Some of the best parts of tabletop role-playing are the creative ways players solve or avoid (or outright ignore) the problems and troubles the DM/GM/Storyteller sends their way.
One of the other best parts is coming up with those surprises to stump your players.
This afternoon, I sat down with the wife and kids to continue our D&D campaign. They’ve been steered (mostly by their characters’ needs and not by railroad tracks) toward tracking down a manipulative vampire clan. Members of the clan operate behind the scenes all over the realm, and it’s the heroes’ job to root these villains out.
They’re starting to travel all around the region, which gives me the chance to use a variety of settings.
I was going to use my copy of Dungeon Delve, with its pre-made adventures. But that would require getting tiles together, and I was looking for something with less prep required.
Good thing I had an unopened pack of GameMastery map tiles: Mines.
It’s 18 tiles that are made to mix and match, so that you can create a variety of tunnels to explore.
Events in the game led the wife’s and kids’ characters to a nearby mine overrun by goblins somehow connected to the clan. There are surviving miners… probably. Rescue is the main goal… as far as they know.
The intrepid heroes are ready to move in, and since it’s a dark mine, I lay out one Mines map tile at a time as they advance through the mine. I fanned out the tiles, blank backs up, and let the kids and Jami pick which one would be next. Then I came up with a brief answer for why that section of tunnel mattered. Sometimes it was tracks in the dungeon. Sometimes it was signs of battle to hint at what they might soon face. Once it was a vein of gleaming ore.
But even before all of that, right off the bat, their creative juices are flowing. I start off with a Dungeoneering check, as Beastly Tiger notices something amiss in the entrance of the tunnel. The goblins have prepared a rock-fall trap for unwanted guests. The kids discuss how best to deal with this, when I tell them their characters hear goblins chatting ahead in the tunnel.
The children gave me a pleasant surprise by remembering the idea of “holding action.” Basically, that means a character is ready to do a certain action if something specific happens. “I hold my axe up, ready to chop at the first goblin that walks through the door,” for example.
Deborah decides Beastly Tiger would make some noise to get the goblins’ attention, then she prepares to chuck a rock at the cords that will trigger the trap. Justin likes this plan, and declares that Clayface has his crossbow ready to shoot the cords at the other side of the tunnel, once the goblins are in position. Jonathan finishes up by “holding” a magic missile to hit any of the goblins who survive the rock-fall trap.
Needless to say, the battle went poorly for the goblins. It also went poorly for Jami’s new monk character, Lily-Ann, a halfling who is unfortunately about goblin sized. That explains why Beastly Tiger may have accidentally swung his hammer to smash Lily-Ann in the side of the head:
Deborah rolled a 1. We picked a fumble card, and it said “You attack your ally instead. This attack is a critical threat.” So Deborah rolled for her attack against Lily-Ann, and the die went off the table. She tried again, and rolled a 20. Murphy’s Law, I guess.
Even so, the heroes had little difficulty dealing with the goblins and some creepy-crawlies in the tunnels.
I needed a good hook to end with, and as we took a quick break, it came to me.
I’d been removing the old map tiles behind their characters in the mine, partly to save space, but more importantly, to set up the surprise.
They hit an intersection, determined a direction, and quickly came to a dead end with the section that has ore. They fought more beasties, then turned around to back-track…
And eventually they found themselves right back at the ore, even though they’d gone the opposite direction.
Deborah and Jonathan look at me funny. Jami asks, “Wait, what?” And then it starts to dawn on their faces…
Time and space are being shifted around in the mine. The path they took is now completely different. There is a monstrous creature in the cavern whose powerful twisted magic creates this effect, and they must find it and slay it in order to find their way out.
Jonathan’s eyes go wide, and he declares, “I like where this is going.”
Removing the tiles saved space and created a fun challenge.
The kids took off to play outside, since there was only a couple hours before sunset. But they made sure to ask, “Can we keep playing once we come back inside?”
Real life has been hectic and complicated, forcing me to adjust priorities and pay time and attention to some important things…
…Like family game night!
(Not really, but we did make time Monday night to get our game on for a bit.)
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I discussed her character. Jami likes the idea of Bethrynivere the military leader, but the character bores her. Likewise, Deborah loves Beastly Tiger, the dim-witted wall of muscle. But she doesn’t care so much about the panther companion that comes with a beastmaster ranger.
We looked into some other options while leveling up the kids’ characters.
Deborah selected a marauder ranger, which basically means combining various actions in order to capture a sense of “You’re the fastest character out there, rushing around the battlefield, charging into your enemies.” She plays to Beastly Tiger’s strengths (namely, his Strength stat) by chucking throwing hammers and then running up to smash faces with her larger war hammer.
We finished the character, and I couldn’t help but hear, “Stop! Hammer time!”
Meanwhile, Jami is trying to choose a class and race for a new character. She doesn’t want to duplicate any of the roles in the party, so a magic user is out. A rogue is out. A burly up-close fighter is out, because that’s basically what Beastly Tiger is no matter what the class says. On top of that, the party has no healer. Jami is convinced she should make a healer just because they need one, but that’s not what she wants to do.
I assure her not to worry about healing. I have a plan for an NPC of sorts, an angelic being that grants healing to the characters (in a limited fashion) when they get their butts handed to them in combat.
I don’t know how exactly I’d explain its presence yet, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! I just don’t want Jami feeling forced to play something she’s not interested in. So she ignores the healing classes and looks at a few options.
And maybe it was excitement about the upcoming Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria… or maybe it was inspiration from Gollum’s total rage assault on Frodo at the end of Return of the King… or maybe none of the above. But Jami settled on the idea of a Monk, and she decided her monk had to be a Halfling.
Yeah. You heard of Frodo, now meet his cousin Judo.
I kid, I kid. The monk’s name is Lily-Ann. The heroes met her in a session a while back where they fought that Dire Bear.
Once the bear was vanquished, the team gathered all available clues and figured that the thieving merchant they needed to find was probably holed up in the abandoned cathedral near the town. They set off to chase him down, and encountered an assassin who also sought him for reasons known only to her.
There was a brief tense moment–Beastly Tiger threatened to eat the assassin for dinner, and she responded coolly, “I think you’ll find my meat too tough for your tastes.” (I was proud of my off-the-cuff cheesy retort!)
Then the heroes realized the assassin shared the same short-term goal–stop the merchant, recover the gem–so they agreed to work together. They stepped into the cathedral and found the merchant holding the gemstone, protected by a large bubble of energy. Goblins surrounded the bubble, clawing and scraping to no effect. The merchant raised the gem, revealed his true demonic form, and exerted control over the goblins, turning them against the heroes.
That’s where we left off about two weeks ago.
While plotting the big fight, I thought about incorporating vampires into the plot line. I liked the idea of this merchant-devil guy gaining power from the blood that is drawn on the pre-made map. (Eevil Paizo, including little hooks and plot ideas in your simple map drawing!) But then he’d have to be a merchant-devil-vampire guy.
Devil vampires? Yessss…
Come to think of it, I had a campaign that was headed toward an arc about toppling a vampire clan. We had to stop due to various military deployments and such, and we never got to realize that portion of the story. Maybe these devil vampires could be a similar arc for family game night.
And the need to stop their evil would certainly explain the angelic being’s presence and interest in the heroes. Bonus!
So, with all this in mind, I set up the fight. I throw in a heap of goblin minions. In game terms, they’re the cannon fodder, the scrawny little losers that die as soon as they take damage. Minions give the players a sense that their characters are really powerful heroes, crushing all opposition.
They serve my purpose as well; the devil vampire has a healing buff that grows with the blood of each goblin slain.
On top of that, Lily-Ann and the assassin NPC both take bleed damage early in the fight. Bleeding sounds like something else that might give the devil vampire strength, so I describe the power he gains. Now they really want him to die.
Of course, with all the bleeding, they need a healer. So I tell them there is a flash of radiance at the back of the sanctuary, and an angelic being appears, hovering above the ground. She starts shooting beams of warm light at the heroes, and their wounds are healed. They want to know what her deal is, why she’s there, but they’re content to let that wait until after the fight.
The heroes smash their way through many goblins, while the assassin tries to distract the devilish merchant. The kids and Jami focus exclusively on the goblins, but the devil vampire remains completely protected behind a powerful shield. I set about 13 black token stones in an arc inside the cathedral, marking the boundary of the shield.
Deborah describes the various ways she wants Beastly Tiger to attack goblins… usually something like playing Leap Frog over a friend and then landing a crushing shot with the hammer. At some point, Jonathan decides that his not-sneaky-at-all Dragonborn Wizard is going to try to slip around the goblins by creeping through the shadows behind the pillars of the cathedral sanctuary. I can’t believe he wants to do this, but that’s the beauty of the game.
They can do whatever they want, or at least try.
As the kids and Jami beat up the goblins, Justin misses his attack by a very narrow margin. I describe how his crossbow bolt flies through a goblin wizard’s robe instead of hitting the goblin. And I think, “Well, if it flies through his robe, it’ll hit whatever is behind it… namely the shield.”
I describe the impact on the shield, and I replace a black token with a red one. This piques Jonathan’s interest.
On his next turn, he abandons his sneaking plan and decides to start attacking the shield directly. I end up replacing another token or two with red, and I explain how the shield flickers or wavers with each hit.
Suddenly no one cares about the goblins.
Like, not at all.
All of them are focused on the shield, to the extent that they’re ignoring the attacks of little goblins standing right next to them.
Justin has Clayface firing one crossbow bolt after another into the shield, trying to bring it down. The heroes are close to breaking through. One of the little pesky goblins runs up to harass or attack Clayface, and rolls a 1. I pick a card from the Critical Fumble deck.
The goblin ends up with something like, “Return to Sender.” It means the attack failed so bad that the opponent grabs and keeps the weapon the attacker just used. The goblin essentially runs up and hands Clayface his knife in the middle of the fight, while Clayface remains focused on the shield.
The goblins didn’t last long. And once the shield was brought down, the heroes were quick to pile on the devil vampire. Jami’s monk has a powerful move she can do once per fight, called Open the Gates of Battle. It does extra damage when you attack a target that has full health. Throughout the fight, we were discussing when she could or should use “Open the Gates.” She really really wanted to use it on the big devil vampire, and the moment finally arrived.
She says, “I wanna OPEN THE GATES!” Deborah and Jonathan cheer with her, “Yeah! Open the Gates! Open the Gates!”
Justin yells, “AND THEN CLOSE IT ON HIM!”
The heroes surround the devil vampire and beat on him with everything they’ve got. My assassin NPC manages to snatch the gemstone from the monster’s hands, and jumps away. (I’ve been trying to get her to grab it the whole time, but unfortunately I’ve been rolling a string of 3s and 4s.)
He responds by spraying acid and bile all around him a la Exorcist, pushing the heroes back. Then he rushes at the assassin and tries to get the gemstone back.
With everyone unloading their best attacks, the devil vampire is in a bad way. I get my turn, and he takes the gemstone back, raising it up into the air triumphantly, calling on its power to aid him and cackling in a mustache-twirling villain sort of way.
Justin declares, “I want to shoot him IN THE FACE!” and attacks with a crossbow shot that I know will kill the vampire. And it’s really late at this point, and we need to finish.
Always finish with a hook, if you can get away with it.
The devil vampire’s grin turns to open-mouthed confusion and he looks from the gem to the assassin at his feet. Something has gone wrong. “NOOOOO!” He screams at her. “WHAT HAVE YOU DO–”
I tell Jami and the kids, “The crossbow bolt flies into the creature’s mouth, killing him and triggering the explosive power of Clayface’s weapon. The devil vampire explodes, sending the assassin sliding across the ground. The goblins under the vampire’s control fall dead. Aaaaaand… we’re done. Time to get ready for bed.”
Deborah and Jonathan shout, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And the next day, Jonathan is already asking, “Can we play more tonight?”
They can’t wait to see what happens. Thinking of the silliness they come up with, I can’t wait to see what happens either.
Paizo continues to get my money, despite all my efforts to resist them.
And they deserve it, because they put out some great stuff.
In part 2 of this topic, I mentioned the value of pictures to communicate an impression and image of a Non-Player Character to your players. Naturally, the same holds true when dealing with description.
You can be an amazing wordsmith, and you can have an impeccable delivery, but my experience is that your players hear “words words words wall of text still more wordsCASTLE with words words blah blah Baron von Guy-we’re-gonna-killokay enough already let’s move on.”
Description problems get compounded when combat ensues.
“I fire my Thundertusk Boar-Strike at the goblin.”
“You can’t see the goblin. He’s out of line of sight because he’s in the hall around the corner.”
“You failed to mention that, DM.”
“I mentioned it while you were checking Facebook and laughing at a LOLcat.”
And this is why many games use maps. Good use of a map of some kind will get everyone seeing roughly the same thing in the portions of the game where that matters. It quickly answers questions like “Can I target that guy?” and the natural follow-up, “Can I hit that guy with an arrow/a fireball/the wild dog I’m holding by the throat?”
Because that happens more than I would have guessed.
(Maybe I should choose my players differently.)
Different games use different combat systems, of course. Different groups of players are going to employ combat rules in their own unique ways. So some folks may not even need a map. I’ve heard arguments that in some games, combat — at least the storytelling aspect of it — is enhanced by not having a map.
But I don’t have supreme confidence in my descriptive storytelling or in the attention span of players. And as much as possible, I want them to see the world as I see it in my head.
An easy method that requires very little artistic talent is the plain hexagonal or square grid roll-up playmat. Get wet-erase markers, draw lines for walls and add a few simple features, BAM! Instant dungeon.
But for some of us, this might not cut it.
So there’s the option of tiles. Wizards of the Coast has put out a whole mess of these sets, with punch-out cardboard map pieces you can mix and match to create any number of settings. They’re generally pretty easy on the eyes, but can be painful to the wallet if you want a good variety.
And my experience has been that I spend more time in preparation looking through a bag or drawer of tile pieces trying to find parts that are “just right,” and then I spend too long during the gaming session trying to recreate the map that I made before.
I don’t want to put together a puzzle in front of my friends, and they don’t want to watch me. They want to own monsters with nat 20s.
I need something faster.
Eevil Paizo strikes again.
How about maps I can just lay down and run with? (To be fair, Wizards also puts out similar products, and I’m sure there are smaller companies doing it too.)
Need urban combat in a city? Who wants to draw every individual building? And if you’re rushing, be honest: all your buildings will end up as little featureless squares. So why not unfold one of these City Streets flip-mats?
Maybe you need more detail. Maybe you’ve got your players clearing out an enemy force by going building-to-building. You can pick up the Shops Map Pack and have interior maps for every building on that flip-mat, including upstairs and downstairs in most cases. Now you have the element of surprise, too. The players only see into buildings as they get inside them–you lay down the individual building map as needed. So you get something like this:
Of course, this plan costs a pretty penny. Or about 2,500 of them. Plus tax. Plus getting to your local game store and hoping they have it, or getting it through the store in the links above… which probably means shipping and handling, too.
If you want to spend the money but don’t have a conveniently located game store–you can get Paizo’s eevil map subscription plan, which gets you each new map and pack as they come out (charged to your credit card at the time, of course). The advantage is that you also get access to a free .pdf of the map or map-pack, in case you want to print your own.
Printing your own… hey, there’s an option! Maybe I don’t want $25 a month going to random map packs I may or may not actually use. What’s stopping me from printing off a map for cheap?
In fact, using that limited artistic talent again, you can print off sheets of 1×1 grid, and then draw whatever you want on them. Like I said, I spend time looking for the “just right” tiles or maps, time I could be spending on any number of other things.
Quality suffers a bit, of course. It’s not shaded and colorful and pretty. But a quick-drawn map on a sheet of paper or two serves the intended purpose, providing a graphic representation of where all players are in combat, so that your players can develop and execute strategies to kill things and take their stuff.
It all depends on the needs of your group and the needs of your budget.
Heck, if tiles and measuring range and all of that are unnecessary in your system or your group’s playstyle, just sketch out the setting like a football play.
The pic isn’t great, but you can jot down names of PCs and monsters on the page, plus add a little bit of setting detail.
(This is meant to show a couple trees for cover and a line for the trail through the scene).
I threw in lines to show movement and red lines to show ranged attacks, with red circles for the blast radius of spells.
Is this high-quality? No.
Does it work? Possibly.
Does it cost money? About two bucks for paper and a pen. If you’re doing any traditional tabletop RPG, you probably have plenty of both right at your fingertips.
As always, find out what works for your group and what saves you the most time and money, then run with it and have a blast.
For the sake of brevity (relatively speaking), I’m not even going to get into stuff like 3D terrain pieces or the crazy craftsmanship (warning: language) that can go into setting up a particular encounter. That Penny Arcade link just shows some pictures of the ridiculous extent they went to in creating a setting for one session. If you can find the articles where they explain the game mechanics of those settings, it is mind-blowing.
Anyway, you can do that. You can literally create worlds for your players to explore.
And you probably ought to, if you are able. But for most of us, that just doesn’t happen, because life.
Speaking of relevant things that distract from life…
I’ll just leave this roll20 link here. Welcome to the future.
Seriously… STOP TAKING ALL MY MONEY! (Except I’ll puchase a few of these and one of those… and a set of that.)
DM: “You approach Torhalin and inform him that–“
Ranger: “Wait, who’s Torhalin again?”
Rogue: “I thought he was the guy we killed last session.”
Paladin: “No, that was the other dwarf… the one we used the Jar-Jar mini for…”
Ranger: “Oh yeah, I hated that guy. So who’s this guy?”
More likely than not, if you’re playing a tabletop RPG campaign, you have a few non-player characters (NPCs) that show up regularly. It could be the innkeeper who offers free room and board based on some favor the adventurers have done for her… along with juicy gossip full of quest hooks. It could be the kindly noble who needs heroes willing to stand up to insurmountable odds in order to save his town. Maybe it’s a favorite villain whose presence sends your players into a frothing rage. (Using a Jar-Jar mini helps with this.)
In any event, a name and brief description only gets you so far. Using an accent or particular speech pattern might make the NPC more memorable, but you still can only hope you are making an impression on your players.
A picture is still worth a thousand words.
And a deck of pictures is apparently worth about ten bucks.
The Friends and Foes deck comes with 54 full-color face cards, each with a space for notes on the back to aid with keeping track of just who the heck Torhalin is in your campaign. When you introduce an important NPC, you give your players an immediate image of what he or she looks like along with your description and roleplaying. Each time they encounter that character, they get the visual reminder that says “This is who you’re talking to, remember?”
GameMastery has at least two others: Enemies and Urban NPCs. I’m not going to bother looking through their store to see if they have any more… because I might buy them.
On top of having a visual cue, the deck of various pictures might inspire new ideas for characters, situations, interactions, or encounters… maybe even key campaign arcs.
Of course, the downside is that you only have so many cards, and the variety means you only have so many of particular types of NPCs. It might seem strange if all the bad guys start to look just like the first villains the heroes encounter.
But the decks are a great start… IF you want to spend ten dollars.
There are cheaper ways, of course.
If you have any artistic talent (or if one of your players does, and is willing to volunteer the effort), you can make your own cards, tailored specifically to the needs of your campaign.
You know what you want the diabolical politician and her powerful magician advisor to look like.
You have an idea of how the ancient ghost in the ruined city will appear.
What about the crafty assassin your party has chased throughout the realm?
Show the players exactly what you want them to see. (Try to have better handwriting than I did, though.)
This also works great for scripted events. You have the chance to show rather than tell.
Poor Archmage Danethral…
At some point he was doomed to get twisted inside out by one of the villains. I did my best to describe this, and a few of my players at least said, “Ew, that sucks.” Then I showed them the card,
and I got more than one cringe or grimace. Win!
Ok, so you’re not an artist. (I barely qualify as one anyway, so don’t feel bad. Paizo’s not banging down my door asking me to draw stuff for them.) What are you supposed to do?
Though stick figures might be good for comic relief, that’s not a sustainable option. Likewise, if your “art” becomes a distraction, it will take the players out of the game to try to figure out if that’s a picture of the troll or the damsel in distress. No bueno.
Oh hai Google Images.
If you use a computer as a DM screen, or even if you just load some pictures to your iPhone or cell, you can easily show your players a decent representation of what their characters are looking at. Load a few key NPC pics, and you can easily remind them of who they’re interacting with, while paying nothing but a few minutes’ of image search in the process.
And of course, your rulebooks probably have a few pictures in them as well. Flip to a page if you have a hardcopy, or bring up an image if it’s a softcopy, and there you go. Obviously, that’s less than desirable, but it’s better than nothing.
And if all that fails, and your players stilldon’t remember your villain, break out the Jar-Jar miniature. They may not know who it is or why they’re out to kill him, but they will unleash all manner of fury in their effort to destroy him… especially if he says, “Meesa gon’ die!”
Now, maybe all you gamers out there are already well aware of how many useful products are out there. But some of us have been overseas for a few years, and some of us are Luddites that don’t understand how to shop for things online.
So walking into the local game store and seeing all they had to offer was a terrible experience… at least for my wallet.
Because I love their products and I am all too willing to give them money, I’m going to post a product. Then I’m going to tell you how to do the same thing (more or less) for cheap. Maybe I’ll do a few of these, because I keep ending up with Paizo products on my game accessories shelves.
Depending on the RPG group you’ve got, combat can be one of the best or one of the most frustrating parts of game time. Someone’s probably browsing Facebook on their iPhone, someone is off getting snacks or hitting the bathroom, and someone’s reading the rulebook to challenge a decision you made ten minutes ago because there’s a clause they’re sure will give their character an edge. (Grammar nazis: please note the proper use of they’re, their, and there in the same sentence.)
Inevitably, you get to someone’s turn, and they blink twice, shake their head, and try to figure out where their character is at, where the enemies are at, what happened while they were out in space, and gosh, what are they going to do this round, because it came up as a surprise that they’d have to participate in the game soon.
GameMastery’s Combat Pad won’t magically fix that player, BUT it gives them no excuse!
You get 8 magnets for enemy names, 8 for PC names, 4 for NPC names, 0 magnets for DM PC names (haha, kidding), and a few indicators for the progression of combat rounds. You also get a handy pad for eraseable notes, and columns for delaying or readying actions. And there’s a far better write-up of the product on the website I linked, so if you really want all the details, go there.
The product certainly looks nice and all. Being able to move the magnets around is convenient. You can buy additional magnets if you are running an enormous group (more than 8 players? seriously?) or if you’re the sort that unleashes entire armies on your party (more than 8 types of monster? nice!).
Maybe that’s worth your $20. Or you could cut the price by more than half, give up the pretty look of the Paizo product, and just get one of these:
Or if you’re like me, you run your game mostly off files on your laptop (the perfect DM screen!), so it’s nothing to pop open Notepad and create an initiative tracker right there. Of course, then you have one more thing to communicate– “Borak, you’re up next, and then Lucan.”
But then you don’t get to play with magnets.
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