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Enter: the dragon geeks

Live our D&D sessions vicariously. Or, try to remember what actually happened. Or, look at the pictures, skim the text, say "This is waaaay too long", and move on to something else.

Thanks to Wayne for the Malouf stream-of-consciousness contrib.

By fnord12 | August 29, 2006, 6:43 PM | D&D | Link

D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 5: Talking to NPCs

The characters you and the other players control are called PCs, for Player Character. All the other characters in the game will be controlled by the Dungeon Master, and are called Non-player Characters (NPCs). Your characters will be encountering many NPCs throughout the course of the game, from the undead zombies with no personalities, to the simple shopkeepers who don't know much about the outside world, to the complex individuals who are key to the plot of the story. There's little point in talking to the zombies (unless you're swapping brain recipies) but you will frequently wind up in conversations with the others. You'll want to remember to talk to them "in character" based on the personality you defined for your character in order to get the most out of your D&D experience (and so that you don't get penalized XP from the DM). Other than that, here are a few tips that will help you avoid falling into common problems when talking to NPCs:

Don't expect them to know everything. Don't waste time.
A common peasant most likely isn't going to know much about an evil goblin prince in a far off land. Even if you are investigating an occurance in a peasant's local area, they may only know rumors or small misleading pieces of information. They are mostly focused on living their own lives and are not placed in the game to help you. When talking to any NPC, try to be sensitive as to whether or not you are barking up the wrong tree, and don't waste your time. A character may be very friendly, inviting you into their home for dinner and spending half the night sharing the local gossip with you, but it's not going to get you anywhere.

They might not be telling the truth.
People lie. They may do it because they are up to no good, or maybe just because they don't like the cut of your jib. Characters with a high Wisdom can sometimes figure out if an NPC is lying, but otherwise you're going to have to use your own judgement. Feel free to go back and pay an NPC a second visit if their information led you to a snake pit instead of a treasure hoard.

Keep in mind the impression you are making on them.
In a land where most people are struggling to make their way in life, your characters, with their suits of armor and wizards robes and what-not, are going to stand out. This means people will remember you. If you go into a town and go around rudely interrogating everyone, you may find that the next time you visit that all the inns are closed, or worse.

Also remember that your characters are probably fairly intimidating to the average person - for one thing, you are heavily armed. People may say what they think you want to hear instead of what they actually know if you don't put some effort into setting their minds at ease.

You don't have to do what they tell you.
If you are on your way somewhere important, you don't have to stop and hunt down a band of local brigands just because a mayor has asked you to. You get to decide what your character does, not any NPC.

Don't piss them off.
The wrong words can get you killed. When dealing with an arrogant king or mad wizard, repeatedly asking questions that the character clearly doesn't want to answer, or otherwise insulting them, is likely going to get you thrown into a dungeon or turned into a centipede. Even when you are sure of your safety, you don't want to ruin your reputation with a few careless comments.

Overall, just use common sense. Pretend that you're talking to a real person and you should be fine. Be careless, and you could find yourself being run out of town by an angry mob with pitchforks.

By fnord12 | August 20, 2006, 1:11 PM | D&D | Comments (4)| Link

D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 4: Playing a Role

D&D is a role playing game (RPG). So while in D&D there are elements of fighting, puzzle solving, strategic decision making, etc., the underlying element that ties it all together is that you are playing the role of a character in a story. Sometimes roleplaying can be a bit embarassing, especially at first. However, you don't have to act outlandishly or use a silly voice if you don't want to. You just have to decide who your character is, and make choices accordingly. But it is important to decide who your character is ahead of time.

At this point, your character probably has a backstory. For some people, that may be enough. You can mine that for motivation and also make some decisions about how events in your character's past have shaped your personality. But that can all be fairly open ended, and it may help to simplify things a bit. One way to do that is to look at your alignment. Some veteran players think that the alignment system is outmoded, and some (non-D&D) roleplaying games don't use a system like that at all. But i think it works well for the purposes of getting down to your character's personality at a basic level. Are you evil, good, or neither? Are you reserved and strategic, wild and crazy, or somewhere in between?

The next step is to try and distill your character's personality into a few simple words. To start with, you don't necessarily need to create a complex, multi-dimensional character. In real life, humans are too bizarre and dynamic to categorize. In real life, no one fits neatly into an "alignment." But in fiction, most characters are essentially stock characters. Is your character the "strong, silent type", the "tough but loveable sergeant", the "bookworm", etc. Think of some of your favorite characters from books, movies, comics, or tv, and model your character on one of them. It doesn't have to be a fantasy based character, either: you could model yourself on Cliff Clavin from Cheers, for example: the annoying know-it-all who actually knows very little. The fact that you're also a CG half-orc thief is just dressing.

Now: since D&D is an RPG, part of your "score" (measured in Experience Points) is based on how well you role play. This is the most subjective part of the scoring. You may think you're doing a great job because you're being a meek, reserved character, and the DM may think you're not role playing at all because you're not saying anything (or,worse, you may be trying to play an annoying, pushy character, and everyone else thinks you're just being a jackass).

One way to deal with this is to make sure that everyone (especially the DM) knows what type of character you're trying to play. Once you come up with your short description, let the DM know what it is. Even better, if you plan on showing some character development over the course of a few sessions, be sure to tell your DM (but not the other players). Example: "My character is a loner, and they're going to start off acting very aloof and snippy to the other team members, but after a few sessions she'll start to warm up to everyone." Even more important is if you plan on changing alignment. Officially there are strict penalties for changing your alignment in D&D (including the loss of a level of experience). But if you want your character to change their alignment as a part of character development, whether it's a sudden dramatic shift due to a traumatic event ("After being nearly killed by that Beholder, my character has decided that life is too short to be so stuffy, and i'm switching from LG to CG") or a slow change in character development ("Hanging out with Durango the Thief has made my character forget some of the ethics i learned from my parents, and i'm slowly shifting from CG to CN"), as long as the DM knows about it, you won't get a penalty (in fact, you'll probably get a bonus).

It also helps if you pick a personality type that is at least somewhat distinctive from your own. If your character is acting just like you do in real life, the DM isn't going to know that you are role-playing, and even if he knows he won't be very impressed with your performance. However this is one of the hardest things for people to do. If you're a quiet person, it's not easy to take a role where you're a rowdy joke-teller, or vice-versa. One way to handle this is to distill some aspect of your personality and exaggerate it, creating a stock character out of yourself.

Another other way to show that you are role-playing is to stay in character as much as possible. Don't talk in terms of game rules, talk the way your character would talk. For example, instead of "Hey, Bob, i'm down to 4 hit points, can you cast 'cure light wounds'?", say "Father Klaren, my wounds are too great. Can you aid me?" And try to be descriptive in your actions. Instead of just "I attack," try "I charge up and swing my axe."

It will feel a little cheesey at first, but once everyone starts doing it, it can be a lot of fun. And those who make the effort will get the extra XP as their reward.

By fnord12 | August 16, 2006, 5:46 PM | D&D | Comments (1)| Link

D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 3: Battlefield tactics

Combat is inevitable in D&D, and when you play with miniatures, the battles can be a tad elaborate. Knowing the rudiments of battlefield tactics can mean the difference between an easy fight and defeat. Under the right circumstances, if they have control of the battlefield, a group of kobolds can defeat a high level party. I've never read Sun Tzu, and i'm no Captain America, but here are a few basic tips. As with everything in this series, most of these things will seem obvious. The "a-ha" factor is in realizing that these things matter in D&D.

Choose your opponent
Say you come across a powerful opponent accompanied by a group of weaker lackeys. Does it make more sense to ignore the lackeys and head straight for the big boss, or to clear out the lackeys first so you can then fight the boss uninterrupted, or to split your party up to take care of both simultaneously? The answer is dictated by circumstances and in truth there is no "right" answer, but the key is to have a strategy. Otherwise your opponents will decide for you in the way most favorable to them.

If things aren't working out, consider switching opponents mid-battle. This could surprise your enemies and also change the odds on a fight that was too evenly matched.

Notice what your opponents try to do and play to your own abilities. If you're fighting a group that contains a wizard and some fighters, and the fighters are doing everything they can to keep you busy while the wizard lurks in the background, they may be buying time for him to cast a particularly nasty spell. If you can't get around the fighters with brute force, is there something else your character can do that might work? A thief can fade back and try to sneak around, an archer could shoot over their heads, etc. But don't let your enemies decide your opponents for you.

Choose your battlefield
Whenever possible, get your enemies out of the area they have prepared and planned to fight in, and get them into one of your choosing. If you're trying to storm a castle this might not be possible, but if you're fighting a dumb Hill Giant who is standing in a field full of boulders that he's been hurling at you, lure him into the woods where he won't have as much ammo or room to maneuver. In a dungeon, maybe you can taunt your opponents and get them to chase you back into the area where your thief is waiting behind a door to backstab. When you camp for the night in dangerous territory, pick a spot that is easy to defend. When faced with a random fork in a dungeon corridor, consider what the advantages and disadvantages of each route would be in a fight.

This is all about teamwork. When you first approach an opponent, they turn to face you, regardless of what direction they were originally facing (unless you have skills or powers that make you extra sneaky). But when you are engaged in fighting an opponent, they can't turn to face your teammate approaching them from the other side. Flanking an opponent gets you a +1 on your rolls, and if you're on the correct side it also means they can't use a shield to defend themselves from your attack. Attacking from the back gets you a +2 (+4 if you are thief). So when possible it's good to work in pairs or teams to take out your opponents, even if it means leaving other opponents temporarily unengaged.

Wherever you wind up fighting, try to move towards areas that you can use to enhance your defensive position. Walls, hedges, piles of rubbles, etc., all give you place to duck under to avoid arrow attacks, hinder enemy movement, and possibly even give you a place to hide or rest during a battle.

High ground
It's harder to fight up a hill than defend a hill from the top. It's easier to pick people off with arrows when you're up on the castle wall.

A note about alignments and intelligence.
Obviously, your character's personality is going to affect how they act on the battlefield. We've all seen this sort of scenario: Wolverine (CG) charges headfirst into battle while Cyclops (LG) ineffectually shouts Danger Room training maneuvers in the background. This sort of conflict between characters makes for good role playing, but remember that Wolverine has a healing factor and knows what he can handle. No player, unless they are incredibly stupid (int or wis under 6), should act against their own self interest for the sake of staying in character. Even Conan, a kinda dumb chaotic barbarian, was pretty crafty when it came time to fight.

The main point, as always, is to think it out and not get stuck in a routine. Every battle you wind up in will be unique in some way. The important thing is realizing what is different and using it to your advantage.

By fnord12 | August 8, 2006, 4:10 PM | D&D | Comments (4)| Link

D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 2: Equipment

When your character goes shopping, in additions to weapons, you'll see all sorts of miscellaneous equipment that may not seem necessary. This may be compounded by the fact that they also have a section for livestock, so if like Robert E. Lee you can't go into battle without some scrambled eggs every morning, the DM knows what to charge you for a live chicken. But some of the items do have practical uses both in the dungeons and in the battlefield. The basic D&D set came with descriptions and potential uses for a lot of these items, but in AD&D i guess you're supposed to figure it out for yourself.

As i mentioned in volume 1, the main thing to remember is that you are not limited in what you can attempt. Here are some ideas for some of the things you can buy:

Oil: Mainly, oil is for keeping lanterns lit, but it obviously has a lot of applications. Some players become discouraged when they first attempt to set all their opponents on fire and discover it isn't quite that easy, but it still has uses on the battlefield. Say there's some archers up above you with plenty of cover. You can't get a good shot at them but they are tearing your group apart. Tossing up some flaming oil probably won't actually hit any of the archers, but it could force them out into the open, or at least away from their vantage point. Oil also is useful when you have time to prepare. Lubing up a staircase or the edge of a pit or crevice is a good way to turn an enemy's charge to your advantage, for example.

Iron Spikes & Hammer: If you're not a thief, you can use them to (noisely) climb short walls. They're also good for securing rope, which is nice both for dropping down the side of a tower or cliff, or for setting up a little tripwire in a doorway. You can also use them to wedge doors shut if you're being pursued and need some time to set up a counter-attack. Finally, they're a good distraction for rust monsters.

Mirrors: Aside from detecting vampires and making it possible to fight medusas and basilisks, mirrors have somewhat less specialized uses as well. Extra cautious parties use them to look around corners, although this becomes tedious if done routinely. However, they can be used for a quick peek at the enemy in a siege situation. And anyone who's seen Legend knows that you can use them to bring sunlight deep into a dungeon to send Tim Curry back into the netherworld, assuming you can keep all your gnomes awake.

Rations: If you're not carrying around live chickens, there's two basic types of food in D&D: Iron Rations and Standard Rations. Iron Rations are jerky and dried fruit and lembas wafers - not very appetizing, but they never go bad, so this is what most people wind up buying. Standard rations are unpreserved foods, so they taste better but they won't sit in your backpack forever, especially if you're in the habit of creeping around in moldy old underground caverns. However, standard rations have a non-culinary purpose: they can be used as bait for animals and monsters that think with their stomachs. Being pursued by a ravenous owlbear that you're in no mood to fight? Most likely given the choice between food it has to chase and food that's just sitting there, it'll probably leave you alone. Even better: got a pack of hungry hellhounds in one room and a large group of orcs in another? Lead one to the other and then you can fight the weakened winner.

Wooden Poles: Useful for poking in places you wouldn't want to stick your hands - dirty piles of rubble, holes in the wall, etc. If you suspect an area to contain pit traps, use the pole to feel out the floor in front of you. If you're in a large dark room and want to check out the ceiling, attach a lantern to the end of the pole.

Rope: When haggling with the shopkeeper, keep in mind that there are two types of rope: there's the thick kind that you used to climb in gym class that is good for cliffhanging and that's about it, and there is the thinner rope that is not quite as strong but is a little more versatile. With the thinner rope, you can make trip wires, tie up prisoners, suspend your halfling archer up in the rafters, and lasso pegasi. Just don't try and use the thin kind to lower yourself down a 30 foot pit while wearing full platemail and carrying a large sack full of gold coins.

My feeling is that most of this is obvious once you read it, but the idea is to get you thinking about different things you can do with items other than your sword. In addition to the stuff that you'll find in stores, there's also assorted items that you'll run across in your adventures. Don't be afraid to try stuff, and eventually you'll become a regular Jackie Chan propmaster.

By fnord12 | August 7, 2006, 3:26 PM | D&D | Comments (1)| Link

The Lost Gods

Wayne found websites that have the Lovecraftian and Melnibonean pantheons that were cut out of the original 1st Edition AD&D Deities and Demigods books. Just in case these sites ever go away, i'm reprinting the stats for Cthulu and Elric:

Greater god

MOVE: 18"/36"
DAMAGE/ATTACK: 1-10 (x30)
SPECIAL DEFENSES: Immune to magical control, +2 or better weapon to hit, regeneration
SIZE: L (100' tall)
ALIGNMENT: Chaotic evil
SYMBOL: Image of Cthulhu
PLANE: Prime Material Plane
FIGHTER: As 16+ HD monster
MAGIC-USER/ILLUSIONIST: 20th level magic-user
Str: 25 (+7, + 14)
Int: 20
Wis: 23
Dex: 20
Con: 25
Cha: -7

Cthulhu is a bloated humanoid form 100 feet high with an octopoid head and a face of tentacle-like cilia. It has scaly, rubbery skin, and prodigious hands and feet with curved talons. A pair of folded bat-like wings protrude from between its shoulders.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wagh'nagl fhtagn." -- "In his house in R'lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming." R'lyeh is a great sunken city of non-Euclidian geometry hidden somewhere beneath the ocean. So bizarre is its construction that anyone entering the city (which occasionally rises above the waves) must make saving throws at +4 against fear and insanity. Cthulhu lies in a huge stone structure sealed with the Elder Sign (q.v.). If the seal is broken and the god released, everyone (and/or everything) in a radius of 100 miles must make a saving throw against death or go insane. This insanity lasts for a number of months equal to the creature's intelligence.

Cthulhu usually attacks both physically and psionically. He can regenerate 10 hit points per melee round. He teleports up to one-half mile at will and is totally immune to the effects of water, cold, and vacuum. He can call up from the sea 10-100 of the Deep Ones. He will retreat into his lair if confronted with an intact Elder Sign, another of the Old Ones (such as Hastur), or some natural catastrophe, such as the re-sinking of the city of R'lyeh into the sea.

Cthulhu is served by the Deep Ones as well as his human worshipers, who often interbreed with fish-men. Cthulhu's cult is usually hidden and secret, and is dedicated to bringing about Cthulhu's return and conquest of the world.


ARMOR CLASS: 6 or -6 (see below)
MOVE: 6" or 15" (see below)
HIT POINTS: 45 (variable)
MAGIC RESISTANCE: Standard or 85% (see below)SIZE: M (6')
ALIGNMENT: Chaotic evil<
CLERIC/DRUID: 10th level cleric/5th level druid
FIGHTER: 15th level fighter
MAGIC-USER/ILLUSIONIST: 19th level magic-user/10th level illusionist
THIEF/ASSASSIN: 10th level assassin
Str: 6 (15)
Int: 18
Wis: 17
Dex: 17
Con: 3 (15)
Cha: 18

The fact that Elric is an albino causes him to be very weak, and he must use artificial means to supplement his strength and constitution. He makes strength potions for his own use out of rare materials. As he travels about, there is a chance that the materials he needs to give him greater strength are not available. At any given time, there is an 85% chance that he has his needed materials, and his strength and constitution will be up to 15. These may be altered by his magic sword, Stormbringer (see below). He employs a great many spells of an unusual nature, as he has the magical studies of all his ancestors to draw upon.

Elric has a conscience of a sort, and sometimes tries to do the "honorable thing", but he is responsible for much evil also. He often rationalizes that the end justifies the means. He is very arrogant towards most humans and extremely vengeful, and though he views the power of stealing souls through Stormbringer with great distaste, he does it anyway to survive.

Elric and his race are familiar with the other planes of existence and have traveled them in the distant past to visit gods in their home planes. Such knowledge has made this race the most powerful magic-users of the Prime Material Plane. It also gives Elric a large advantage in that he can call on forces of great power to aid him in dangerous situations.

He possesses two magical artifacts of great power that enable him to survive in a world very hard for his sort to live in:

The Ring of Kings
This large ring, made out of a single rare Melnibonean Actorios gem, has three main functions: it acts as a ring of many spells storings into which Elric can place any spell or spells he wishes; the ring aids him, as the royal heir, in summoning creatures from other planes to help him, and the ring also resembles a rod of rulership in that, after calling on these, he can demand their assistance and expect to get it. Long ago Elric's royal ancestors forged pacts with the Elemental Lords and many of the Master Types. With the Ring of Kings, Elric has a 70% chance of summoning any one of them (and their lesser minions), and an 80% chance of controlling them when they arrive. Without the ring, he has only a 20% chance to summon, and a 30% chance to make the summoned ones obey him.

This huge black rune-carved blade is actually a chaotic evil sentient being from another plane which takes the form of a sword on the Prime Material Plane. Stormbringer is possibly the most powerful magic weapon possessed by a mortal anywhere. It has an intelligence of 18 and an ego of 20. It is +5 to hit and damage, and every time it hits, it drains energy levels from its opponents. On a successful hit it will either drain all or one-half of its opponent's remaining levels (50% chance of either). Any creature killed by Stormbringer has its soul or spirit as well as its energy levels sucked out and devoured. No creature so killed can be raised, resurrected, reincarnated, or brought back in any manner whatsoever.

Stormbringer transfers its stolen levels to Elric in the form of strength and hit points. For every two levels stolen, Elric gains 5 hit points and 1 strength point. Elric's strength can be increased to a maximum of 23, but the only limit to the amount of hit points he can acquire is that the sword will only drain 200 levels before it becomes sated (this satiety lasts 8 hours). The strength and hit points added last 10 turns, and then Elric reverts to normal. When wielding Stormbringer, Elric's movement is 15" and his effective armor class is -6. It also confers to Elric an 85% magic resistance.

In battle, Stormbringer makes an evil, eager moaning, and gives off a weird black radiance. Creatures with less than 5 hit dice confronted with the black blade must save vs. death or flee in panic. It has been known to act as a dancing sword at Elric's command, but there is only a 15% chance of this.

If Elric is separated from Stormbringer, there is a 60% chance that he will be able to summon it to him, even from another plane.

Stormbringer is in all ways evil. Its purpose is to eat souls, thereby damning them to a horrible eternal death. Sometimes, in battle, Elric and the sword go into a killing frenzy, and slay everything within range, including Elric's friends, whose souls the sword particularly enjoys stealing.

By fnord12 | August 7, 2006, 10:12 AM | D&D | Link

D&D Tips 'n' Tricks, volume 1: Non-standard attacks

Way off on the dim periphery of my perception, i've heard some rumblings about what a hard dungeon master i am, and that i'm actually trying to kill the players. If that were true, of course, you'd be seeing a lot more dragons, beholders, land sharks, liches, and mind flayers in my campaign, but somehow the accusations are still out there. Possibly the reason why i am considered hard is that i think straight fights can be boring after a while, so i like to throw in additional challenges within a battle. So i thought i might start a series of tips and tricks to help players get an idea of how to deal with these sorts of challenges.

The appeal of pencil & paper role playing is that you are essentially unrestricted in terms of your choices. The only limitations are your character's abilities and the basic laws of physics. People used to playing video game RPGs may have to get out of the habit of thinking of every fight in terms of Fight/Spell/Item/Run. People who haven't played any kind of RPG may not realize how open-ended it can be. If you approach every fight with the mentality that all you can do is walk up to your opponents and hit them, you are going to find the fights difficult (but not impossible) and start thinking that i'm a jackass or i can't balance my encounters.

So let's look at an example. Let's say your party enters a cavern and finds itself face to face with a big angry ogre wearing a big platemail chestplate. After going a few rounds with him, you find that you've rolled as high as 15 and you haven't hit the guy yet. Meanwhile he is mopping up the floor with you. The "solution" that i've planned to this is that one of your party members needs to get around the ogre and notice that his armor is held on by big leather straps. A well placed sword slash and it falls off, and suddenly he's hittable. The ogre is aware of this and is going to do his best to make sure this isn't going to happen, but a thief can still sneak his way around, a monk could leap over his head, a dwarf or hobbit could dash right between his legs, a wizard could teleport, etc. Or if all that fails, a little coordination between fighters could force the ogre to turn one way or the other, exposing his rear.

So like i said, if that were a scenario i devised to add a little flavor to a fight, that's how i'd figure you'd get out of it. But that doesn't mean it's the only way out. Another possiblity is to have your fighters keep the ogre occupied while an archer patiently makes headshots from the other end of the room. You could also drop your weapons and pile on, having three or more of your group grapple the ogre to the ground, while a character is kept in reserve to slit his throat once he's pinned (or threaten to, forcing a surrender, if you're a goody-goody). If solutions aren't coming quickly to you in the heat of battle, maybe it's time for a strategic withdrawal.

My example had a built-in solution, but that general mentality is the way to approach almost any fight, even if there isn't a "trick". Unless you're a group of 36 level characters, you never want to just attack a dragon head-on, for example. You'll want to start by finding ways to weaken it, tearing holes in its wings, leaving some spears jammed into its body, whatever you can manage. Of course, there will always be times when you're just faced with a room full of orcs, and you can just plow through them. But whenever the brute force method isn't working, it's a good idea to start thinking outside the box.

By fnord12 | August 4, 2006, 4:41 PM | D&D | Comments (8)| Link

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