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Photo: Alcove, Nimrod Fortress

posted Friday, March 30th 2012 by Jonathan Drain

Nimrod Fortress, Golan Heights

An alcove in the ruins of Nimrod Fortress, a mediaeval fortress in the middle east built in 1229. The bottom of this room is flooded with water.

Photograph courtesy of Uri Kurlianchik.

Existential Crisis and Dragons

posted Tuesday, March 27th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

In this game, instead of playing elves and wizards, the players control aspects of the personality of an office worker suffering from ennui!

How Mass Effect 3 Should Have Ended

posted Wednesday, March 21st 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

Joker frantically pokes at the holographic control panel as the Normandy rushes to outrun a blast wave. As the engines crumble, the ship hurtles toward a deserted planet.

Shepard takes off his VR helmet and hands it to the arcade attendant.

“Thanks for playing Normandy! It’s one of our most popular VR games!”

Shepard nods and strolls back to his job at the food court.

Best Game Ever: A Different D&D Song

posted Saturday, March 17th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
News, Reviews & Culture

How to Build a Sniper in D&D 4e

posted Tuesday, March 13th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering AdviceFourth Edition

There’s a great sniper scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where a sniper takes out one of the soldiers, and the rest of the squad is pinned down debating whether to rush out and save him.

You can’t easily recreate the same scene in 4th edition D&D. Instant kills are unpopular and combat tends to happen at short range. Still, it’s possible as a DM to create an encounter with long-range attackers.

Sniper as a warmage

The warmage was a concept formalized in third edition’s Complete Arcane. It’s an arcane caster who wears light armour and learns offensive and support magic through arcane military training rather than research.

Build such a creature by statting up a level 1 wizard with the war wizard build, using the quick NPC rules. Add some light armour to up his AC to around the average for his class.

The key here is to give him the Magic Missile spell, with an unusually long range of 20 squares or 100 feet. The latest version of this spell will only deal 2 or 3 damage, but they can use Stealth (given +6 from training and Dexterity) to hide immediately after they shoot, and a full level 1 encounter will have five warmage snipers working together for an automatic 15 total damage to one PC per round, enough to bloody a PC. If the enemies get close they switch to a spell like Stone Blood or scorching burst.

Sniper as rogue

The rogue (scoundrel) class can take the Sharpshooter Talent class ability, which grants +1 to attack and increases the range on a crossbow to 20 squares, or 40 at penalty. The advantage over the warmage setup is that they gain 2d6 bonus damage when they have combat advantage from being hidden, and they can hide every round after firing. For a rogue with 13 Dexterity, the average damage of 1d8+2d6+1 is 12.5 per hit.

The thing is, this might actually be very unfair. You’ve got an opponent 20 squares away that you can’t see, perhaps a team of five rogue snipers, and they’re hitting you for a third to a half of your HP per shot. The NPC rules allow it, but monster rules tend to hold to a certain balance.

Sniper as a monster

There’s no reason in 4th edition D&D to limit yourself to normal character rules for building opponents, even if your snipers are human. Simply start with any artillery creature of the appropriate level and work from there. Look for one that strikes at a very long range, and give it helpful terrain like a position atop a cliff. Count the terrain as part of the encounter XP budget, if it gives a strong advantage to the opponent.

Make Your D&D Website Better than WotC’s

posted Wednesday, March 7th 2012 by Jonathan Drain
None of the Above

When I’m not writing about Dungeons & Dragons, I’m a website developer in my day job. I find myself habitually critiquing websites, and Wizards of the Coast’s official D&D homepage is no exception.

Here are my top five problems that you want to avoid to make your site better than WotC’s D&D website.

Keep page load times to a minimum

Opera web browser has a little-known feature that shows you how much data. WotC’s site takes a whopping 2MB to load. If you felt like their site was slow, it’s because it’s transferring five to ten times more data than a normal website.

Even in this age of broadband internet, keep your webpage below 500KB, and ideally below 200KB.

Keep design uncluttered

In the late 1990s, the trend in website design was to cram as much content into the top of your page, on the mistaken belief that users don’t scroll down. The result was cluttered websites that make it hard for the user to find what they’re looking for.

Modern “web 2.0″ principles recommend a minimalist layout that helps the user find what he wants, rather than what the publisher wants the user to find. Nobody comes to a website to read advertising billboards.

Let your users stay logged in

When I visit the D&D Compendium to look up some monster stats, it logs me out after a day or two and I have to enter my username and password again. This is a very short time to keep a user logged in. Many popular websites allow you to stay logged in after a month or even more.

If your site has a login, let users stay logged in for at least a month, unless you’re running something high-security like a bank.

Readability is key

In 1999, the trend was to use small fonts, because they looked neat at low resolutions. Now, the average screen resolution has doubled and anti-aliasing makes bigger fonts look good. The average web user is older, and not all of us have perfect eyesight any more, but WotC’s using an even smaller font size than their own website 13 years ago.

Make sure your main article text is well-spaced, has good margins on either side and is an easy to read font size.

Use Group Initiative to Speed Up Combat

posted Saturday, March 3rd 2012 by Jonathan Drain
Dungeon Mastering Advice

Here’s a house rule I use in a play-by-forum D&D game. I think it speeds up combat a lot, and I’m interested in hearing how well it works for other groups.

Group Initiative
Make a single initiative roll for the opponents’ side. Use the initiative modifier of the opponents’ leader or whoever has the highest initiative modifier.

Make individual initiative rolls for each player character. On a forum game, the DM can make all the initiative rolls to save time.

First, any PCs who beat the opponent in the initiative take a turn. They can act in any order.

Next, all the opponents take their turns.

Next, all the PCs take their turn, even PCs who acted before the initiative. Again, they can act in any order. Once all PCs have taken their turn, the opponents take their turn, and so on.

On a forum game especially, you don’t have to wait for the person ahead of you in initiative order. Waiting is a bottleneck. When a player is ready to take his turn, you don’t want to make him wait, or he might not be ready when his turn comes up.

Characters with high initiative bonuses are still valuable, because they get a bonus turn at the start of each combat. This is really what happens anyway in normal initiative.

A character can wait for an ally to coordinate their attacks in the same turn. For example, a fighter can wait for the cleric to heal him before he attacks.

The enemies all get their turn before any PCs can react. This can be dangerous if they gang up on one target.

Certain rules expect normal initiative, and you’ll have to improvise. For example, some D&D 4e monsters take extra actions ahead of their normal initiative count.

What’s your experience with group initiative rules?

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