Selling The Drama

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sadly, the You Tube videos were all pulled by WWE since I published the article.

Regardless of the actions that take place during combat encounters in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, it is the responsibility of the DM to ensure the players know what they are fighting for and both how and why monsters are reacting to them in the environment. Earlier in the week, I discussed how DMs can respond to the increase of critical hits by players during Paragon Tier with new monster traits and immediate actions. These design features for critical hit protection may seem like “DM cheese” to players, so it is important to incorporate the mechanics into the story and flow of combat.

What do you see – two men standing around and hugging each other, or the most important clash of titans ever to take place on Earth?

I sometimes think of combat encounters as professional wrestling matches. Yes, I’m talking about World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), although I prefer the previous name – World Wrestling Federation (WWF). You have the heel (monsters) and the face (player characters) facing each other in combat in the ring (encounter area). They are both playing to the crowd (DM and players) while executing scripted manuevers (powers, etc). The DM needs to be a combination of Ric Flair and Jim Rosssell the events that are transpiring in the ring!

The moves of a wrestling match are often quite mechanical and boring, but when you have one wrestler acting like a move just broke his spine while the announcer is selling the audience that the wrestler may have to retire after the match, the viewer cannot help but be more engaged in the outcome. The wrestlers and the announcer are telling a story. During combat encounters, the DM must tell a story as well. Below, I provide examples of how this can be accomplished.

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Critical Overload

I am discovering a growing “problem” in my campaign. The number of critical hits leveled against monsters during any given combat encounter in our Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign is getting out of hand and it is effecting my ability to balance encounters. For example, I built up a villain over the past two months in my home campaign. The party was informed the leader of Ghost Talon was a murderous criminal set to rid Gloomwrought (and Beyond) of all but shadar-kai. Last week, the party finally took him on in battle . . . and absolutely crushed him and his guards.

My monsters are turned into puddles of blood much too quickly these days.

I imagine the players enjoyed the session much like one might enjoy lazily reading a good book on a beach while the sounds of the ocean massage his or her ears. The question I have asked myself and others since the session is, “How do I respond to the critical overload happening in our sessions?” Below, I describe the growth of critical hits I’m witnessing in our games and discuss a variety of methods to cope with the problem.

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Lest Ye Be Judged

Character alignment has been something that is largely overlooked in the D&D campaigns I am a part of – either as a PC or a DM. Generally the players are Lawful, Lawful Good or Neutral on their character sheet but this label is in no way connected to their character’s behavior. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits or lack thereof of the alignment system, but to present how I dealt with a concern I developed in my campaign related to alignment.

"Justice is blind, let's just do whatever we want."

My party is composed of “normal” players, meaning no one seems outwardly to be a dangerous sociopath. The group has mostly focused on “doing the good thing” and trying to save the day. There are times when morality is bent to achieve a certain end, and these situations have been roleplayed effectively by the players. But as the characters have leveled up and gained greater mastery in the world, the players also seemed to grow more confident in bending rules or blatantly disregarding laws.

I felt like the party’s moral compass was spinning in circles, but I did not see it as my job as the DM to tell the party what to do. I saw my job as developing appropriate consequences for their actions. They did not do anything this heinous, but there were questionable actions in the game world. Namely, a murder of an unarmed man in one town who the party learned was abusing his wife and the murder of another unarmed woman in another town during an interrogation. I began to feel like the players were running roughshod through the world I created, but I was not sure how to address it without forcing the players to conform to my sense of morality and judgement in a heavy-handed manner.

In the end, I decided to place the characters on trial and allow them to defend themselves from a variety of accurate (and inaccurate) charges. I was most curious to see how the players would respond, and it turned into an enlightening – and hopefully enjoyable – skill challenge/roleplaying experience. Below, I describe how I prepared and executed the trial.

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Discount Fares to Shattered Isles

I previously detailed a skill challenge that featured the party chasing their prey along the rooftops of Gloomwrought. Once the party finally corners their prey – in this case, traitors of Ghost Talon – the unstable building in the Shattered Isles collapses. The challenge I faced was bringing the Shattered Isles to life for the ensuing encounter. The Shattered Isles are described as a series of five island jutting out of the water. A bit of the flavor text provided in the Shadowfell boxset (p. 58) is below:

Some parts of [the Isles] are eternally on the verge of collapse . . . Parapets droop at extreme angles, black stone seeming to flow down their faces like wax running down a candle. Cracked edifices lean together over narrow cobbled streets and end abruptly at the shore . . . Monsters of many sorts lurk among the ruins, and these creatures can snatch even the canny folk who live near such threats and know of them. The thick, black fluid known as necrotic seepage sometimes boils up from the polluted earth, and islanders who know enough to stay away from it can avoid contracting the disease it carries.

I could have drawn a map, which would have made my life significantly easier, but I imagined something else entirely. The images conjured from the flavor text seemed to need something more than a two-dimensional hand drawn map, and this is what I created.

Behold the Shattered Isle!

Below, I present my low-cost solution to bringing the Shattered Isles to life.

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Gloomwrought’s Final Destination

One of the fun challenges of running a session in the Shadowfell is trying to convey the magnitude of wickedness, gloom, despair and violence. The DM can hit the five senses quickly through flavor text, but the Shadowfell seems to call for even more attention to detail in terms of convincing the players that they should be in a constant state of fear.  It is a challenge I continue to face each week as my players continue to adventure in Gloomwrought (and Beyond).

Weep now and despair!

A tool provided in the Shadowfell boxset is the Despair Deck, which is a nifty tool to layer additional mechanics into the game to demonstrate the negative effects of simply spending time in the bleak realm. The suggestions are to use the Despair Deck any time a character takes an extended rest while in the Shadowfell or if they witness a rather nasty scene such as “a lair where ghouls have been feeding off townspeople.” I tweaked this second approach over the weekend when the party arrived at an enormous pile of rotting corpses. The party decided to search through the pile in the hopes of finding gold or other valuables. At this point, I asked everyone who was searching to roll a saving throw; those that failed were required to draw a card from the Despair Deck.

The Save vs. Despair option seemed appropriate to the story, and I believe it’s a good tool for any DM to utilize. A fellow gamer suggested the DM should consider the character’s Race with Despair effects. For example, perhaps characters with the Shadow origin are not affected; also, there is now a Warforged in my adventuring party and I probably should have skipped him saving against Despair (his roll was successful anyway, so it turned out to be moot). Even without the Despair Deck, the DM can create potential “Save vs. X” effects based on the story and encounters in the campaign.  This is another interesting way to navigate the Save vs. Death issue.

There are many other ways for a DM to convey the required emotions the Shadowfell outside of the Despair Deck. Below, I talk about additions I made to one of the published skill challenges in the Shadowfell Encounter Book to increase the level of horror in the adventure.

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Drink It!

I have the good fortune of playing with a gaming group that has a great deal of terrain and miniatures for combat encounters. The host of our game has been collecting such items for many years, and members of our group continue to add to the collection; most notably, we have numerous sets of Dwarven Forge terrain, which is simply spectacular. I realize such tools are a luxury for me as a DM and player, and I try not to rely on the terrain too much in order to have a memorable session. I continue to search for simple and low-cost props to enhance the enjoyment of a game or emphasis a specific dynamic on an encounter.

Can you name this movie? Hint, he's saying the title of this post.

Last session, the party finally got to meet an important NPC in the campaign world – the leader of a religious/military order, High Priest Adamar (name blatantly stolen from A Knight’s Tale). Adamar was slowly built up over the course of two years in my campaign. The players have assumed the NPC was corrupt, mostly because of the name I choose to give him. Other documentation provided to the players asserted that he was a villain. However, they players did not have an opportunity to meet with him face-to-face before the session. With such a high-profile meeting, I wanted the non-combat encounter to be memorable. Below, I discuss how I attempted to accomplish that outcome with a rather simple request, “Take this and drink it.”

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Fountain of Sorrow: Solo Contest Winner

Last month, David Flor over at A Walk In The Dark sent out notice that he was running a contest. The challenge was for DMs to create an encounter for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition with a Solo monster. David listed the rules for the contest, but two caught my eye immediately:

The minimum requirement must be a single, actual encounter with a SOLO creature. You can add anything you want in and around the encounter – skill challenge, trap, hazard, special terrain, magic effects, other monsters, etc… – but the main adversary must be a solo monster and it must be an actual tactical encounter in which the solo monster must be defeated (Note: “defeated” need not mean “dead”).

The area must contain some sort of “pool, fountain or basin”, and it must have some meaning to the encounter beyond being set decoration. We will leave the interpretation of that to you.

I have been creating unique monsters for my homebrew campaign and was in the process of experimenting with Solo monster ideas when I learned of the contest. I considered a variety of ideas for including a “pool, fountain or basin,” but the one idea I really enjoyed was that the fountain was the Solo monster. I had recently received and was likely influenced by Monster Manual 3, which includes background information and stat blocks for Mimics.

The Fountain Mimic

I decided the encounter would include a fountain, and the fountain would be the Solo monster. Once I arrived at that decision, everything else flowed (no pun intended) from there. Ten pages later, I submitted the following encounter for the contest:

Download Fountain of Sorrow

I learned last week that I was one of the winners for the Solo contest. I encourage everyone to check out the four winning entries posted at A Walk In The Dark. Each adventure would be a fine addition to your campaign and may give you ideas for encounters and quests with your group. I would like to thank David Flor for running the contest . . . and not holding it against me that I named the primary villain in Fountain of Sorrow “Divad,” which is his name spelled backward.

One final note, I wish I would have found the Fountain Monster image above earlier to include in the contest entry. I discovered the image on an interesting Swedish blog just recently, and wanted to ensure the creator got her credit.