Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tracking "Turns" in 4e

Howdy all. I am a big fan of the old-school "turn". The term has wargaming roots, and while I have seen some old games assign different amounts of time to a "turn", in all of the classic editions, a turn is ten minutes. In my upcoming zine, I bring the concept into 4e, and I thought I would encourage you do to the same.

Why? Well, it has nostalgic, old-school flavor for one thing, but it also gives some added versatility to DMs. You can track "in-game" time more accurately, and you can utilize the turn for everything from wandering monsters to rewards with random durations. You can use it in your adventure design in creative ways; perhaps the PCs are in an area that is patrolled once every 1d4+1 turns, adding a chance the PCs will get caught, depending on how slow they move through the area. Tracking turns gives the DM a good, rough sense of the time passing, and this is a good thing.

How? Take a page from the old editions. It doesn't have to be (and never will be) exact, and it isn't meant to be. It is a tool. In B/X, your "turn" speed was three times your "encounter speed". So you might see a speed listed as 120' (40'). Your turn speed (120 feet in this case) was about how far you would typically move in a dungeon in ten minutes, assuming you were being somewhat cautious. So for 4e, I take the slowest party member and multiple their speed times three. This is roughly the distance the party can travel in a dungeon on foot in ten minutes, assuming they are watching their step, mapping, or what have you. You can pretty much just eyeball this; it is a rough measure. I count an encounter plus the following short rest together as one turn, even though it isn't quite that long. If a party member announces they are searching a room, disabling a trap, reading runes from a wall, or anything else requiring real concentration and skill, it takes a turn. For any other scenario, judge as needed.

The next time you are putting an adventure or scenario together, consider trying to use turns as a tool. I really like giving alternative rewards that last for a few turns; you can afford to give them something really powerful, as it will not last very long at all. On the flip side, you can give PCs debilitating short-term conditions. Instead of an effect ending at the end of an encounter, perhaps it lasts 2d4 turns...long enough for the condition to make its presence felt without overstaying its welcome.

Any other "turn" lovers out there?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Something Presumably Awesome Is Going On With The 4thcore Site

Quick post just to note that the 4thcore site has looked a little odd the past few days...like there is at minimum a site re-org going on, at most perhaps a peek at the enigmatic Sersa V's new RPG that he/she (it?) has alluded to be working on in the past.

I must say, I am a huge 4thcore fan. I will be watching the site in anticipation for what this might mean.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Let's Clear Up A Few 4e Myths

Howdy. I had a few disparate blog ideas running thru the head, and I realized they all could be used to dispel a few 4e myths, so I have combined them together. First off, don't get me wrong, 4e isn't perfect and I don't claim it to be. Readers of this blog know that I constantly tinker with 4e to make it something I like more. That's sort of the essence of D&D after all: making the game your own. But I am undoubtedly a huge fan of 4e. Anyway, here are some common 4e myths and my response:

"It is difficult to convert old modules to 4e"

I don't now who started this one, but it simply isn't true. I've mentioned before that I drop Skill Challenges from my games. One of the reasons for this is that, on its own, the 4e skill system is very smooth, intuitive, and covers pretty much anything that comes up (and if something else comes up, you can roll with Ability Checks). Anyway, in my experience the 4e skill system works like a charm in updated adventures. I updated Ravenloft (I6) for 4e. There are all kinds of roleplay moments, exploration, etc where skills came up. I just rolled with it if the players wanted to use one, or called for a check if it was really needed. So there is really no conversion necessary for an old modules' out-of-combat material. It can be handled on the fly quite easily.

The monster conversion is where the real challenges would appear to begin. Now, I am not going to say converting monsters from 1e to 4e is as easy as 1e to B/X or 2e, because it isn't. But 4e does have a strength that those games lack: 4e monsters have specific formulas to work from. This can help DMs determine difficulty fairly accurately, but more importantly, it is very easy to make 4e monsters.

Confronted with the need to convert a monster in an old module, the first step I would encourage is to see if there is a 4e version within your party's level range. If so, check the source and see if it is post MM3. If it isn't, try these tips to upgrade old crappy monsters on the fly. If the monster isn't in your party's range, it is fairly straightforward to adjust. The design remains the same, you just plug in different numbers. Make sure you are using the DMG errata though.

If you can't find the monster in a 4e source, or if you don't like what 4e did the monster, build your own. This doesn't have to be laborious. Use this guide to make quick 4e monsters. Try to distill the essence of the original monster and keep it simple.

The last step is to make sure the adventure doesn't run like a sloggy mess. There are several ways to do this. You could drop the wandering monsters from an adventure and just run the prepared encounters, or you could drop a lot of planned encounters and instead just use the wandering monster tables. Or you could drop a little of both. This isn't just in response to 4e combat length (more on that below); the fact is, some old modules feel like a grind to begin with. You should also use Morale and Reaction Tables. If you are using an old module that has Morale scores, just port them over. Otherwise you can check my 4e Morale rules. Ok, so that leads us to the next myth.

"Combat was fast in old editions, never approaching 4e length"

This is simply not true. It is true that classic edition combat COULD be quicker, but it wasn't always. I know this because I DM and play old editions. At even moderate levels, old edition spellcasters could have a ton of choices, and adjudicating their effects was often not a cut and dried proposition. A typical PC's percentage chance to hit was often lower, so there are more misses. There were also huge throngs of monsters in old adventures, like all the time. I am reminded of one of my faves, Descent Into the Depth of the Earth, which was a combo module of D1-D2. There are like 20 Drow here, 40 Kuo-Toa there, 30 Troglodytes here. Heck, even in the Village of Hommlet, you will have 16 or more enemy combatants!

Now I KNOW combat can drag in 4e. I have tried to provide some tips and ideas to help with that. Simplifying monsters, using groups of the same monsters, using Morale, lowering hit points-all of this helps. But it is simply disingenuous to act like old combat couldn't take a while, especially when casters had some actual spells to cast. This has also been true of my experience with 5e so far. We had a two hour combat last week and we just hit level 2. Combat often takes an hour or more at level 1. I am not saying it isn't fun, or that this is too long, I am just saying that combat length can drag in multiple editions; it isn't only a 4e phenomenon.

"It is harder to houserule 4e than other editions"

I am tempted just to say "read my blog" as a response to this one, because there are dozens of houserule examples on here, but just to expound on it a bit, 4e is no different from any other edition of D&D. You can houserule it and make it your own with ease. The difference between 4e and classic editions is that the mechanics in 4e are "on display". The math is predictable and easy to grasp. This is already sort of covered above with monsters. This makes houseruling and homebrewing very easy. Since you have clear expectations for damage, defenses, DCs, etc at all levels, it becomes very easy to slide the scale towards "easy" or "hard". See Fourthcore. I have tweaked monster design, traps, disease, combat, and on and on, and I have only scratched the surface of the possibilities. 4e does not deviate from D&D's proud history of homebrewing and houseruling, it embraces it as much as any other edition.

That's all I have for you today. As always, I welcome comments! Take it easy!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wednesday Grab Bag: Monster Tips and Random Thoughts

Howdy all. I have been busy busy busy lately, but thought I would post a few of my recent ponderings. Rather than stretch these out into separate blog posts, I figured I would just mix it all together in a bucket.

Simpler Monsters = More Flavorful Monsters

I have posted a bunch of monster tips over time, but thought I would emphasize something that I have mentioned before but never really focused like a laser on. In 4e, it is very easy to overdo monsters. I think part of this is bc it is so easy to design 4e monsters. I remember the first game of 4e I ran. I was starting a new campaign, and I came up with this location-based adventure set at these mines. Anyway, the first bad guy that the players ran into was "Scalpel Jim", along with his entourage. Jim used-you guessed it-a scalpel as his weapon. I had built him out with four or five different scalpel powers, some encounters, some rechargeable, I spent some time on it, and ended up with what I thought would be a very memorable villain. Anyhoo, prior to the encounter, Scalpel Jim made a two-fingered gesture at the party's female Monk. The Monk promptly won initiative and walked over and critted Jim with "Open the Gates of Battle", killing him before he ever even acted.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. Two actually. Don't cross bad ass Monk chicks, and do not over-design 4e monsters. Ask yourself what the essence of a monster is, and design accordingly. The more powers and doo-hickeys you add to a monster, the more diluted the flavor. You want monsters to be memorable. You want their flavor to come through in obvious, unmistakable fashion when PCs encounter them. Ask yourself what the monster does, then have it do that and nothing else. You might not have time to do much, so make it count.

Learning from Lareth the Beautiful

As you might be aware, I am running the Temple of Elemental Evil using the 81' B/X rules. It is going swimmingly. One thing that I must admit I like quite a bit about old editions that is missing from the 4e game is that the PCs encounter spellcasters that use the same spell lists and character creation rules as PCs. Now don't get me wrong; in most cases I much prefer to just build every NPC off of a monster template. 4e character creation is just a little too complicated for building NPCs from actual character classes, especially since they are usually going to get killed pretty quickly. You will spend more time building it than it will ever see on the battlemat. But what if you want that classic edition feel, where evil spellcasters, such as the ToEE's Lareth the Beautiful, have a juicy list of spells? I also love having classic edition spellcaster adversaries cast some spells in advance, like Guards and Wards, or Mordenkainen's Faithful Hound, etc. This way the "table is set" prior to an encounter. How can we get this feel in 4e without wasting a ton of time working through a grueling character creation process?

Turns out it is pretty simple. Give the bad guys rituals! And let them cast rituals ahead of time. As a player, I have hardly ever seen this done in 4e. You might have to stop a bad guy from completing a ritual, but it is rare indeed to see a list of rituals on a monster stat block. So, the next time you have your 4e PCs encounter a "spellcaster" (Cleric, Mage, or otherwise), give the caster a list of rituals. See if it would be advantageous for them to have cast one or more of the rituals already. This will add a nice layer of unpredictability to the proceedings. It can also serve to make an encounter much more difficult, emphasize flavor, or simply just allow you to use a ritual in your game for once. A party can trigger an alarm from a warding ritual, encounter odd summoned creatures, be teleported away, heck who knows. You can also make up new rituals, or use an old spell as the basis for a new ritual. Like Lareth the Beautiful's "Continual Darkness" spell. Anyways, I hope that this doesn't read too "rambly" and makes sense. Use the 4e Ritual Index from the mags, and see if you can't get something resembling that old-school caster flavor going for some bad guys in your game.

4e is Ideal for One-Page Dungeons

I spoke before about making tweaks to 4e to help it work better with megadungeons. Yet, no matter what you do, 4e will still never be the best system for megadungeons (in my opinion). However, the more I think about it, 4e is perfect for one-page adventures.

Not familiar with the one-page dungeon phenomenon? Man, you are going to love me then. They have a yearly contest where people submit their one-page creations. The winners over the years can all be downloaded for free from this website. There is some really awesome stuff to be discovered there. At another site, someone has put up some templates that can be used for one-page dungeon creation. Just look at the column on the right for the free downloads.

Anyway, I find that you only need one or two encounters for a good one-night 4e adventure. Thus, you do not need a lot of space. I never much cared for long, drawn-out, over-described encounter scenarios for 4e. I don't need everything spelled out. With a one-page template, you can describe a locale, give it some flavor, then go. Instead of trying to fit a stat block on there, just reference the book a creature is found in, or keep stats on a separate page. I think you will agree that 4e is really suited to this format. It is no wonder that the Dungeon Delve book was (and still is) so popular. Although the outdated monsters need to be boosted, and I would probably drop the first or second encounter from many of the book's mini-adventures, it does show you that just a little 4e adventure design goes a long way (partly because 4e combat lasts a little longer than other editions). Anyway, I found it inspiring, and I will be calling for some one-page 4e dungeons/adventures once I start taking submissions for 4e Forever.

So that is it. Just some ideas that have been bouncing around. Sorry for the rambly feel! As always, I would love to hear comments/thoughts. See you next time!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Non-Mechanical Conditions

I was motivated to write this post whilst reminiscing about my campaign that recently ended. I was recalling how much I enjoyed running Tegel Manor updated for 4e. I have posted before about the good times to be had with funhouse-style alternate rewards, but I felt the need to emphasize how great non-mechanical conditions can be.

 What do I mean by "non-mechanical"? Well, instead of players having to track any specifics, or worry about mechanical details, the player is affected by a condition that really only demands role play. For example, an enchanted painting made a player in my game feel incredibly brave for like an hour and a half. I swear to you that some of the funniest moments in my entire gaming history came from this.

There are endless possibilities for this sort of thing: a player could become itchy, thirsty, starving, frightened, romantic, violent, paranoid, dim-witted, narcissistic, or simply think they are a chicken. And on and on. Any extreme/exaggerated characteristic will work wonderfully. Don't make assumptions about how your group might react to something like this; a little silliness has an odd way of engaging players!