Villain Profile: The Mockers

Posted on : 04-05-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, Links, Tips, Villain Profiles


In general, I’d like to start providing more material on this site that’s usable in your game. To that end, I’m going to endeavor to post recurring, column-esque posts that run along common themes. You’ve already seen the first “Setting Seeds” post; I plan on continuing that series in the future. This post marks my first “Villain Profile” post. More in this series will come, and I will also try to add variety to what I post by including additional series.

The Mockers are more than a single villain; they are a villainous organization with a few main villains at the top. The Mockers are a thieves’ guild; they operate out of Fallcrest in my own campaign, but they can operate out of any medium-to-large city or town. As the moniker of “thieves’ guild” would suggest, they do a lot of stealing. They fund a variety of criminal activities, from simple theft and burglary to extortion, bribery, prostitution, drug-running, and–at times–murder.

The Mockers have a reputation for being extremely mercenary. That is, while they work for themselves frequently and line their pockets with the fruits of their endeavors, they also hire themselves out to powerful individuals who need their services. They have an extensive information network, which is attractive to the wealthy and powerful. They also employ a number of very skilled burglars and second-story men, who are often contracted to steal things from other rich and powerful people. Occasionally, they are also hired for assassination. This is rare, but not because the Mockers have any particular problem with it from a moral standpoint; rather, it tends to attract a lot of attention, so the price is commensurately steep.

At the top of the organization is Kalder Red-Eye, a tiefling who passes himself off as a much less influential crime boss. Most people in Fallcrest know Kalder is a petty criminal with aspirations to a much greater position; he exploits the weak and destitute. The reality is that Kalder is the head of an extremely powerful criminal syndicate that is thoroughly integrated into Fallcrest’s infrastructure. Kalder enjoys being underestimated, as it gives him the element of surprise on his opponents.

Kalder is an ambitious and calculating man, and is almost completely amoral. He doesn’t go out of his way to hurt people or cause misery, but doing so is often a byproduct of his profession, and he has no particular problem with that. Where Kalder comes from is a bit of a mystery; most people just say that he’s always been there, doing what he does. Few can remember when he first appeared, and this is likely intentional. Kalder deliberately does not use his true surname, even though his persona is quite public; his father was a farmer who lost everything because of a gambling habit, and he wants no one to know this about him.

If Kalder has weaknesses, it is likely his overconfidence. Kalder believes himself to be superior to most people that he meets, and while he doesn’t make a habit of underestimating his enemies, he is an arrogant man. He also has an over-developed sense of opportunism; often a slim chance of a large payoff is enough for him to commit resources to the job, and this can sometimes blow up in his face. Finally, as befits someone of his amoral viewpoint, his loyalties are extremely flexible. He’ll hire the services of the Mockers out to nearly anyone, even someone who one of his minions just stole something from last week. While he’s usually subtle enough to get away with this, sometimes it gets him into trouble.

The Mockers, and Kalder, are appropriate for heroic-tier characters. Kalder’s likely not the true villain, but he probably works for the true villain, even if it’s not obvious for a while. The Mockers are designed to be an omnipresent low-level threat, constantly harassing the players and getting in their way, but rarely posing a truly serious threat to anyone–until the villain hires them to do something really evil.

Encouraging Terrain Powers

Posted on : 30-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, GMing Methodology, House Rules, Links, Tips


The DMG 2 introduced the concept of terrain powers. These are pretty much what they sound like: they’re effectively environmental effects structured as powers, to make them easier and clearer to use. I like the system quite a bit, and actually utilized some props to encourage their use in my last session. To encourage the players to use these powers, I printed out power cards for them. This allowed them to see just what a terrain power could do before they used it, and allowed them to weigh cost versus reward. I tended to err on the potent side for terrain powers (since they can be used by either side), but I also tended to make them limited in their ability to be used; that is, most were single-use, while others had a limited-use mechanic.

Overall, it worked fairly well; the players used the terrain powers, and they used them to very good effect. There was one thing missing, though: my monsters never really used the terrain powers, because I forgot to. While the players had a handy visual reminder of what they could do with the terrain, I had neglected to give myself one; as the DM, I had a lot of powers to keep track of, and without something to remind me that they were there, I tended to focus on what my monsters could do by themselves. There is, I realized, a very simple solution to this problem: put the terrain powers right in the monster stat blocks.

Thanks to the Monster Builder, it’s easy enough to modify monster stat blocks and to copy terrain powers from one monster to another. Having terrain powers in the monster stat blocks acts as a handy reminder of what tactics are available to your monsters, as well as a good reference for how powerful those powers are in relation to their own. You can also use this technique to remind yourself of specific tactical tendencies of monsters. If you’re running a combat with a lot of different terrain powers, it’s easy enough to only put the powers in a given stat block that that monster is likely to use. Is there a mounted ballista that does less damage than your artillery monster’s own weapon? It doesn’t need that power. The skirmisher or brute might, though, until the PCs close the distance. Zombies aren’t likely to utilize the environment a lot, but orcs and goblins probably will, and you can bet your bottom dollar that kobolds will.

Here is a very simple example, an encounter from my last session that I modified after the fact. I encourage you to experiment with this technique, and I also encourage you to share your results and modifications here on this blog.

Conditions in 4E

Posted on : 19-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Links, Musings, Tips


I just came across this monster optimization article in my blogroll. In general, I like these articles a lot, primarily because I’m always looking for ways to really challenge my PCs. Most of my fights wind up being significantly easier on them than I expect them to be, and some of the ones that are “difficult” are really only long and probably somewhat annoying. In theory, I like the idea of the grell/quickling combination presented in the article above. That one-two punch of blinding or dazing combined with a combat advantage damage spike can be a nasty surprise for PCs who think they’re untouchable. It does bring up a problem that I find myself dancing with frequently, though.

The problem is, some conditions in 4E can be really annoying to players when they’re overused. The dazed condition is one of them, the blind condition is another. Slowing and immobilizing can make your extremely mobile characters have to vary their tactics, but they can also be really irritating to players whose tactics rely on mobility if they’re being shut down for an entire fight. Stunning and dominating are probably the ones you want to use the most sparingly, though a monster that dominates can be a lot of fun if you allow the PC to continue to play the dominated character.

As a related aside, I’ve been playing a lot of Final Fantasy Tactics A2 on my DS lately. It’s a lot of fun and, like 4E, utilizes a myriad of conditions that do various things. Some of these conditions are extremely fun and satisfying when you get to use them on monsters. Immobilization works like it does in D&D; disabling prevents a monster from taking actions other than movement. I rely on these two conditions quite a lot in my fights, and it makes the game more fun. But here’s the thing: there are a lot of conditions, both in FFT and in D&D, that are lots of fun for players to use, but can make the game really un-fun when they’re used on the players with similar frequency.

The above article makes me a little wary. In theory, I like fight that allow the monsters to gain combat advantage frequently, especially when that grants them extra damage, too. It makes the fight more dangerous for the PCs, which makes the fight more exciting and memorable. If you can drop a PC in a fight, that’s a fight that’ll be remembered in the future. However, I know from experience that relying on the dazed condition too much makes for a long, drawn-out fight that isn’t all that exciting, or that feels unfair to the PCs. There’s a fine line between difficult and cheap, and it can be difficult to walk in D&D.

What are your thoughts? What experiences have you had with conditions such as dazed, stunned, dominated, and so forth? Do you have tips for how to utilize them effectively?

Roll for Initiative!

Posted on : 18-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Downloads, Links, Tips


The Newbie DM has a really nice post up about an analog initiative tracker that I like. It’s good for heroic tier games, but would require some modification for paragon and epic.

This has prompted me to share what I do for initiative tracking. I’ve actually gone through three different methods, and I’ll share them all here.

Method one was extremely old-school. I would print out this initiative tracker and hand-write characters and monsters in their initiative slots as initiative was rolled. It was time-consuming, especially when someone moved around in the initiative order via a delay or readied action. To save time, I’d often pre-roll monster initiative and write them in before the game, but that delay/ready problem was still a factor. It does allow you to track conditions and hit points, but things got overlooked a lot, and I ran into problems when two or three combatants had the same initiative count.

This prompted me to move to method 2. In method 2, I used a magnetic whiteboard and a number of magnetic index card-style tiles (all of them dry-erasable) to track initiative. Each PC, monster (or group of monsters), and trap/hazard would have its own card, and the cards would be arranged in initiative order as it was rolled. Hit points and conditions could be written directly on the cards, and they could be moved as initiative counts changed. There were a couple of problems with this method. First, because it was a dry-erasable product, text often got smudged and erased. Second, without an easel, there really was no easy way to prop it up so the whole group could see it, and it kept falling down. Third, I had to dragoon one of my players into being responsible for it, because it was too distracting for me while I was trying to run the combat. Below, you can see what it looked like in play.

So, because of the above issues, I only used this method for a few games before adopting a new one. I cannot, for the life of me, remember where I heard about this method, as it took a while for me to adopt it, so unfortunately I can’t give credit where it’s due. Suffice it to say, I like it quite a lot. It does take some prep before-hand, but now that the bulk of it is done, future games should be easier to prep for than the first time I used this method (I’ve only used it once, so far). So, what is it? First, I created this file, and another file like it with the monsters I was using. Then I printed everything out on card stock (a DM’s best friend, by the way), cut it all out, and folded everything along the center line. I used a bead box to organize my condition cards. During the game, as initiative is rolled, I drape these cards over my DM screen with the pictures facing the PCs and the info facing me. If someone changes their order in the initiative, I can just pick up a card and drop it in the right place. If someone applies a condition to someone else, I drape on of the condition cards over that combatant’s initiative card until the condition no longer applies. It works great, gives the players a nice visual representation of all of the combatants, and gives me a lot of useful information. It’s also easy to use in play, and doesn’t take up a lot of space or time at the table. Again, you can see it in action below.

So how do you track initiative?

Mass Effect 2, Encounter Design

Posted on : 04-04-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, GMing Methodology, Tips, Video Games


I’ve been playing a lot of Mass Effect 2 lately, which I absolutely love. The role-playing elements (and by this, I mean things like characterization and choices that impact the game, not stat progression) are all very well implemented, and the combat is fantastic. In fact, there are a number of things about ME2 combat that, I think, are applicable in games like D&D. One thing, in particular, occurs to me now.

Waves: Many of the fights in ME2 take place in waves. You run into a room and fight five or six guys, firing from behind cover and trying to get the tactical upper hand. Just when it looks like you’ve got them mopped up, five or six more guys come in, these ones a little bit tougher. When they’re almost taken care of, something big and tough will sometimes come in, like a combat mech or a heavily armored and shielded commander of some sort.

In a D&D game, introducing enemies in waves can be a great way to have a really huge fight with a lot of peaks and valleys in the tension without making it overwhelmingly difficult for your players to get through it. When you introduce waves, it can also add verisimilitude to the game, making it seem like reinforcements from nearby rooms in the dungeon are bursting in, reacting to the noise of the fight. Setting up an encounter this way also allows for players to feel really clever if they manage to take out a group without alerting the others.

By way of example, you could have the encounter start fairly simply; a room full of minions with a few non-minion enemies, maybe brutes or skirmishers. The fight starts, the party wipes out most of the minions, and one of the non-minions sounds an alarm of some sort. A round or two later, a leader enemy, maybe an elite, bursts through the door with some other tough hombres–brutes or soldiers–and maybe a controller or an artillery or two. If you really want to add drama and tension, once those guys are on the ropes, introduce a solo. Let’s say you’ve got a room full of demon-worshiping gnolls. These guys are easy enough, and eat up few of the party’s resources. The next wave, though, has some gnoll soldiers a couple of archers, as well as a demonic scourge. Try to reserve the demonic scourge’s death for later in the fight, when a lot of the others are dead. Make it clear that the demonic scourge is possessed, and killing him might release a demon. When he does drop, a solo demon bursts out of his body and attacks; if the party tries to incapacitate him instead, the demonic scourge kills himself to release the beast.

Trying New Things in D&D

Posted on : 25-02-2010 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Tips


In the next D&D session–which is on Sunday–I’m going to try a couple of new things.

The first thing I’m going to try is a new system of tracking initiative and conditions. I’ve heard about this on other blogs (namely Sly Flourish, Critical Hits, and Newbie DM), and I figured I’d give it a try. What I’ve been using is a big whiteboard with small, dry-erase magnets representing combatants. The problem with this is that it’s big and unwieldy (without an easel, at least), and doesn’t really make condition tracking any easier. So, I went ahead and printed out a bunch of folding cards representing combatants, which I will hang over my DM screen in initiative order. On my side, there’s relevant information such as passive Insight and Perception scores (for the PCs) and defenses and resistances (for the monsters), while on the PCs’ side are portraits representing each combatant. To track conditions, I’ve got smaller folding strips with the condition names on them. When a combatant is saddled with a condition, I grab the strip for that condition and pop it on top of his initiative card. We’ll see how it works in practice, but I’m optimistic.

The second thing I’m doing is trying to make terrain matter more. I really like the idea for terrain powers presented in the DMG2, but I’ve been at a loss as to how to get the PCs to actually use them. Then it hit me: they have cards representing all of their own powers and items and such; why not make cards representing available terrain powers so that they know exactly what effect they’re going to produce. This way, they can make a more informed decision as to whether to use the terrain power or one of their own. I’ll let you know how that goes, too.

Solos, pilfering content, and a session report

Posted on : 13-09-2009 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, D&D, DM's Journal, Links, Musings, Session Reports, Tips, Zombies


The first session report of the new adventure (the first adventure for 4th Edition written entirely by me, and not adapted from a published adventure) is up. Also, there are some new NPCs and locations on the main page of the campaign wiki.

The recent session got me thinking about some stuff. One fight in particular, the one where the PCs were attacked by undead creatures, gave me some insight as far as what is and isn’t fun for solo monsters. I used a solo monster in that fight, a zombie abomination from an RPGA adventure (I got it from the Compendium). I used the monster as written, and I ran into some issues. First, it’s probably important to use a solo that is the same level as the party. This solo was a level behind, and its attack bonuses just weren’t up to par. Actually, I’m not sure why its attack bonuses were so low. It had trouble landing any hits on the part, and at one point it was marked by Chance, but in order to hit him it literally had to roll a natural 20. The abomination wound up being a big sack of hit points, but not really much of a credible threat.

Another issue with the abomination is its Rise Again power; basically, when the abomination is killed, it gets back up on the following round with half its max hit points. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this power; the zombie hulk from the monster manual has the same power. In the case of the zombie hulk, I think it’s okay. The hulk is a standard monster, with 88 hit points, meaning it’ll rise again with 44; a group with two strikers (like mine) should be able to take that out in a round or two, so you get some dramatic tension when it gets back up, but it doesn’t drag the combat out too much. With the abomination, though, has 232 hit points, so it gets back up with 116; that’s a lot of extra hit points. What I found is that the power made the combat drag on a little too long, after the party’s victory was already a foregone conclusion. In general, I think it’s a bad idea to give solos, and maybe even elites, abilities that make them harder to hit or give them too many hit points. You want them to last for a while, but you don’t want them to overstay their welcome or make the combat drag. Solos should also have pretty good attack bonuses, so that they actually feel like a big threat. As it was, I think the forsaken shell did more damage than the zombie abomination did.

I’ve also been reading the new Eberron Campaign Guide, and I’m definitely going to be stealing some ideas from it for my campaign. You may already have seen some of that in the newest session report, in my mention of a druidic sect known as the Wardens of the Wood. In that case, it’s basically just a name I liked, but there are other, more significant things that I’ll be borrowing and adapting for the campaign. Just wait and see.

The Thrifty DM: Resources for DMs

Posted on : 10-08-2008 | By : Brian | In : 4th Edition, Downloads, Links, Tips


As a long-time DM, I’m always on the lookout for tools and such that make my job a little bit easier. Since I really haven’t shared all this stuff with you guys yet, I figured I would. Most of this stuff is relatively inexpensive, if not downright free. Some of it is designed for RPGs some of it is not, but can be used for such. Anyway, in no particular order:

  • Wizards of the Coast actually puts out some quality products that I use, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least give them a mention on this post. First is their line of Dungeon Tiles, which are excellent. They feature good artwork, clean, easy to see and use, 1-inch grids, they’re modular, and they’re somewhat dry-erasable. Also, they’re only $10 a pop, which is nice. One caveat: I say they’re somewhat dry-erasable because I’ve got a few tiles with what seem like permanent marks from dry-erase ink that sat on the tile too long. So be careful. That said, if you find yourself having to replace some tiles, they’re not that expensive. Also useful if you use Dungeon Tiles is Jai’s Dungeon Tile Mapper, a free program for creating DT-based maps on your computer. It’s basically the same program that Wizards hosts, except that it’s actually been updated since the third DT set came out; the only one currently missing is the newest one, Hall of the Giant Kings, which may be added soon.
  • Also by Wizards is their line of D&D Miniatures, which I am a recent enthusiast and collector of. Booster packs are reasonably priced, and are even more so if you shop around a little bit, but are randomized. If you want specific, individual minis, is a good resource, as is ebay.
  • But what if you don’t want to drop all that money on minis? What if you need a mini that doesn’t exist, is hard to get, or you can’t wait for it to ship because you’re playing tomorrow? Cardboard counters are a good way to go. I usually make my own, printed on card stock, which is pretty cheap at Staples and other office stores. As far as images for said counters, there are a number of good resources available. Wizards hosts a number of character portraits, as well as a multitude of images from their catalog of products that can be chopped up in your favorite image editing software. You could also check out these D&D counters. Finally, the art forum on EN World is a fantastic resource for all kinds of RPG-related artwork; of particular note is Storn’s thread, not only because his artwork is excellent but because it’s all released under a Creative Commons license. Beware, though; EN World can sometimes run a little slow due to their massive server load.
  • Another thing that’s often required for D&D (especially under 4th Edition) is small counters and beads of various descriptions to keep track of conditions like marked, cursed, bloodied, and others. You could go to a gaming store, but you could also go someplace like AC Moore or Jo-Ann Fabrics. They have lots of beads, as well as bead boxes that can be used to store and organize your beads or other things. I use bead boxes to store my Dungeon Tiles, for example.
  • Finally, I recently found a website that has all sorts of great stuff, including a nice landscape character sheet, some cards for tracking conditions, and some very nice power and magic item cards (I use the Magic Set Editor, but these are nice too).

I hope this has been helpful to people out there who want to DM, or already do DM. Maybe I saved you some time.

Yes, I am that big a geek

Posted on : 29-09-2006 | By : Brian | In : Random Stuff, Tips


I recently got it in my head that I needed a better method for storing my dice. I had been storing them in an Asian-flavored dice bag, and it was pretty and somewhat functional, but had the downside of making it difficult to find the right die at a moment’s notice. So, I went out to a craft store, bought a modular storage box, and adapted it for my purposes. Observe:

Of note is the fact that I have room for pencils, dry erase markers, and china markers (all useful), and that I have a compartment containing about a buck sixty in pennies. I’ve found that, from time to time, I need counters for things (particularly in a token-heavy game like Iron Heroes), and pennies are just the cheapest counters out there. Also, I’ve got some semi-home-made d2s and d3s in there.

[Edit: fixed the picture.]

What to do with those old issues of Dungeon

Posted on : 27-09-2006 | By : Brian | In : Musings, Tips


I subscribed to both Dungeon and Dragon for a while (and, thruthfully, I’d like to subscribe again but don’t have the funds), and I enjoyed them both immensely. There was a lot of stuff in them that seemed really usable; the problem was that I never really used any of it. Once I’d read an issue, I shelved it and never really thought about it again. Recently, in an attempt to clean out some shelf space, I started going through all those old issues again. I needed to Get Organized. I needed to Do Something. So I did. I went out to Staples and bought a 1 1/2″ binder and a bunch of sheet protectors. Then I brought them back home and began to systematically rip the adventures that I liked out of those back issues of Dungeon and organize them within the binder. Now, after about an hour’s worth of work, I have a nice collection of adventures, organized by low-, mid-, and high-level status, and alphabetized for easy reference. It’s great. I’m taking a second look at all those old adventures, and I plan on using elements of all of them in the future. It’s a great reference and I’m glad I did it.

Next, I’ll tackle Dragon, organizing it into categories like setting info, classes, feats, monsters, and other such things. I’m convinced it’ll be just as useful; I just need more sheet protectors.