Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Writing an Adventure, 4e-style

One of the things that I like best about 4th Edition DnD is how easy it makes the adventure creation process.  I can honestly say that in 20 years of role-playing, I've never come across a system that makes the raw numbers of encounter creation so accessible and user-friendly.

This means a lot to me, since I'm a DM.  I really like that the guessing game of "too strong or too weak" is gone the way of THAC0.  The ability to quickly calibrate the difficulty of an encounter give me a lot more time to work on the cool stuff - creating interesting encounter locations, memorable NPC's, interesting lore and great story. 

In this series of posts, I'm going to go over my process for creating an adventure for a group of 4-5 1st level PCs, taking them to second level.  Ideally, this will help novice or inexperienced DM's with the mechanics of adventure creation, as well as giving everyone else some neat campaign idea.  I'll try to post encounter maps and stat blocks for everything. If people want to use the adventure, please feel free.

Step 1: Inspiration

The inspiration for this adventure came from a very vivid image I had in my head of a tower on a steep cliff with a cresent-moon shaped roof.  The tower is set on a ridge, with a cliff behind it.  The ridge is wooded, and at the bottom of the ridge a sheer chasm falls away.  At the edge of the chasm is a bridge, with a small keep made up of two small round towers guarding one end.

One of the characters in the game is a priestess of Sehanine, the elven goddess of night and the moon, so I decided that the tower was a place holy to Sehanine - not a temple, though.  It's a monastery, where a seer of the goddess lives.  I decided to call it the Sanctuary of the Waning Moon.

Step 2: Antagonists

I'm going to crib the basic idea for the villain of this piece from the second book of Peter Morwood's amazing series about Aldric Talvalin, called The Demon Lord.  The entire series is 4 books, the Horse Lord, the Demon Lord, the Dragon Lord and The Warlord's Domain.  If you can find them, they're a great series.  The antagonist here is a demon-god, called Ithaqua - previously a god of harvest and growth, the disappearance of its worshippers has caused it to degenerate into a demon representing rot, blight and corruption.  I'm not going to put the PC's up against the demon here, just have them investigate a symptom of it's corrupting influence - in this case, a seer of Sehanine who has been possessed and driven mad.

Since Sehanine is an elven goddess, and the demon is a nature-related one, I'm going to have links to the Feywild scattered throughout the early adventures, with the idea that the PC's will eventually have to go there to stop the demon, ideally at around 10th level, but that's further down the road.

So the basic plan here is to have the PC's sent to investigate the Sanctuary of the Waning Moon, to find out why the seeress there has not communicated with the regional temple in some time.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Consistent, or Fair?

The Fourth Edition of Dungeons and Dragons really highlights the teamwork aspect of role-playing.  Good teamwork was always important for challenging battles, but the powers in 4e are designed to compliment each other to a degree that I haven't seen before in D&D.  

This is fundamentally a good thing, I think.  Anything that gets players thinking and planning during turns other than their own is great for maintaining group intensity and momentum.  The dynamic of increased co-operation has made me pay more attention to D&D as a team activity - like a sport, but with dice.  

Of course, most sports have an opposing team (in this case, the monsters), and a referee.  Now, it's not common in sports to have the Ref controlling the other team, for reasons that I think are pretty obvious.  In DnD the Ref does control the other team, and this can be a hard thing for DM's, especially newer ones, to balance.  Is it competitive, or communal?  Are you trying to kill them, or just make their lives hard enough to be fun?

Most experienced DM's and players can answer this easily enough, but it's a balance that every DM has to find for his/her own group.  Ultimately, though, the role of the GM as Referee is a critical one, and one that I find very interesting, particularly because of my experience with organized sports (soccer and basketball, particularly).

I've had to deal with a lot of referees, and there are a lot of bad ones out there.  It's tough to really categorize what makes a bad ref - it's like porn.  Hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.  Good ref's, though, come in 2 flavours; consistent and fair.  As a ref, the job is to know the rules, apply them to a situation, and enforce them.  Consistent refs decide on a rule interpretation and stick with it.  You may not agree with the interpretation, but at least you know what to expect in a given situation.

A fair ref tries to make the game equitable, but often does this at the expense of consistency.  Know you made a mistake on the previous rule call?  Make a fudge for the player who lost out on the previous call.  This sort of ref is less interested in pure rule enforcement than they are in a level playing field.

Interestingly, Wayward Mind over at Behind the Screens just wrote a piece on the "Friend or Foe DM" which I think dovetails nicely into my thoughts on this:

It's dealing with a different aspect of the DM role (how many hats does the DM wear, again?), but some of the priciples apply.  If you are a Friend DM, you will naturally move to the Fair rule enforcement style.  Players like things to be equitable, and a success-oriented DM will generally move in that direction.

If you are a Foe DM, though, I think you have a responsibility to be a Consistent rule-enforcer.  Players will have difficult time with an antagonistic DM who is also less than even-handed about rule enforcement.  Some players will put up with a DM whose villains and monsters are fundamentally nasty, seeing it as a challenge, but if they perceive that the same DM is tilting the odds in favor of those monsters and villains... Watch out.

Ultimately, of course, each group and DM will fall somewhere along the spectrum.  The trick is to look for that sweet spot where most players are happy most of the time.  If players are constantly insisting that they want a "formal house rule" or saying "the rule states", consider heading down the Consistent road.  If you get more discussion like "we made a mistake in the last session about saving throws, so can I get that healing surge back", then you're working with someone who values Fair a bit more.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why I Play RPG's

Well, I finally did it.  

Chatty DM told me I could, in his excellent "So You Wanna Write and RPG Blog?" Primer:  Way to go on that, Chatty!

So I did the work (less than I expected), set up the website, and now I'm faced with the great challenge of any blogger... Content... (cue ominous classical music).

Thinking about what I had to contribute to the wide world of the RPG Blog, I hit upon something that my loved ones have known for a long time.   I read waaay too many fantasy novels.  I read em fast, too.  I can put down 3-5 full-length paperbacks a week.  Obviously, this rate of consumption is not financially sustainable, so it's usually more like 1-2, often second-hand or from the library.

What this means, though, is that I have accumulated a vast storehouse of fantasy plots, characters, scenarios and other associated goodness that I'd love to share with the good gaming public out there.

That being said, I thought I'd talk about the real reason I started gaming.  It was, unsurprisingly, a book.  Not a novel, though.  I was about 7 or 8 and I got a picture book that basically consisted of a party of adventurers going down into a dungeon and eventually fighting Demogorgon - anybody remember him?  Two-headed, tentacle-armed demon.  In any event, I read this thing about 50 times, and wanted more.  Lots more.  Next year I moved and some kids in the neighborhood were playing DnD and that was that.  The first module we played was Blizzard Pass.  My elf got eaten by a rat in a pit.  It was awesome.

Ultimately, though, it was Tolkien who really hooked me into gaming.  The Hobbit was pretty good, but I read the Lord of the Rings on a cross-Canada road trip a few years later and I was forever lost.   The line from the Hobbit that I used for the title of the blog has always summed up the experience I'm looking for in gaming.  

"Over the Misty Mountains Cold, through dungeons deep and caverns old, we must away 'ere break of day, to seek our long-forgotten gold."  

Heck yeah - if I can instill that much flavour into a game experience, I'm doing my job as a DM.  History, exploration, danger, the thrill of discovering the new, or re-discovering the old...  That's what I call the good stuff.

What about you folks out there?  What brought you to role-playing, and ultimately, what kept you at it?