Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alas poor Ethan

Alas poor Ethan, I....  hardly knew you. 

At the beginning of summer we shifted DM chair occupants.  Switching back to the Cormyr game required one of our players to create a character, as he had not been in the Cormyr game when we left off.  His character build was a rogue designed for high sneak attack damage output.  He didn't really fit our party perfectly, but what the heck, when does a character truly fit a party perfectly. 

During summer, we struggle to find game time - people on vacation and all that jazz.  So here we are post summer getting things going again.  At the end of the last outing and the beginning of this one we are questioning some dead elves.  Among the cryptic bits of information, we learn the nasty elves are planning to utterly destroy the village of Tyrluk.  Since we will have none of that, off we go to save the village.

In Tyrluk there is a very large chest full of treasure which has inexplicably found its way to the center of the village without any obvious way for it to have happened.  We scratch our head for a while, cast a bunch of spells, and come up with crazy speculation ad nauseam until we finally decide, lacking any good idea - this must be bait to attract terrible monsters to come and destroy the village. 

Time passes, we consider a number of ideas to fortify the village, and then one by one we discard them since we have no clue what might be coming, from what direction, or what mode of travel.  So we wait.  Finally one of our characters spies large creatures coming down the road - giants.  When they get close enough to further identify them, our archers begin to punish them with arrows.  They look to be five hill giants and something bigger, much bigger, in their midst.  Our plan is set - bow fire to reduce their numbers, the wizard will drop repeat distance area damage spells on them to further weaken them, and our cleric (me) will stand just inside the center of town as our melee demarcation point.  A dangerous encounter, but we should be up to it. 

Except our plan does not survive contact with the enemy, in fact our plan doesn't even wait for the enemy to reach the cleric before we abandon it.  I would have felt better if the enemy had undermined our plan.  The new character, Ethan, goes out to meet the giants invisibly intending to pick off a trailing wounded giant.  His point of contact is well beyond where the cleric can reach him with helpful spells, and since the cleric's attire features full plate mail, well beyond where the cleric can reach him in a couple of rounds for any help at all.  Hill giant passes by and gives an attack of opportunity; Ethan responds with serious damage.  By fortuitous circumstance Ethan gets to go next, finishing his hill giant opponent with another withering sneak attack.  All seems to be going well for us, giants are seriously diminished during their long run down the road, with Ethan taking down number three.  Wait, Ethan's turn is not over and he has more attack left so naturally he takes a five foot step and unleashed the rest of his attack on the huge giant.  Why waste an attack (what could go wrong?)  I get an uncomfortable feeling this will end badly - an unasked for divination from Torm?

The huge creature (which turns out to be a mountain troll) turns to smash the creature which hurt it, but sees nothing!  Instead it uses cunning to sniff the air around the area where it felt pain and then takes a wide swing covering a large area and connects with the rogue; punishing damage and knocked prone.  Our paladin, seeing the huge beast stop and swing behind it decides to sally forth and support our invisible companion.  Astride her unicorn mount and brandishing a lance, she courageously charges at the huge monster.  Unfortunately, the mountain troll has reach and bashes the paladin before she can even get close enough to impale the creature.  Not only is the damage punishing but she is knocked from her horse and to the ground.

Now my uncomfortable feeling, turns to real worry.  The melee is happening well forward of the planned demarcation.  There are two nearly unharmed hill giants between my cleric and the prone paladin (who is in reach of the mountain troll) and on the other side of the mountain troll is the prone rogue.  The wizard is near the cleric but is also now worried about casting spells with severely hurt characters lying prone around the troll, and the other two characters are still up on the building with their bows.  I had previously cast a few buffs but I am now realizing I should have cast more, much, much more.  With my characters slow speed, there is no way I am going to get to the mountain troll or the prone characters before something bad happens, and even if I do get there I'd have two hill giants at my back.  No, I decide, my best plan of action is to get the attention of the two hill giants on me and hope the rest of the party can kill the mountain troll, or at least save the down companions.  My cleric casts Righteous Might and below at the two hill giants pointing at them with his heavy, gauntlet covered hand, "You are mine!"

The unicorn manages to drag the paladin out of reach of the troll before the troll's next attack, but the rogue was not so fortunate.  Again using its scent ability and a lucky roll, it manages to crush the rogue to negative hit points so badly he was within a small number of hit points before death.  We did manage to regroup and finish off the giants before another character was killed.  Thanks to Ethan's invisibility (no one in our party knew he was down and dying, or even where he was), my lack of foresight in spells (I could have cast Status and did not, plus a number of other buffs), and our inability to form a combat line, we lost a character. 

After the session, the player decided this character was not a good fit for the game and he would rather not have his character brought back from the dead.  So I role played asking my god through a divination, if my god would allow my character to bring Ethan back from the land of the dead via a Raise Dead.  The answer was no - in essence you didn't really know Ethan very well, his path was not yours, and he had finally earned a reward for his unselfishness (saving the town) so leave him be and go find another more suitable to be in the company of a cleric and paladin of Torm.  So my character, who is not accustomed to losing a party member under his protection, decides to build a shrine to Torm & the dead Ethan.  Ethan, who he hardly knew.

It had been a while since I had played this character, had been a while since this team of characters had played together, the DM threw a goodly challenge at us, the new character took a big risk, and we just plain played poorly.  The result of poor play in combat: a dead character.  Ethan we hardly knew you, but you are a wake up call to the rest of the party; play better as a team or bury a character.

The dice never lie.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Creating NPCs Does Not Have To Be A Chore

A common complaint in 3rd Edition D&D is that it takes so long for a DM to stat up NPCs. If a DM approaches them like a character (which can take quite a bit to build, if you are so inclined) it can certainly take a while.  The first step is to stop thinking of them as a character.  NPCs exist to interact, and in some cases provide challenges for the PCs.  So just create what you need to fill that function.  Sure, you could organically roll all the stats, assign skill points, carefully select gear within the assigned GP limits, and consult all the description tables but.... why?  Many NPCs will only get fleeting interaction with the party, some will be slain by the party, and only a small number will go on to be long term friends, contacts or enemies of the party.  As a DM you have way too much to do to get bogged down in this minutia. 

I'll share with you one of my approaches to this handling NPC creation.

First step - don't roll stats.  Use a standard array and assign as you like.
  • Is it just a peasant quality?   11, 11, 11, 10, 10, 10
  • Is it someone exceptional?  13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8
  • Is it someone elite?   15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8 
  • Don't like one of the results?  Arbitrarily change it.
Second step - don't roll skill points.  Skill ranges for NPCs exist to provide challenge or help for the PCs.  Just put them where you need them.
  • Need a skill role on the fly? Modify a d20 roll by 1/2 their hit die + appropriate attribute score
  • Want them to greatly proficient in a skill?  Make a note in their stat block for that skill is equal to their level + 3 + appropriate attribute score
  • Want them to be an expert in a skill?  Same as above but make it +6, assumes they burned a feat

Also the 1/2 hit die plus appropriate attribute score works great as an on the fly modifier when you don't know the modifier for any monster or challenge.  Don't spend minutes looking or calculating something.

Next make a few notes about equipment you want them to have, beyond what is typical.  Assign a few personality traits and other useful information.  There are loads of random tables to be had online, or in your DM guides.  I often refer to my treasured, old 1E DM guide for random tables to help me out when I feel stuck, or just want to mix things up.

Assign hit points based on the hit dice, Con bonus & how tough you want the NPC to be.

Give them a name.   Sometimes if feels like the bane of a DMs existence is when a player, during an unimportant and routine interaction with the world wants to know, "What is the bartenders name?"  Many years ago I came across a document created by some wonderful, sharing, caring individual out there (ironically, I don't know their name) which was just a list of hundreds of names.  I printed it out, and keep it in the back of my DM notebook.  When I use a name, I cross it out.

Done.  Notice, I don't roll much (or at all) in NPC creation.  Don't get me wrong, I have lots of dice and like to roll them.  However, I am a busy guy and this is not the place where rolling really makes any difference.  The process should only take a few minutes, and with practice you can do it on the fly when an unexpected need for an NPC arises.

If the NPC survives to become a longer term piece of your campaign, just add more notes as you go along.  Make up stuff as you go along, but don't forget to add it to your stat block notes.  Players love the consistency when NPCs 'remember' something about the last time they encountered them, and are put off when one day the NPC is bald and the next time they see them they have a full head of hair.  Its the little things - if you describe something, write it down.

I acknowledge if you are playing a version of an RPG where character creation is a very simple process, then some of this is not pertinent for you.  Other parts you might find useful.  I'm always interested in hearing about your tips or tricks which improves NPC building.

The dice never lie.  (but only use 'em when you need 'em)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Role Playing: Sometimes Its The Little Moments

In our last adventure we come across some dead elves in a clearing, being munched on by some over-sized owl bears.  We dispatched the owl bears, not out of revenge or outrage, but just to get them out of our way.  These elves were nasty and are our enemies.

Disappointed that we were not the ones to find the elves first and learn information we badly need, my half orc cleric decides to burn some spells to see if we can learn something the divine way.  He casts speak with dead on the first dead elf, and gets no response as apparently the dead creature makes its save.  

There are several other elf bodies around, so the next step is to try the spell again with my last remaining spell slot of the necessary level.  Wrong.  The next step is a 30 second role play moment.

Angry, my character composes himself to let his better nature rule the moment.  His better nature fails.  Enraged, he screams and hurls the dead elf into a nearby tree. (My character has an absurdly high strength) Now he moves onto the next dead elf.

 I was just reading the write up from the last adventure (Thanks Brian!), and couldn't help but laugh at that little bit of my over acting.  It is both fun and important to role play the big scenes when the DM brings out the NPCs and the reveal moments.  However, don't forget to role play the little moments along the way which keep your character from being a card board cut out.

The dice never lie.
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