Use What’s in the Book

I flip through pages and pages of magic items and I see these mechanics that are clunky or useless in the game. I get that everyone plays a different game and an item in yours might be amazing, but in mine worthless; one man’s trash, etc. My problem isn’t the variety, it’s how many items are just reinventing something that’s already a mechanic.

For instance, I find it pretty amazing that any character can use a Heal check to force an ally to take their second wind. Or they can grant them a save, or just provide them a +2 to their next saving throw. It’s built into the system already, no need for extra powers. Now, the conditions on that ability are kinda harsh: you have to be adjacent, and it’s a standard action. Eesh. Well, why isn’t there something out there to facilitate that? In all honesty, there are some things similar to this, but they all fall rather flatly. Then, of course, there is Healing Word which is twice as good as any Heal check, and clerics get that at 1st level. Not to mention the bevy of powers and feats that help grant saves or force second wind. Uh, but what if you don’t want to be a cleric, or a warlord, or you don’t have the prerequisites for that feat? It seems like with 4e’s versatility of propping up hedge classes, it would be a no brainer to start with something available to all classes and offer options to improve those options over the course of a character’s career. All of this while never quite stepping on the toes of those who are masters at such tactics.

For instance, I first envisioned a feat that would allow one to use the First Aid mechanic of Heal as a minor action. Oh wait, there’s one right here I see in the compendium…Combat Medic. Wait, stabilize the dying? That’s it? Okay, I see the +2 to Heal checks, thanks, but what I really want is to just use all faculties of the First Aid action as a minor action—stabilizing the dying happens so rarely. Why is this feat so poorly written (for me)? Can I make something that isn’t broken that serves the purpose I’m after?

The Power is in Your Hand

I actually enjoy how rings are rather inaccessible until low paragon tier. They should be the ultimate powerful items in the game, they always have been. It’s just so darn tempting to build one that is just within reach of heroic tier that doesn’t break the bank on abilities, mostly because each character gets TWO slots for rings—it’s like they MAKE you want to decorate that xmas tree.

Anyway, I was thinking about the properties of each of the item slots and how the ring really does symbolize power and magic as it rests on the end of our pointers and manipulators and feelers and clenchers. Hands are where the power is, and a ring seems to magnify that. The power is already there, in the book with rules that provide each character to make use of their skills, despite being trained or not. Any character can make a perception check, not just the ones that are trained. Any character can make a thievery check to disarm a trap or steal something from an unwary person. It’s sad to me that players, given this freedom, don’t take more chances on things they don’t have a bazillion skill points in, or that they stack themselves with items that boost their bazillion skill points by 2 more to make them unstoppable in one or two departments, literally being unable to fail a Hard DC of certain skills.

The Right Skills

I know I am not wholly innocent in proper skill use; one of my characters has Arcane Mutterings, a 2nd level utility skill power that allows him to use Arcana for any Diplomacy, Intimidate or Bluff skill once per encounter. I find that to be a unique way to twist the game’s mechanics in his favor; I have forced an enemy to surrender several times now using Arcana, and I believe (I hope) it has been for the ease of our party’s adventuring.

I’d love to see that adjustment to skill use manifest in other ways. The point here is to empower the PCs to make decisions they normally feel are too risky for an attempt, or that those decisions disarm them from the stuff they really want to do. If you wanted to be a “combat medic,” you’d be using Heal all the time, bouncing from ally to ally keeping them alive. There’s already a cap on how often you can use your Second Wind, and saving throws are dicey enough already, so this mechanic doesn’t seem broken to me.

If you had the power to not necessarily improve your odds, but make the rules that are already in the book a bit more palatable, would you? Adding a +2 to Stealth isn’t doing anything for our most powerful items in the world, it’s making the world a math game, and a math game already has its outcome determined. Try these new items on for size and let me know what you think.

Laboratory: All Consumables Should Be “Alchemy”

Welcome to the Laboratory, a series here at Rules As UNWritten solely focused on Alchemy in 4e Dungeons & Dragons. Alchemy is a cumbersome, confusing and rather unsupported subsystem in D&D, and this series aims to improve that. Check out previous posts in this series here, and as always, feel free to voice your reactions to our take on Alchemy and the new and reworked options we’re offering.

I’ve often noted that when a PC needs a specific thing to happen at a specific time, Alchemy can be that go-to guy. In 4e D&D, you don your Christmas tree of items with all their synergies and great versatility, but inevitably there’s going to be an instance or situation where you just need a bomb, or a way to pull that Vrock down from the sky, or a way to get the warlock back on her feet from 10 squares away. Generally speaking, consumables of all rotes actually serve these desperate instances, one, because you might want the benefit of teleporting like an eladrin, but you don’t want to play an eladrin (Fey Step Potion), and two, you might want to tip the scales of a certain skill in your favor once in a while, but don’t want to drop the coin down for a slotted item that is always active (Talent Shard). Alchemy comes with the benefit of versatility and low expense.

Alchemy Is More Than Chemistry

Potions, oils, elixirs, heck even feather tokens are all built on the premise that the magic they have is cool and helpful, but not something you want to be doing exclusively. They’re also rather inexpensive for the effects they provide. This is why I believe, as we approach the dawn of a new iteration of D&D, that “Alchemy” should be separate and defined from other forms of magic item making in that the category of crafting is limited to single-use, consumable items of all kinds. A potion should be “alchemy,” an elixir should be “alchemy,” and poisons should be “alchemy.”

With Wizards of the Coast pronouncing that they hope to eliminate a lot of the jargon in the next edition, this would be a welcomed streamlining of item crafting that would help make alchemy important and viable again. Some might feel that clumping magic item crafting into alchemy is disingenuous because alchemy is supposed to represent some form of mystical chemistry and less magical enchantment. They say that alchemy shouldn’t allow an effect that alters your form to appear like another creature (Elixir of Chameleon Power) because that is a magical effect, and something not achievable by science. They say that alchemy is rudimentary chemistry and basic science used as an interpretation of magic-like effects, only useful for things like like fire bombs and noxious gases.

I feel like you could certainly paint your own campaign in that light if you’d like, but I’d much prefer we scrap the pretense and remember that D&D is based on the premise of a magical world. How did Dr. Frankenstein raise his creation from the dead? Um, science. How did Peter Parker become the deft web-slinging hero of Spider-Man? Yup, science. I actually prefer to think that alchemy is just a refinement of magical and mundane materials in Dungeons & Dragons; you’re simply adding the right bit of this with the right bit of that, so that when you need it, it does its thing and then its gone. And, oh yeah, it’s relatively uncontrollable and can get you in some serious sticky situations.

If that’s the definition, then who cares if it is magic or not: it’s versatile, consumable and inexpensive. Alchemist’s Fire, Tanglefoot Bags, Potions of Heroism, and Flash Flower reagents should all be alchemy, and they should all be separate from enchanting a blade or shield with dedicated, permanent, and pricey magical abilities.

Covering Your Bases

All that said, I want to offer another item that follows those principles and opens yet another door to a budding master of concoctions (Severus Snape). In this case, I’ve noticed the repertoire of alchemical items out there is decidedly lacking in supportive materials. Healing, granting saving throws, increasing defenses, providing resistance…all these techniques are generally considered in the “leader” department, but most alchemical items tend to be debilitating, harmful or, like, they just stick things together. Useful, sometimes. But also useful is getting your rogue unstuck from an icy slowing effect so he can dart forward and stick his knife in the baddy, or freeing your wizard from a disorienting dazing effect so she can do more than sustain her well-placed vortex spell.

If versatility is going to be part of the definition for alchemical items (and consumable items in general), and I definitely believe it should be, then support utilities should be part of the arsenal as well. Considering the fact that one of the primary practitioners of alchemy is considered to be the artificer, a leader, some extra items to provide different auxiliary effects I think is warranted. And let’s face it, the Wound Patch is disgraceful.

So here is an offering of crunch that might help your alchemist, or any character in need of a little support option: the Analgesic Spur. I hope you enjoy this concoction, and whether you do or don’t, I’d love to hear your reactions to its design in the comments below!

Traps, Hazards and Terrain: Hacking

Been Gone

We’ve been awfully quiet here at Rules as Unwritten since Fingolfin and I have been working late, distracted by DndNext and actually trying out new things in side games. That part in the middle, about the new slated edition, is one that’s probably been most of the cause for slowing down the content here. You see, we love 4e. Of course we see many things worth reexamining and course-correcting, we can’t help but be a little bummed.

But I’m over it now (a bit), because 4e is still alive and kicking, at least for me—and 5th edition will be a really great evolution I hope. I play in a weekly game, I run a bi-monthly game out of state, and I’ve even been able to sneak in a few Saturday games that have become little testing grounds to help me solidify my thoughts about what works and doesn’t work in the great game we love.

That said, we hope to bring you more content soon, but sometimes it’s hard to invest time and energy in project pieces that you now know could be irrelevant in the near future. But it’s not so terribly near that we should throw in the towel, so here’s a bit of crunch from the last game I ran that I found interesting.


Have you ever played Bioshock? This is a fantastic game, and although I think I mentioned it before when I played the first game in the series last year, I just recently picked up the sequel, and lo, it is just as good as the first in terms of game play. I have many reasons to remark on why it is such a great game (story, graphics, etc), but the relevant reason in this post is the way the game deals with traps. In the post-distopian submerged world of Rapture they built security systems to protect portions of the city in which you traverse. Since things went haywire down there, you end up facing these little bots and thwarting them is the challenge. The “treasure” that you collect is usually guarded by these machines, and the security usually translates into mini-games, which when solved open the “chest” and reward you, or when failed, bring on a wrath of machines that can slap your wrist pretty nasty.

The mini-game is just a little meter that shows up on your screen with an oscillating needle—you’re intent is to land the needle in a row of the safe areas and to avoid the danger zones that will result in a failure. This can get complex and stressful when there are baddies around shooting at you (thus part of the fun). However, the game introduces an additional level to the hack that makes it even more fun: the ability to turn the trap to your side.

Either by landing the needle in an even smaller special zone in the meter, or by collecting “auto-hack darts” and catching these little buggers with them, you can make these robots your slaves. This sets you up for some interesting situations where you can lure your enemies into zones with your allied devices, and not spend a single bullet of your own to put them down.

Stealing Their Idea

I liked the idea enough to translate it into D&D. One of my gripes with traps is that they are often ignored in combat because of their relative insignificance. I’ve always felt that their danger (either damage or control) should be considered much higher than a normal monster for the shear fact that most do not move at all, and a lot of them can be shut down with a single skill check, thus resulting in the PCs practically ignoring them. For a little twist, consider a trap like the Amber Eye to encourage more engagement with the trap. The trap itself has a means to not only shut down the constant threat it presents on the battlefield, but offers an opportunity to change it into an advantage.

Amber Eye

The Amber Eye trap is a tiny object with a coloration on one part of its surface in the likeness of an iris and pupil. After its owner spends 10 minutes programming what it should detect as enemies, the Amber Eye levitates in place at eye level as a vigilant sentry. When an enemy to the Amber Eye moves within 8 squares, it rolls for initiative and begins to pulse, potentially catching the enemy in its Burning Eye. Though an Amber Eye may seem like a perfect security device because of its longevity and devastating power, its weakness is in its ability to be tricked by others into reprogramming, potentially turning it from a trap into a piece of artillery for interlopers.

While playing Bioshock I thought of that little meter mini-game and felt it could easily be translated into a move action, allowing for a player to focus on the trap with a sacrifice of downgrading a standard action, or to pick at it round by round. The best way to turn the device against the PC’s own enemies is to not miss one of those thievery checks. However, the trap could potentially be distracted as well, if you want to remain in its reach but not get shot at. Hopefully I was able to bring in something new to the trap mechanic, while still providing the good old circumvention methods of either bashing it to bits, or sneaking around it entirely. Enjoy!

This is Your Game

Who out there has ever run a pre-generated adventure to the letter? Who has played this game without adjusting one feat, power, or spell? Even if you are out there, you are definitely in the vast minority. Why? Because D&D is built on tailoring the game to your group or to your adventure. If there is one rule to Dungeons & Dragons, it is that you make the rules.

The advent of Wizards of the Coast’s announcement yesterday about a new iteration of the Dungeons & Dragons game has spurred quite a bit of discussion. At Rules as UnWritten, we’d of course like to editorialize as much as the rest of the blogosphere, but we’re here to attempt bringing crunch with every post as well. A lot of you gamers out there discussing the new edition have a lot of good ideas already, and I’m sure you’ll handle the constant buzz well, and I truly hope the community’s voice is represented in the design of the new iteration as WotC’s play test strategy promises. For me, the heart of the announcement is that the creators realize that the game is never going to be theirs, their property. It can be a difficult business for you to 1/ sell a product that encourages the user to make the product themselves, and 2/ have that product hinge on the mind’s imagination, a resource that is only as good as the user can make it.

For me, this is brilliant. I like to have a positive outlook on it all as I am a creative type as well; I believe, even if they are indeed creating ideas, sculpting them into a form that follows rules, and then selling them to me even though I will not necessarily even use them whole cloth, I am willing to appreciate and purchase their hard imaginative work. I consider what I purchase from WotC like the first baton pass in a relay race. You’ve gotten me this far, pretty fast, you’ve given me this thing I need to win the race, but the rest is up to me.

I hope Wizards takes this realization to the next level with their next iteration of the game. No matter how they want to rebuild the “sacred cows” that are classic fundamental qualities of the game, whether spells are memorized and have a set number per day or whether they exist as encounter and daily powers, in the end, the players will do what they want. The employees for Wizards of the Coast are, and sometimes I believe unfortunately, our parents: no matter how they try to raise us, no matter what kind of wisdom, money, experience they can provide, we are going to play the game that we want.

Wizards: you might as well give us the keys to the car, because we’re going out tonight either way.

In that spirit, as we have always felt at Rules as UnWritten, we’re here to offer some crunch to your blogging diet. 4th edition isn’t dead yet, and in fact it is my hope that many of the features they developed to streamline and redefine Dungeons & Dragons get represented in this new forthcoming iteration. There’s a lot of talk out there right now about what exactly are the sacred cows that define the game intrinsically (an inspired article by Arcane Springboard comes to mind), so I could think of no better way of thematically tying the big news with my strong opinion that D&D should be your game through your choices and only merely based on a structure of rules that the creators design.

With that I present to you the Sacred Cow, a wondrous lair item that can provide some help to keep your characters centralized a specific area, something given to them in thanks for completing a quest, or perhaps something that just follows them home. I also want to encourage you to home brew your own blessing in the utility power that might be more tailored to your party members—cause after all, this is your game.

Challenges for the Upper Tiers

Don’t Settle for Post Essentials Material, Bring the Heat

I haven’t played the epic tier…yet. I’m both dreading it and psyched for it. I’ve dipped pretty substantially into paragon though, and I can say that I agree with much of the online discussion as of late that the game scales pretty poorly. There are many things that contribute to the less challenging, yet more complex game in the upper tiers, and although I’ll mention team synergy as being, in my opinion, a primary cause for such deconstruction at those levels, I can’t begin to hypothesize or remonstrate all of the agents involved.

A related reference I would like to point out is a recent article by Mike Shea at titled “The Scaling Woes of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons.” In this article, Shea suggests that if one wants to stay ahead of the curve, one really shouldn’t even step foot in the upper tiers, and even then, one should only include content from Essentials onward. While I completely agree this would reduce the stress of players outmatching monsters and challenges, it isn’t really helpful for those who are still engaged with the idea of making the upper tier challenges viable. For that, Shea has written an entire book that exemplifies his savviness in dealing with epic juggernaut characters called Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games, which I highly recommend. The thing I came away with from his article though was that surprisingly, 4e scales in such a way that makes the game effectively easier for players the higher level you are. I hadn’t thought of the system in this light before—I had always presumed I was doing something wrong as a DM in mid-paragon when I couldn’t challenge the players as much as when they were level 5. With numerous systematic examples, Shea shows how the complexity, the exponential growth, the versatility and the synergy that PCs gain in the upper tiers far outweighs the still-simplistic monsters of their level. He does, however, suggest that we wouldn’t want to see monsters that can actually perform better because we would see a stalemate at the table, prolonging battles, nullifying powers PCs are fond of, etc. I am not entirely sure I agree with this sentiment personally, though I can see that an overhaul to simplify the system is what he’s training at, and would indeed relieve the stress of an inverted level vs challenge scaling conundrum.

Another reference I would like to point out is Monte Cook’s Legends & Lore column, specifically some of his recent notions on complexity compared to level. As is a general suspicion in the D&D community, Cook seems to be asking big questions about the game in order to gather data for a future reboot of the system. A recent article by him, “A Different Way to Slice the Pie,” suggests that the game could be streamlined by aligning the complexity of rules to the level of an adventure. I am in full favor of this kind of structure as it helps categorize play style while overlapping with player experience. In many senses, this is already an attribute of the game, but the rising complexity is not necessarily exhibited from behind the screen but in the build of a player character; you don’t start a game with a newbie at higher levels because the monsters are harder or the traps are more complicated…you don’t start them at higher levels because there are too many options to consider when drawing up a character. Cook suggests that if the game is going to have a scale of complexity (which it already does through player generation), that complexity should increase across the board so that not only players gain a complicated portfolio of options at higher tiers, but the challenges they face match such sophistication.

Again, this is somewhat reflected in material that’s been designed so far (for instance, you don’t really see a creature that can petrify a player until upper heroic tier), but the power scaling begins to fall apart real fast in mid-paragon. It would be lovely if the system was built in the opposite way, where any adjustments to the challenges that need to be made are to make them more survivable, instead of adjustments to keep the players awake.

Regardless, those are my thoughts on the upper tiers of the game as I see it, and I am no fool to believe that it is a simple fix, or even if everyone out there believes the same as me. I do find that honing encounters and crafting threats is sometimes an enjoyable experience, so I see the adjustment of upper tier encounters as a challenge. Therefore, I’ve designed a few features myself that might give DMs out there a means to redeem their balors, titans, and ancient dragons.

Some Crunch for Challenging your Upper Tier Players:

First some advice and notes on the designs.

Don’t Go Total Defense. They’ve waited a long time to master Ancient Forgotten Magic or Opened the Fifth Gate of the Soul. Don’t give monsters immunity to the Fifth Gate of the Soul. But do give them a response. I had an idea once to craft resistance or immunity to all powers of a certain power source, like Spell Resistance from 3rd edition—I canceled that idea because I felt it was always nerfing and unrewarding. Instead, think about reflective damage for power sources, skill checks to bypass, or some other engaging option rather than strait up defense.

Fight Synergy with Synergy. One of the aspects of upper tier play is that PCs have so many feats and powers and items that at a certain point they realize that they can spare a few to optimize other team members instead of just themselves. This can lead to very very dangerous combinations, but it’s also something they should be rewarded for. However, PCs shouldn’t be the only creatures in the universe that have thought about working as a team. Add aspects to your monsters that make them more effective in ensemble—breaking apart that harmony can be a great goal to a combat encounter. The heroes can’t have their cake and eat it too in every combat.

They Have Amazing Power…Force Them to Use It. A staple of epic destinies is usually some form of power that returns a character from the dead. It’s hard enough to build an engaging combat that brings them to 0 hit points, but when most have the ability to reboot after such a rare instance, it’s time to pull out the stops. If your players have features that defy even the most fundamental rules, powers that put them in the seat of advantage without risk or any defined measure of limit, put them in situations that don’t just make those powers a useful utility, put them in situations that require such features.

Templates and Monster Themes. A long lost utility that DMs in 3rd edition had that were a nice little go-to for ramping up the threat was adding templates. There are similar utilities in 4e that apply blanket powers on top of your current monsters that not only add potency to their threat, but offer a great opportunity to link them into a thematic story. My regret is that Monster Themes aren’t really divided into level of threat, but they can still be used to bolster your baddies in nearly every encounter. Find or design a few thematically connecting extra powers and give them to all your creatures.

Superior Paragon Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier to keep PCs on their feet.

Superior Epic Powers:

These powers can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier to engage and challenge them more. Consider combining these powers with the paragon powers above as well.

Superior Paragon Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the paragon tier.

Superior Epic Traits:

These traits can, and should, be dropped on any standard, elite or solo monsters in the epic tier.

Brutal? Yes. Effective? Yes. As Chris Sims has advised before about challenging your epic tier players: “don’t hold back.” Each one of these powers and traits have a loop hole, and most of those loop holes involve powerful combinations or abilities players are already swinging around like Superman tosses missiles. It’s time to bring the heat. Let us know if you have a chance to use any of these, and how it goes!

Unlock Keywords

When Dungeons & Dragons 4e first arrived I was very interested in keywords. Specifically how would they play out and interact with not only the flavor of the new D&D world but also the design. I could imagine that specifically schools of magic would become much easier to define as all you would need to do is attach the associated keyword to all arcane and divine powers. Design mechanics could function around keywords with bonuses to save or resistances or defenses. On a much grander scale classes could melt away and you could take whatever power you wanted as long as it met the power source keyword requirement.

Suffice to say much of this has not happened. One of the biggest let downs has been the near complete absence of keywords for monster powers. You can tell that some of the designers saw opportunities what with there being all these floating bonus to saves versus fear effects. Can anyone tell me how many monsters actually have fear keyword associated with their powers?

To a lesser extent the designers have started implementing school of magic keywords back into wizard powers. I have missed the schools of magic quite a lot. It is pretty sad that the schools are only tied to wizard powers. You could really open some interesting and synergistic doors if all the appropriate powers had a school of magic keyword included (um bards?).

There has been a slight, albeit feeble, trend to include multiple power source keywords into the builds of different classes. Examples include the bard with martial and arcane powers as well as the more prominent and failure ridden seeker with primal and martial abilities. I could easily imagine a system of class building that revolved around defining your character’s power structure specifically through power source key words. Most likely each character would not start with a class, but instead would choose a power source to define their character going forward. You could then take a feat, similar to a multiclass feat, that would unlock other power sources for you, resulting in you being able to start making power selections from different power sources. Imagine something like this:

This way a character could end her career possibly pulling from as many power sources as she wanted. And you notice that I put in a feat bonus to hit. That is because even in my own fantasy world I am still a slave to expertise. What a travesty.

However in the current incarnation of D&D, I could see power source keywords being a nice tool for the wretched expertise feats. Sure we could just house rule a +1 to hit for everyone, but I would rather take a look at the expertise feats that exist now and consider just how absolutely horrible they are. Recently there was a release of “dual” expertise feats. These were supposed to help your bards and clerics and all other forms of dual item wielding characters that are stuck having to either take multiple feats and/or upkeep multiple items in order for all their powers to have the same to hit.

Does anyone see why I think to-hit should just be inherent? In a cooperative game why would you want any of your characters to be on unequal footing? But I digress. Here would be a sample expertise feat that uses the power source keyword:

Pretty simple and straight forward. This would facilitate all of your powers, no matter what you used as your weapon or implement. I think the expertise feats are so remedial and torturous that they need something else besides a plus to hit. I would go so far as to say that every last one of them needs to give you a bonus to hit and a skill and one other thing. Basically the +1 to hit is something that should already exist. So fundamentally you are taking an empty feat slot. Here are some jazzed up power source expertise feats:

Caravan Peddlers: The Appraiser

So your group has all this loot but they’re not sure what to do with it—especially if its in the form of a giant ivory sculpture of a behir or a cup of treant tears. It’s all valuable, but how do the characters hock it for their own means? In some cases, the DM might even restrict what kinds of magic items the players can purchase or craft themselves, or the party is way outside of any civilized area to trade in a pristine gem encrusted chalice for some much needed material components.

Enter the Caravan, a D&D device which takes the form of a pack of vagabonds traveling the world like a mini point of light adding a refreshing break from dungeon monotony or survival challenges, all whilst providing a means to do business and bartering with the characters. The Caravan can contain any number of NPCs that can be helpful (and fun) for the characters. I’ll build this as a series then, adding a new gypsy, acrobat, peddler or performer to the cavalcade each time. These little mobile merchants offer the opportunity to trade on the road first and foremost, but a savvy player might gain a bit more that the expert caravaners keep close to the chest, like sage advice, uncommon or even rare items, training in powers the characters didn’t know about, or even more mysterious boons, like fortunes, curses or rituals.

From a DM’s perspective, the Caravan is untethered and wandering all the time, so part of its brilliance is you can pop it into a adventure or keep it out at your leisure. Also consider that the Caravan is easily justified as dropping off or picking up experts from around the world at any time; the beastmaster they learned Mounted Combat from two months ago jumped off the wagon and may not be there any more when next they meet. Further, consider containing the amount of gypsies you equip in the Caravan at any one meeting—the Caravan might be fun, and lucky, but too many options and NPCs can bog down the flow of your game. Always keep it moving, just like the emcee hollers.

So here we go, the first character in a list of optional huskers to add to your game.

The Appraiser

Gems and art have sort of lost a part of their luster since previous editions. The fact of the matter is that appraisal is a skill that is so recondite that it doesn’t really fit well into the category of exciting adventure. Or does it?

The Appraiser can take an assessment of a party’s stock of artwork, jewelry and gems in order to offer an in-game benefit that they can actually use. An Appraiser, however, may not always be the most honest sort. When a DM pronounces to a group of heroes they’ve found a finely dodecahedric-cut ruby, two wax-polished brimstone onyxes, and 25 small but perfect gleaming bench-beveled cut sapphires with sterling silver inlay core-reduced with — yeah yeah yeah, they just want to know the gold piece value so they can liquidate it into funds for magic items that they actually want!

The Appraiser knows this too, and can offer the players a chance to put his talents to good use in other ways. The Appraiser isn’t necessarily out to take advantage of the PCs, but purchasing all the junk the PCs haul in could end up gaining a lot of cash for such an expert, and in the mean time, the PCs could learn something. Consider an interaction with the Appraiser more like expert advice, but only if they understand it all. Don’t think I didn’t take some tips from The Antique Road Show for this either!

If the party would like to have their wares appraised, they must first pay for the Appraiser’s services. An appropriate amount for such services would be in the neighborhood of the price of a consumable magic item of the party’s level minus 2 (if you didn’t know, a consumable item is typically one fifth of the price of a regular magic item of the same level). A party of level of 11 would then expect to pay an Appraiser 840 gp. While the Appraiser is estimating the party’s valuables, a single character can make a Dungeoneering check. The result indicates how much the character gleans from the Appraiser’s evaluations about their loot. Compare the check result with the DC in each of the Alternative Rewards listed below, giving the player the reward of the highest DC they reached.

Side Note on Dungeoneering: This check for a Caravan Peddler represents a character’s understanding of the true value in gemstones, art objects, luxury and adventuring items, as well as oddities and trade goods. Why Dungeoneering and not History or Arcana? Well, we could parse out each piece of treasure and target a specific skill that makes sense for each, but this seldom used skill seems to incorporate a panoply of things outside of the usual. Other than the direct connection to mining for precious stones and metals, Dungeoneering also encompasses knowledge of survival and of creatures from the Far Realm. Either way, it is up to the DM if they would like to honor a different skill for this check.

The Appraiser is suitable for characters from 7th to 17th level. At 17th level, the appraisal cost would be 5,000 gp, the exact amount of the boon gained by hitting the hard DC. Still, if the hard DC isn’t reached, that character would be out 4,000 gp, and that might bruise the purse, even at that level. If they don’t even make the DC of the middle item, they’d be out even more. If a character was higher than 17th level, they would be losing money no matter what the outcome (until we publish a higher level Caravan Appraiser that is!). A character of 6th level is going to have a pretty mediocre chance of even hitting the lower level item’s DC, and at 168 gp for the service, they’d still be losing out quite a bit.

The Appraiser uses an idea of fixed DCs and comparable fixed rewards instead of variable DCs that might scale better in level, therefore, tread carefully and give the players a decent explanation of the risks. In essence, a visit with the Appraiser ends up being nothing more than a gamble, but it can still provide a character with a significant advantage when they need it, especially those versed in the ways of Dungeoneering.

So, in terms of concept the players aren’t actually gaining any value on the gems or art they found in their pile of loot, per se. The check represents  more of an abstract education of something from the Appraiser, and then taking away that knowledge for use at a later time, probably in a more dire predicament. The DCs and amount the players must pay for the expert’s services should, on average, net them a little value, but cost them a little coin.

Idea: Variable Success

This past weekend I ran a weekend-long game for my friends as I have been doing every eight weeks for the past nine months. One of the hardest part of running that game is that, because we meet so infrequently but play for around 18 hours, the game might feel forced as I want to make sure I include aspects of the game that the players enjoy doing. Playing so infrequently means that they’ve been waiting a long time to try out this power or use that item—presenting them the opportunities to play with those toys is pivotal to the enjoyment factor for this kind of game.

I’m mostly talking about the adventuring part of the game like exploration, skill challenges and combat encounters. Personality, character development, setting and story are easier to knead into the game, as the players can choose to include that as much as they’d like. Opportunities for heroism on the other hand is where preparing wisely comes in. But if you set up a jungle gym for the players that is uniquely suited to all their particular powers and abilities, you might end up losing the aspect of choice and control that makes this game so great.

Choice is Important for Players

Some players like to go off book. They like to skirt a situation either intentionally or obliviously. And I can see why; it can be fun to have control over the world your character is existing in. You can’t step outside the boundaries in a video game, you can’t see behind the set in a film, you can’t ask the author about a particular character in a book. D&D offers you the ability to be given a scenario and react to the aspects of it that engage you the most. When it comes to combat and other challenges, players can sometimes surprise you in how they react to those obstacles. Presumably they want to use all their powers and items and toys to defeat the bad guys in combat, but they may also need to learn more information, or attempt to reserve their resources by subverting or skirting a challenge altogether.

I applaud these attempts, but with weekend long games I find myself having to deny off book adventuring because I’m just not prepared for a scenario where such and such battle or skill challenge doesn’t occur in the adventure. I’ve come to terms with this, and have found lots of ways to still provide players with a modicum of immersion and control over the world. I’m not afraid to allow them the opportunity to attempt sneaking around a clan of orcs instead of fighting them, I’m actually pretty decent at on-the-fly skill challenges or adjudicating creative solutions by the players. But if the idol that requires them to get into the dragon’s lair is in the possession of those orcs, they’ll have to confront them one way or another. Case in point: the orc confrontation provides the players an opportunity to use all the fun stuff they’ve been waiting eight weeks to play with, and going around them would make for an overall less enjoyable experience.

A Dash of Choice

Skill challenges are a great way to give the players an alternative to combat, but they can also just cast the combat in the light or position that they want to fight it in. This has become especially helpful for me with these long weekend games because if I have a schedule, order or timeline for the adventure to retain a balanced and rewarding experience, then skill challenges give me the opportunity to have the story be more in my court, but the story telling more in theirs.

One of the things I don’t really fully enjoy about skill challenges is how they designed them to either be a success for a failure. While preparing for this long weekend game I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the level of success or failure is what can determine the outcome of the challenge altogether. Along the way, the multiple successes your players rack up may open the door for more choices. Since players want to play with their toys (powers, items, feats, etc), but they also want to feel like their choices matter in the game world, why not put ball in their court?

If you succeed a little, the battle will be easier for you. If you succeed a lot, you can opt to circumvent the battle entirely. If you fail a little, the battle will be a little more difficult. If you fail a lot, you have very little choice in the matter.

I’m Surprised How Many Ideas My Players Have

When I ran a large scale assault on a castle with this same crowd a few sessions ago (read: 4 months ago), I was astounded how many ideas they each had to contribute to the overall skill challenge to prepare for war. Many of their ideas I hadn’t thought of at all but they were creative and unique. There’s no way you can prepare for that as a DM. Looking back at the challenge, I wish I could have just let them keep coming up with ideas to improve their situation, using skills and coming up with ideas. Unfortunately I had delicately laid out the complexity of the skill challenge, so when they reached a certain amount of successes they just didn’t have to keep trying. But it was almost as if they wanted to keep using their skills and brainstorming. It was so fun, but I had to put a damper on it for the sake of balance and time. Pfaw, why did I do that?

Skill challenges could instead be based on ‘how far you can get?’ rather than ‘can you get this far?’ Sure, there might be a level of “failure” if they don’t meet a certain difficulty threshold, but if the players can supersede that threshold, and they want to go for more, that could be a great way to offer a modicum of choice to the players through the mechanics. If the players reach only complexity 2 before they reach 3 failures, then they may have to take the result of the fail because the threshold is reaching complexity 3. If they reach complexity 3 before reaching 3 failures, however, then perhaps they have a choice to continue on with the challenge, shooting for complexity 4 or even 5. This puts the ball in the players court, and can make for an exciting twist on your challenges.


I wanted to include a hydra living in and defending a lake that the characters needed to cross because it was a great scenario that allowed opportunities for the players to use all the cool stuff that they have and do well (Water Walk ritual, good powers against solo creatures, etc). It was a great challenge for these players and would allow them to feel great in the end by defeating a classic creature, even on its own turf, so it was high on the list of things that must be included in the adventure.

But I don’t like to say it MUST go this way or that. So I developed a variable skill challenge that would put the decision of fighting the hydra in the players’ hands. It would go like this:

  • Lead up: Including several checks to outrun and outwit the unseen creature in the lake
  • Reveal: The hydra comes out of the water and blocks them off
  • Choice: With enough successes they could choose to go for a more strategic advantage on the lake, or outrun it altogether
  • Resolution: If the players get enough successes to be given the choice of fight or flight, resolve their choice.

When I built the encounter, I made a small table based on the skill challenge success and failure chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Instead of determining the complexity of the skill challenge during preparation, I decided that the characters would determine the length of the challenge by building in a Fight or Flight threshold if they reached complexity 3.

I decided that I wouldn’t show the monster until a set number of successes were made, and that would be point of decision for the characters. They should be given the opportunity to stand and fight, gain better ground for fighting, or outrun the hydra altogether.

In the end the players actually wanted to fight the beast when they hit 8 successes (complexity 3), not willing to risk a disadvantage for the prospect of escaping it unscathed altogether. But I don’t think they were deterred necessarily by the risk, I just think they wanted to see what battling a hydra was like. Either way, the challenge was presented to them, and rather than deciding beforehand that the players must defeat this hydra before moving on to the next challenge, or allowing my whim on that day to determine whether or not they could escape the hydra completely, I built a system and gave the players the choice. I get a pivotal challenge, they get a choice, and there’s good game play all around. What more can you ask for?

Common Items and Milestones

So Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium was released not long ago, and with it came many a new rare item and not so many a new common item. If you have any interest how WotC is reacting to that subject, I would point you to their community board. Now that they have thrown all this material out to the masses, it would appear that they want us to figure out how it should work. Perhaps professional sports teams will soon be calling me to play for free, but still make me pay for a seat in the stands. I digress.

I have mixed feelings about the new item rarity system that was put into place with the creation of Essentials. As a DM, I love it! As a player, I hate it! I am assuming that is a general gut reaction for most people in one of the two roles. As both a player and DM, I was really hoping that WotC might print (or again redefine) some more common items. Currently it is pretty depressing if you start a game beyond level 1 and try to find anything to suit your character. Currently available (according to the Compendium) there are 3,449 magic items in D&D 4e. Of those, 161 are common items. Ouch right? It gets more upsetting when you consider that of those 161 items, 41 of them are consumables or alchemical items.

Common In Value Not In Presence

So common that they make up less than 3% of all of the items in the game? Other than this very annoying fact, I can actually get on board with item rarity. I believe it affords a DM and players the chance to make items quest worthy and certainly a little more likely to put your life on the line for an uncommon item, let alone a rare item. Indeed, I think you can even make the goal of item creation into a potential story building effort between DM and players.

That said, one thing did take an undeniable hit from the item rarity system: milestones. Don’t get me wrong. I love action points. I would gladly do some disturbing tasks for extra action points, but with unlimited daily item usage now the only way to fly, milestones look like Pan Am (the defunct airline or soon to be cancelled tv series, take your pick).

Two Birds With One Stone

My main complaint would be bad cliches, but my second biggest complaint would be that milestones are not really that milestoney any more. There are still rings to look forward to, but you will not see one of those until paragon. That is a real shame I think. If there is something I have to give kudos to, it is the designer of rings for 4e. Great design choice. And while I understand they wanted to do something unique for rings, I do not believe this particular milestone tie-in property should be exclusive to rings.

Rings are unique enough without milestones, in that they are (or should be) a little more powerful than other items of their level and their abilities should extend beyond typical “slot roles.” In slot roles I mean how waist slots often apply to fortitude and strength while head slots focus on will and mental attributes.

I do believe that common magic items could have a milestone tie-in property to make them more appealing, yet simple enough to be even handed compared to other items. Plus since the item’s true power would not yield dividends until later milestones are achieved, I think you can balance the powers relatively well and keep it a common item. Here are some that I came up with (excuse the cheesy names, also all of these were generated with, great program check it out):

Character Creations: You Must Be My Lucky Star

There is a stargazing bard in my weekly group. The player originally conceived this character as a bard that had been thrust into a dire situation by powers beyond his control. However, he was able to survive the calamity by reaching out blindly to anyone or anything that might help him live to see another day. Unfortunately and perhaps even unbeknown to him, he made a desperate deal with a cosmic power from the Far Realm. The bard now has an ongoing pact with the Guide Star, Caiphon.

It is a great story in my opinion. I think lush back stories really help a build come to life. Most especially when you can find a synergy between the fluff and the mechanics. It is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of a build and lose sight of what inspired the character concept in the first place. On the other hand, it is also easy for a well crafted background to be stifled by a lack of support in terms of mechanics. Fortunately for this “bardlock” the world of hybrid exists.

This character creation is actually my first encounter with someone running a hybrid at my table. I have never been a fan of the multiclass system in 4e, so I was very hopeful for hybrid when I first heard about it. And while I find hybrid to be much more like what I wanted from multiclassing, hybrid classes still suffer from some serious hurdles when it comes to class abilities and feat selection. Certainly there are potent combinations that already exist, but I wonder why WotC did not expand upon unique options based on different class pairings.

Managing Roles

I think one of the greatest issues with hybrid is that it flies in the face of the role system that was incorporated in 4e. Since each class has a relatively well defined role, when you hybrid that class with another class that does not share the same role, then the results can be less than stellar (star pact pun intended). There is a huge untapped amount of content for hybrid specific feats. I believe they could get really creative with all sorts of iconic characters in mythology and modern fiction.

Look at a character like Itachi (yes I know I mentioned him before, I want to be Itachi, ok?) from Naruto, I see a wizard hybrid with a dark pact warlock (or perhaps hybrid goth with emo?). When Data from Goonies is discussing “boobie-traps,” I see rogue hybrid with artificer. And lets get real, Edward from Twilight is a total bard hybrid vampire… what a dark sad path we have just traveled down.

The point is that many of the mythological and fictional characters that inspire us to craft our heroes rarely fall into a single class. Taking little pieces here and there to help build that sexy aloof sparkling vampire is the only way its going to happen. But we are playing a game that rewards specialization. It is difficult to make a hybrid character that does one of his two roles very well. This is what I want to change, at least in the context of making the bardlock more like a leader that aids his allies with striker extra damage.

Leaders Make Allies Into Strikers

Yes, the point of hybrid is not to make the same class that you already had in one class. But I would argue that the key to hybrid is to recreate a class that has one role. In my approach to this I want to use the leader aspects of the bard and incorporate them in a manner that would highlight the fact that this hero is actually a striker. As a hybrid striker you miss out on a lot of damage, because virtually half of your powers are not keyed to work in conjunction with your striker mechanic, example in that the Warlock’s Curse only triggers with warlock powers. Conveniently the mechanic can be turned on its head to allow it to work like a leader mechanic. The key to being a leader is letting your allies shine and rewarding them for targeting who you want to take out. Knowing this we obviously have a way to key your target with the fact that every enemy of your goals can be cursed. Now we have a target of sorts for your allies to go after. We just need a reward. As I mentioned, I am trying to move towards a striker. Frequently leaders either give bonuses to damage or to hit or extra attacks as a way of harnessing the power of the group towards a common goal, which is usually to kill something. Knowing this and the fact that the hybrid warlock is missing a big chunk of DPR, I can easily rationalize a method of rewarding allies for targeting cursed enemies. Below are feats dedicated to the hybrid bard warlock. Let me know what you think. Special thanks to Versteeg the Bright for the inspiration.

Allied Pact

Ode of the Fey
Haunting Melody of the Guiding Star
Chant to the Dark Lords