Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Gruffalo, or How Children Stories Effect My Game

Having a three year old daughter does things to your TV habits.  You end up watching a whole lot less of what you want, and a whole lot more of what she wants.  That's ok, in general, but when it is the same thing - over and over - it threatens to be a little dangerous to one's sanity.  Unless you find a way to cope.

Enter the Gruffalo
The Gruffalo (by Julia Donaldson) has become a favourite.  First, it was the picture book, but after her lovely grandparents gave her the DVD for her birthday, my little one wants to watch it - over, and over, and over.  And being only 30 minutes in length, that can get recycled pretty quickly.

The story is simple enough - an interesting take on the "boy who cried wolf" (but, you know, with a mouse crying gruffalo!).  Of course, it is set to rhyme, so that it becomes quite easy to get stuck into your head.  And, as it happens, the mouse is quite descriptive as to just what ferocious attributes his "made up" monster has.  But the real question is - how would they work?  I've been thinking of the Gruffalo as a DnD monster (4e, as that's what I play), and below are my ideas as to how I would play it...if the situation ever arose for it to be needed.  At the moment, it's just something for me to think on whilst my daughter watches it one more time.

Mechanically Speaking
Though the story-character never really fought, this one is clearly set up to do as much - it is Dungeons and Dragons, after all!  I have tried to tie one ability / trait / power for each of the descriptive lines in the poem, and left the rest of it as generic as possible.  Seeing as (**spoiler**!!) he is ultimately defeated by a mouse, I didn't want him to be too high a level; but if it weren't for what could be some fantastic bluff rolls, he would have been a mean fight indeed.  I finally pegged him as a level 5 solo brute.  Level 5 gives him a good range, and leaves him in the 'mythical, but not too magical' category.  Solo is necessary, as who else should there be to back up the Gruffalo?  (Level 5 should mean that the solo aspect still would be a challenge). And Brute goes without asking!

Terrible Tusks

These are the first thing described, and for that, I think they would make a great basic attack.  Tusks can work well with charges, and if this thing was ever to fight, I think that charging is the point to start.  Naturally, if a creature is charging as its base attack, it needs a way to negate the usual penalties of charging: instead of actually charging (with the minimum movement, opportunity attacks, and all), I made it a shift attack.  Yes, that is a long shift, but he has nothing ranged, so this may let him reach some of those pesky ranged PCs!  Solos often do not get enough attacks a round, so he can attack three targets with this!

The problem, though, was that the created power was a little too powerful.  For an encounter power, it could work - maybe better for a recharge power.  But an at-will basic attack?  No.  I changed it to a recharge (4+), and set just claws as a melee basic attack.

Terrible Claws
The basic claw attack can grab the target (specifically useful with the next ability!); for a truly terrible attack, the Gruffalo can make two claws against the same target!  Where the tusk attack spreads damage around the party, the claw attacks really focus on one PC, and (along with the Jaws) tries to provide much hurt.  naturally, the DM should be letting the target character know that he is now the Gruffalo's favourite food!

Terrible Teeth in Terrible Jaws
A nice old bite attack, as the Gruffalo finally get to have a snack.  The recharge (5+), and requirement for the target to be grabbed means that the Gruffalo probably won't be having a large meal, and so will be remaining hungry for a while.

Knobbly Knees
I am at a loss for this one.  It could just be a little bit extra AC, but I don't think that's terribly interesting, thematically.  I don't think an extra power would be good, as the Gruffalo already has enough.  Does anyone have any ideas?

Turned-out Toes
The toes / feet claws seemed best to be linked to a solid grip on the ground.  A large, slow brute would most likely be hard to push around - so he can resist up to two squares of all forced movement.

Poisonous Wart at the end of his Nose
A poisonous wart probably won't do anything... until it is disturbed.  That, to me, sounds like a great triggered action upon getting bloodied!  Ongoing poisonous damage to any adjacent enemies is a simple effect - I  thought about more complex ideas, such as an aura, or his first melee attack each round deals poison damage, or the first melee attack against him takes poison damage, but ultimately, I went with a simple idea.  He has enough powers anyway - a common theme with my monsters, it seems!

Eyes are Orange
Darkvision!  This seemed quite easy, and simple.  It can be written down, and doesn't add complexity to the monster.. 

Tongue is Black
Again, I didn't have anything obvious to put up for this one.  After all...what does a black tongue really give you?

Purple Prickles all over his Back
This could have been another triggered action, spiking those who dare to try to flank him, but I thought a trait would be easier.  Anyone who attacks whilst flanking takes some damage - clearly, the Gruffalo turns to face the first attacker, and thus always has his back to whoever attacks next!

Adding a Little Flavour
Reducing the character of the Gruffalo to a simple stat block would not be entirely fitting.  There are still a few pieces it needs to be entirely effective.

Surprising Appearance
The idea here is that the Gruffalo always acts first.  But not to screw over the party; rather, the Gruffalo acts to be intimidating; he moves to cast his shadow over the party, and give them a chance to back down, run away, or plead for their lives.  But that is not expected to occur (with most DnD groups, anyway).

Vulnerable to Verse
To get players really into the feel of the encounter, you should encourage them to structure their speech in rhymes. (Naturally, the DM should have enough rhymes prepared for his side of the encounter, too!).  Rewards are a great motivator, and so a +2 bonus is added for players who can fit each round into rhyme Note: player, not PC.  It shouldn't just be a character sprouting a few lines of rhyme, as Gybrush Threepwood might do (not that that is bad!  It is just not the Gruffalo's way!). Players should be rewarded for having anything they say rhyme, be they talking about their characters, describing their actions, or the speech they choose.  Naturally, if the DM can get Robbie Coltrane to voice the Gruffalo, all PCs should instantly admit defeat :)

Once bloodied, it would be quite reasonable for a player to chase the Gruffalo off with enough rhymes, and some good social skill work.  The Gruffalo already has a handy penalty to his insight check, so it is definitely possible.  His will is also relatively low, for this reason.  But I will leave the ultimate decisions for the DM to work out!
So there you have it - my take on the Gruffalo! Hopefully some of you might get some enjoyment out of this familiar creature; and those of you with kids who haven't heard of him - go check the book out!  And either way, let me know just how your players or kids react to the Gruffalo!

Friday, 20 January 2012

An Elite Boss (part 2)

This is part two in my series on the "Boss Monster" concept, created by The Angry DM.  Part 1 can be found here.  In it, I will talk about my experiences in adapting the concept to an elite monster.

The Premise
Since the introduction of "Solo" and "Elite" monsters, I have thought about the relative toughness of monsters at different levels, but the same XP.  What would it be like to fight a solo monster at a low level, then fight them again when you had grown stronger (represented by them now being elite), and then finally beating them when you had become stronger yet (and they were now standard).  It just so happened that I had a recurring villain (undead, of course), that could be a good example of this, so I set about working on Nemeia, my Tiefling Empress.

The History
At level 5, the party were first introduced to the ancient and powerful undead tiefling, when they foiled someone's plan to raise an undead army.  As luck would have it, the paladin of the group (A dragonborn by the name of Torinn) accidentally set in motion her animation and escape, and so has, for many levels, had the extra weight of guilt upon his scaled shoulders.

It was five levels later, and ten months had passed in the 'real world', before the heroes would stumble upon Nemeia's new plot.  She had opened pathways for both the dead and demons to come to her side, and was vowing to take over the Nentir Vale, making it the base of her ever-expanding undead nation.  When they came face to face with her, she was a level 12 solo, adapted via Quinn Murphy's Worldbreaker concept.  She threw some nasty effects around, encompassing the room in shadows and fire, and summoning help to her side.  The shifter cleric, Edgewood, was particularly scared, and spent most of the encounter cowering in the doorway.

The Challenge
Taking a look at her current XP, and consulted the charts to see what was an equivalent Elite monster, I decided that a level 17 elite was a rough fit.  So I planned to reintroduce her late in the paragon tier, with further plans and another attempt at restarting her lost empire.  But a simple Elite monster would not do as a follow-up of a Worldreaker solo!  And so I set about working out how a creature could be both Elite, and a Boss.

I used the same rules as ADM did initially: I split her HP into thirds, and created three identical copies of her.  Where the Solo Boss had three APs, I gave her two (+1 each time).  I made sure she had explosive 'end of stage' reactions, to really kick it into the next scene.  I split her powers up over the stages, making each stage a little different thematically. In particular, her aura grew as she was beaten down, and her powers changed to show a more angry, dangerous creature.  But how did it work?

The Result
Overall, Nemeia was a successfully dangerous foe.  However, that is not to say that what I built was a complete success!  On the night, I adapted and changed things, as needed to keep the game interesting, and keep her reasonably fair.  Interestingly, the first stage felt too easy, and her last stage could have been too hard.

Stage 1 had Nemeia with a large aura that did little damage; indeed, some of the party happily ignored all of it, and thus it was rather ineffective.  Being an elite creature, she had allies - at this point, it was two NPC giants that were helping the party, but that the empress dominated (this action started the combat).  As we were still missing a few of our players, I had one of the giants waver between helping and hindering, to try to keep the battle around the right level for them.  As it turned out, Nemeia's 110 HP were taken away very quickly, and even her regeneration didn't help as the cleric dished out a decent amount of radiant damage (as expected!).

The two other problems with her in this stage were purely of my design.  Firstly, she had too many powers.  Five active plus two triggered powers was a lot to recall and be fresh with, especially as many of them were to change shortly!  When next I create a boss monster (and *especially* for an elite boss), I will try to keep it to three or four powers at most.  Hopefully, focusing on fewer powers will also accent the changing nature of their opponent to the party.

Along this line, too many of the powers relied on each other.  In general, I like that - having powers that say "If the target is X, then Y" allows for more devious attacks that have to be set up well; having them all on one creature, however, means that the party will usually save vs most of the effects before the monster can get a second hit in (especially with paladins giving +6 to saves!).  It also limits the DM's options each round, but in a bad way.  I was finding that I had to study the powers carefully, to ensure I didn't play power B before power A was out there. 

Her domination in particular was hard to trigger - though, when it hit, it worked well.  Alkameer (an elven beastmaster ranger) turned and fled on his griffon mount, removing him from the encounter for a round or two, and leaving him without a weapon (he dropped his bow before his departure).

I ended up adding some more HP to Nemeia during the encounter, and let them have a proper short rest at the end of it.  A few players arrived towards the end, or after the end of the encounter, which would have left their encounter resources at quite different levels of depletion, so the rest was an evening of the PCs before the big final battle.

Story-wise, she hid, recovered herself, then attacked once she had recovered, but by then, she was into Stage 2. She had returned, and this time, she had a friendly Eye of Frost Beholder with her! (Frost because of story reasons: the party were tracking her through a snowy mountain range, where she had hidden *because* it was unlike her normal habitat).
Her regeneration was less, and her aura was shorter, but more fierce.   Fire now flavoured many of her attacks, and she set about summoning allies (though they never seemed to hang around for long!).  Again, there were too many powers for me to properly use them in the encounter, and a few subtle changes to certain powers were completely missed by me (I should have spent more time preparing and memorising her!  Or perhaps, simplifying her?).

Note also her role change: from controller to skirmisher.  This was something I tried to do to really emphasise the various stages, though it was lost a little as the stages rolled by so quickly.  There *was* some control in the first stage, but there was still damage, too.  Perhaps, with fewer powers, these roles could be more focused?

Stage 3 started with the arrival of her personal Rime Hound / Winter Wolf amalgamation.  Here, her aura was only against those adjacent to her, but it was four times as strong as it had started, and covered two damage types.  No one was resisting it now!

Instead of regeneration, Nemeia now has a whole lot better defences, and is invisible to those too far away.  Sadly (or fortunately), I totally forgot this bonus until part way through this stage, and decided to leave it out.  It was clear that she was enough of a threat by then!  The overlapping auras of two chillborn zombies she raised to help really hit the PCs hard. Mid-battle, Escharra (the drow scout), who had danced around death a few times already, finally burnt away.

As mentioned, this was most definitely the harder stage - the aura and the PCs dwindling resources made it a challenging battle.  The assassin (Isis, a Deva) spoke openly about fleeing the battlefield and leaving the others behind, but to the benefit of the group, stayed behind and battled their foe. 

As well as ignoring the "Mist of Shadows" invisible feature, I also toned down the "Shifting Shadows" reaction, only using it one or twice.  I'm not sure why I thought that using it at-will would have been fun...for anyone other than the DM, that is. 

The Conclusion
Most clearly, when compared to a Solo Boss Monster, an Elite Boss is quite fragile.  But that does not make it impossible to use!  With proper planning and support, it can work; however, I would suggest asking yourself: "Why does this have to be Elite, and not a Solo?"  Clearly, in the case of Nemeia, I had a good story reason for this; I will probably stick with Solo Bosses from here on, though.

Next time (be it an elite or solo), I would drop the number of  powers per stage.  Four powers (basic melee, ranged, some recharge ability, and a reaction) are probably enough, with the slight chance of a fifth *if* that fifth is the "end of a stage" power, and the others are relatively simple.  So, 3+1 or 4+1 is about where I would have it (not the 6+1 I had for each stage!).  It could be interesting increasing or lowering the powers per stage, too.  Starting out simple and building, or possibly losing powers as the enemy was whittled away.

I thought the increasing aura was good, as it allowed for some heavy damage at the end, whilst not scaring the PCs into fleeing at the start.  Likewise, removing the regeneration from the final stage ensured that the battle wouldn't drag out at the end.  However, to suit this better, I think that front-loading more defensive powers (such as the hiding) might have been better.  Some ways of mitigating an attack or two at the start could have provided reason for a little fear (the good "how are we going to kill her" kind; not the bad "where did my arm just go?" kind), whilst keeping her appearance threatening but not impossible.

Oh, and yes, I have realised that her XP is wrong.  It's just a typo, not sure how it made it through ;)

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Dungeons and Dragons is Dead! Long Live Dungeons and Dragons!

So.  5th Edition is upon the horizon.  And, most of us have known (or feared) that for some time now, but at last it has been announced.  What does this mean, and how will it effect us all?

Previous Edition Changes
Well, I don't know that!  Not yet, anyhow.  Some feel excited, and seeing they are either involved in its design, or have tested out the early game, that is reassuring.  But all I know is that I'm still feeling a little annoyed.

I've been around for two edition changes now, and they were quite different experiences.  2e had slowed down, TSR had passed it on, and everyone knew that 3e was coming.  It promised new and exciting things, such as more mingling with classes, feats, and skills; as well as the removal of THAC0.  It was looked forward to, and we eagerly awaited our DM's approval to switch the campaign over to the new system.

The end of 3e, however, was different.  It didn't feel tired, it didn't feel that it needed a change.  And I personally was awaiting my order of six books to arrive when I heard the announcement.  That hurt.

I was DMing a long-term campaign in 3e, and we played it out (with a few quickening steps, to tie things up a little faster).  Still, we entered 4e about two years into it, and yet continued to feel that there was more to be done with 3e.  Now - don't get me wrong: I love 4e, and I don't want to go back to 3e (or Pathfinder).  The changes made were for the better, in my opinion, and I am all for playing what you like: I like 4e.  But there were still books I had purchased that I hadn't used...and that looks to be the case here, too.

I received a few new books for my birthday, and though I have read through *some* of them over the last few months, I have yet to use them.  I know that another couple of books (Heroes of the Feywild, for example) that I was thinking about purchasing have now been crossed off my list.  Why should I purchase any more books for 4e, if they are about to end it all?

Sure, I could go on playing...but unlike with 3e, 4e's online presence is strictly governed by WotC.  The Compendium is great, but what will WotC do when 5e is released?  The split in fans to 4e and Pathfinder resolves around the fact that the d20 system was free to use; if WotC leave the Compendium up, won't that encourage or allow folk to continue to play 4e and not move over?  Will the continued sale of DnDi make up for lost sales of 5e?  Would they even understand what a reasonable price for DnDi would be, if it comes without the current magazines?  Ending support for what we currently play is rough enough, without being forced into the next edition.  Yes, forced: they have done well with the Compendium, it is now like a drug - I can't play DnD without it! :)

But it's not only the removal of support, but the gaps where they haven't done things.  The DMG3 that never was: help for the epic tier.  The "Class Compendium" write-ups for the PHB1 classes (a finalised Wizard (Arcanist)?). So much of the new things they have introduced, but have not yet been properly used.  Those races that never received the love they should have.  Or classes (poor artificer! forgotten runepriest! ) that never gained ample care.  There is still so much left that could be done for 4e before we left it behind.

My Wishes for what's "Next"
Since this is my thoughts, what are my wishes for DnD's future?  Ultimately, I can sum it up by saying: please let us continue to use the Compendium; and please take your time!

Time is not just a delaying tactic.  Paizo spent time developing Pathfinder, and with that, things were smoothed before its release.  With extra time, the earlier books in 4e could have been a lot smoother, and less errata.  I definitely have to agree with Rolling20s, in that there has been way too much errata.  Ultimately, the problem isn't the errata, but that the system was needing such changes in the first place.  Sure, patches to computer games may happen more frequently, but until WotC either moves totally to electronic media, or hands out free pdf's (which they update with the changes) of books along with purchased hard copies, the errata needs to be less.

Books shouldn't be delegated to the shelf, and forgotten, after five rounds of changes and updates have made them more wrong than right!  The first books should be the core, and they should be great - able to stand for the rest of the life of the edition, not replaced with 'essentials' as a new start!  Even if they released things in tiers (PHB1 being Heroic, for example), this would allow for the released game to be balanced and not needing updates; future PHBs could then bring in higher level games, which have had more time to balance / playtest. 

The second point ties in to Rolling20s first point.  The Compendium is great, but it doesn't cover everything.  It makes a DM's life so much easier, and I am scared as to what finishing my 4e games would be like, if I didn't have access to it.  So I definitely want to have that!  (Maybe a final year's payment for a downloadable version of the compendium / character builder?  It won't need any more updates, so it shouldn't take any further work?)  [update] WotC has tweeted about the tools remaining online.  (note "plan to", not "will")  I wonder what the cost is... they cannot expect full price for tools that will no longer gain new content (through books released or Dragon / Dungeon magazines).

From my time DMing on DnD Online Games, I have found the ease and speed of looking up any power, any feat, any item in seconds to be such an amazing tool.  The same task in 3e would take forever, as I had to reference different physical books, search for where I thought a spell or feat was, and often give up looking and wait for someone to point me there (which, when you are playing by post, can be a while!). I'd definitely want the same online tools for 5e, but moreso, there needs to be more openness with it.

The tight, strict levels of copyright really hurt when playing 4e online, whilst the 3e folks join games without paying anything, and test the water out.  WotC: if you want the curious to give your game a go, allow low level things to be free!  The initial character builder, which allowed anyone to build a character up to level 3, was a great idea (and the current one should do something similar).  Freely accessing some rules (stripped down is fine, as long as it gets people into the game) is necessary to keep bringing in new players, and keep the hobby alive.

Now, they are my two main thoughts, my overall wishes for "what is next".  As things come more sharply into focus, I will hopefully able to work out just where things stand, and how roughly WotC is planning on treating us...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Boss Monsters (part 1)

Early last year, I read The Angry DM's series on Boss Monsters (part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4).  I really liked the idea, and started playing around with it soon after.  I had tried out Gamefiend / Quinn Murphy's "Worldbreaker" concept before, and was impressed to find another viable option to the long, grinding battle with a solo problem.

I used one of his examples in a low-level Dark Sun campaign I was running, and though it worked well, I wanted to actually create something of my own...or at least adapt it well beyond what it was initially.

My first boss monster ended up being in an epic tier game (in a campaign adapted from Stephen Radney-MacFarland's adventure, "Winter of the Witch", found in Dungeon Magazine 162) wherein my players faced off against a rather large and angry white dragon (which I recently purchased just the miniature for!), I wanted to make it a more thrilling encounter than what I expected it to be: Wizard and Psion trap; Fighter holds; Warlock burns.  Repeat until cooked through.

ADM's suggestion, where the monster is completely replaced at each stage, and large changes happen to the playing field, fit my ideas nicely, and so I built my own boss!

I'll go through some of the important changes.  First, I loved the idea ADM gave with his dragon, in letting them roll initiative twice, and having an extra chance of saving each round.  The only solo I have played that I felt lived up to the title was built similarly: but had three turns every round (Bel Shalor, the Shadow in the Flame; and I still think the only reason he defeated the party in my play-by-post game was that too many of the players weren't posting).

Second, I lessened his immediate powers, so that they could build over time.  An aura of 5, with 30 damage a round is pretty severe, so I limited the damage to the "bloodied" stage, and limited the flight-slowing to the second and third stages.  His triple attack also turned into a double attack; and in stage three, was changed from a "kill one player good" to a "try to attack many players".  Spreading out the hurt is always more fun; and lessens that whole "stop picking on me!" feeling.

I also changed his encounter fear aura (standard action, burst 10) to a minor action (one creature).  As written, it is effectively a game-lengthener:  Dragon uses a standard action so that everyone else doesn't act.  Now, for a third of his life (most likely, not long enough to attack each PC with it) he can use an otherwise not-used action to give a vicious glare at troublesome folk.

He didn't have any triggered actions, so I added in an alternate to the tail-slap; tailored to my party.  They like teleporting, and since that would get around so much of his slowing-nastiness, I thought a little knock when they popped in could work nicely.  Plus, the whole first stage is about the dragon really looking down his nose at the party.  He gazes at them, he holds back as if they are not worth his time, and generally puts up with their attacks...until they anger him!

Stage two starts (or stage one ends?) with a power adapted from the scenario the dragon was designed for.  In it, it's a standard action he can do once per encounter; but I felt that it would be better if he realises that the party are dangerous, and takes to the air, tearing out a chunk of the mountainside as he goes.  From there, he goes into artillery mode, breathing and strafing the party, with attacks pulled from his recharge power (5 or 6; so using it at will for roughly a third of the fight sounds about right) and ADM's sample dragon. 

This will be tough for a certain fighter, but with the group's ability to send him flying, I doubt it will cause him to sit out for long.  The rest of the party is ranged, so even with his new trigger, he will soon be bloodied...and crashing back to the ground!

Now, in stage three, he is ferocious and wanting to be done with the group.  His aura is now what it would have been all along, he finally has access to his frost breath (but I have limited it further to just once...but with some miss effects), and he has a "thunderwave / shoulder-slam" like power to show off his new-found brutality. 

Instead of slapping those who teleport, he now only catches those who are slow enough to be caught.    His Fury power has a benefit if he attacks multiple targets - at this stage, it could all be over quickly if one PC had three attacks; and the bloodied dragon is clearly not thinking that straight.  He just wants to lash out at everyone!

Finally, when the party deliver their last blow, he screams once more, and the mountain answers him - an avalanche of snow washes down over the party, either sweeping them away, or burying them (and stopping teleporting, just for fun).  After the flying-dragon aspect of part two, and the possible-falling of part 1, I would assume that everyone has taken magical precautions against falling off the mountainside, but if they haven't, they are only getting what they deserve, right?

I  played the Boss Monster dragon against a party of four 23rd level characters (fresh from a long rest), and I think it worked well.  No one was caught by the initial scene-changing attack, and barely anyone was hurt, so I only gave them a recharge of one encounter power (no surge). 

The second stage was hard, with the wizard being entombed for a while, and the fighter not having much reach (on a flying dragon!). 

Still, the 2nd=>3rd change-over power worked well, and once he took on his bloody form, he really started cutting through the PCs.  His aura was also quite devastating, as well as the fact that for this stage, both his initiative turns were together.  That meant that there was little time for the PCs to recover from his double attacks - especially when he action pointed!  Two of the team (psion and fighter) went down round after round towards the end.  Some high death-save bonuses and daily items allowed them to continue to regain their feet, but they didn't get their actions, and remained within the aura! 

Ultimately, the wizard missed on a crucial daily power, and rolled poorly for the miss damage, leaving it on 1 HP.  Then the psion's turn came up, and he went out backwards due to the cold aura.  The warlock finished it off, and the resulting death cry was also quite lethal - fortunately, cold resistances kept the revenant from also going out backwards!

In all, a dangerous and engaging monster that is much more fitting than the original dragon (who would have died in about half the time, I expect).  The breaking of effects upon it, the extra saves, and the two initiative rolls really helped make it a solo that could actually fight solo - so well done, AngryDM, for your "Boss Monster" idea, it worked well! :)

Has anyone else tried this idea?  If so, how did it go?  I have another one that will be fully revealed to my players over the next week, so stay tuned to hear how that goes!