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

Idea: Mini Sandbox

(and a few adventure hooks)

If you’re a DM that likes a modicum of control over a campaign but your players enjoy having plenty of choices that can affect the game, consider bridging the two with a Mini Sandbox. A Dungeon Master can create an “Invisible Railroad” for the plot, as described recently by Chris Sims in Dragon Magazine, but still lay down a framework of switches which give the players choices that may affect the outcome of an adventure. To take the metaphor further, for every railroad there can be a junction.

I call it a Mini Sandbox because your overall campaign can run how you like, guided like a railroad or one great big sandbox, but this little technique can fit in all. The Mini Sandbox can be as small as a single encounter or skill challenge, or as large as an entire level’s adventure, so everything here is versatile.


To begin with, take a part of your adventure and surround it somehow, physically or otherwise, so the players feel as if they have entered a space that isn’t necessarily affected by the rest of the world. At the root of classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures, this is known as a dungeon. It doesn’t have to be an abandoned haunted mine or the lair of a red dragon, it can be outdoors, in the sky, or even in a space that isn’t physical at all. Some examples:

  • A banderhobb has manipulated the sleeping PCs into dreamscape that it has woven. The characters all wake in a world that isn’t a part of reality, but they can affect it in certain ways and must use their wits to escape.
  • A wizard shrinks all of the PCs to the size of chickpeas, and drops them in his terrarium filled with fly traps and ants.
  • A rakshasa noble has a notorious garden maze that surrounds his estate where he is said to spend many hours crafting his schemes and weaving his rituals.
  • To get to the floating city, the PCs must be transported by a gigantic flying barge that ships everything from crates of gold to crates of prisoners.


The next thing the Players will need is motivation while within the Mini Sandbox. Most likely they will have a motivation already determined by your plot, but part of the point of the Mini Sandbox is to offer a secondary objective. You could use the goal of a side quest to trail the characters through, but you could also present to them with an opportunity that had not been brought up before.

Using one of the examples above for instance, let’s say before the PCs went on their adventure to slay the rakshasa for the king they were presented with a side quest from an esteemed NPC to save the city’s captive daughters the rakshasa has taken. This is a side quest, and while the PCs are within the garden maze, you could bait the characters with female cries for help, motivating them to not only get through the maze to the rakshasa’s estate, but to explore the maze immediately so they could save the daughters. However, if there is no side quest involved you can also motivate the players by putting a spin on the final encounter with the rakshasa. Giving them a small bait while they are within the maze that because the rakshasa spends so much time in his garden there are indications that within there may be ways to reveal weaknesses he might have. The players then have a choice: explore the Mini Sandbox for a leg up on the final battle, or push through and take their chances with the big bad evil guy a la carte.

In short, if the goal is simply to get out of the Mini Sandbox, then it is reduced to an obstacle course. That can be fun in and of itself, but if there is an element of advantage for the characters while they are within the Mini Sandbox, they will not only be willing to explore it, but they’ll find it connects to the overall adventure and that offers an opportunity to tell a better story.


Just like any good game there has to be an interesting level of risk vs reward. You want the players to explore the Mini Sandbox, but it should include some element of risk. When you put dangers in a Mini Sandbox you are telling the players not to explore; when you put rewards in the Mini Sandbox you force them to ask whether exploring is worth it. You want to make it worth it, so the pressure should be light enough to keep the Mini Sandbox from being a death trap (or from overshadowing the showdown at the end of the adventure), but significant enough to bring out some thrill in the game.

Essentially, you want the players to pose to themselves a question: “While we’re here, what can we gain?” The ‘while we’re here’ bit is important because you’ve presented a scenario that forces the players to be idle alongside the trail that takes them to the plot’s resolution. Being idle in D&D is boring and is usually skipped, as it should be, but if you add a little bit of danger to the idleness, you can make for an interesting adventure. That danger must come with reward however, and thus, pressure ensues.

As an example I’ll use the gigantic flying barge en route to the floating city. While on the barge, the characters are simply traveling. They’re idle. Drop a little rumor about how the big flying freight ship has a covey of were-gulls nesting in the walls of the hull that have pilfered from the cargo over the years. The PCs go exploring and finding traces of the strange creatures they can follow. The crew might reveal that the captain has brokered a deal with the creatures a cut of cargo for protection of the ship. Searching around a bit for these creatures, they might find some log books in one of quarters that indicates crew members disappearing. A secret door leading into the walls of the hull, they’re met with the were-gulls and a few pet protectors they keep. They indeed find treasure in their nests, but after adventuring for more they find something else in their hidden roosts: desiccated humanoids in sailor garments. At this point the players have a choice of exploring more, risking dangerous encounters for more magic item treasures, taking the bodies back and confronting the captain, or any manner of exploration you can provide in the secret compartments of the boat. Maybe they stir an uprising from crew, maybe they find the dead crew members were actually criminal stowaways, maybe they uncover these creatures coat their feathers with residuum—anything that keeps the risk of danger at level with some form of reward, but only if they choose to explore further.

That’s the concept behind the Mini Sandbox: it’s an invitation to players to choose their adventure, alongside the main adventure.


The Mini Sandbox can still offer a connection to main adventure however, and with many groups this is something quite necessary. Many players feel like anything that isn’t a direct path to resolving the plot is a distraction and not an optimized path. If you want to use the Mini Sandbox for those kinds of players, you may have to trap them. But don’t ignore their needs, you can thread in the aspects of the contained area to the overall story quite easily.

I’ll take another example above to illustrate how the Mini Sandbox can weave a separated space into an overall plot:

When the players are shrunk into chickpea-sized adventurers and tossed into the wizard’s terrarium, they’re met with a Mini Sandbox where they can explore. The motivation is of course to regain their size and get out of the box, but we’re going to want something more. The first thing they do is avoid the giant fly trap plant they’ve landed next to, but let them notice that it has recently caught an ant that is slowly digesting in the plants jaws. If the PCs explore the carcass, you can reveal (through a series of skill checks perhaps) that it isn’t an ant after all, but ankheg that has been shrunken down to a miniature size, just like them. After that, you can put some pressure on them by staging an army of ankegs coming for them, perhaps a skill challenge to avoid them, and climaxing with a skirmish. When the PCs are resting, they hear a voice and explore what they think is a cave to find it. Within the cave they find a gnome NPC with a pick ax who is shuddering at a white wall he’s seemed to discover in the cave. The PCs introduce themselves and the gnome reveals he’s been surviving in this ant hill for many days, carving his way to secret nooks for protection, but now he’s discovered this roadblock. Another series of skill checks reveals the white wall is actually a life-sized pearl that is buried in the soil of the terrarium, and that it is actually a Pearl of Power. Little use to the miniature sized PCs, but a great treasure piece should they escape, they leave the pearl alone for now. The gnome says that the wizard punished one of his goons by shrinking them just yesterday, but when the punishment was through, he took the goon out of the terrarium and cast the magic words upon him to return him to his normal size. The gnome wrote the words down but doesn’t know how to use that kind of magic—and even worse, he dropped the notation when he saw a gigantic lizard on the other side of the box. The PCs are sure they can break the shrinking spell if they had the words, so they explore further to find the lizard’s lair. On the way however they come to a part in the caves where the soil meets the glass walls. Outside the glass they can see the gigantic wizard’s goons walking around a table working on some sort of model. With a few skill checks they may find that the model is a tiny replica of their hometown city. All of the sudden, the evil wizard’s motivations have gone from experimentation on ankhegs, to punishing people with shrinking magic, to a plot to shrink an entire city for whatever nefarious reasons.

You can expect the remainder of this Mini Sandbox leading to them tracking down the lizard, slaying or placating it to grab the dropped magical notation, and decrypting the words to break the shrinking spell on them. All this with more vengeance for the wizard who shrunk them because they want to thwart his plans to enslave their entire hometown into miniature pets for his evil delight. You’ve got a combat, skill usage, a helpful NPC, some challenges, some plot, and even a treasure parcel to boot. This, and you didn’t have to lay a series of underground (life-sized) tunnels and rooms leading to your BBEG that your players have all seen before.

It’s worth noting however, there was little choice for the players in this scenario; without the magic words they couldn’t be returned to their normal size, so that hook was pretty much a rail. This example was more about the Mini Sandbox being a device to reveal part of the plot and not necessarily about providing tons of avenues to discover.

It should be noted that a lot of these discoveries, dangers and rewards in the Mini Sandbox can be shuffled around just like a sandbox should. The characters may find the desiccated bodies before they find the ledger with missing crew members. They may find the lizard and the notation with the magic words before they find the gnome. Some of these clues might be more enticing, more leading than others, so be sure to sprinkle a little bit of bait at each phase of exploration.

The Mini Sandbox is just like a big sandbox adventure, but allows you to use it in conjunction with whatever other style of play you’re using in your campaign. It’s a great way to try out a more open style if you’ve never done it before and it’s a great way to give the players a little feeling of control over the game without having to prepare for everything possible they could do. I know I’d rather prepare a list of 10 things the characters might do in a contained setting than 100 things they could possibly do in the whole campaign world at large.

How do you run your games? Could you use a contained Mini Sandbox in it?

Traps, Hazards and Terrain: Complexity

Keep it Hidden

One of the things that makes a trap a trap, and not just a hazard, special terrain or just an avoidable mechanism is the fact that it is hidden. Hidden, however, can mean a lot of different things, and although one might consider something like quicksand to be terrain or a hazard just because it is physically made of earth, I would venture to say that the entire purpose of it being different from normal sand is that you didn’t know it was quicksand when you stepped into it. Thereby, trapping you.

The concept of being hidden is something I’ve had to embrace when designing traps since 4e came out because traps aren’t really considered important (read: fun) outside of combat any longer. A trap on a door that sprays acid on the unlucky PC with the thief’s tools is no longer considered as integral to the game as it used to be. There’s probably a good reason for that, that’s a topic for another post, but it’s clear that traps within the context of combat encounters are where they are most integrated with the game in 4e. They can make a battle more challenging without the expected addition of even more monsters, but they can also add a twist or unique setting to an otherwise dull environment.

That twist always boils down to a trap being, in some way, hidden on the playing field. But the pressure plate that triggers a barrage of poisonous needles is a little bland for you more seasoned players out there. You DMs can make the DCs as high as you want, and sure, catch the PCs every now and then with your futile volley of venom, but in the end, it’s a little boring. It can surely be appreciated as old school, but we’ve got to come up with some new material.

Add a Dash of Something Unexpected

To make this new material, or to spruce up the material that we already have, we need to add a dash of complexity to our devious mechanisms. Especially at higher levels it becomes difficult to believe that powerful and magical creatures like mind flayers, githyanki, rakshasas and efreeti are using simple flame jets and rolling boulders. The complexity of a trap can be the veil, the trigger and the capture, while also continuing to challenge the PCs during the course of an entire combat. The key to designing these kinds of traps however is to make them a bit more screened from your players, but easy for you to adjudicate.

Complexity doesn’t need to mean that it is more complicated however! Complexity to a trap just means that an added element to a mechanism can throw off even a wary PC for one or two rounds longer, providing a little extra mischief and hopefully a little extra fun.

A Few Tips for Sprucing Up Your Traps

  • Don’t hide your traps, disguise your traps: Got a tripwire trap that you want to use? Bring a little danger into the mix by filling a room full of tripwires. Only you know which squares are the trapped ones.
  • Anticipation of danger is worse than danger itself: You put a hidden boulder hanging from a chain in the center of a room that the PCs must pass through, and the fun is they might get crushed. But put four clearly visible boulders hanging from chains in that same room and indicate that some of them might be trapped, and you’ve got even more fun watching the PCs waiting to be crushed.
  • Go for the “I don’t get it” response: There’s a beginning, middle and end to every trap, just like a good story. The PCs see the bait, they experience the switch, they escape danger. With a little complexity you can intensify each of those steps. If you’ve got a metal claw trap on a pedestal with a clear range of danger, place a magical gold ring hovering just out of that claw trap’s range and wait for the response. (silly PCs, the RING is the trap!)
  • Red herrings: Normally red herrings in the plot of your D&D campaign is not advised because PCs make their own false leads and yours gums up the flow. The trap is a short story however and you can get away with these here. “There’s clearly a pit trap in the middle of the room…but why are the walls painted red?” No reason, just an evil wizard messing with them. Let them wonder, that’s half the fun.
  • Better yet, separate the clues: If the red herring idea still gums up your player’s reactions, consider placing dungeon/adventure clues alongside your traps. The tree stump has 12 stacks of 4 platinum pieces each upon it, and the rogue detects a thin wire running underneath some of the coins. What the players don’t know is that all the coins are trapped, they’re just piled up that way because the redcap owners are superstitious about keeping their treasure in odd quantities. (Don’t be afraid to accept an Arcana or History check from a character to determine what’s going on with the stacks, remember to reward them for ferreting out the clues.)
  • Don’t be stingy and don’t hold back: Don’t just use a poison dart trap in that hall, use another trap on top of that one that causes poison vulnerability. It’s one thing to be trapped in a garbage compactor with a dianoga lurking around your feet, but it’s another thing when the walls start compressing in.

New Traps

These two suckers are a bit more complex than you’ll find in any Essentials guidebook, but in my opinion that’s what gives them appeal. The traps written in a lot of the core guides are simple, true, and although they may be easier to use, they just play out like obstacles. There’s a difference between obstacles and an obstacle course. That difference is fun, and only a little sliver of complexity can make the distinction.

Dragging Statues
Hags, medusas, fey and aberrant creatures can make good use of this trap for their lairs. After carving, buying, or petrifying creatures into statues, a bit of enchantment on a few in the area can delay and harass intruders even to the point of death. In any case, they’re disoriented, separated, and ready for the lair’s guardians when they arrive. Don’t be afraid to place the four allotted statues amongst four other statues in a lair (using one of the tips above) to further add the excitement of anticipation to this trap.

Opportune Ring
It’s a trap, it’s a magic item, it’s a cursed magic Item! With all the new material out for Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, curses and cursed items have been a hot topic. Though I’m itching to give these new items a critical review, I was inspired to mix things up a bit in trap design by baiting players with boons while they are adventuring. An extra action point is nice little prospect, but a group that can’t reach the extra level of knowledge might fall quickly into the ring’s trap. In this different kind of instance, you can even put in a little extra risk in the trap that continues on throughout the day, and even days after.

I hope you’ll test these traps out and enjoy the extra level of complexity that makes them something your players will enjoy rather than furrow their brows. We’d love to hear any reaction to this bundle of crunch, so chime in if you’d like.

Laboratory: Paragon 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.

As I eagerly await the release of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium, I want to continue feeding the gaming atmosphere with little objects that are useful. This is a perfect opportunity to drop a few more items I’ve been working on in my series about alchemy. One of the things I’ve heard about the book so far however is that there is an emphasis on lower level tiered items, as well as common to even mundane things to spend your cashola on. All good things for sure, but it got me thinking more about how Alchemy is often overlooked in the higher tiers.

Paragon Options, Kinda Absent

I’m very fortunate to play a character that’s made it far enough to break the heroic/paragon plane. My character will be 11th level in a few weeks, and though I certainly won’t bore you with the details of him, I will inform you that I’m, as you might expect, going further down the alchemist rabbit hole. I’ll be taking the Alchemist Savant Paragon Path from the Eberron Player’s Guide. You can read a summary of benefits here, but mostly I want to note the Alchemical Innovator feature. Now, you don’t need this PP to learn or make items from formulas at a higher level, this feature merely gives you a few for free. So it got me thinking…what options are there at higher levels? What formulas are a cut above the formulas offered in the heroic tier?

The highest level formula I can find out there is for Deathcap Spores, a 12th level formula which, by the way, came out in Dragon 370 and has no scaling options for creating items of higher level than 12th. I fully realize I can make a 28th level Tethercord at higher levels, but that formula was available at level 3. At what point do you reach a level where the formulas themselves are more powerful? What makes learning Deathcap Spores more difficult to master than the Tethercord?

Accessing more powerful conditions and advantages, that’s what. Not only does it create a pace for all three tiers (look how rings aren’t really going to enter the game’s treasure parcels until early to mid paragon), but it keeps things interesting. An alchemical bomb is pretty interesting to you at a lower level tier, especially if you don’t have a Scorching Burst like power or powers with a damage type. Those effects become much more common at paragon, so alchemy has to up the ante. In terms of flavor, are there not alchemists in the Far Realm, the Astral Sea and the Elemental Chaos concocting deadly or bolstering items out of their rare and otherworldly chemicals and machinery? Stopping a raid from githyanki pirates or a horde or demons is certainly going to take more than a few Thunderstones, even if they have the bonuses that might actually bypass those creatures’ defenses.

Keep It Interesting

One of the things I discuss in the series quite a bit is the versatility of alchemy. For some reason, as originally written a lot of alchemical items seem like simple bombs or poisons, and the ones that were designed outside of those categories were rather dull. At higher tiers, the items can get a wee bit more interesting, allowing for options that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.

The versatility you have with a Beastbane item at level 4 is helpful since you most likely don’t have an option like that at that level in your regular repertoire. At higher levels though, every player at the table has a paragon path, they each have 5–8 magic items, character themes, and a host of powers and feats that make the team ready for anything. Learning formulas at higher levels still requires time and money, so in turn they should provide new options, more versatility, and more power. Alchemical items are not just bombs. When you become the hero of a kingdom and your experience begins stacking up, a fire bomb will come in handy every now and then, but it’s just not going to cut the mustard for saving a country or uniting the world. Those are paragon tasks, so you’re going to need something a bit more impressive. So I’ve devised some higher level options for you experienced alchemists out there who are looking for something other than a little Tanglefoot Bag or Lockbust Chalk to stuff your pockets.

New Items

The Suspending Mire uses an effect that I’ve never seen in the game as of yet, so to be completely honest it is not really tested. I can’t imagine it is overpowered though, just really handy in certain situations. With no damage component, and a steep cost that comes with a chance to miss, keeping a single monster busy, without stunning or dazing them, might be something up your sleeve that no other character at the table has.

As I continue playing and DMing in paragon games I am realizing how something like the Aura Shield could make a player very happy to shed all effects caused by auras even if for a single round. Auras are a key to most elites, controllers and solos, so having access to this concept too early in the span of levels might be an escape pattern you don’t want your players to have. At a late level 15, you can expect to see Aura Shields cropping up several levels thereafter in the pouches of characters who aren’t even alchemists. The reason is that there is no scaling to hit bonus, the close burst 1 zone is automatic, and at the small cost of a minor action, this little item can change an entire encounter. Game changing options should be harder to achieve and more rare in the game, hence the late level formula.

I hope you take these items, install them into your game, and let me know how they run. We’re here at Rules as UNWritten to continue pumping the blogosphere with helpful crunchy morsels you can always take with you, so steal, use, and share as much as you like!

Where to Begin: the Art of the Lead-In

This is a quick idea I’ve used before and wish I used almost every combat. Now, some combats might need to be strict set pieces, especially those with adventure villains, and that’s okay, but sometimes, as a player, I’ve felt like the beginning of a battle is washed over or even arbitrary. I’m calling the idea the Lead-In.

Some published skill challenges suggest adding monsters to an upcoming battle for failure, some might even suggest reducing monsters for success. These aren’t bad ideas, but also consider allowing the characters to simply get the jump on the enemies off the bat, or having less than ideal positions when they do get to the skirmish.

The Lead-In doesn’t have to be a whole skill challenge, it can be a single skill check or group check. Whether the players are being cautious with stealth or bombastic by kicking in the door, each might provide them with a tactic that can easily be translated into a nice little cookie to give to the players to keep them invested and engrossed.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Provide a situation, challenge or opportunity for the characters that could affect an upcoming battle
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open for when players attempt to make opportunities for themselves and ride with their ideas (nothing makes a player feel better than suggesting an idea that the DM endorses)
  3. Simply come up with an appropriate skill check that makes sense for the opportunity and have the player(s) roll it
  4. If the player succeeds on the Easy DC, everything begins per normal. If they hit the Moderate DC, provide them with a small bonus, and if they hit the Hard DC provide them with a significant bonus. Leave failures out of this or keep them in more fleshed out skill challenges, there’s no need to dock your players for a little ingenuity
  5. Keep trying out new Lead-Ins before battle to stir up the creativity and get the players reved up to extend their abilities past what’s written in the Rules Compendium.

Sample Lead-In: Starting Position

Much like the surprise round, a Starting Position Lead-In can provide an advantage in terms of placement and tactics for a group who is good at sneaking, detecting or those strong on their feet. In your module or your notes, determine the starting position by picking a square at a distance from the enemies, usually between 5 and 10 squares away is typical. Set up the situation or opportunity, have the appropriate characters make their checks and then provide them with leeway on that position depending on their checks.

Skill Check:

Easy DC: Burst 1 from starting position square
Moderate DC: Burst 2 from starting position square
Hard DC: Burst 3 (or 4 or 5 for large maps) from starting position square

Skills to consider:

Perception: The players are exploring a dark and open cavern when the twittering of cave spiders begin to surround them beyond the reach of their light sources. Waiting for the right moment to pounce, the creatures are nearly silent in their movement to perfect striking positions, but your heroes are no fools and came to this dungeon just as skilled.

Stealth: The adventurers just cut down an orc search party outside of their camp where they’re to rescue a kidnapped noble. They may not be able to infiltrate the entire site to get to the target and get out, but they can at least get a jump on the first few guards at the watch points. It’s really a matter of how much distance they can close before they’re spotted.

Acrobatics: The mountain pass that leads to the ogre clan is known for being watched over by a den of wolves. It’s the gravel and rocky terrain of the area that give those wolves such an advantage over wandering prey. When the wolves finally howl out and set upon them, can the adventurers make use of the craggy rubble beneath their feet to hold up against the assault?

Where to put the players at the beginning of combat has always been one of the last things I prepare and it deserves a little more attention. Where you begin can really steer a battle, and since I don’t like to tell my players their exact positions after the map has been drawn I’ve found it’s better to just choose a square and tell them they can start in a burst 1 from that square. This gives them the choice of whether to be back, front, a little to the side or right in the middle. With the Starting Position Lead-In, you can take this one step further and offer the group an often missed opportunity to not only make good use of their skills, but make them feel more heroic when they gain a decent advantage over their enemies every once in a while.

At the root of it, Lead-Ins are like a supplement to initiative checks. Where initiative often feels like nothing more than a d20 roll to determine a rather abstract system for the order combatants take to wail on each other, Lead-Ins can provide a customized opportunity for advantage making each combat encounter a more memorable and rewarding experience.