In thinking about the next edition of D&D I’ve been looking through some of my older D&D rulebooks. I’ve got a set of the core books (PHB, MM, & DMG) of Advanced D&D, the one with the excellent cover by David A. Trampier. It’s interesting just leafing through the Player’s Handbook and looking at the old illustrations and rules commentary. My favorite area to read over is the class section and see how the classes have evolved and changed over the years. The edition of the game that I know best is 3rd edition, having played it since it first came out to until last year, so my barometer for what works and doesn’t work in terms of class balance is based on 3.5. Without getting into a full discussion about balance in 3.5, I’ll just say that the classes were not evenly balanced against each other, which was something that 4th edition worked to change.

My litmus test for fantasy rpg’s is the Fighter class. From years of playing 3.5 and having the fighter be overshadowed by over classes at being a fighter I look to how the Fighter (or Warrior) class is designed to see how it will hold up with the magic users at higher levels. Before 4th edition it was hard for Wizards to survive the early levels but once they started getting more powerful spells then the play dynamic changed from the Fighter defeating monsters while the Wizard hung back to the Fighter holding back the monsters until the Wizard could cast the right spell to kill the monsters. 4th edition changed that, of course, with each class being more or less evenly balanced against the others in terms of how effective they could be in combat, and the role that each class played in combat didn’t change as drastically as the party increased in levels.

As I was looking over the Fighter class in the AD&D Player’s Handbook I noticed a little note about Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers attack rate that really surprised me. On page 25 there’s a table for labeled “Fighters’, Paladins’, & Rangers’ Attacks Per Melee Round Table“. As the Ranger & Paladin were sub-classes of the Fighter, all three enjoyed multiple attack per round at higher levels according to the table, eventually getting 2 attacks per round at levels 13, 13, & 15, respectively. What surprised was the note below the table.

Note: This excludes melee combat with monsters (q.v.) of less than one hit die (d8) and non-exceptional (0 level) humans and semi-humans, i.e. all creatures with less than one eight-sided hit die. All of these creatures entitle a fighter to attack once for each of his or her experience levels (See COMBAT).

I sat there for a few minutes and imagined the likes of Conan and Richard Cypher being surrounded by lesser swordmen and the heroes cutting a swath through them. Considering that a long sword did between 1-8 points of damage and that these rank of monsters had less than a full d8 hit die, it’s likely that a single blow would kill them. I’d never heard of this rule before but the first thing that came to mind was 4th editions concept of Minions, creatures with only a single hit point. In 4e Fighters don’t get extra attacks against a Minion, but as they only have 1 Hit Point, any attack that deals damage will kill them instantly. Maybe this AD&D rule was a possible inspiration for the Minion concept.

I went searching through the AD&D Monster Manual to see what creatures qualified for this treatment from the Fighter. As stated in the Monster Manual, “Some creatures have hit points which are less than a full 8-sided die, and this is shown by stating their hit dice as a point spread.” As I imagined, some of the usual suspects showed up. Goblins were listed as having 1-7 Hit points. Kobolds had 1-4 Hit points. Bandits, Berserkers, Buccaneers, and Dervishes also made the list, but they all had another thing in common as well; they rarely fought alone. Each of the mentioned monsters were usually found in groups, and in groups of a certain size there would always be a few members with actual Fighter or other class levels. For example, Goblins appear in numbers of 40-400.

For every 40 goblins encountered there will be a leader and 4 assistants who are equal to orcs, each having 7 hit points and attacking as monsters with a full hit die. If 200 or more goblins are encountered there will be the following additional figures: a subchief and 208 guards, each fighting as hobgoblins and having 8 hit points, armor class 5, and doing 108 hit points damage.

This is an easy to overlook rule but it has huge implications for how the game plays. At higher levels in 3.5 a Wizard could clear a room of enemies with a well placed fireball, killing dozens of monsters at once. The 3.5 Player’s Handbook fighter doesn’t really have that same power, and it wasn’t until later supplements were releases such as the Tome of Battle that Fighting classes were able to compete with that type of raw power. But this rule from 1st edition paints a different picture. Sure, the name level Wizard can drop fireballs all over the battlefield, but the high level Fighter (and Paladin, and Ranger) got something that was similar in function, if not in power. The image of a heavily thewed warrior hacking his way through mobs of enemies is a classic trope in adventure fantasy and it pleases me that 1st edition had rules to support that.

The question I’d like to see answered now is how will D&Dnext handle this? In 4e we had Minions which may have been partially inspired by this 1st edition Fighter rule. I’d like to see it combine the two rules. I think Minions are a good tool to have in our D&D toolbox, but I’d like simpler rules for them than 4e used. I’d like to see Fighter classes get some ability like the old rule that lets them handle waves of minions with as much style as Conan cracking skulls and leaving lesser mortals behind.

The blog has been silent for awhile but I’ve been doing some quality gaming in the mean time. The word dropped yesterday that WoTC is releasing the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons and I’ve been fortunate enough to have playtested some of it. I’ve played three sessions so far and while I can’t speak about the mechanics, there’s still plenty to tell.

The group that I’m playing with is comprised of experienced players. I think I’m the newest to D&D in the group and I’ve been playing since the late 90’s. One member of the group has played every edition of D&D ever published and the rest have varying amounts of experience somewhere in between. Suffice to say, we all love D&D and take this opportunity to playtest D&Dnext seriously. Before, during and after each sessions there’s lots of discussion on what we think worked, what didn’t work, what’s awesome and should stay, and what sucks and should go. Of course we don’t all agree on everything but I think we’ve made some positive influence through the playtest.

The game feels different than 4th edition, but I think anyone would expect that. I haven’t played the older editions of D&D (got started late with AD&D 2nd ed) but I own a number of older manuals, including the Basic Set and the three core AD&D books released in 78/79. From reading through them and following a number of OSR blogs I think I’ve got an accurate idea of what those older editions felt like in play. The few sessions of D&Dnext that I’ve played have felt more like what I imagine those games to be, but in a way that isn’t a direct clone. Without delving into mechanics its hard to fully explain, but I’d advise those in the OSR community who may be wary of D&Dnext to at least approach it with an open eye.

One of the key elements that I think helped to give it that older edition feel was how the DM ran the game and I think that’s going to be a big part of D&Dnext, perhaps moreso than the previous two editions. Robert Schwalb has said on his blog that “…our primary goal is to produce a rules set that speaks to every incarnation of D&D.” I think that what they’ve got right now will do a good job of that. The player mentioned above that has played all the editions of D&D has stated before that 4th edition is his favorite of them, so I was interested to see how he reacted to this game. At my first session he was a little hung up on making the transition from 4e to D&Dnext and I think the feeling was mutual around the table. I play with the same group in a 4e Essentials game and we’ve played Heroic and Epic, so there’s a lot of 4e crunch in our heads. The experience of sitting down and playing D&D in a different way required some change but I think everyone has adapted well and is enjoying the game.

There’s a lot of speculation going around about what this game will actually be. Don’t Panic. From my experience it’s still D&D. There’s a great opportunity here to make one of the best editions of the game and I can’t wait to play again.

Greetings gamers!

Tonight I’m taking my seat back behind the screen and running an old Dungeons & Dragons adventure, Keep on the Borderlands.

Cover of Keep on the Borderlands

This adventure originally came in the Basic D&D Box Set. I found a copy of the box set (minus the number tokens) at a used book store a few months ago and the adventure was in good shape. Someone left in the box a 3×5 card with the stats for a young black dragon that supposedly lurked in Room 52. I wonder if they defeated the dragon?

I’m not going to use the old D&D rules for the game tonight thought. I picked up the Dragon Age RPG Box Set 1 a few weeks ago and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to test out the rules. The rules system appears to be lean and friendly and after reading the Players Guide book once I was able to make a character in about 5 minutes. The bulk of my gaming experience is with 3rd Edition D&D, so being able to complete all the crunch for a character in 5 minutes and not be worried about making an unoptimized sack of crap was refreshing.

I’ve got 3 players for tonight’s session. One of the players is an experienced gamer, with many years of D&D and WoW under his belt and he’s playing a Dwarf Mage. Another is new to gaming and I made a City Elf Rogue for him. The third player is a veteran of 3rd Edition D&D and other RPG’s like Rifts, and he’ll be rolling up a Human Warrior. As someone familiar with the Dragon Age RPG might have noticed, Dwarves can’t be Mages according to the rules for the system. Well, we’re playing a D&D version of the game, so I’m relaxing the restrictions on what races can be which classes. The only other mechanical change that I’m making is to modify the short rest mechanic (or breather, as DARPG calls it). During a breather Mages will get back 1d6+Magic mana points. I’d rather not have the group rest for an hour just so the Mage can cast a few more spells.

One of the things that the DARPG Box Set is lacking is a wide selection of monsters. I’ve found some excellent fan material that I printed out and will use for the game. The 3 Volume free PDF’s are called Esoterica from Thedas and present new rules, materials, monsters, spells and more, all done in a very nice style that mimics that game’s original art. I also found some alternate versions of the maps that came with adventure and will use the updated map for 4th Editions Chaos Scar Keep (Thumbnail at the bottom for those without DDI).

I’m looking forward to the game tonight and think the DARPG rules, or AGE system, will work well with the Basic D&D style of play the Keep was meant for.










Greetings gamers!

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit, focusing on real life random encounters that have taken time away from both blog writing time and actual gaming time. But I haven’t stopped thinking about D&D and I’ve been mostly pondering the mechanical side of the game. Today I want to write about the base mechanic in D&D and offer a different way of doing things.

The current mechanic is simple to grasp: Roll a d20, add your modifiers and try to meet or beat a target number. Higher numbers indicate a harder task, whether it’s attacking an enemy or making a skill check. The basic mechanic for representing adventurers becoming more powerful is to give them a higher modifier on their d20 roll. This in turn requires a higher difficulty number to ensure that the level appropriate monsters and challenges are in fact a challenge. As the target number of the task increases (Difficult Class for skill checks, Armor Class for attacks) the adventurers must continue to increase their own bonuses in order to keep up with the tasks facing them.

So of the three parts of the equation (d20 + modifier > or = target number) the only numbers that are increasing at the modifiers and the target numbers. The d20 roll remains the same in that you’re always going to roll between a 1 and 20.

There’s a few problems with this setup. One problem is the possibility that target numbers and modifiers don’t scale at the same rate. If the target number is increasing by +2 each level but the adventurers only gain a +1 modifier each level, it will be increasingly harder for them to succeed at tasks. The reverse is also true. If the modifiers are increasing at a faster rate than the target numbers then tasks will become trivially easy. So it’s important to maintain an even relationship with respect to both of the numbers advancements.

If those numbers aren’t advancing evenly then a player may be forced to spend character resources (such as feats) in order to fairly compete with monsters of appropriate level. A number of the feats in 4th edition are referred to as Math Tax feats, as they usually provide simple +1 bonuses to attacks with certain weapons. Adventurers without these feats can find themselves falling behind their allies that do have them when attacking monsters, through no fault of their own except for failing to take a feat that works to correct a flaw in the progression of modifier/target number advancement.

Gamma World takes a different approach and simply has the adventurers add their level as a bonus on attack rolls. This eliminates the need for Math Tax feats (indeed, there are no feats in Gamma World) but doesn’t fix the need to make sure the modifier/target number advancement is even.

What I’m proposing is something similar to other task resolution mechanics, such as the one used in the Serenity RPG. In that game you roll your dice, add them up (rarely do you add a modifier), and see if you’ve beat the target number for the task you’re attempting. The target number is assigned by the GM prior to attempting the task and it follows a scale with an adjective description of the difficulty rank. Easy tasks have a target number of 3, Average tasks are a 7, Hard tasks are 11, Formidable tasks are 15, and so on. The scale continues with Heroic, Incredible, Ridiculous, and Impossible, adding +3 each time to the target number.

One key aspect of this system is that’s level independent, which is a good thing as Serenity RPG doesn’t have character levels. So whether you’re a greenhorn just out in the black or a seasoned veteran that fought on U-Day, an Easy task is always difficulty 3. Hard tasks are always difficulty 11. Without levels, character advancement is handled by increasing the die type you roll for attacks, so if you roll a d10 for Shooting Things and you advanced your characters Shooting Things ability, you’d be rolling a d12 when you Shoot Things.

The advantage of this system is the consistency of the target numbers for the different degrees of task complexity. What I want to do is take that idea and use it in D&D.

Here’s a chart.

1 – Automatic Failure

2,3,4 – Simple

5,6,7 – Easy

8,9,10 – Common

11,12,13 – Average

14,15,16 – Tough

17,18,19 – Hard

20 – Heroic

Rule 1: Level Appropriate tasks are Average.

Rule 2: Tasks above the parties level increase the Difficulty Rank by 1 rank per level above party. Ex: Level 6 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is +1 rank, so it’s a Tough task. Level 7 monster vs a level 5 party: the monster is +2 rank, so it’s a Hard task.

Rule 3: Tasks below the parties level decrease the Difficult Rank by 1 rank per level below the party. Ex: Level 4 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -1 rank, so it’s a Common task. Level 3 monster vs a level 5 party: The monster is -2 ranks, so it’s an Easy task.

In order to succeed on a task, the adventurer must roll equal to or higher than the difficult rank. So if it’s an Average task, he needs a 11 or above to succeed. For Tough tasks, he needs a 14 or above.

Note: This applies whether it’s the player making the roll or the DM. Monsters use this to determine how hard it is to hit the adventurers as well. More on that later.

So now the base mechanic looks like this: d20 versus difficulty rank. There’s no modifiers to add, no armor classes to configure. If it’s level appropriate, you need an 11 or higher. Lower level tasks are easier and higher level tasks are harder. To answer a question some of you may be asking: What about a monster that is 3 levels about the party, thus making it a Heroic task? You need a 20 to succeed. In the cases of monsters that are higher than 3 levels above the party (off the chart), you can only succeed on a natural 20 (and you probably shouldn’t be fighting that monster anyway). For tasks that are more than 3 levels below the party, you still need a 2 or higher: 1 is always an automatic failure.

There’s the main mechanic. It scales with levels in the sense that higher level monsters are harder to fight, but the target number for task difficulties don’t change. You don’t need to have math fixes in order to give your character a boost to attacks or worry about whether a particular monsters armor class is fair for the given party level. This mechanic works for any kind of task resolution, including attack rolls (versus armor class and the other defenses), skill checks, and any other d20 check you might need to make.

The change in mechanic brings up other questions, such as: If everyone is the same difficulty rank to hit, where’s the differentiation between the classes? In other words, how can this system represent different class abilities, like Fighters being able to hit in melee better or Rogues being able to dodge better. In brief, this can be accomplished by class abilities that shift the difficulty ranks around. For example, let’s say that a Fighter has the Weapon Focus class feature. It allows him to attack creatures as if they were one shift in rank lower. So if he’s swinging his sword at a Hard ranked monster, he only needs to succeed on a Tough difficulty to hit. If you don’t want to shift a whole rank, you could add a bonus to the roll. So now Weapon Focus adds a +1 whenever he attacks with a weapon (Note: this modified system isn’t opposed to using modifiers on d20 rolls, but it doesn’t use them as the main mechanic for determining a characters ability to succeed). It doesn’t change the difficulty rank a whole shift, but now he can hit a Hard creature with a roll of 16.

For that fast Rogue, his ranking could go up one shift when he’s attacked. Say he’s attacked by a Hard monster (monster is 2 levels above the Rogue’s level); the monster normally only needs a 5 to hit the Rogue (since the Rogue is two levels below the monster, the Rogue is an Easy task for the monster), but because of his Rogue ability Uncanny Dodge, the monster treats him as one level higher, making the Rogue a Common task for the monster (thus needing an 8 or higher to hit the Rogue).

One immediate consequence of this change is that it is relatively easy for higher level creatures to attack lower level creatures. Any monster 2 or more levels above the party is a serious threat. Conversely, any monster 2 or more levels below the party is barely a challenge.

Another consequence is that a lot of the class features and abilities from classes become relatively meaningless. I’m aware of this and specific class features is something I’ll be talking about in a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to know primarily whether this makes sense and secondly whether you think it’d be a good mechanic.

Last night at D&D Encounters my group steamrolled through the fight. We had 2 warpriests, 1 druid, 1 hexblade, 1 thief, and a paladin. In other words, 3 leaders, 2 strikers and a defender. It didn’t even feel like a challenge. I was playing one of the warpriests and between me and the other warpriest we gave the party enough temporary HP’s, bonuses to defenses and resistance to damage that only one person in the party spent a healing surge. That was me, and the only reason I took enough damage to warrant spending my second wind was that I moved around enough provoking opportunity attacks to give my allies flanks. Of course when I spent my second wind I got temporary HP’s and my allies got some more as well  (the Disciple of Light & Disciple of Stone feats).

The fight lasted 4 or 5 rounds and I think during each round nearly everyone in the party had some amount of temporary HP. Everyone had boosted defenses and at least 1 person every round got the damage resistance from either mine or the other warpriests Blessing of Battle. The druid? He just attacked the enemies with his wolf. All total we had 8 different ways to heal (6 healing words, 1 resurgent strength, and the druids healing acorn)…and none of them were used.

This encounter is similar to last weeks fight at D&D Encounters in that we had stacked up heavy on 1 type of role. Last week we had 3 controllers, 1 leader, 1 defender and 2 strikers at my table. Yes, both weeks we’ve had a large number of PC’s, but that’s the same at the other table. We get between 8 and 12 people showing up every week and don’t have quite enough people for a 3rd table yet, so we stack up on the 2 tables. It’s been interesting for me as it’s a chance to observe how the roles in 4th edition are tied tightly to how an encounter runs. In last weeks fight the 3 controllers sat behind our shieldwall of the warpriest, knight, and fighter while the thief skirmished across the line and back. We destroyed the waves of zombies before they could mass a large assault, and the zones dropped in front of the shieldwall reduced the zombies effectiveness so much that it was just a mop-up.

I’ve been intrigued by the concept and execution of roles in 4th edition ever since I started playing. It’s probably the most interesting meta-aspect of the game to me and I think that the typical, balanced party would ideally consist of a controller, leader, defender, and 2 strikers. I’ve seen what happens with excess controllers, leaders, strikers and I’m imagining what would happen with excess defenders. The controllers and leaders examples are from the D&D Encounters recounted above, while the Dark Sun homegame I play in seems to be Striker heavy. Although we’ve had heavy PC attrition (4 PC deaths in 2 months) the group usually consists of a leader, hybrid striker/controller, striker, striker and my defender-in-name-only Mul gladiator fighter. I say in name only because he was the first real 4th edition character that I made and I didn’t really grasp the idea of a defender fighter, so I took the powers and abilities that make him hit harder instead of forcing enemies to attack him. He’s basically a high HP striker and more than once has been the last character standing tall after a fight thanks to his high HP and number of healing surges. But I haven’t been playing him like a defender at all, so our group is about 3/4’s strikers. We put out some serious damage but we also get hurt a lot. Did I mention that we’ve had 4 PC’s die in 2 months of play? It’s a brutal game, but it’s great fun and I think it’s maybe how dark sun should be run. I think too much safety and protection (i.e. an actual defender, an additional leader) would take away some of the great risk that we play with and enjoy in the game.

More on roles later.


After the Encounters game I came home and my friend Jack came over to the house to help me test some wargame rules I came up with. Thanks to helpful D&D nerds on twitter I got pointed to a bunch of 4e wargame type material. Unfortunately the really nice stuff costs money (Soldiers of Fortune & Hard Boiled Armies to name a few) so in the time honored fashion of gaming on a budget I made up my own rules.

I took some advice from others and treated a collection of units as a single group. Using the Monster Builder I created 4 different types of groups; the Shieldwall, the Infantry, the Archers, and the Medics. There are a few differences between these stat cards and regular monsters, otherwise they run the same way. The HP value doesn’t represent Hit Points. It represents the number of units in that group. When a group gets attacked and takes damage, the damage value is how many units it loses. So if the archers shoot the shieldwall for 6 damage, the shieldwall loses 6 units.

Though it didn’t print on the cards, each unit has 1 healing surge that revives a certain number of units within that group. The healing surge value is standardized at half the bloodied value. That’s pretty much it. Other than those changes they have the stats for a 3rd level monster, with a few exceptions. I hand adjusted their Defense values and during the playtest it became obvious that some numbers needed to be changed.

The basic setup is that of the enemy warbands attacking a small town. There’s a wide river and stone bridge that crosses it and the PC’s will be the town’s defenders. Here’s the aftermath of the battle . The units on the left are the enemy archers and medics, and the enemy infantry has pushed its way through the PC’s shieldwall and decimated their infantry. The playtest was a loss for Jack who was running the PC’s side, but it did highlight a number of things that needed to be changed and things that I hadn’t thought of.

The damage values worked out okay for the most part, but the archers armor class was way too low and their damage output was too high. So I’ll adjust their damage to a flat die roll and boost their AC to 16 or 18. The shieldwall couldn’t hit anything with its attack, but it’s defenses worked out great, especially when combined with the medics aura.

As far as Jack’s tactics went, the first thing he did was to divide the 20-man shieldwall into 4 groups of 5 units each. I hadn’t planned on that but it worked out fairly well. I’m going to change the cards to have smaller unit sizes, so instead of handing the PC playing the shieldwall a single card with 20 figures in a huge block formation, the PC will get 4 cards with 5-man formations that he can move around. Breaking up the large 20 and 25 man units was a good part of Jack’s strategy and something I’ll incorporate in the next version of the cards.

Jack had 1 type of each unit, while I gave the enemy an extra archer and took away their shieldwall. The battle went pretty straightforward, with my archers focusing on his archers and then his infantry, while my infantry pushed their way across the bridge. If he had kept his shieldwall locked on the bridge instead of moving them back and let his infantry come in and fight on the bridge it would have been a different fight. As it was his infantry got shredded and my infantry pushed past them and surrounded his remaining shieldwall and medics.

The battle took a little over an hour to play, so I was real pleased with that time. I’ve got a 4 hour slot at the game store and I want the battle to take about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, something that is big and exciting. A normal D&D fight that lasts that long would be tedious, but because this is basically wargame D&D I think it’ll work out pretty well.

One of the many new elements in 4th edition is the Skill Challenge. In the month and a half of my playing 4e I’ve participated in a few, most notably one in my weekly Dark Sun game. The PC’s were guarding a caravan and were attacked by a group of monsters, two of which were swarms. The skill challenge was that every round during combat a few of the birds would break away from the swarms and attack the caravan people that we were guarding. At the end of each round each player told the DM what their character was doing to drive the birds away from the cowering drivers and laborers. Some players used Acrobatics to jump up and swat the birds away, others used Perception to tell the drivers that the birds were coming, thereby allowing the caravaners to hide. My mul gladiator used Endurance by intentionally wounding himself so that the stray birds would be attracted by the scent of fresh blood and come back to the swarm.

In the end we had enough successes that none of the caravaners were killed, though some of them had sustained injuries. We had completed the skill challenge! Huzzah! That’s been the best skill challenge I’ve had so far. The most frustrating one was in the same campaign where the party had to get past an arcane & mechanically locked door. No one in the party had either of the most useful skills (arcana or thievery), so there were long strings of failures interspersed with us getting blasted with arcane energy from the door. Needless to say we failed the challenge, the doors timer lock clicked and we were stuck. It was the end of the session anyway so we camped in the cave mouth and took an extended rest. The next game session we went back to the door and this time luck was on our side as we rolled high and quickly got the successes we needed to continue the adventure. The failure of the skill challenge completely shut us down and during it I mostly felt useless as my gladiator didn’t have much to contribute except standing in the way of the energy blasts.

The former skill challenge with the birds was far more enjoyable, as it was very well-integrated into the combat encounter, which meant that we weren’t suddenly stopping RP to mess around with a bunch of mechanics. I’m sure that this isn’t much of a surprise to most people reading this given your (presumed) greater experience with 4e, but for me it was a valuable lesson in how a skill challenge could be incorporated into the game without standing out like a sore thumb.

This is all leading somewhere, don’t worry.

I’m going to run the adventure “Reavers of Harkenwold” at the game store on Friday with a group of players that I met at Encounters the last two weeks. Yes, Encounters is actually working in bringing players together. It’s a great idea and my only gripe is that we haven’t had the material for the past two weeks. My thinking is that that’s a local issue though, not a problem with Encounters as a whole. We’ll see if the material is there tomorrow.

I’ve been reading through the adventure and I’m pretty excited about. It’ll be my first time DM’ing a 4e game, though certainly not my first time behind the screen. I don’t remember exact dates and such, but I do recall that I didn’t have my AD&D books for a year before I had conned my friends into letting me run the game. I don’t remember much about the sessions aside from the characters getting captured, thrown in jail, and the psion using some Non-PG-13 tactics to escape prison. Best not repeated, trust me. I’ve DM’d a handful of pick-up games for 3.5 for weeks when whatever group’s I was in DM took a break. I’ve also taken up ST duties and ran a Hunters: The Reckoning game for two players; that campaign was awesome, and ended sadly when the players got too cocky and went patrolling the streets, looking for vampires to beat.

Digression aside, I’ve decided to incorporate a challenge into the first encounter of the adventure. The setup is that the PC’s come upon a group of brigands with wolves that are standing outside a farmhouse with lit torches. There is a woman and her two teenage sons inside that the brigands are taunting. The adventure calls for a straight fight between the PC’s and the brigands, but I’m thinking that it’d be interesting if the brigands toss the torches onto the roof of the farmhouse before the fight starts. Now the PC’s have an immediate problem: how are they going to save the woman and her sons?

I didn’t refer to this as a skill challenge because I’m not going to run it like one. Instead think of it as a non-combat challenge set inside a combat encounter. The PC’s will have to use actions to complete the challenge instead of rolling skill checks during the fight. The woman has barred the door and shut the windows, and while the brigands are standing in front of the main door (which is where the fight will roughly take place), there is a back door that the woman could use to escape. The reason that she doesn’t just run away is that she’s afraid of being shot in the back by the brigands. Here are my notes on the challenge.

Title: The House Is On Fire!
Goal: Rescue the people stuck inside the house.
Strategy 1: Put out the fire. This allows the woman and her sons to stay inside the house in safety while the PC’s fight the brigands.

Strategy 2: Convince the people to leave the house. Ilyana and her sons will go out the back door and hide behind the farmhouse until the brigands are killed.

Strategy 3: Kill the brigands before the house burns to the ground. Once the brigands are dead Ilyana and her sons will come out and put out the fire.

Success: The fire is put out or the people leave the house before it burns with them inside it.

Failure: The fire is not put out and Ilyana escapes but her sons die.

1st Trigger: Once the brigands are dead Ilyana and her sons will leave the house if they are still alive.

2nd Trigger: Once the fire is out Ilyana and her sons open windows and shout encouragement to the characters, granting morale bonuses in combat.

The goal of the challenge is to save Ilyana, her sons, and the house. Regardless of whether the PC’s succeed or fail, Ilyana will escape but the PC’s don’t know that.

Instead of making skill checks to put out the fire or convince her to leave I’m going to tell the players that they can have their characters spend actions putting out the fire instead of fighting. There’s a well in the yard and my thoughts are that if a player spends his turn going to the well, drawing up water, going to the house and throwing it on the fire then that will take their actions for the round. There’s no check involved: either the players devote a turn to putting out the fire or they don’t. This seems to make sense in that you can’t fight and put out a fire at the same time. What I won’t tell them is that in order to put out the fire the players need a certain number of successes, to borrow the phrase from the skill challenge. Each round of characters actions putting out the fire counts as one success. If two players in a round devote their actions to putting out the fire then that’s two successes that round.

I’m going to use a number of mechanical elements to make the idea of putting out the fire attractive to the players, as their first response will likely be to try to kill the brigands before putting out the fire. They’ll learn about them as they come out in play.

1) When a player devotes his turn to putting out the fire his movements do not provoke opportunity attacks. Compare this to the idea of total defense, where the character is concentrating on evading attacks. Instead of making attacks against the enemy they are trying to move around the brigands, get to the well and put out the fire. As long as they’re not fighting the brigands, no opportunity attacks from the brigands versus those PC’s.

2) Spending an Action Point to aid in putting out the fire will count as 2 successes. So if a player devotes their turn to putting out the fire and spends an action point, they’ve contributed 3 successes that round. I figure it’s worth 2 successes because the AP action that the character would normally take would be an attack, and since it’s a limited resource it’s a highly valued action. In sacrificing the extra attack to put out the fire I feel they should get something good in return.

3) The house will burn down within a set number of rounds, so the players have a time limit within which to accomplish the task. They won’t know exactly how long that time limit is as the beginning of combat, but as the fire spreads it will be easier to tell when the house is almost consumed. Each success that the players get in putting out the fire will slow down the fire and add more rounds to the time limit. They won’t be told that directly but it’s effect should be obvious.

4) If the 2nd trigger happens (fire is out but brigands are alive), then Ilyana and her sons will open the windows to let the smoke out. They’ll stand there shouting encouragement to the characters, which will grant the characters some type of morale bonus. I think it’ll be something along the lines of a +2 to attack or defense for the duration of the encounter. It’s not a large number, but the party is 2nd level so it will have an impact and more importantly the players will see a direct result of their succeeding at the challenge.

As I’m re-reading what I just wrote I can see how this might seem over-complicated and slow combat down, but I think it will run fairly quick because the players aren’t going to be bogged down with the analysis that I’ve just written. All they have to do is tell me what they’re doing and I’ll keep track of the consequences, so from the player’s side it should run smooth, but more importantly it shouldn’t feel like a skill challenge.

I feel that pretty well covers the first strategy. The third strategy is simple: kill the brigands as fast as possible before the house burns down. The second strategy I’m not real sure about. I’m trying to think of ways for the players to convince Ilyana and her sons to escape while the PC’s are still fighting the brigands without using a skill check mechanic, but I’m having trouble thinking of actions that the players could take instead of rolling skill checks.



::two cigarette breaks later::


Got it. Ilyana is worried about the brigands attacking her and her sons if they leave the house, so for strategy #2 the players need to get the brigands away from the house. In game terms they’ll need to maneuver (push/pull/slide, etc) the brigands until all of the brigands are a certain number of squares away from the house…say…three squares away. That will give Ilyana enough confidence that she can make a safe getaway and the PC’s will have convinced her to escape.


To recap: We now have a challenge in the combat that doesn’t have to be solved by the PC’s killing the enemies or making a skill check. In the future I may try the normal rules for skill challenges in combats, but I’m curious to see how this one will play out. The game is set for Friday evening so I should have a report Friday night.


Good gaming!