artillery anymore, and didn't want to go near the gate, he started making Nature checks to figure out how to get a hold of the hippogriff that he'd shot the archer off of. He did manage to capture it after the battle was over (he had 2 of 3 successes before the battle ended, and finished up after a couple more checks). There was another battle against skeletons in the middle, which just had continual spawn of minions until the standard creatures were defeated, and they tracked down the military leaders afterwards and fought them as well... Before finally returning with their 2 prisoners (necromancer, and soldier), and taking a long long rest.
The first session I felt good about, but I knew it was lacking. The second session everything came together, and the challenge was there.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010, 10:53 AM
I recently ran a skill challenge that involved the group, catching up to an army, then trying to pass it to get word ahead of the force. This was a group that I was just filling in for a DM that was on vacation, so I created the party (entirely primal group), and gave them to the players. This skill challenge was run over the course of 2 sessions of about 6 hours each, where my entire goal of the sessions was to test out more ideas for skill challenges, and to entertain the group with them.
The group was sent to inspect a village in the wilderness that had sent a very distressed animal messenger. The territory they live in is mostly wilds, with few small villages scattered throughout. Their objective was to take care of the problem, or at least gather information if they couldn't handle it.
They find the village in shambles, and begin to track the creatures that had left it. That night as they rest upon a hilltop, they see the campfires of this army, as large as a city.
Stealth - This is foremost, in order to avoid patrols, and keep their presence hidden. Every 3 failures would result in a difficult combat against one of the patrols.
Scouting - Perception, and Knowledge checks could be used when near the army to gather information about who they are, what type of force. As a DM this was mainly going to grant some foreshadowing of the future of this campaign.
Travel - Nature, History, and Athletics would all help the party push forward as fast as they could. But it would take many rounds for the group to surpass the force. This was my measure as to when the challenge was completed.
As I stated, this was the groups foremost concern. They needed to remain hidden, in order to maintain their own safety. But I didn't want to bind one person into doing nothing but stealth checks for the encounter, nor did I want to have every roll stealth every round. So I invented my own style for this "group skill check". At the beginning of every round, I would roll randomly to decide which character would need to make a stealth check at the end of the round. With this in mind each character was able to do whatever they wanted during the round, and at the end I would have the character make his check. This means that ahead of time if they know that the Stealth trained ranger is making the check they can feel more secure. If the untrained Barbarian is making the check though, it might be good if one or two people assisted him. This way everyone felt like they were trying to be stealthy, and yet even though it was a required roll, it didn't take away from anything else the characters were doing.
So I wanted to provide information as to the makeup of this army. Most obvious is of course perception. With perception I would point out parts of the army, which would provide hints towards what other skills could be used to analyze those parts. But as well as being part of scouting the army, perception also needed to be used to keep a lookout for patrols. So one skill with two different uses, and the player needed to choose which they were doing. This was to point players more in the direction of "tell me what you're doing" instead of the "tell me what skill you rolled" mentality. I had planned an encounter for after the 6th round, and if the group had not succeeded in at least 3 patrol lookouts, then they would be ambushed. If they had succeeded then they got to ambush the patrol.
Now on traveling the goal was to surpass the army. I planned for a minimum of 8 successful rounds were going to be necessary to pass the army (I wanted to drive home, that this was a large force). And their goal was to pass the army as quickly as possible. Each round represented approximately 1 hour, each success beyond the first though would shave 15 minutes off of that time. Skills here were Nature, to find the easiest path possible; Athletics, to move at a faster speed; Endurance, to take fewer rests. Another skill that could be used for bonuses was History, which I used as your knowledge of maps of the area. It would provide a bonus to all skill checks for the next round as you were able to plan ahead of time. Also it allowed me to forewarn them of landmarks to be coming...
Points of Interest
A skill challenge, that just goes on is of little interest. So to break up the monotony, you have other events take place. I've already mentioned the patrol that was planned to ambush or be ambushed. I had planned on the group reaching at least the 3 failures on stealth and getting an encounter there but if they were well I was going to throw in a significantly easier encounter of another patrol. Also around round 3 I wanted them to have to deal with a river crossing. The army was already in route to the one good place to ford the river, but the group would have to deal with a more difficult crossing in order to maintain their progress. This wasn't an encounter, but a challenge within the challenge. There were also a couple more encounters, one with wilderness animals, and a couple more with various patrols.
So how did all of this handle? The stealth checks themselves worked wonderfully, but I was running a smaller group then I had planned (3 players, instead of 6). So when it was the aforementioned Barbarians turn, everyone switched to stealth assist (resulting in no success for travel). Scouting, other than looking for patrols was non-existent. Due to party size and that my group were pretty scared of the army. They chose to just focus on outrunning it, any details were just icing on huge frigging army. Travel went great, and they even started making more detailed skill descriptions, such as instead of using athletics just to press on faster, they used it to scale a tree and scout the land and their progress on passing the army. But the highlight (as I got from player feedback) was actually the points of interest, or rather it's what made the skill challenge interesting. Rolling round after round of skill checks could get tedious, but by throwing something physical in between them (even if it was just more skill checks) gave them something more solid to deal with.
So if you take anything else from this: You need to have Actions and Reactions within your skill challenge to maintain the groups interest.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010, 10:51 AM
(I'd started a blog at blogger.com, but decided to move things to here instead)
This will probably be one of the things I will post about the most. I love skill challenges, and I'm constantly working to improve the ways I handle them as a DM. I actually posted this first on my gaming groups web page, and it led me to realize I was long winded and needed my own blog.
D&D Did Not (and Cannot) Write a Good Skill Challenges
Personally this is what I find the most intriguing about skill challenges. Unfortunately its also what irritates people the most about them. D&D gave the framework for what a skill challenge is, and they've given suggestions on how to work them. But the success or failure (entertainment value) of a skill challenge is based almost entirely upon the DM and the players. As an example, read feedback you can find on the D&D Encounters Season 1, Encounter 3. The entire encounter is a skill challenge. There is a large amount of variance in how that encounter went, personally I thought it went very well for the table I was at. But there were a large number of tables who finished what was supposed to be an approximately 2 hour session in 20 minutes, or tables that just pretty much flailed around. For D&D Encounters, the encounter was largely a fail due to audience, but in a home session it would be perfect.
A skill challenge is a tool box, how well it works is based not on mechanics but on how the players and the DM interact with it. There needs to be Actions and Reactions within the skill challenge. The DM needs to react to what the players do, and over the course of a skill challenge, the DM needs to throw some actions at the players forcing them to react and/or reevaluate what they are doing. That is the heart of a skill challenge, but as stated skill challenges are a tool box.
The books just gave the most basic of tools to do this with, but to keep expanding upon it, the DM needs to search for new tools, and build his own. I have come up with quite a few different tools to throw into skill challenges in order to help make them unique. Later I'll share some of these, but the core thing is do not expect the book to tell you everything you'll ever need to know about skill challenges. And don't be afraid to experiment with your own ideas. I recently ran 3 sessions with pre-built characters, to fill in while the current GM was busy. I used this time to experiment with different forms of skill challenges, and see how the players handled them. Most of them worked mechanically, but a couple of them I saw where I needed to flesh them out more in places.
Risk and Reward
In order for a skill check/challenge to stand out, there needs to be some form of risk and reward. There needs to be something that failure indicates (other than try again), and as a DM you need to be prepared for the chance the group will fail. Unless this is the climactic final run, it probably shouldn't be a dead end, or a DEAD end. Every roll should matter somehow as well, use the checks to tell what is going on, not just say "you succeed", or "you fail". The other part of this is the Reward part, the players should feel they accomplished something, something other than reaching the end of the skill challenge. You want your players to look back at what they've been doing, and see something similar to after a battle. After a battle, they see the fallen enemies, and feel the toll it has left on their character. After a skill challenge, it should have left its mark on your story, and the characters there in.
It Takes Two
Skill challenges I sometimes think are something more from the WoD game, then D&D. They exist as a story telling mechanic, not a combat mechanic. And as such, the players need to be able to grab the reins and tell the story. Instead of the players giving me a skill roll, I want the players to tell me what they are doing and then roll for the skill. The opposite order also works, if they wish to describe it based on their roll. If they are unsure which skill should be used in relation to their action, the DM can help on that, but if they are unsure what it is exactly they are doing, I don't think its the DM's job to tell them what they are doing. Of course depending on player experience, the DM should be more lenient on this.
Player's Don't Have a Passive Skill, DM's Don't Have an Active Skill
The players don't have a passive skill, its noted on their sheet, but its not theirs. The DM should have all of the players' passive skills that they wish to use. Once they have those skills that they plans to use, he should never ask the players to make such a roll. The DM should use those passives that he has noted and apply them with proper restrictions to get what he needs. Restrictions might be, that the players only get hints, or that they have to be within such a distance, or that they must be active in the conversation. On the other side, is that a player should never say "I use my passive", because the answer to that is, you already did when the DM gave the description. If you as a player wish to investigate something, then you need to roll a check, if your passive would have picked it up, the DM would already have mentioned it to you.
If You Build It, They Will Break It
I don't think ever in the history of D&D has a group stayed precisely within what the DM planned. So why should we expect any different from a skill challenge? Your players might go anywhere when you put a skill challenge in front of them, and when they do you will find them much happier if you go with them. Your skill challenge might have an obvious path, that some character just won't feel they can contribute to, or that they need to. These characters might go on another unrelated tangent, if they do its better if start them on some mini-side-skill challenge, rather then trying to prod them back. Many times its the character trying to be useful at something, while not being a hindrance to the main objective (sometimes its just a distracted player). If you notice all of the players are flailing about, it might be that you need to try and make it more obvious what they are supposed to be accomplishing. If you want them more focused, add a time element (x number of rounds) to the skill challenge, this will help people focus on the task at hand for fear of failing the objective by not completing it on time.
Where There's One, There could be More
Skill challenges become more challenging, the more layers they have. Many groups will have an easy time with skill challenges, because you have around 5 characters who are masterfully skilled in different things. To make this more difficult, have multiple skill challenges running at the same time. Have multiple things happening that one person can not handle at the same time. Of course when you do this, you also will end up broadening the number of skills available in the challenge, and increasing the options the players will be able to spot easily.
These are a few of the strongest ideas to help in building a skill challenge. Perhaps I'll expand on some of these later with examples that I've used, but rest assured I'll have more on skill challenges later.