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!


Stand Up Like a PC and Play Your Character

I know this is a blog about D&D crunch, but it’s so hard to play the game every week and not expound on what I consider an integral part of the game. But this is Rules As UNWritten, so there’ll definitely be some crunchy cookies here at the end. If you can’t wait til the end, there’s a sample of the Personality Boons below, and you can click here for a pdf of all the cards to use in your game immediately! If you just want to see them all on their dedicated page, go here.

Personality Boons: Give them out when players typify their characters in great role playing scenes

First things first, for all you players out there: Play your freaking character. And I’m not talking about showing up with a pencil, character sheet and dice on the table, taking role appropriate actions and pulling your weight in the challenges. Don’t play the character on the sheet, play the character in the world. I’m talking about personality and how you can technically have a character on paper but a vacuous representation of them in the game world. Don’t do this people, you’ve got a great opportunity to have fun here, so never forget walk in their shoes and talk with their motivations.

You have look at your character and ask yourself what makes them different from every other character. It’s really important, not just for your enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of everyone else at the table. If another PC has an elaborate character, they’re not only having fun painting the game a different color, but they’re sending you a message to step up your game and make something out of your robotic expected “hero.” You can have a strong and charismatic paladin, but you don’t have to be a knight in shining armor. Nor do you have to be the extreme opposite just so you feel like it’s completely different. There are so many shades of grey in character development that can be extremely interesting and fulfilling, so find what makes them unique and make it happen at the table! But if you have a hard time doing this, and I can understand if you do, there are a couple guidelines below to help make your character more rewarding.

Guidelines for Players

  1. Five Words: Give your character five words to describe her demeanor, personality and perspective on life. Put those five words on your character sheet, reference them often and play them out.
  2. Need Help? Look At Your Build: If you don’t know how to identify your character, it’s all right there in front of you. Your character is defined by all the choices you make every time you level. Oh, you took Toughness? No, he didn’t just wake up and have a thicker neck. Announce to the group that your character has been eating a lot more and doing push-ups after every extended rest. “That’s it,” he’s says, “if we’re going to keep getting into these fights, I’m gonna beef up the ole sack of potatoes.” Have him stretching his neck while the rogue is searching for traps. Have him constantly eating jerky right after a battle. Have him dance on his feet to keep his muscles warm right after a short rest. See, you took a feat and made it a character trait. It’s easy.
  3. One Character Trait Per Game: Sure, you could say he’s a funny guy because he has a high charisma. Come on man, push it further. If you really want to play a character who is humorous, don’t say it, show it. Come to every game with a joke. Do it, it’s your homework. It’s not hard, it’s a simple character trait, so don’t just say he’s funny, make him funny.
  4. One Development Per Level: At the beginning of each level, look at a part of your character’s history, identity or relationships and choose to develop one thing about them. Just one thing. It’s more difficult than you think. Take that one small part of your character and change it slowly so it is different by the end of the level.
  5. Remember Those Five Words? Change Them: Great characters never stay the same. You don’t have to change all five words actually, you get to keep the ones you just can’t live without, the ones that DEFINE your character. But the others? Change them. Develop them. Over time your holier-than-thou perfect paladin begins to doubt herself. Over time your I’d-do-anything-for-money gangster rogue begins to grow a heart.

Follow these guidelines for some serious fun with your character. They’ll feel brand new; they’ll have dimension and substance that you can really put your finger on. You’ll feel more like your character is a real person, but the best part about role playing like this is that it’s contagious. Because it’s really hard to role play a character by yourself, you’ll confront their characters with a rich personality, and hopefully then they’ll want to distinguish their characters from yours, and it spirals into what is known as fun. I therefore have one more guideline to add to the list above:

  • Help Your Party Members Develop Their Own Characters: Do you see that warlock struggling with the weight of her dark patron? Don’t just stand there rogue-without-a-heart! You could give her a shoulder to lean on while working on your character’s own struggles with companionship, or drive her to reject the chains of coward patron entities that won’t show their faces to drive home your character’s immovable personality. There are so many options, but most importantly, remember to help the other character get closer to a resolution with the quality they’re trying to refine.

For the Dungeon Master

You’re not getting off free at all here. Just because you’re not the one running the characters doesn’t mean you get to sit idly by while they do all the heavy lifting. On the contrary in fact, your job could be the hardest. Number one, the thing that contributes most to a lack of role playing at the table is inspiration. The players can get stifled or shy and your job is to make it as easy as possible, to light the tiniest of sparks at the feet of the players. A lot of players actually need some lighter fluid, a stack of kindling and a blowtorch to get the inspiration moving, but start small with any stimulus you offer so that they can feel like they own the character that much more when they do get to developing them.

This is all more like advice and less like real crunch, so below I present some tangible tools for the Dungeon Master to help dig out those character personalities.

Personality Boons

To download the pdf of all Personality Boons that you can cut into cards and use in your own games click here. You can also see all the boons on its dedicated page here. Here’s how they work:

  • Hand out Personality Boons when players…
    • show off the qualities that make their characters distinct
    • make a strong effort to develop their character
    • role play a particularly great interchange with other PCs or NPCs
  • Choose the most appropriate trait from the bank of cards. Every possible trait may not be in there, but something close to the character’s disposition will still provide a reward.
  • Avoid handing out too many Personality Boons, the benefits should be encouraging but not expected. A good measure is one boon per session.

The idea with Personality Boons is to foster good role playing, not to hand out a lot of random bonuses, so consider carefully when you choose to hand out these awards. These are a great alternative to the recently introduced Fortune Cards, but in my opinion better as they do not simply supply players with a stack of chance perks, they promote the identity and growth of the characters’ personalities at the table.

It’s worth noting that even though some of the Personality Boons may seem to have a negative connotation, all of them provide a benefit of some kind. If a player seems uneasy with the fact that they are rewarded with a quality that they find unsavory or doesn’t depict them in a clear light, let them know that it’s a great opportunity to see how others perceive them and they can choose to play their character differently in the future. And that there’s nothing wrong with playing a character with less than moral motivations, so long as the game still functions cooperatively and everyone is having fun. Remind them that great characters never stay the same, and perhaps this is part of their character’s journey. They could also choose to embrace the quality they’ve been acknowledged for (especially if they like the boon that comes along with it), and that too can help develop their character.

I hope you get a chance to flip through these little morsels and use them in your game. They’re great for ice breaking new groups and reinvigorating old characters with their classic eccentricities. Enjoy!

Laboratory: The Right Tool for the Job

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.

Engineers of Fantasy

The Artificer in 4e D&D has a penchant for looking like a mechanic in their traditional depictions. They can be anything you want them to be, hence the beauty of the game, but they get that persona for a reason, because their magic focuses on items, things, knick-knacks, and the manipulation of them all. Bombs, poisons, grenades, glues, tonics, solutions, gases, ointments, and machines of all kinds are loaded on their backs, belt, across their shoulders and in their boots. The Artificer is stacked. At least in depiction. But that’s because they’re also associated with Alchemy, and Alchemy involves the crafting of a variety of *things*. But what do those *things* do? Why is having all those things comparable to having a sturdy sword and shield?

The reason is that, although it is arguable that the sword is perhaps one of the most productive tools ever invented, it is still just a single tool; it’s function is limited. The many powers in D&D 4e open up the limitations of that sword, but the game does attempt to keep their functions somewhat in the spirit of the weapons and implements that we use. That’s not always true of course, there are many powers that are outside the normal purview of a class’s role (Blinding Barrage, for instance). I’m actually quite fascinated by how we can make the mechanics of the game manifest into unique action sequences or solutions to problems. I get inspired when a hero uses a tool for a purpose other than the main intent of its design. It’s when Korben Dallas saws through the cement flooring around Ruby Rhod above him with a machine gun enough to make him crash through that flooring to the lower level. It’s Luke focusing the snowspeeder tow cables around the legs of the AT-ATs to bring them tumbling down despite their impenetrable armor. I won’t get started on the master of his tools, Indiana Jones, or the master of all tools, Jackie Chan. The heroism—the intellect—isn’t in their equipment, it’s in how they use them.

Then Alchemy is Just for Filling in the Gaps?

WotC’s preliminary material for Alchemical formulae and items is mostly just a few bombs and some weak skill and healing trinkets. In those few items though, their overall purpose is highlighted: they cover and support responsibilities of a variety of roles. Bombs like Alchemist’s Fire are generally considered the duty of controllers. Woundpatch boosts the hit points gained when spending a healing surge, something that definitely fits in the leader role’s repertoire. Alchemist’s Acid is single target for acid damage and additional ongoing acid damage, and that definitely looks like a basic striker tactic. So if a party is lacking in any department, Alchemy can help support those needs.

But as time has passed, a ton more options have been released. There are many more powers, class features, magic items, feats, even henchmen have been introduced to help fill “gaps” in a party’s makeup. They’ve even retooled the constraints of racial ability scores so that characters can be more versatile. These are all good things that have evolved in my opinion, but the filling out of the role responsibilities means that filling gaps isn’t as necessary as it used to be. Alchemy becomes just another cute thing to play with instead of being a valuable resource. And those two words mean a lot to a lot of players: not only do players want to be awesome at what they do, they want to feel needed in their adventuring party. They want to be a valuable resource.

Alchemy Can Be a Valuable Resource

When Alchemy was considered a valuable resource, it was therefore also considered in demand, and thereby limited, or expensive. Alchemy doesn’t seem to be in such high demand anymore, now that there are many more options, at less cost in resources, for the player. But this blog isn’t all about griping and the recent history of 4e D&D. It’s about solutions. What can Alchemy do now since coming across a “bomb” power, or more support for healing, or an extra marking feature once here and there isn’t so hard to come by? Well, for one, we can stop thinking of Alchemy as a filler, and start considering its versatility as it’s primary asset. I don’t want to play a character that fills gaps in a group, who wants to be second-best at everything? I want to play a character who can do what all the rest of the party can do, but I can do it whenever I want. It’s expensive, and takes quite a bit of preparation, but I’ve got the right tool for any job and you’ve got yourself a jack of all trades. Now I’m a renaissance man MacGuyver who you can always look to when things in a battle start to get hairy, when everyone is out of immobilization powers, or someone needs to be sequestered from the thick of things. And being looked to, and solving those combat sticky wickets, is what will make me feel like a valuable resource.

New Formula

For this Laboratory I’m going to feature a home brewed item that doesn’t so much as fill in the gap of a lacking role, but help solve a specific kind of threat. There are a ton of threats in the game, but each of them has a weakness. Exploiting that weakness should be the touchstone of Alchemy. Alchemical items should be the right tools for the job. They’re few and far between, and expensive as hell, but if you’ve got them, you’ll be happy you did.

The threat I chose to engage is the brute monster. Now, that’s rather broad, but the brute, in general, is capable of doling out a lot of damage and taking a lot of damage. A sword is a good tool for the job, but I happen to think that this one is even better. I present, the Backbiter.