Keep on the Borderlands, Fourth Edition

Courtney Campbell over at Hack & Slash appears to be starting a series comparing the original B/X module, Keep on the Borderlands, by Gary Gygax, to the 2e adventure, Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, by John D. Rateliff.  His thesis appears to be that, even when closely following the source material (which Return does), later adventure writers largely missed the point, and created adventures that were missing the magic of the early “Golden Age” period modules.

Well, if he thinks Return misses the mark, he really wouldn’t like the Encounters adventure, Keep on the Borderlands:  A Season of Serpents.  So in keeping with my work on this blog, I thought I riff off of what Courtney is doing and do my own comparison.

The first post in the series covers the introduction and DM advice sections of each module, so I am going to do the same here.  You should probably read Courtney’s blog post for context, because otherwise some of these comparisons won’t make sense.

Continue reading “Keep on the Borderlands, Fourth Edition”


Two Houserules

I take the position that, with perhaps one exception, it is possible to play old-school D&D in 4e using the rules as written.  However, I did grow up playing AD&D, which encouraged the creation of houserules because it was pretty much unplayable without them, so of course I can’t help but make them anyway.  Here are a couple of those rules.

Increased Recovery Time for Lost Hit Points

I’m going to start with the one exception I think is actually pretty important.  I think the healing of all damage overnight in every circumstance obviates a good deal of the resource management that is inherent in an early edition dungeon or wilderness crawl.  That is, it removes the risk of taking so much damage that the effects carry on into subsequent days, and the choices that are driven by that risk – do we need to leave the dungeon, how much will it restock while we are out healing, is it better to risk continuing at less than full strength to stop that from happening?

My personal fix for this is as follows.  When the party rests overnight, each party member rolls an Endurance check.  If they make an easy check they get one healing surge back; if they make a moderate check they get two; and if they make a hard check they get three.

This can be supplemented by a healer if one is available to tend the party instead of resting.  The healing character makes a Heal check for each character he is tending to grant additional healing surged (easy = 1 additional surge, moderate =2, hard =3).  Of course, the healer is then up all night and gets no surges or daily powers back, so it can be a sacrifice unless you have more than one healer and they can work in shifts.

I modify this by environmental factors on an ad hoc basis, so there can be bonuses if you are in a warm room in a comfortable bed with good food, and penalties if there is no food, or shelter, or heat.  Roll badly enough (ten or more under an easy check) and you can even lose healing surges from being exposed to the elements.

When you consider that a paladin probably has at least 10 healing surges, and even the most sickly wizard has at least 5 (and probably a lousy Endurance bonus), getting back only 0-3 surges per day means healing can take a few days if you don’t make other arrangements.  This also gives House Jorasco something to do in my Eberron games.

That’s still pretty quick, but then hit points work better in 4e if you think of them as a measure of fatigue rather than of actual damage.

When you are at full hit points you are fresh and full of energy.  By the time you are bloodied, you are getting tired – you are “bloodied” because attacks are starting to slip through, and you are bruised or have received some minor cuts or scrapes.

When you hit 0 hit points, that is when you are tired and have made a major mistake and get taken down.  Maybe its serious, or maybe you just got your bell rung and are out of it for a few seconds, you don’t even know until someone checks you out.  Until you get your second wind, or a warlord tells you to suck it up and get back in the game, and you draw on your reserves to pick yourself up and get back into the fight.

Which brings me to my next, optional houserule, which is barely a houserule at all, but is more like a different application of an existing mechanic.


My injury mechanic is based on the disease mechanic, so let’s talk about that first.  Certain monsters, such as a dire rat, have a chance of giving a character a disease.  When a dire rat bites a person, “At the end of the encounter, the target makes a saving throw. On a failure, the target contracts dire rat filth fever (stage 1).”

The stages of dire rat filth fever are as follows:

Stage 0: The target recovers from the disease.
Stage 1: While affected by stage 1, the target loses a healing surge.
Stage 2: While affected by stage 2, the target loses a healing surge. The target also takes a -2 penalty to AC, Fortitude, and Reflex.
Stage 3: While affected by stage 3, the target loses all healing surges and cannot regain hit points. The target also takes a -2 penalty to AC, Fortitude, and Reflex.
Check: At the end of each extended rest, the target makes an Endurance check if it is at stage 1 or 2.
7 or lower: The stage of the disease increases by one.
8-11: No Change
12 or higher: The stage of the disease decreases by one.

If a dire rate bites you, at the end of the encounter you make a saving throw.  If you fail, you have stage one filth fever.  At the end of your next extended rest, you make an Endurance check.  If you roll high, the disease goes away.  If you roll low, it gets worse, and you move to stage 2.  If you aren’t cured (stage 0), then the next day you make another Endurance check, and you keep doing that every day until you are cured (or die, depending on the disease).

Note that for most diseases, stage three is fatal.  Also note that dying from disease requires you to flub a number of rolls.  First you must be attacked.  Then you must fail a saving throw, which brings you to stage one.  Then you must fail an Endurance check, which brings you to stage 2.  Then you must fail another Endurance check, which brings you to stage 3 where you die.

That is the disease mechanic as it stands.  Now, imagine if instead of a disease, a monster could expose you to an injury.  And in order to give you such an injury it is not sufficient for the creature to hit you, but it must also bring you to 0 hit points.

Since you are at 0 hit points you have to start making death saving throws, and if you fail three death saves before you are healed or stabilized you are dead.  But under the ordinary rules if you only fail one or two saving throws there are no consequences for you.

So what I have done is use the death saving throws as a way of determining the severity of the injury.  Fail one saving throw and you have a stage 1 injury.  Fail two death saving throws and you have a stage 2 injury.  Fail three and you have a stage 3 injury.  Since failing 3 death saves would ordinarily kill you, and since a stage 3 disease often kills you, it is reasonable that in many instances a stage 3 injury can be fatal.

Note that you have the same risk of death as with a disease, because you have to fail three rolls before death occurs.  For that matter, the risk is actually smaller, since you have to be brought to 0 hit points to be “exposed” to the injury, which is less likely than just being hit.

To heal, you make Endurance checks as you would with a disease, but with no risk of it getting worse (unless you have been aggravating the injury somehow).  Since you can give any monster a disease mechanic if you wish, you can give any monster – or every monster – an injury mechanic.  So you now have a playable injury mechanic that is only slightly different from an existing mechanic.

You can also play with the mechanic.  Endurance checks for diseases are done nightly, but imagine for a stage 3 broken limb you call for a check every week, or two weeks, instead.

Consider this generic injury, based on the Deathsong disease:

Stage 0: The target recovers from the injury.
Stage 1: While affected by stage 1, the target takes a -2 penalty to skills checks and ability checks based on Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.
Stage 2: While affected by stage 2,  the target takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls, skills checks, and ability checks based on Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution. In addition, the target is dazed.
Stage 3: The target dies.
Check: At the end of each extended rest, the target makes an Endurance check if it is at stage 1 or 2.
Easy DC: No Change
Moderate DC: The stage of the injury decreases by one.

Or this injury, based on the Blinding Sickness disease, and resulting from an attack that imposes the blindness condition if it doesn’t kill the character:

Stage 0: The target recovers from the injury.
Stage 1: The target’s vision is blurred. Creatures beyond 10 squares of it have partial concealment.
Stage 2: The target’s vision is blurred. Normal squares are treated as partially concealed, and partially concealed squares are treated as totally concealed.
Stage 3: The target is blinded until cured.
Check: At the end of each hour, the target makes an Endurance check if it is at stage 1 or 2.
Easy DC: No Change
Moderate DC: The stage of the injury decreases by one.

Note we changed the check frequency.  Also note the stage 3 injury does not kill the character, but the party now has to deal with getting a blind PC out of the dungeon, and he can’t be cured until a Remove Affliction or similar ritual is cast upon him.

Injuries make for a lot of interesting choices in you game, from how to deal with an unconscious colleague, to do we continue if our archer can’t see further than 50 feet.  I have created an injury for every type of condition and damage type, and you can imagine making them for head injuries, leg injuries, and the like.  You can check out my current list here.

Encouraging Social Interaction

This started as a comment in a blog post by DM David which went a bit long. David was discussing how to encourage “role-playing”, by which he means social interactions with NPCs. I personally think you’re role-playing any time you’re making in-character decisions, but here is my advice if you want to encourage social interactions.

Basically, if you want players to talk to your NPCs, give them interesting NPCs to talk to. That does not mean caricatures or over the top personalities. It means making NPCs who are like real people with real wants and needs and fears.

I’m not a big fan of adopting funny voices or peculiar mannerisms. I find they distract the players and turn them off the characters. I just keep the character’s basic personality and motivations firmly in mind and just _talk_, sometimes in first person and sometimes in third, and describe reactions and facial expressions.

It works beautifully. I remember a session where a PC, via the player, was arguing with his mother, run by me. It was anguished and poigniant and perfect, and would not have been improved in the slightest by me putting on a falsetto and sounding like a Monty Python granny.

You can also reveal a lot about characters by describing their choices and actions. Just keep who these people are in mind, make the choices they would make, and tell the players what the NPCs are doing from time to time. Role-playing is not just the talky-talky bits, it is the choices and actions you are always taking.

For example, I once ran a campaign for a party that included 3 NPCs who were involved in a love triangle; two were involved with each other and one was left out and jealous. I didn’t plan it, it just seemed like what would happen in the circumstances.

The involved couple wasn’t broadcasting it, so I didn’t do anything overt, I just mentioned general demeanour and who was sitting next to whom and what actions they took. Eventually someone noticed that jealous dude would never heal his rival during combat. The PCs confronted him, and the whole thing came pouring out, culminating in a discussion as to whether the couple were too distracted with each other to be on watch together. It was a great payoff for just making in-character decisions, and a setup that involved no verbal interaction whatsoever.

But the point is, the players gave a crap about those NPCs because I ran them like people. Frail, fallible people. If you can develop real personalities, and keep them firmly in mind, the rest will follow.

Deconstruction: Khyber’s Harvest

khyber's harvest image
By Keith Baker
Level 2

A trek across the Shadow Marches leads weary travelers to Blackroot, a quiet village of ramshackle huts nestled among the darkwood trees. Here, orcs and humans live in peace. However, all is not well. Something evil has crawled up from below, threatening to devour the village and its denizens. Only a party of brave heroes stands in its way.

I’ve pretty much given up on reviewing the 4e issues Dungeon Magazine.  It is just too painful to read, and every review would have been the same, because the issues are nearly always the same.

Instead, I wanted to review something that was accessible and free, for anyone who wants to pick it up to see what I am talking about.  Drivethru.rpg carries two free 4e modules.  One is Keep on the Shadowfell, the other is Khyber’s Harvest.

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Combat Duration

Third session with my 7 year old child.  He is running three characters, and his math skills are still developing.  I never do the math for him, but we do try a number of different strategies to help him figure out the answers.  It can take quite a while if the answer runs up into the twenties.

Including listening at the door (which he does every time) and checking the door for traps (which he does every time since the first time he got caught in a trap), clearing a room of monsters takes about an hour.

I often read people who tried 4e and didn’t like it complaining about combats taking about an hour.  Assuming their math skills are better than my kid’s, I really have to wonder where the time goes.

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When Not to Use Your Skill System

If a player is rolling a perception check, there is a possibility that something has already gone wrong.

In AD&D, the base chance for a first level Thief to find a trap is 20%.  The base chance to remove said trap is also 20%.  Which really used to bug me as a young player, because I couldn’t justify the incompetence of the low level Thief, particularly since it took so very long to have a halfway decent chance of doing anything.

But I now think we were doing it wrong, or at least doing it differently than had been intended.  I believe primary method of finding traps, and dealing with the potential hazards of them, was intended to be through careful investigation and deduction from the clues provided by the DM.  The find traps roll was only a safety net, a chance to find something if the players were stumped.

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Slowing it Down

I discovered a new (to me) blog with some interesting content at Against the Wicked City.  One of the posts, The long haul: time and distance in D&D, discusses the author’s desire to play the game and advance PCs on a different timescale, so that campaigns take place over the course of years of in-game time rather than days of in-game time.

I agree with pretty much all of the author’s reasons for wanting to do this. I too have wrestled with the unreality of having a first level nobody become a demigod in as little as 60 days. I have just worked on the solution at a different angle.

In fact, there were several things I was trying to work on at the same time.  I was trying to find a way to slow down levelling.  I was trying to find a way to support a game that included having castles and troops such as are granted at “name” level in 1e.  And I was trying to find a way to support player desires for character optimization using in-game PC choices.

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