Tag Archives: dming

Nicodemus the Archmage

Here’s that model I painted. He’s turned out not too bad considering I’ve not picked up a brush in years. Took about an hour, and it looks ‘good enough’ which is all I need it to do. Given that I only want to paint minis I feel like doing (as opposed to armies or competition), I might as well stat them up for D&D. So, here’s Nicodemus the Archmage*

Nicodemus is big. He is an old human wizard, who has the stature of a retired prizefighter. He stands at 6’6″, and that’s without his battered blue hat. He leans heavily on a staff made of solid stone, which he wields as easily as a rapier when angered.

His temperament  is as grizzled as his visage. He answers queries with beetled brows before offering the applicant a salvo of explosive and creative swearing, backed up with a prodding finger to the recipients forehead. The only topic of conversation that seems to pique his interest in that of the Feywild. Nicodemus has made a lifelong study of the bright plane, and is perhaps the most learned of all scholars on the sunject. However, his knowledge is strictly theoretical, as he claims he is too old, and too busy to go on field trips.

Nicodemus will pay well for first hand knowledge of the Feywild, in particular news of hitherto unknown crossings. He has plenty of gold on hand, though no-one knows where that wealth comes from. Potential thieves would do well to consult with the spirits of those rogues who have crossed him in the past.

Nicodemus has a secret. He is in fact a juvenile gnome. Years ago, as a precocious apprentice illusionist, the young gnome wished for power, and for the appearance of power. He made a bargain with a dark and capricious power to make him a mighty arch mage. The patron did no more than asked, and since that time Nicodemus has been cursed to appear as an elderly human wizard, replete with travel worn robes, beard and hat. Worse, the bargain also means Nicodemus can never return to the Feywild while the curse persists. Of course, his patron resides there chuckling to itself for eternity.


*Name blatantly nicked from Mordheim. Cheers!


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Wandering Monster Groups

I’ve been running 4e intensively since release, it’s a great game, I love it. One of the things I love so much is the way it helps me construct encounters. I’ve had fun building and running them, and when they really work, they’ve been the centrepiece of the session.

Recently I’ve been working up a sandboxy campaign, and I’ve been plundering the Paizo APs for inspiration. Where I’ve been coming unstuck is with the encounter charts. Pre 4e, these were simplicity themselves as it was hard coded into the game that you would encounter single creatures (or groups of the same). What I need now is some way of constructing encounter groups.

These were included in the first two MMs, but quietly dropped after that. I think that’s a shame, but I doubt they’ll see a return any time soon. So instead, how about we get a decent set of guidelines on making groups out of your books, or building ‘mundane’ solos? Essentially, I want to be able to generate a wandering monster group.

Turns out the answer to the question already exists in the DMG. Where else? (funny how you forget about the obvious things sometimes eh?). It’s on page 193 in the DMs toolbox chapter, and it’s called Random Encounters. It’s obviously a tad more complex than just rolling on a d% table, but not much. I’ve taken the liberty of combining the three rolls into a table:


Difficulty Template Extra Feature


Easy Commander & troops None


Easy Commander & troops None


Moderate Wolf pack None


Moderate Wolf pack None


Moderate Dragon’s den Substitute trap


Moderate Dragon’s den Substitute hazard


Moderate Battlefield control Substitute lurker


Moderate Battlefield control Add trap


Hard Double line Add hazard


Hard Double line Add lurker

Once you’ve made your three rolls, you then have to pick your threats and that’s the hardest part. Given that I want a kind of jungle theme, I really have to make up a list of potentials. Leafing through multiple Manuals and Vaults is hard work so time to turn to the Compendium.

The chart I’m trying to replicate is from Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv (review pending, don’t worry) and that’s all snakes and monkeys, the sort of thing you’d find on a tropical island. A quick check on the compendium, selecting level 1 creatures with the keyword ‘natural’ throws up 77 candidates. Yikes! Change the source to ‘rulebooks’ only and it trims it to a more manageable 51. Working through the roles gives you a set of mini charts. Like so:

Skirmishers Soldiers Controller Artillery Lurkers Brutes
Baazrag Whelp Salt Zombie Goblin Acolyte of Maglubiyet Goblin Sniper Goblin Blackblade White Dragon Wyrmling
Kestrekel Carrion Eater Bren ir’Gadden   Dwarf Warrior Stirge Human Slave
Kobold Tunneler Stormclaw Scorpion   Silt Runner Darter   Ankheg Broodling
Hive Worker Dwarf Clan Guard   Skull Kicker Slinger   Fledgling White Dragon
Goblin Cutter     Kobold Slinger   Camel
Decrepit Skeleton     Halfling Slinger   Silt Runner Rager
Erdlu         Grasping Zombie
Baazrag Gnawer         Gibberling Bunch
Jhakar Tracker         Riding Horse
Goblin Cutthroat         Bullywug Mucker
Kobold Quickblade         Thornskin Frog
Goblin Archer         Fire Beetle
Scurrying Rat Swarm         Dire Rat
Blood Hawk         Horse
Kobold Skirmisher          
Goblin Warrior          
Spiretop Drake          
Goblin Beast Rider          

It’s worth working up an ‘at a glance’ system to differentiate minions, elites and solos. (Colours can work well too).

I don’t really recommend putting in a dice roll at this stage, better to pick and choose. In fact, at this stage I really want to strip out a few creatures that don’t look right, and add in a few from levels 2 and 3. After that, it’s a matter of re-skinning to taste. For example, I don’t really want goblins in this adventure, but they’ll make great pygmies.

To be completely honest, all this looks like a lot of work, but it’s not as bad as it looks. The idea is to filter and sort until you’ve got something approaching a theme. I don’t want completely random groupings, and I don’t want to plough through every permutation. This process helps me get an idea of the possibilities, and that’s enough to build memorable encounters that feel like they belong.

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Illusory Assistant

My wife plays Kallista in our weekly game, a level 25 human wizard. She’s pretty fundamental to the groups success, especially whenever there are minions in play (not for long usually). trouble is, my lovely wife is 5 months pregnant and struggles  with fatigue when we play late into the night. chances are she’s going to have to retire a bit early for the forseeable, so what to do with no wizard?

I’ve come up with a companion caharacter who can step in for her. The conceit here is that one of Kallista’s favourite spells is Illusory Assailant, so what if that spell became a companion to an epic level busy wizard instead? Now, when the player retires half way through the session, the character teleports away, leaving behind her magical assistant to remain with the party.

Here he is thanks to the Monster Builder:

No relation

 I’ve rolled up a couple of traits with the help of DMG II as well. let’s see how the party get on with this chap alongside them.

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Read Chris Perkins’ great column  The Dungeon Master Experience over at the Wizard’s site today. I’m really enjoying both this and Mike Mearl’s column too. They seem to be replacing the blog posts we (very occasionally got from the two of them, but these are free to read, and are thought provoking and illuminating in equal measure.

What was perhaps a little odd about this column was that Chris’ advice directly contradicts that given by James Wyatt in the DMG. Compare and contrast, DMG p19 first:

You can give the recap, but it’s a great task to delegate.When a player or group summarizes the events of the last adventure, you get a glimpse inot the players minds….. it let’s you see what the players remember and what they think is important, shows you their understanding of the story, and can give you ideas for future plot twists

And from Chris:

Some DMs rely on their players to provide the recap. Having tried it as a DM and experienced it as a player, I think that’s a mistake. Left to their own devices, players will often focus on the wrong details, or get the facts wrong, or phrase the recap in a way that doesn’t reinforce the atmosphere you’re trying to evoke. The recap is the DM’s best tool to get the session started on the right foot, and to immerse players in the moment.

Of course they’re both right. I’d been quite happily going along with the DMG for some time, and getting some good results, some of the time. Having said that, I had been finding myself having to take over the recap to make sure everything was covered. I think that might be because we’ve been playing modules rather than home grown adventures. If I were writing more of my own stuff, I think the DMG advice would still stand true. For modules though, I think Chris’ advice would have gotten me out of the hole I found myself in with last night’s  game.

Last night we continued Kingdom of the Ghouls, and following last weeks stellar session, I was anticipating great things. Trouble is, the recap showed that the group hadn’t really taken on board the cool plots and hooks that I’d provided, or maybe that they didn’t think much of them. Dan even took notes! The game never really got off to a strong start, partly due to this, and partly due to a lack of direction or impetus.  I keep forgetting I don’t have  any real ‘instigators’ at my table (myself excluded) and that they really don’t enjoy being given complete freedom of choice. A decent recap, from my side of the screen, could well have helped get the game off and running in a clear direction.

So, note to self, bullet points it is in future.

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Scouting for Boys

In the last couple of encounters we’ve played through in death’s reach, something has become clear. The rules could do with a pre-combat structure. In hindsight, it’s always been true, so I’m not sure why this came as such a surprise to me. The fact is that there’s always a part of the game right before initiative is rolled, that is mostly overlooked by the rules. Yes, there is a stealth skill, but I think it needs expanding to make it an intrinsic part of the encounter as a whole.

What I saw happening over the last couple of sessions is this; the rogue splits out from the party and goes on a scouting mission. The rest hang back and wait to see what happens. The rogue makes a stealth check, and to be honest I feel obliged to let him pass it, otherwise he’ll get a full complement of opposition in his face and that’s no fun (well, it could be, and there’s definitely mileage in the idea on occasion. Trouble is, who wants it happening the 45% of the time he ‘should’ be failing that single stealth check?). So, he comes back and the party try to take up superior positions from which to launch their assault. Stealth checks for all. On a pass they might get to choose their starting positions and gain a surprise round.

There’s nothing wrong with that set up, but I would like to see it better handled, to be more inclusive of the rest of the party and have stricter consequences. I should point out that this is easily handled in home brew games, and I’d probably have been improvising some infiltrations and tactical scouting ages ago, but I’m playing published modules, and they lack any guidance for this at all. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t considered it before now.

The obvious course of action is the skill challenge. If the goal is to get into combat anyway, just with an advantage, then it should be short and to the point. Whereas, circumventing an encounter completely through cunning, that should be a challenge worth as much (or more) than the original encounter itself.

The primary skill is always going to be stealth, that’s obvious. I’d almost always include perception too. Then the rest are a bit more circumstantial. Nature or dungeoneering take care of the environment. Athletics and acrobatics add a physical component to the challenge. These are the basics, and between them they can be a simple small skill challenge that adds a little tension to a prepared battle.

There should be consequences to success or failure. I think a surprise round for the party is a decent default position if they succeed. A failure? That’s where the DM can get creative. Perhaps the party gets jumped in return, making them the victims of a surprise round. Or maybe the scout gets singled out for a round. Potentially the opposition could raise an alarm and bring in reinforcements early. Or it could be a simple lockdown like a dropped portcullis, meaning the party have to re-evaluate their plans.

Perhaps the party are feeling ambitious and attempt to infiltrate the enemy position completely, rather than just steal a march. This could involve the social skills with diplomacy, bluff and intimidate coming to the fore. I like to picture the scene from Star wars with Luke and Han disguised as stormtroopers with Chewie as a prisoner.

The DM has a little prep to do as well. It’s worth giving a little thought to the awareness levels of the next encounter in your adventure. Are there sentries? Could they know about the previous encounter if it was noisy? Would they send their own scouts out to check it out? Do the starting positions on your map actually fit with the events? (here’s where I learned early on, don’t be a slave to these tagged maps, it never seems to matter much once combat is underway). The essential answer for the DM to ask is this: what happens just before I say ‘roll for initiative’?

Have a couple of answers ready for that, and it might help lessen the gear crunch between the short rest and the next encounter.


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Time to shelve the delve?

I’ve never really been a fan of the delve format WotC use for their adventures. I think it’s great that you rarely need to turn a page when you’re DMing an encounter, that’s a good thing. However, I still feel that it’s too wasteful of space. It doesn’t read in the order that you need to refer to it. I also find that it is a poor repeat of info given elsewhere, usually in the other booklet in the case of the published ‘folder’ mods. Then there’s the monsters, often a reprint of what I already have in the Monster Manuals, and with no real help with description, lore or dialogue.

It’s these last parts that I really would like to see included. One of the big selling points of published mods for me is that I shouldn’t have to do a bunch of work. I also want to be inspired, both on the initial read through (so I want to run it at all), and then again during the heat of combat (when I need all the help I can get!).

I think WotC might be aware of this too. The monster statbock has had a decent revision, that I think is for the better. Essentials appears to put more value on flavour (though I might be imagining that), and the last couple of published adventures made strides to be more colourful and three dimensional.

An area where I think easy wins could be had is in the notion of boxed text. This has been part of published mods for years now, with their heyday in modules like Desert of Desolation. They continue even now, despite vocal opponents. They don’t actually get a boxed out treatment in current adventures, but they are in italics and a crimson colour so you can pick it out of the page easily. Here’s what you are supposed to read out as the party descend into the keep on the Shadowfell:

The stairway leading down consists of finely crafted stone, perhaps the work of dwarves. A breeze chills you to the bones as you take each step down. The flicker of torchlight spills from a room at the bottom of the stairs.

That’s nice enough, concise and descriptive. Trouble is it only gets you half way down the stairs. What is needed is the first view. Later on in the format there’s the following:

DC 15 The smell of unwashed bodies is strong
DC 20 Chattering squeaks pierce the otherwise silent ruins

These are great. They give clues as to what’s ahead, which means it should be part of that preamble text I quoted earlier. After that there’s nothing at all.

This may be due to the nature of the modern D&D game, where it’s heavily assumed that the group will be using battle maps and minis. These make stating dimensions a bit redundant, and will help everyone with basic shapes and features. However, I think it’s very easy to let the props do all the work. There’s 5 senses to engage and dungeon tiles, pretty as they are, don’t give anyone the shivers, or a feeling of claustrophobia. Certainly I have a hard time fearing a Yochlol based on it’s mini, yet described aloud could give anyone nightmares.

What I’d like is fuller boxed text, perhaps with sections underlined to help DMs know when to place tiles or models. Leaving room for further exposition if the characters are curious enough. This should sum up what the party can sense. Maybe like this:

Before you lies a square stone chamber lit by guttering torches. The low smoke stained ceiling is supported by four thick columns near the centre. (Perception DC 20, there’s a section of the floor between the pillars that looks unstable, maybe a false floor). Passages exit the chamber at your left, right and straight ahead. Lurking in the shadows at the far end of the room is a squat sallow skinned creature garbed in scraps of leather and clutching a makeshift spear. (Nature DC 15, it’s a goblin! where there’s one there’s bound to be more) (Stealth DC 13, it hasn’t spotted you, yet)

For me, that’s everything the players initially need to know. Crucially, it mentions the monster in the room, which doesn’t always happen in the mods!

In this particular encounter, the chances are that there will be extra events coming on. There’s the rats in the pit, and two other connected rooms with goblin defenders. They could have their own passages included. I don’t want to see War & Peace, or make it into a read aloud solo adventure. What I want is something to fall back on, that describes the adventure for both me and the players in an evocative manner.

The rules of the encounter (terrain, magic etc) can stay as it is, and so can the tactics, although they could be better thought through. So something has to give in order to fit everything onto the page. I’d actually lose the map. It’s usually repeated from the bigger map in the overview, and the monster placement should be apparent from the description.

I’d also be tempted to lose the monster stat blocks. No, really. But that’s a post for another day.

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A DM is made, not born

My wife and I did something a little exotic last night.

No, not that.

She stepped up to run her first ever session of D&D, having been a player for the last couple of years. She was excited and nervous in equal degree, and understandably so. I shared her nerves, but she managed to put a smile on my face with the following exchange yesterday over breakfast;

Me “So are you looking forward to tonight’s game then?”

Her “Yeah, i’m going for a TPK”

My heart sang.

She ran the level 9 adventure from Dungeon Delve and it was absolutely brilliant. She had a lightness of touch with the group that showed me a thing or two about my own DMing skills. She kept it loose when it needed to be, and was strict when it counted. There were some lovely little story moments, like when she called the city we came from Kallistopolis. (Her weekly character is Kallista, who is benevolent and wise).

Check out the homemade initiative cards...

We burned through three encounters (which she adjusted on the fly to keep things challenging but fluid). At the end we’d had a great night’s game. She reports being exhausted, but happy! There’s every chance she’ll do some more. Good skills Mrs S!

Devils in the details...


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