Tag Archives: scenario

Epic beginnings

Emboldened by handing in my scenario work for approval with the publisher recently, I’m deciding where to go next. I think I’ll go right to the other end of the normal adventure spectrum.

I love the 4e cosmology, and the Astral Sea treatment in particular. WotC really never got behind epic tier play, not really, and there’s no chance at all now. So, confident my stuff won’t tread on any toes, or get superseded, I’m going to write in this space.

Tonight, a close read of the book, with notebook in hand. I will let the ideas drip feed out and see what makes sense in the morning.



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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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Bloodsand Arena Revised

I’ve been busy prepping for LemurCon recently. I’ve managed to convince some old friends to give 4e a slot and we’ve gone with Dark Sun. This is a one shot, so I wanted to hit as many of the setting’s key notes as possible, while also telling a self contained story, and having the traditional elements that make any D&D game great. In 5 hours. No easy task. At time of writing, I don’t know how this eventually went down, but here’s some of the things I’ve done in the making.


I almost exclusively DM so I haven’t done much more than dabble wiith characters. I have the builder, and I wouldn’t attempt anything above 1st level or non-Essentials with pen and paper.  I wanted 6th level, it’s just right for one-shots in my experience. I fired up the builder and tried out a few things. I don’t know why but I was a bit surprised that Essentials classes and races don’t really suit Dark Sun in the main. I’d polled my players on their wants (I sent them a little primer on race, class, theme and the world) and they wanted Thri-Kreen, gladiators, Sorcerer-King warlocks and all the rest. Great stuff, but it meant using the classic 4e set up. Mostly not a  problem, just had to take care to pick powers and abilities that didn’t have too much conditional stuff. I like themes, but I don’t know if I went overboard with them and thus didn’t get enough original class flavour in. We’ll see. Feats. Oh my god,  feats. There is an absolute skipload of them, and after 15 minutes of reading I wished I didnt have to take them at all. I’ve tried to go for something DS in feel, but lord only knows if they’re in the slightest bit effective. Again, we’ll see.

I do like the inherent bonus system. It’s quick, and effective, and saves adding in a bunch more power cards for my newbie players. I hit auto-select for shopping to see what I would get, it’s pretty random, I got Eberron items and things for water breathing! Not recommended. I had to delete them all, and when I tried again I got different items, so it’s definitely random.

I’ve also been looking at character sheets. The internet failed me, as it looks like people really don’t do their own sheets so much anymore. I’m not a huge fan of the ones the builder currently offers, and the classic one is too busy. I wanted to keep the power cards though, so there wasn’t a lot left to do. I customised my old Word doc sheets, and picked an appropriate colour scheme, and it’s done. Some manual input needed, but that’s not particularly onerous.

I’ve added in one of the sheets to the Free Stuff page. https://rpgtreehouse.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/lakta-cho.docx

Next: The Scenario

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The Return of Essentials

I really like Essentials for 4e. I appreciate the formatting, and the class design. It’s not perfect, I hate the random treasure, though that’s not even properly supported, and I think there’s slightly too much overlap between the products. I would love to reboot my campaign with Essentials only PCS. I think they have more flavour straight out of the books, and I think they might make the game move more quickly.

But all that is old news. What’s new is Players Options: Heroes of Shadow, which is the Shadow power sourcebook that looks like Classic 4e on the outside, and turns out to be Essentials on the inside. I’ll let the more mechanically minded rant about the crunch, but I liked the writing and art very much. It’s an odd mix when you add it directly to the two Heroes of… books, but eventually it will even out with the Fey book and whatever else they have planned.

So, the 10 strong product line has turned out to be 11 after all. That’s not counting DDI stuff. So what’s next?

Please please please let it be scenarios. Imagine the Orcus series completely rewritten to Essentials sensibilities. Better still, a new run of modules, perhaps one for heroic, and another for paragon. There’s some good adventuring in the current Essentials boxes, but the last decent standalone scenario was Orcs of Stonefang Pass. You might wonder what the difference might be, but I can see a reformat doing a lot for WotCs rep as an adventure publisher.

Maybe the mooted Madness at Gardmore Abbey will show whether Essentials means anything to DMs rather than just players?


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Sigil: City of Doors

We started a new adventure last night, Kingdom of Ghouls, part of the Orcus series of adventures. I know, I know, we’re a couple of years late. I love the fresh new feeling we get whenever we move from one adventure to the next. I lovingly stow away my last adventure, and get busy prepping for the new one. The players have a new look at their characters (I allow a complete retrain between adventures) or even start up a whole new PC. Steve took that opportunity this time, saying goodbye to Xantos the shadar kai swordmage, and bringing in Oracle the human paladin of the Raven Queen. That’s the third defender he’s tried now. I think he loves the hit points.

Dan’s character Raelthos had spent his time shopping in the 7 Pillared Hall, and come back with all new full finger jewellery (of destruction). Claire and Julio had kept it simple and just levelled up, still content with their characters. (and why wouldn’t they be? 24th level wizard and rogue respectively, full of awesome)

This adventure gave us all our first taste of Sigil, the City of Doors. The opening session is usually pretty roleplay heavy, and this was no exception. I had plenty of plots, hooks and locations ready to roll, but I wanted the players input on the whole experience. To facilitate that I opened up the narration to the guys. First up I checked in with Stevie to see how his character had been introduced to the group. He had a cool backstory about his character being an acolyte of the Raven Queen, a Raven Knight well on the way to becoming a fully fledged Sorrowsworn. His old character had taken a lot of punishment in the previous adventure (Death’s Reach) so was sitting this one out in the hospice. Ace.

We picked up where we’d left off; the Ashen Covenant, led by Elder Aranthum the lich warlord, had escaped Death’s Reach with the remains of Timesius the Blackstar, an ancient and potent primordial. Their goal was to get this fella back to their boss, Orcus, to further his scheme to usurp the Raven Queen as the God of Death. You can tell by the amount of Capital letters I’m using how much of the D&D world we’ve been exposed to recently. Raelthos had been following some leads on Vecna’s plans and they’d pretty much come up blank, so the party needed somewhere to start. The Raven Queen suggested Sigil, and the party took her up on her offer of a linked portal to that very place.

I’d prepped some images and got the flavour working straight away. I concentrated on all the senses, not just what they could see on arrival. Before too long they found themselves in the Night Markets of the Grand Bazarre. I played on the sheer number of goods for offer and the exotic nature of the market’s patrons 

A group streetwise check got us underway. The party decided to head for the local shrine to the RQ to see what they could learn, and so I improvised the Lane of 1001 Deities and Demigods for them to peruse. I then handed the narration over to Steve, saying “What does the shrine look like? You tell me?”

He was up to the challenge and told us all about how 3 was the holy number of the RQ and so the shrine had 3 entrances, capped by three skulls, and three fingerbones beneath each. Awesome. I then cracked open my deck of Friends and Foes, a set of 52 cards showing head portraits of various fantasy characters. I asked Steve to take three at random, and explain who they were as they would be in the shrine at that moment.

We got a female tiefling-like devil, a young female armoured cleric, and a smiling blonde girl. Ok. The devil and the acolyte would be in a heated discussion, and the girl would in fact be a pixie delivering a package. I didn’t yet know what was in it.

Steve’s character faced up to the devil girl and told her to get lost in no uncertain terms. One successful intimidate roll and she vanished in a puff of brimstone. Meanwhile Kallista was busy signing for the pixie’d package. The package was a long shallow box wrapped in a black ribbon, stamped with an eagle. It also had a small black envelope containing a card (yet to be revealed). Raelthos noticed the approach of a trio of Dabus, and hurried Kallista along.

Oracle consulted with the acolyte who was happy to lead him to the rear of the shrine to a curtained off area that led to what looked like a magician’s cabinet. She told the party to hurry as time was of the essence. Before the Dabus could attend to the party they leapt behind the curtain and experienced the nature of Sigil’s portals first hand.

Kallista found herself stepping out of a confessional booth in a silent and empty cathedral made of white marble. At the top of a dais she saw a golden statue, of herself. Tapestries arrayed around the walls told the story of the goddess Kallista and her adventures as a mortal. Glass cases contained relics of her life, all her wands and journals kept for posterity. As she realised she had visited her own far future an angel appeared and pledged it’s allegiance to her. Kallista’s future self had sent an ally to her past self to protect her in her darkest hour. Cool.

Meanwhile the rest of the party had arrived through the doors of an old fire damaged warehouse. I gave rough dimensions to the guys and handed over my set of city tiles. They built the battlemat for the encounter to their own improvised design. I placed Elder Aranthum, his cultists and his summoned Balor on the table and we rolled initiative. Battle commenced!

What I really like about this session was the way we all bought into the narrative. Where I could I offered the party the chance to colour in the details. When the pace slowed, I made up some stuff to give them decision points. At every step we were all engaged with our characters and our shared world. Exploring, and inventing, as we went along. That’s what we play for.

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Paizo of the Coast modules

I’ve been asking a lot of questions about companies’ approaches to adventure design recently, but I haven’t been supplying many of my own answers. Some of that is because I don’t really know the answers! However, there’s a few observations I do have.

 At time  of writing I’m running my weekly group through WotC’s Orcus modules. We’re deep into E1, Death’s Reach. It’s been good fun so far, and we’re one session into the final section, which is a dungeon called the Reliquary of Timesus. Simultaneously, my current read is part 5 of Paizo’s Legacy of Fire Adventure Path. It’s also a dungeon, based in a palace complex set within the City of Brass. It’s called The Impossible Eye. It’s a good read, full of flavour, but looks very tricky to run. 

There has to be a middle ground between WotC’s dry/linear adventures, and Paizo’s complex/verbose ones. What would a product that took the best of both worlds look like? Let’s take the Reliquary, and reformat it the Paizo way.

On the WotC side, they utilise(d) a two book format. The first book has the overview, and the extras like new monsters and treasures, and art work. The second book has the encounters all laid out in a delve format for ease of play. The folder also contains a double sided poster map of some of the big locations in the adventure. (I should say that WotC have moved away from this format in the last year or so, but only in that they bundle all this together into a single book, otherwise it’s broadly the same).

Paizo are much more traditional in their formatting. It’s written in a travel-guide fashion, with a brief overview at the front and then it takes the reader through the adventure, location by location. It does mean having to flick back and forth a lot to see how various parts link up. The art is sprinkled through the adventure. In the APs, they give a big chunk of the product to supplementary material, fiction, new monsters etc.

WotC try to separate the encounter information from the plot exposition. The trouble is, there’s too much bleed over. There are 13 encounters in the Reliquary spread over 19 locations. All the locations are summarised over a mere two pages, with references to the combat pages in book two. The entire dungeon is presented over just 4 pages. There’s a lot of story/plot elements that only appear when you get to the encounter format itself, or worse, it’s duplicated. Those encounter maps are keyed with starting monster locations.

Paizo blend all the mechanics into the prose sections of their keyed entries.  They have a tendency to start with some boxed  text that concentrates on the architecture and the furnishings. If there are any adversaries present, they get introduced right at the end of the entry. The description can be wide ranging about histories and relationships. Adversaries can be flagged up that don’t get explained until later in the book. Each entry rewards repeat reading and notetaking so that nothing gets missed, like the monsters.

My blended approach would be to stay with the single book, but to separate it into sections to facilitate play at the table, and to make the inevitable page flicking easier. I would spread the art through the book. That gives it context and the company website or a scanner allows the images to be shown to players as required. I would put the stat blocks and tactics directly into the main body of the adventure. The delve format has only one pro (to not have to flick pages in the middle of a combat) and too many cons (repeated, or discreet, story info; the keyed map which can’t be printed; lots of white space; repeated environmental info and more). Fourth edition encounter design means that groups of opponents are far more likely to be encountered than solitary monsters or traps. The delve format brings all those stats to one place, but frankly, a 3e statblock for a single creature easily takes up half a full page. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to separate out the encounter info. At worst, the encounter info might run onto another page, but that’s a small price to pay for legibility and read-flow.

Similarly, there’s no need to repeat the encounter map with starting positions. These positions should be apparent from the description, either the boxed text (enabling the DM to place the monster as they read) or within the description for hidden monsters and traps. These starting positions are wasted post the initiative roll anyway. Same with environmental effects like tables, chairs, doors, fires etc. All common environmental effects can be boxed out in an appendix or at the start of the adventure.

The dungeon overview provided by WotC is actually fine, it’s concise and gives the DM what he needs, the story and enough to improvise on should the party enquire. This should be followed by the dungeon map. The Paizo maps  are like architects drawings, they’re fascinating, inspiring even, but they are extraordinarily difficult to describe or map out at the table. They also have verisimilitude, with barracks, kitchens and kennels. There are more ’empty’ rooms than inhabited ones. Some of those empty rooms contain clues or history, but others are there just to fill out the map. There are lots of linked levels, and the DM has to be careful to see how inhabitants hear and see the other locations. It’s very pretty, but low on utility.

On the other hand, the WotC map of the reliquary is made up of scanned dungeon tiles, and it’s squeezed into the A4 page. There are no dead ends, only 3 empty rooms, and it’s a largely straight sequence of chambers. There’s no sense that this was designed and built by anyone but a  WotC employee. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s eminently playable. The DM and players won’t get lost and no-one needs to worry about what the surrounding locations are doing. It’s almost brutally functional.

The meat of the adventure is in the keyed locations. This is where WotC have again, gone for the functional approach. They make a nod towards story by having every chamber covered in sculpted reliefs that slowly tell the story of the Dawn War between the Gods and the primordials. They even back this up with art depicting the same. There’s a skill check noted on occasion to translate the carvings. This is the best part of any location description as it’s almost all of it. the room will only ever have one or two more sentences of description outside of the encounter book. For example, the final room:

“This chamber, the prison of Timesus, shows signs of a methodical excavation.”

That would have been fine back in the days of 1st edition, but the modern audience is entitled to more. In fairness, the encounter book expands on this and gives read aloud text as well as tactics, but even then it errs on the side of sparsity.

This is where the biggest change could be made. the locations should be able to be read as if part of a story, or at least a travel guide. Paizo go too far too often by including text that’s irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and tenuous in it’s relationship to anything the characters are likely to encounter. The happy medium would be for the text to be explanatory first and interesting second with inspiring a third priority. If it is only one of those three things, it’s missing the key element of a role playing game scenario.

Lastly, and this isn’t in Death’s Reach, WotC have made strides to make the treasure placement more customisable in latter adventures. This is a great use of an appendix, and needs to help the beleaguered DM keep their game, and campaign, on track.

In summary, I’d hugely expand the first book from WotC, using the best writing from the Paizo styles, and I’d contract the delve book into the body of the adventure. At every stage I’d look to see that the book remains a gameable product, and not something to be read in lieu of a novel.


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21st century, 21st level

After a couple of weeks off for real life stuff, our regular game got back under way last week. The big news is, we’ve hit the heady heights of the epic tier! This is uncharted territory for all of us. Even the guys who played previous editions of D&D never got near the old cap of 20th level, so to get to this sort of level is a serious achievement.

We’re going through the H/P/E Orcus adventures, and I’m glad to see the back of Nightwyrm Fortress. It was a slog and the monsters just lined up to be killed in order. Add to that the poor mechanical implementation of the monsters back then and well, let’s just say we made the best of it.

Onwards  and upwards. Internet opinion of Deaths Reach is quite high, and I have to agree on rereading it (I bought the thing 18 months ago!). It seems to get stuck into a big story, pulling together various strands that have been touched on in the earlier parts of the series. Even so, it’s presented in the usual dry mechanical linear fashion. I knew from past experience that it would be best to put my own spin on the adventure. I don’t have a huge amount of prep time, so I wasn’t going to rewrite every encounter or move things about wholesale. I just wanted to add a bit of flavour where I could and bring the characters into the heart of the plot.

This is where my players really come into their own. I simply asked everyone to say what they’d been up to in the game months since emerging from Nightwrym Fortress. How was the epic destiny going to manifest? What had changed? Whatever really. Danurai had sent out a pre-emptive shot with this e-mail from before game night:

With the hissing crash of a wave breaking on a shingle beach the planar skiff materialized in the grounds of the ruined Keep above Winterhaven. A tall man stood on the prow of the ship clad in brown and grey snakeskin which appeared to writhe around him and an inky black cloak clasped in place with a plain silver brooch. He wore an obsidian mask carved with the visage of a handsome drow but the ivory horns curling above them and the purple glow of his eyes from within the mask identified the traveller as the Tiefling known as Raelthos the Radiant.

Carefully re-rolling the scroll in his hands he replaced it in a carved ivory case. In the blink of an eye his form collapsed into smoke that rolled off the deck of the ship and re-formed on the rocky ground beside him a magical horse formed made purely of Obsidian it ducked it’s head and pawed the earth a clicking sound of stone on stone. Quickly mounting his steed Raelthos wheeled once gesturing to the Githyanki captain before galloping off towards the tower of Valthrun the prescient. Somewhere in Valthrun’s books was the key to unlocking the secret of the scroll and the ring of Lady Janstine Helltalon.

Julio’s retort:

From the shadows of a nearby bluff Flynn slouched idly rolling a platinum piece across his knuckles. “Hmmm” he mused “Tiefling’s back then…”Flynn paused, his head cocked to one side “good to have him back I reckon….still a ponce mind”.


Stevie went with the idea that his Shadar Kai swordmage has become a devoted acolyte of the Raven Queen. He had fasted and undergone many rituals in a far flung temple devoted to her. He’d handed over all his loot to the priests and set out into the world refreshed and renewed. Cool.

Julio plays Flynn the Rogue. What had he been doing?

Setting up a fake temple to the Raven Queen and buying some second hand robes. Made a stack of cash out of one idiot.


Love it. Stacks of character getting us off to a great start. I knew I had to raise my game.

If you don’t know the first encounter in Deaths Reach, it’s fairly basic as written. There’s a street scene, a Marut appears to give the party a message from the raven Queen, and then the bad guys launch a mounted ambush. To give it some extra oomph, I set the street scene in Moonstair, from the adventure King of the Trollhaunt warrens. I also set it at night during the monthly opening of the moon gate. I went for a post celebration vibe with the taverns full and couples stumbling drunkenly down alleyways as the party sat on the town fountain and caught up. Then I had time freeze completely and the statue in the fountain come to life and address the characters while water flowed from his hands. As the statue finished, the clatter of hooves announced the arrival of the Ebon Riders. Roll for initiative!

The monsters were utterly trounced in short order (epic characters are rock hard!), but the adventure  was properly underway. The party stepped through the portal to Zvomarana….

To be continued

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