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“Agile Dungeon Mastering” – Genius, or Madness?

posted Tuesday, October 30th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

I imagine that as dreams go, mine can get pretty weird. Nowhere near as weird, however, as my fellow blogger Clinton R. Nixon, who dreamt himself in a meeting on applying agile software development practices to his D&D session. Nerdier still, he’s actually applied this thinking to D&D – and it actually makes a kind of sense.

Agile software development is a software engineering technique emphasizing flexibility and communication over strict, formal methods involving rigid planning. Since agile development involves a small group of people who can easily share ideas, it’s not entirely unreasonable that this might work in D&D. Long, formal documentation requires extra work and can be too inflexible to apply to as mutable a thing as a roleplaying game campaign, while the opposite, a quick yet disorganized state which some software developers call cowboy coding, lacks the group communication and collaboration that can ensure that everyone shares a common vision of the game.

Consider, then, the Agile Manifesto principles, as they might be applied to the art of Dungeon Mastery. Here are a few possible interpretations:

  • “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.” A roleplaying game can often take a turn in a direction you didn’t expect. Be ready to adapt to this – don’t plan too much or set those plans in stone.
  • “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.” Take your players’ input into the game. Often, your players can come up with fantastic and inventive ideas that even work better than what you had in mind. Let them know that their choices matter.
  • “Working software is the primary measure of progress.” While some DMs enjoy writing lengthy histories and campaign worlds histories, these are irrelevant to your game unless the gameplay itself is handled well. Remember that you’re running a roleplaying game, not writing a novel.
  • “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.” Don’t just jump on the first solution you find. Always consider alternative options and decide on the best way forward before you commit to an idea.
  • “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” Talk to your players! Remember that it’s the players’ game as much as it is the DM’s. Encourage discussion, not just one-way feedback; hold regular sessions during which players can confer on how best to take the game forward.

Character Background Made Easy

posted Monday, October 29th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

My last post described the tricky aspect of introducing new players to D&D. The simple method, like the origins of D&D, is to introduce D&D first as a kind of game played with dice where one player controls a dungeon full of monsters and the rest control adventurers who work together to beat the dungeon. With a good Dungeon Master, players soon learn that clever, out-of-the-box thinking can lead to innovative solutions and reveal the remarkable freedom of action that characterizes tabletop roleplaying games.

From here, we can move into more characterization and character development. This should come naturally as players build and develop their characters, and players in my game frequently start out with only the most basic of backstory which is filled in and even radically changed as the character progresses. Some players, however, might be short of that initial background idea that can begin to define a character as more then a set of numbers. For the “roll-players” that need an extra push, you can reward them with a minor bonus character ability that relates to the backstory they’ve chosen.

Behind the cut is a chart which you can use to generate backstories. Roll randomly or allow players to pick, DM’s choice. Continue reading this article »

Explaining Dungeons & Dragons

posted Saturday, October 27th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

One of the tricky things about introducing new players to Dungeons & Dragons is that the bewildering array of options that the game presents can easily overwhelm new players, as well as making it very difficult to describe in a way that sounds both straightforward and fun. Like with modern videogames, a solution is to introduce the game one element at a time. At its core, D&D can be described as follows:

“Dungeons & Dragons is a game played with dice. One player controls a dungeon, which is like an underground maze full of monsters and treasure. The other players control one character each, maybe a wizard or a warrior, and their task is to work together to beat the dungeon. What’s neat is that if you’re successful, you can keep your character along with any treasure they found, and use it the next time you play.”

Forget any of this crap about “collaborative storytelling”, at least for now. Yes, it’s part of the game, but storytelling and improv acting are their own game elements, and it’s important that players are comfortable with a solid concept such as a competitive dice-based game, before moving on to the more subtle and perhaps unusual aspects of what we call roleplaying. Let your players pick between a set of pre-written character sheets, give them each a box of dice, and run them through a dungeon of your own devising to let your players have a feel for how the traditional “dungeon crawl” element of the game runs.

Eventually, however, you’ll want to introduce players to the concept that their characters are more than a collection of statistics. This is where character background generation comes in. Stay tuned and I’ll fill this in next time.

Dumb Rules: Dragonhide

posted Sunday, October 21st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game DesignThird Edition

The rules for dragonhide armour are pretty stupid. This is not like how I say that the Sage or ninjas are dumb – this time, I mean it.

A druid player in my game decides he’d like some breastplate armour, which since druids can’t wear metal he decides on dragonhide. It’s surprisingly cheap, at 600gp for the masterwork stuff – in fact, about one third cheaper than having ironwood armour made. However, despite being made from a dragon, dragonhide armour doesn’t confer any sort of energy resistance or improved defensive ability.

Here’s where it gets weird. According to the rules, breastplate or fullplate created from created from dragonhide requires a slain dragon four sizes larger than the wearer. Each human-sized suit of breastplate requires a Colossal dragon!

Every goofball adventurer you see in dragonhide full plate? Someone slew a great red wyrm for the privilege – or gold, or silver. In fact, if you see one of any other colour, they’re lying, because those dragons only reach a twenty-feet-long Gargantuan, and apparently if you can’t run the distance from one end of the dragon to the other as a move action it’s not quite big enough to dress up in.

Despite being covered in flameproof material, however, you’re not any better protected against flames or the effect of heat. In fact, the only benefits of dragonhide armour are that it’s red, it’s rustproof, and that you can let on you slew an archdragon and dragged it single-handedly back to the city armourer when in reality you bought it pre-owned for a mere 3,300 gold pieces.

No worries, though – the rules also say you get to make a shield out of the leftovers. I’m thinking more along the lines of a small fortress.

4th Edition Monsters: As Usual, I’m Completely Wrong

posted Monday, October 15th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

As often happens when I’m utterly certain about something, a particularly strong competing theory says I’m completely wrong.

Assuming that “level 6 skirmisher” gives the creature six actual “hit dice”, what we find is that subtracting three (half the creature’s levels) from the ability scores listed will return the standard 3e ability score modifier for the score given in brackets. In this case, the boosted modifiers explain that characters add half their level to ability score checks and untrained skill checks.

This explains the Init and Perception of +5, which means that Init is treated as a skill. Saves match a formula of 10 + full level + ability score modifier. Hit points match a much more traditional 5HP/level plus a con modifier of +2/level and a bonus +5 HP from either a Toughness feat or double HP at first level.

In other words, ignore everything my previous post said about base attack and changes to ability score modifiers and hit dice, or at least take it with a grain of salt.

What can we still deduce? In either case, advancing monsters is definitely going to be easier for the dungeon master. I’ve speculated that “Level 6 Skirmisher” isn’t necessarily just a descriptor – “skirmisher” could determine base attack, saves and hit points, just like a character class would. Will this play out consistently? Our spiky devil here appears to have save bonuses and base attack equal to full level along with 5HP/level, precisely in keeping with outsider hit dice (interestingly, HP are average-rounded-up just like my house rule).

On one hand, this seems to match the stats we already know, namely that outsider’s HP/saves are based on it being an outsider. On the other, monster roles being delineated to classes like “brute” and “skirmisher” make far more sense and allow for level to match hit dice without narrowing the scope of monster special abilities. It also allows for more straightforward and refined creature advancement, so in other words I imagine it to be the superior design decision. We’ll see how it turns out.

4th Edition Monsters: Updated

posted Monday, October 15th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

Further to the D&D monster card I discussed on Saturday, faithful D20 Source readers have helped me to some extra insights. We can now be reasonably certain about certain features of the upcoming fourth edition.

For the spined devil at least, base attack is equal to two-thirds hit dice. His ranged attack bonus of +9 appears to be derived from +4 base attack and +5 Dexterity modifier. The melee attack, also of +9, can be explained as +4 base attack, +7 Strength modifier, and a -2 for making two attacks in one round. From this we can deduce that Str/Dex to attack is retained, as is two-weapon fighting (at least for monsters).

Damage is less certain – we see +4 melee, +2 ranged. The simplest possible explanation is that melee attacks add base attack to damage, ranged attacks add half. If this is true, Strength no longer adds to damage, unless there’s a feat which offers this facility.

The spined devil’s saves are calculated as 10 + half hit dice + relevant ability score modifier. Again, we don’t know if this is true for each monster or just certain types.

Potentially, standard actions are still part of the game – this would explain the designation of “spine rain” as “Standard”.

It’s early days, but it appears that the new ability score modifier formula may be ability score divided by 3, rounded up:

1-3 = +1
4-6 = +2
7-9 = +3
10-12 = +4
13-15 = +5
16-18 = +6

One effect of this is that a bonus to an ability score is less significant than the player’s natural ability score. Another, and I think this is a very big change to the numbers, is that ability scores below eight are still valid options to the players. Character generation hasn’t been leaked (and may not even be finalized) but I’m suspecting some big changes in ability score generation.

Hit points are definitely changing too. Our creature’s 47HP can be explained away as 6HP over 7HD, plus 5HP Con modifier. Either Con modifier is only applied once, or our creature receives only 1HP/HD before his Con (with double Con modifier at first level). This is more feasible than it may sound – if 10 is still an average ability score, a commoner has 4HP/level. The interesting factor will be how this maps to player characters. Will character generation encourage mages to forgo their Constitution, or will fighter-types gain hefty class bonuses to hit points?

MMO Influences on D&D 4th Edition

posted Monday, October 15th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionLinks and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

Gaming blog Aggro Me has an article up on MMO Influences on D&D 4th Edition.

Portals, Rod of

posted Sunday, October 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Game MaterialMagic Items & GearThird EditionWands, Rods & Staffs

This heavy white rod is strange and alien in shape, and appears to be made from steel. Crafted by a mage’s guild who were paid a handsome sum to develop magical artifacts for a great king, the rod went missing under mysterious circumstances and was never seen again. Rumour has it, however, that the Rod of Portals is hidden in an orange box, protected by nineteen dangerous and increasingly complex puzzles.

The Rod of Portals conceals two buttons on its underside, one blue and one orange. Pushing each button opens a magical portal in any flat, stationary surface that the rod is pointed at–for example, walls, floors or ceilings. Only two such portals can exist at any one time, each one linked to one of the buttons. A person stepping into any one portal finds himself stepping out of the other – likewise, the portals can transport objects or even spells in the same manner.

Each portal is large enough for a human to step through with ease. A portal collapses immediately if a second is created with the same button, or after one hour has passed. Portals also collapse if the surface they are on is moved.

The rod, however, carries a minor curse. Whoever wields it is periodically hears the echoing voice of a woman, who claims at all times to be watching the wielder.

Moderate transmutation, CL9th, Craft Rod, dimension door; 76,000 gp; Weight 10lbs.

Yes, I’ve been playing Portals. Go buy the Orange Box from Valve now.

Awesome NPCs: Why Villains Aren’t Player Characters

posted Sunday, October 14th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

On Sunday I looked at the difference between PCs and NPCs – in their game statistics, NPCs aren’t all heroes. Today, I’m going to tell you how you can turn this to your advantage.

Non-player characters aren’t constrained by the same requirements as player characters are, and the DM can relax the munchkinry a little in the interests of building an interesting villain. The reverse, however, is also true. NPCs, and especially major villains, are able to tap into resources that player characters can’t for balance reasons.

Here are the biggest:

  • Wealth. A villain isn’t limited to the gold piece guidelines in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. He might own potent magic items, a fortress, or even an entire empire. Use this sparingly, however – if every NPC is super-rich, players will amass magic items that dwarf their own character abilities.
  • Minions. Minions count as their own creatures when it comes to handing out the XP, but the villain should rarely attempt to take on his enemies single-handedly when he has powerful and loyal minions.
  • Special abilities. Players might be limited to a certain range of feats and abilities, but there’s no reason why a villain can’t have supernatural power beyond his usual abilities. This isn’t cheating if your villain’s challenge rating is increased appropriately. Superhuman abilities can make your NPC all the more feared, and since custom attributes aren’t listed in any book, the players never quite know what to expect.

4th Edition Monsters

posted Saturday, October 13th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Fourth EditionNews, Reviews & Culture

EDIT: Upon closer examination, some of my suggestions in this article were later proven incorrect. See my follow-up article.

My fellow D&D blogger Mike Hensley at HackSlash has fourth edition D&D monster stats courtesy of a leaked D&D Game Day minis stat card. Although it’s miniatures, this gives us some insight into some of the changes that have already been decided on, and it’s entirely feasible that the two games are being brought closer together. I’ll iterate over the stats here and what changes they represent.

SPINED DEVIL—Medium Immortal Humanoid (Devil)—LEVEL 6 SKIRMISHER

“Outsider” type is gone, replaced with “immortal humanoid”. Humanoid seems to be a catch-all for any two-arms-two-legs creature, while “immortal” may convey some other game benefit or be merely flavour. Size types remain largely the same. “Skirmisher” refers to the creature’s velites-type niche, which is an important descriptor in D&D minis and may become so in the regular game. Is “challenge rating” now referred to as “level”, perhaps doing away with hit dice altogether?

Hackslash suggests this infers that D&D 4e measures move speed in squares now. I might agree.

Senses: nethersight. Perception +5—Resist fire 20
Nethersight is anyone’s guess; perhaps darkvision and see-invisibility. I would assume that Perception is combined Spot/Listen, although confusingly they later they refer to Spot as its own skill. Interestingly, they seem to be moving toward the Dragon magazine statblock format here, which is an excellent move.

Attacks: Melee 2 claws +9 vs AC each: 2d4+4—Spine Rain Standard; ranged 10; +9 Dex vs. Ref; 1d6+2 + 2d6 fire AND Poisoned 5, Slowed while Poisoned

Melee attacks work as normal, with the noted exception of any split between single and full attack, good riddance. Special attacks are rolled into the attack category, with the example here of Spine Rain. It’s designated “Standard” (no clues here) and a ranged attack, with the number ’10′ perhaps the squares range, potentially doing away with range increment penalties.

The attack is made with the creature’s Dexterity bonus versus the opponent’s Reflex score; remember now that in fourth edition, saving throws are out, and opponents instead roll to beat your Fort/Ref/Will score the same way they roll to beat your AC. “Poisoned 5″ is anyone’s guess (5pts poison damage?), although poison is clearly simplified (good riddance – I never remembered to roll secondary poison damage). Finally here, “Slowed while Poisoned” implies an interesting, Diablo 2 style side-effects system.

AC 20—FORT 18—REF 18—WILL 18
More evidence that opponents now roll to beat your saves instead of you rolling to save from theirs.

HP/Bloodied 47/23
Creatures are “bloodied” at half their hit points and suffer penalties. Whether this applies to all creatures remains to be seen; perhaps undead are treated differently.

Str +7 (19) Con +5 (14) Dex +5 (15) Int +5 (15) Wis +5 (14) Cha +5 (15)

A significant change to the ability bonuses applied by scores. We only know from this that 14 and 15 are both +5, and 19 is +7. Could the new formula for ability score modifiers be “score minus 5, divided by 2″? What we can be sure of is that ability scores are weighted more heavily than previously, or at least are on a different scale.

What the ability score line also tells us is the effect of ability scores on other stats. Perception (spot/listen) is equal to Wisdom modifier as usual, and Init equal to Dexterity mod. The “poisoned” attribute equals the Constitution modifier, but this could be coincidence. Likewise, ground speed equals Dexterity, an important synergy for a skirmisher, but this too could be coincidence; Strength equals fly speed, but again, it’s to soon to tell if that’s deliberate. (One could suggest that fifth edition will merge the Init/Speed designators, but I’m getting way ahead of myself here.)

The effect of Strength and Dexterity on attacks is a little vague here. Melee and ranged attacks have identical bonus despite Strength being higher than Dexterity. Making a huge leap here, it’s possible that AC no longer benefits from your Dexterity modifier (dodging things is Reflex now), allowing it to be used as attack bonus for both melee and ranged. The +2 to the spine attack could come from Dexterity or Constitution, assuming the “round down” rule has stayed; however, this precludes the possibility the +4 to claw damage is derived from half Strength (bar some feat or racial damage bonus). The saving throws all at 18 suggests that we’re seeing +10 base, +5 ability score bonus, and +3 from another source such as hit dice (all the good saves).

As Mike says, we must also look at what what the card doesn’t say. Alignment is removed, consistent with the previous suggestion that it’s being toned down in importance. There’s no flat-footed AC. Sub-stats like natural armour and Dexterity-to-AC and base attack bonus are ignored along with feats and hit dice, although this is to be expected on a terse miniatures card.

My opinion: Although miniatures cards aren’t as complex as the full monster stats, I think this still portends a welcome simplification of the monster rules. Just recently as I was statting up some monsters I realised that a lot of my time as a Dungeon Master was spent calculating statistics based on predefined rules, rather than thinking up cool things. DM’s time is a limited resource, and anything that makes his job easier, I’m all for it.

Deep Crow

posted Thursday, October 11th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Creatures & NPCsGame MaterialThird Edition

The following game statistics are inspired by this Penny Arcade strip.


This vile feathered creature appears at first a massive, corrupted crow. A disgusting multitude of eyes are mounted above a powerful antlike beak, and four lethal talons ready themselves before a heavy, swinging tail.

This terrifying creature is responsible for night raids on farms that are often mistakenly blamed on dragons or common cattle thieves. Swooping down out of the darkness on massive wings, the powerful bird simply lifts off with livestock in its talons. Its roost is frequently littered with the smashed skeletons of former meals, with recognisable skulls evidencing that the terrible creature has no compunctions about eating human flesh. Growing ever larger with age, truly ancient deep crows are fearsome creatures indeed.

(Game statistics follow behind the cut.) Continue reading this article »


posted Thursday, October 11th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Creatures & NPCsGame MaterialThird Edition

The following game statistics are inspired by this Penny Arcade strip.

This short, stocky creature resembles an angry, humanoid stalagmite. Furrowed eyes rest above a massive, jagged maw as its short arms clutch a crude stone spear.

Stalagmen are tenacious, vicious creatures. Stalagmen subsist chiefly on rock, with a special taste for rare ores. They inevitably come into conflict with any nearby underground societies such as dwarves, who compete with the stalagmen’s voracious appetite for metals and precious stones. Stone-destroying oozes are the stalagman’s natural enemy, although more resourceful tribes are known to cultivate gelatinous cubes as door guards.

(Game statistics follow behind the cut.) Continue reading this article »

IRC Dice Bot: “Bones”

posted Wednesday, October 10th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

Astute users will have noticed the “Roleplaying Tools” section on the right where I’m hoping to apply my programming knowledge to the field of roleplaying games. Today’s update is Bones, anIRC dice bot programmed in Ruby. In short, Bones connects to Internet Relay Chat and rolls dice on command, allowing you to play online.

Among the features of this bot are multi-channel and multi-server support, public and private rolls, and most significantly, heavy support for complex dice notation – including adding or subtracting any number of dice or integers. I’ve made Bones available for free. Clicky link!

Mediocre Characters: Why NPCs Aren’t PCs

posted Sunday, October 7th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

There’s a difference between players and dungeon masters. Players want to build the most awesome character possible in order to win. Dungeon masters—and here is our big secret—also want the players to win. Maybe if you’re playing Nethack style or Tomb of Horrors, the GM is definitively trying to win. Because the DM calls all the shots, however, this is far too easy.

As a dungeon master, your goal is to make sure the players have a good time. Herein lies the difference between PCs and NPCs. While player characters must be optimally built, NPCs can afford to be mediocre. Traditionally subpar feats like Combat Casting and Toughness are valid choices. Poor multiclass combinations are feasible. Not everyone is an adventurer or a hero.

Now, this isn’t to say all your villains have to be pushovers. Danger, as I’ve said before, is exciting, and a villain who can push your players until all that can save them is teamwork and luck is something to aim for. Just don’t feel constrained to munchkin every NPC. In my opinion, it makes your villain more interesting if he’s a one-eyed wizard with levels in aristocrat, than if he’s simply an all-eighteens archmage with Spell Focus in Instantly Killing Everything.

JD Wiker’s Blog

posted Friday, October 5th 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Links and ResourcesNews, Reviews & Culture

It seems that D&D writer JD Wiker is updating his blog on a regular basis now, and it’s full of dungeon mastery goodness. (See what I mean about a surge in D&D blogging?) Among his entries are interesting variant stats for the Shadow, discussion of “cinematic” roleplaying, and musings on the focus of your game.

JD Wiker’s Blog, “Declassified”. »

Protip: Nobody Cares About Your Character

posted Wednesday, October 3rd 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

Allow me to be a tad cynical in this post. Players: Nobody wants to hear about your character.

The Dungeons & Dragons blogging scene is really picking up of late. I could swear it used to be just Martin Ralya, myself and a few Wizards developers. A drawback to this new influx is that we’re beginning to see more low-quality material.

The number one rule of blogging is that people must be interested in what you write. Ask yourself the question: Will people want to read what I have to write? If you spend a lot of time writing about your own Dungeons & Dragons character, chances are it’s not going to interest a lot of readers. The cruel truth is that nobody in the world cares as much about your guy as you do. Only marginally more interesting is your campaign, the exception being other Dungeon Masters looking for general inspiration or advice on running a pre-written adventure.

Perhaps one of the worst patterns I see is when someone starts a public blog without any real topic at all. It updates for a while, then drags off. Some time later, the blogger posts about how he hasn’t updated in a while, and bestows some uninteresting facts on his personal life. This is the death knell for a weblog. If you can’t update regularly with content that’s interesting to other people, then what you’re essentially making is a personal journal.

Tomorrow we resume our regular dungeon mastery goodness.

Suggestions Box!

posted Monday, October 1st 2007 by Jonathan Drain
Site Announcements

It’s a new month, so I’m opening a suggestions box. Hit the comment link below and tell me what you’d like to see at D20 Source in the coming year.

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