Introducing Dungeons and Dragons!

I introduced my seven year old son to D&D this past weekend.  He had been aware of it for some time, and has done a couple of shared storytelling exercises, but hadn’t really been developmentally ready.

I had been thinking about running a 1e game, because I already have most of the modules and thought it would take less prep.  So I started reviewing the old rules, and realized that, with all of its subsystems and descending AC, it was actually going to be harder to run.

So ran it in 4e.  I built a bog-standard Fighter (Slayer), which can be summed up as “hits hard”, “hits even harder once per encounter”, threw him in a procedurally generated dungeon and replaced the standard monsters with minions (since he was running a single character).  I didn’t make him search his character sheet for bonuses, I just told him what to roll and what to add and away we went.

This was the first time I had played on a tabletop (rather than using a virtual tabletop) in nearly a decade, and maybe my second time ever using dungeon tiles.  It was a bit of a challenge, but teaching him the software would have been an impediment, and he needs the practice doing his own math.

It was also a lot slower, but even so, in an hour and a half he managed to clear three rooms befriend a wolf and make a kobold ally, and it didn’t really slow down even when he was making decisions for, and rolling and adding the dice for, his two new allies.  The last room saw 10 pieces on the board, with me running seven and my distractable first-time-player seven-year-old running three, and it went really quickly.  I really don’t know why people think that minor skirmishes in 4e take forever to run – unless its that in 4e adventures, there is no such thing as a minor skirmish, everything needs to be some convoluted set-piece battle with three different types of monsters, each with different mechanics.  Listen to me, 4e DMs!  Sometimes the fight is the thing, but most times the fight is the obstacle to the thing.  Simplify most of your fights, and include a few cakewalks, and you might get a lot more playing in.

One of the interesting things about the session was how determined my son was to make friends with a lot of the monsters.  It occurred to me that he is a bit conditioned to do that, since he seemed to be treating it a bit like a Pokémon episode – wander around, befriend some animal or monster, go into battle with it.  Which begs the question of why so many modern adventures are not social and do not include NPCs who are available to join the party, like Elmo and Terjon from Hommlet.  Didn’t the last 20 years of gamers grow up on Pokémon and similar vehicles?  Whatever happened to henchmen and hirelings, anyway?

Oh, and after the first couple of rooms he wanted to leave the dungeon and roam the countryside for a while, which sent me scrambling.  Apparently I will need to have a hex crawl ready for next time.

Anyway, he seemed to really enjoy it, and complained when I had to end the session to get started on supper.  I’m pretty sure we are going to play again in a couple of weeks.


Bloat by Stat Block

Consider the lowly pit trap.  It is basically a hole in the ground, covered with something.  You fall in, you get hurt.  You receive a predictable amount of damage according to the rules of your system – in 4e, that would be 1d10 damage per 10 feet fallen.  More dangerous ones have spikes which might be poisoned.

Now consider this:

Coverd Spiked Pit Trap

All that for a hole in the ground with poisoned spikes in it.  Does this format really make it easier to find information?  Do I need a stat block to tell me a character can jump over the pit?  Or that a character can push the covering into the pit?  Would I not have been able to figure that out on my own?

Worse yet, will I think to look at the not-always-appearing trap description in the stat block, when describing the scene to my players?  This is the problem with text bloat, it obfuscates rather than illuminates.

I hadn’t really thought about simplifying the stat blocks until I was looking at the random trap generator on Donjon.  I just now rolled 10 random traps, and this was number 10:

Concealed Pit (Perception DC 10 to find, Thievery DC 15 to disable, Single-shot, Melee 1, Attack +4 vs. Reflex, Damage 2d10+3 falling, 25 xp)

Do I really need more that that?  Maybe the type of lid, as discussed in certain Hack & Slash articles.  And this type of stat block also works for more complicated traps:

Prismatic Blaster (Perception DC 21 to find, Thievery DC 21 to disable, Init +2, Target 3 creatures within 10 squares; Attack +13 vs. Fortitude, Damage 2d6+5 poison and the target is slowed (save ends); Attack +13 vs. Reflex, Damage 2d6+5 and ongoing 5 fire (save ends); Attack +13 vs. Will, Damage 2d6+5 psychic and the target is stunned (save ends); 500 xp)

Does anyone not know what that does?

Its not just traps, either.  Here is a disease stat block:

Slight Filth Fever

That is at least easy to refer to.  But consider this randomly generated disease:

Phrenic Flux (Attack +4 vs. Will, Endurance DC 15 to improve, DC 10 to maintain, Effects: apathy (-2 to Cha checks, skills, and attacks), idiocy (-5 to Insight), ongoing 5 psychic damage until unconscious)

It conveys the same information in an abbreviated form and doesn’t require extensive formatting.  You can easily fit it in a keyed entry, rather than hiving it off into a “Tactics” section.  If it gets really complicated, you can have an appendix with a full stat block in the back for those questions that don’t come up often.

There could probably be some simplification for monster stat blocks, too.  Compare this,

Goblin Blackblade

to this:

Goblin Blacklade (Lurker) – Init. +7; HP 25, AC 15, F 12, R 14, W 11; SPD 6; XP 100.  Short Sword – +5 v AC; 1d6+2 damage, +1d6 w/ CA.  Reaction (A/W) – when missed by melee attack, shift 1.  Sneaky – when shifting, can swap spaces with ally of its level or lower.  Low light vision; Percep +1; Stealth +10; Thievery +10.  Speaks common, goblin.  (MM p. 136)

Particularly for wanderers, you get the information you are likely to need, and only the information you are likely to need, in a quarter of the space.  Which is all you got in the 1e adventures; there was usually more information in the Monster Manual, but you weren’t likely to need it in-session.





Awarding Experience for Treasure

One of the staples for old school play is the awarding of experience for treasure instead of for combat.  This creates a disincentive to engage in risky combat unless there is an expectation of a treasure reward, and encourages creative schemes for obtaining treasure while minimizing risk.

Now, when I was a tween and a teen playing first edition, I hated experience-for-treasure.  I thought you should gain experience for what you were doing, i.e. you got better at fighting by fighting.  It wasn’t until much, much later that I decided that (a) experience also comes from being cunning, clever and resourceful; (b) adventurers have more skills than just fighting; and (c) the benefits of incentivizing certain types of behavior for certain types of play outweighs any reduction in realism.

The irony is that experience-for-treasure was dropped in later editions at the same time that skill systems and other out-of-combat options (like fourth edition rituals) entered the game.  Experience primarily from combat began to be less and less realistic as PCs gained the ability to improve in actions taken outside of combat.

Fourth edition D&D isn’t set up on the experience-for-treasure model.  Instead experience is awarded, partly from skill challenges and completing quests, but primarily from combat.  If you dislike skill challenges (and a lot of people do) then experience comes almost exclusively from combat.

However, in fourth edition experience and treasure do track, with an expectation that a predictable amount of treasure will be obtained over the course of a level.  As a result, it is almost trivially easy to convert this to an experience-for-treasure type of award system.


The chart at the left shows how this might be accomplished.  Instead of awarding experience for combat, whenever treasure is awarded, the cash value of the treasure is multiplied by the number in the far right column, determined by reference to the level of the party (or the character, if the party has characters with differing levels).

This assumes you award experience for the cash value of treasure, including magic items like consumables that are awarded in lieu of cash.  The cash value of permanent magic items would not be included in this calculation.

Note that in a traditional dungeon, where tougher monsters and more treasure are located on the deeper levels, this creates an incentive to push your luck and go deeper.  For example, an average encounter on the first level of a dungeon provides 14.4 gp per PC, while an average encounter on the second level provides 20.8 gp, and on the third it provides 27.1 gp.

It also creates a disincentive to try to grind on the upper levels of a dungeon once you are more experienced.  If you are sixth level, and are receiving 3.5 XPs for each gold piece you collect, there is not much incentive to explore the first level where you are getting 14.4 gp per encounter, when on the sixth level you could be receiving 72 gp per encounter.

I don’t use this system exclusively.  Instead, I tend to pick the system that fits with player and campaign objectives.  So if the objective is to kill orcs, I award experience for combat; if the objective is to achieve certain goals, I award experience for achieving those goals; and if the objective is to loot treasure, I award experience for treasure.  I might try to parse out my mental process and put it in a future blog post.

If you are a fourth (or second, or third) edition DM, and are looking for more information as to why you might want to try this method of awarding experience, and how to implement it, you might want to try the following resources:

DM David – The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold

DM David – Why D&D characters get tons of gold and nowhere to spend it

Hack & Slash – On Treasure Design

ADDENDUM:  six days after I wrote this, Dungeon of Signs wrote a similar article for 5e which is worth checking out.


Deconstruction – Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade

So I have been working on a review/deconstruction of the first 4e Dungeon Magazine adventure, Heathen, from Dungeon No. 155.  It is turning into a big article, because there are a lot of issues I want to explore that apply to 4e adventures in general.  In the meantime, here is a deconstruction I did of the third edition adventure, Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade, by David Noonan.

A Case for Half-Standard Monsters

In 4e, instead of the concept of bounded accuracy, we have monster group roles:  Minion, Standard, Elite and Solo.  Monsters can be rebuilt to fit different group roles so that they are appropriate challenges for different level of PC.

To give you a feel for relative power level:
  • A first level solo monster is worth 500 XPs, or the equivalent of five 1st level standard monsters, and is considered to be an at-level challenge for five 1st level PCs.
  • A sixth level elite monster is worth 500 XPs, or the equivalent of two 6th level standard monsters.  Two of them would be an at-level challenge for four 6th level PCs.
  • A tenth level standard monster is worth 500 XPs.  Four of them would be an at-level challenge for four 10th level PCs.
  • An eighteenth level minion monster is worth 500 XPs.  Four of them are the equivalent of a single 18th level standard monster.  Sixteen of them would be an at-level challenge for four 18th level PCs.

This pattern repeats regardless of the level of the solo monster, so any solo monster of level n is worth the same experience as an elite of level n+5, a standard of level n+9, or a minion of level n+17.

It is relatively easy to alter creatures to change their group role, so one could imagine a campaign where a party encounters a single young white dragon at 3rd level, two of them at 8th level, four or five of them at 12th level, and 16-20 of them at 20th level.  And the same progression can be used for NPCs.

But what would they encounter at 16th level?

Combat Math

The reason it is important to be able to rebuild monsters this way is the combat encounter math breaks down if the level of the monster is too divergent from the party level.  For an unoptimized party (which is probably most casual players), on average, an nth level character will hit an nth level monster more or less 60% of the time and be hit 55% of the time.

By contrast, and nth level character will hit an n+4 level monster 40% of the time and be hit 75% of the time, which can frustrate the players.  And if the monster is updated to Monster Manual 3 era math, that monster is going to be hitting pretty hard.  On the other hand, the character can hit a level n-4 monster 80% of the time, and will be hit 35% of the time.  That is not much of a challenge for the players, and may be frustrating for DMs who care about that kind of thing (I am not one of those DMs).

It really boils down to the fact that using monsters that are more than 4 levels different from the party level makes it hard to estimate encounter difficulty, and removes a very useful tool from the 4e DM’s toolbox.  So if you want to adapt a minion to challenge a party 4 levels lower than it, or adapt a standard creature to challenge a party four levels higher than it, you really need to have a creature with a group role halfway between a minion and a standard monster.  I call them half-standard monsters.

Flexibility in Encounter Placement

In addition to cleaning up the combat math, half-standard monsters allow the DM to design combat encounters to accommodate a larger range of levels of PC parties.

According to page 285 of the Rules Compendium, a level appropriate encounter rages from level n-2 to level n+4.  Individual monsters in the encounter may range from level n-5 to level n+7 .  You can in theory include monsters within that range, but (a) as discussed above, it is so easy to rebuild monsters to be closer to party level that I don’t know why you wouldn’t, and (b) the narrower the level ranges of the monsters in an encounter, the larger the level range of parties for which the encounter is appropriate.

To illustrate the second point, take a level 6 party attempting a level 6 combat encounter. According to the RC, that encounter could include level 1 monsters and level 13 monsters.  But if it in fact included level 1 and level 13 monsters, the only party for which the encounter would be level appropriate is a 6th level party.  Because the level 1 monsters are too low for a level 7 party, and the level 13 monsters are too high for a level 5 party.

If, however, the level 6 encounter included only level 6 monsters, then primary constraint would be encounter level, and it would be level appropriate for parties of 2nd to 8th level.  If you add half-standard monsters to your roster, you should always be able to build your monsters within a sufficiently narrow level band that the most important constraint is the encounter level.  Ideally, an encounter of level n should be appropriate for parties of levels n-4 to n+2, which means you want to use monsters of level n-3 to n+3 (there are reasons why you might want to always keep monster level lower than encounter level, that that is for another post).  That should always be achievable if you add half-standard monsters to your roster.

You may ask, why should you care about broadening the range of party levels that an encounter can accommodate?  Aren’t 4e adventures built with a particular party level in mind?  Well yes, that is true of 4e adventures, but the consequence of that type of design is that it favours the DM choosing when a party has a particular encounter; whereas if the party range is wide, the party can choose when it wants to have the encounter.

Imagine you built a sandbox area in a relatively safe, well-patrolled area with three dungeons.  The party is 1st level, and among the three dungeons there is enough experience available to raise the party three levels.  All of the dungeons feature encounters from levels 1-5, with monsters of levels 1-4.  The party can choose to take on the dungeons in any order, and the encounters and treasure will always be level appropriate.

Now imagine there is a swamp nearby with a dungeon in it.  Players instinctively know that areas like swamps and forests are more dangerous than civilized areas, so the encounters in the swamp and the swamp dungeon range from level 1-7, with monsters of level 1-6.  As the party rises in level it can choose to adventure in the more dangerous area, with commensurately  greater rewards in treasure and experience.  That is how you can truly give players agency, by allowing them to decide just how much risk they want to take and when.

Too-Weak Humanoids

A third reason I like the concept of a half-standard monster is a matter of my own personal preference.   The default level designation for an untrained but relatively healthy and active human is a second level minion, like Human Rabble or Human Goons.  Which means that out of the gate, a first level PC can handle three of four of them, and a party of five can handle twenty.

While there is some appeal to a character like Conan, trained an hardened by his experiences, mowing down fields of low-level enemies, I feel like that is something that must be earned.  A two-to-one ratio of ordinary folk to freshly trained but inexperienced PCs is about all I can manage.

Humanoid minions are also too weak in comparison to other monsters.  There really isn’t much weaker than a level 2 minion like Human Rabble.  In the three Monster Manuals and the Monster Vault combined there are only seven level 1 minions, of which three are humanoids.  The balance are an Ankheg Broodling, a Decrepit Skeleton, a Giant Rat and a type of giant ant called a Hive Worker.  That’s right, in 4e the average human with a club or a dagger is barely tougher than a rat “the size of a small dog—better than 3 feet long, including its long, scabby tail”, and could be taken out by it if he loses initiative.

As a result, I generally take low level humanoid minions and upgrade them to a half-standard creature of the same level, and use fewer of them for the encounter.  My untrained peasant Human Rabble would therefore be a second level half-standard brute.

So What is a Half-Standard Monster

I have seen several variations on monsters built to fit this slot, primarily the “two-hit minion”, which I have never liked.  Here is what I do.

  1. Make it worth half the experience of a standard creature of the same level.
  2. Give it half the hit points of a standard creature of the same level.
  3. Give it fewer powers and traits than a standard creature but more than a minion.
  4. Make it do 75% of the damage of a standard creature of the same level. 

That’s all there is to it.  It has been working well for me, but I would be interested in the results if anyone else chose to experiment with it.

Common Problems in 4e D&D Adventures

I’m getting ready to start reviewing the adventures published in Dungeon magazine during the 4e period.  Generally, they follow the same format and have the same problems.  Rather than engaging in repetitive lengthy reviews which explain the faults in detail every time, I thought I would call out the common problems here so that I can call them out in shorthand later.

I will probably add to this list as I go along.

Overuse of Combat Encounters:  Grognards like to complain about the duration of combat in 4e, but the real reason it feels like a grind is the frequency.  Using Moldvay dungeon stocking, there was a 33% chance of a room containing a monster in Basic DnD.  Appendix A of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a 25% chance.  I would estimate that with 4e adventures the chances are about 100% for a delve or side-trek, and 80% for a bigger adventure, with the balance being skill challenges and the odd “role-play” encounter.  In early-edition DnD you could often trick, avoid or talk to the monsters, but in published 4e adventures they invariably spot you, attack, and fight to the death.

Combat is a big deal in 4e; it would be a bigger deal if it was rarer.

Using Skill Challenges for Uninteresting Game Elements:  If a task is inherently uninteresting, it does not become more interesting by dragging it out with a bunch of die-rolling.  Skill Challenges are frequently used for parts of the game that should just be summarized.  If it would be a montage in a movie, it should not be a skill challenge in the game.

Using Skill Challenges in Place of Interesting Game Elements:  If a game element is inherently interesting, it should not be abstracted by a skill challenge.  You can identify these when the SC actually eludes to interesting challenges in the Skill descriptions.  For example, in a travel montage which includes an Athletics check to signify “crossing a river or scaling a cliff”, it would be more interesting to put a river or a cliff in front of the party and see how they handle it.

You might ask, if you should not use Skill Challenges for uninteresting encounters, and you should not use Skill Challenges for interesting encounters, when should you use Skill Challenges?  The answer is rarely, and only in situations where you expect that the resolution of an encounter will require at least four successful skill checks, and where the players have real choices about their approach that can have an impact on the outcome.

Do not add checks just to turn an encounter into a Skill Challenge, and do not use them where “alternate approaches” are limited to choosing different skills.  This probably requires some explanation, which I will try to get to in a future article, but an example would be during a combat encounter, when there is a real choice between the resources you apply to fighting team monster and the resources you apply to disarming a trap or closing a portal.

Linear Dungeons:  Not necessarily in a straight line, although those happen.  I am talking about dungeons where the party either has no choice about where to go, or the choices effectively don’t matter.  If it is a fait accompli that you will explore each branch of an intersection (which it usually is), and the order in which you explore them doesn’t matter, then there is only the illusion of choice.

Contrast this with a dungeon with loops and changes in level that may allow the party to skip sections with a poor risk-reward ratio, or to approach a given room from different directions or different angles or different amounts of cover, or that have discoveries in some areas that will help in others if you choose them in the right order, and you should see the difference.  Bonus points if you include some small clue to let the party know that their choices will made a difference.

The Alexandrian has a decent series of articles relating to this issue which you can find here.

Linear Plots:  At least the constraints in linear dungeons are logical because, you know, walls.   Worse than that are adventure-writer plots that take place in the wide world, supposedly unconstrained by any physical barriers, and yet force the party to experience one location or event after another, irrespective of any player choices.  The problem is exacerbated by a lack of overview maps and NPC rosters, because there is no support to the DM for situations where the party decides to do something else.

The Alexandrian also had articles for addressing these issues which begin here.

Lack of Transitional Devices:  Its bad enough that the plot is linear, but could you at least tell me how to get from one mandatory scene to the next?  Sometimes this is a problem of dividing information between the summary and the tactical detail pages, but much of the time there are no transitional elements at all.  You have a combat encounter at a location.  And then you are at another location, where monsters attack you and fight to the death.  The problem is even worse when it occurs in the rare adventure that is not linear; how do your players know where to go if you can’t describe their options?  Note that a decent overview map can work as a transitional device.

Lack of Overview Maps:  I have alluded to this already with respect to problems with linearity, but it also arises in the few adventures where there are choices as to where to go next.  The GM has no framework that helps him to place the scenes or locations in relation to each other, or to help him adlib if the players choose a different direction.  Even if there is no map per se, a flowchart of areas or scenes showing what choices lead to each would be very helpful.