Monthly Archives: March 2013

As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master?

In my post Immersive vs. gamey in D&D Next, I mocked action points as a metagame resource that forces players out of character. “Perhaps action points are like that surge of energy that brings Rocky off the mat at the end of the final movie bout. Why does Rocky only get that surge in the final fight? He always saves his action point until the end. (You can see the scene where Paulie coaches Rocky to save his action point in the director’s cut.)”

Based on the post, you might suppose that I categorically hate action points. Not so. Although I dislike gamey resources in a game focused on role playing, I don’t draw such a hard line that I find something as innocuous as action points terribly upsetting. Sure, you cannot manage your character’s action points while immersed in character, but you need not step out of character for long. When I play, I certainly enjoy spotting a moment when I can spend an action point to make a big impact. Enough players enjoy action points, that I can accept that they could merit a place in the game.

In a system like Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 or D&D Next, the fourth-edition action point mechanic, where players spend a point to gain an action, would just give players a fun boost. But ironically, this 4E mechanic works badly in 4E because of the big, potent daily and encounter powers endemic to the system.

First round versus Mephistopheles, Lord of Cania

First round versus Mephistopheles, Lord of Cania

Once upon a time, only magic users and clerics possessed anything like daily powers. Because few cleric spells did much in combat, typically only magic users could unleash battlefield-clearing attacks or force the boss to save or die. Every other character class stuck with at-will attacks.

The 4E designers sought to grant every class the fun making the grand attacks once limited to magic users. Players of every class suddenly enjoyed the presumed fun of managing a portfolio of encounter and daily attacks.

Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozesIn 4E, as much as possible, players save an action point and their big daily powers for an expected climactic encounter. When that showdown with the boss comes, the characters unleash everything they have. Every pre-Essentials character can horde daily powers for the showdown, making the first round of attacks devastating. Action points allow characters to double the barrage of daily and encounter powers, making the onslaught twice as potent. By the time a guy like Juiblex, demon lord of slimes and oozes, gets a chance to act, he’s prone, immobilized, dazed, suffering -4 to all attacks, and has his pants around his ankles. (In fourth edition, even oozes are subject to the pants-round-ankles condition.)

Running and playing Lair Assult: Into the Pit of Madness

On March 17, 2013, I ran Into the Pit of Madness, the final entry in the Lair Assault program. This challenge’s outcome remained in doubt until the final die rolls—a perfect balance. The party came within a round of defeating the Essence of Evil, and the players all seemed to enjoy the session.  As with Kill the Wizard, the challenge divides the party, randomly placing individuals in smaller challenges. I liked this design in Kill the Wizard, and welcomed the encore.

More than any other Lair Assault, Into the Pit of Madness seems to demand multiple plays for the players to learn enough to succeed. At my table, one player had read the challenge in his role of backup dungeon master, so with my consent, he nudged the players toward a winning course. The knowledge helped, but the players hardly brought an optimized party. As usual for fourth edition, an optimal party would consist of four strikers and a healer. (I’m kidding, of course. The optimal healer should multiclass into a striker class.)

Essence of Evil

For Kill the Wizard, a homemade Drowslayer figure inspired me to make a Drowslayer of my ownInto the Pit of Madness features a showdown with another unique enemy called the Essence of Evil, a creature without any available miniature.  I failed to step up and make an Essence of my own, but Wendy and Curtis, the creators of that first Drowslayer, topped themselves. Check out this picture from of the Essence of Evil and an adjacent Babau.

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

The Essence of Evil from Lair Assault: Into the Pit of Madness

They sculpted the Essence of Evil from Sculpey  oven bake clay and painted it in arterial red, malevolent black, and bruise purple.

Artifacts in the character builder

One of my tables in the last Lair Assault, Temple of the Sky God, succeeded in some measure thanks to a stockpile of multiple Sun’s Slivers,  “a powerful artifact of pure sunlight” that serves as a MacGuffin in the epic-level Winter of the Witch adventure in Dungeon.  Even when you select the Lair Assault option, the character builder offers Sun’s Silvers, and possibly other artifacts, as legal, zero-cost items. They’re free; take two!  Are the players ingenious for stocking up on Sun’s Slivers prior to the Lair Assault? Is a DM abusing authority by forbidding players from equipping their characters with artifacts? I’ve run for players who would probably answer yes to both questions.

Sun's Sliver in the character builder

In practice, I do not examine the character sheets, so I have no idea what equipment the players use.  When I ran Temple of the Sky God for a team equipped with Sun’s Slivers, the party still came close to failing, and everyone had fun, so I call it a success. I leave it for the players to decide whether the cleverly equipped characters diminish the challenge.  Still, I fault the character builder’s programmers for overlooking these shenanigans.

For DMs: Ruling the portal

When I ran Into the Pit of Madness and the characters reached the antechamber, a wizard easily made the 28-or-higher arcana check on the portal. The party included three characters well capable of hitting a 28 arcana DC. I reread the portal’s description on page 12 once again. “If a character with a check result of 28 or higher can see another creature moving through the portal, that character can choose the creature’s destination.” Does this mean that if someone in the party makes an Arcana check of 28 or higher, then everyone except the arcanist can short circuit the nodes and jump directly to the Black Cist? This interpretation seemed to invalidate so much of the challenge that I could not believe that it matched author’s intent. Did I miss something?

Incredulous and reluctant to skip the meat of the challenge, I exercised what may have been an abuse of my DM’s authority. I ran the portals as follows:

With a minor action, a character trained in arcana who sees a portal may establish control over the portal. When that character sees another character pass through the portal, then the controller may, as a free action, attempt to route the passing character to a specific destination. For this attempt, make an arcana check.

  • On a result of 28 or higher, the passing character travels to a node selected by the controller. Otherwise, roll randomly to determine the destination.
  • On a result of 23 or higher, the controller can discern the destination of the passing character.

Each time a character enters a portal, the controller must make a separate check. No more than one character may exercise control over a portal at once.

I allowed similar checks for the portals in the nodes; I’m not a monster.  With the characters at my table, this proved to be a fun and challenging approach to the portals.

Everything I know about tracking initiative

Many years ago, my little brother received a copy of Electronic Battleship for his birthday.  The gift probably excited me as much as him. Finally, we could play Battleship with all the action sounds (flatulent static!) and explosive effects (blinking LEDs!) shown in the commercial. As it turned out, the painstaking process of entering the location of each ship into the game’s calculator-class brain proved so burdensome that I don’t think we ever reached play. As much as I love gadgetry, sometimes it just hampers you. The original game with its plastic ships and peg boards—or just two sheets of graph paper—makes for a better game of Battleship that the electronic version.

Whenever I find myself enchanted by an initiative-tracking app for a tablet, I think about Electronic Battleship. Initiative tracking just goes better with a few scraps of paper than with technology. I feel a bit ashamed to admit it.

If the notion of using technology to track initiative still appeals to you, I refer you to the Radiating Gnome’s Gamehackery column for a round-up of the available options. However, you should know that even though the Radiating Gnome writes a gaming technology blog, he tracks initiative using folded bits of paper.

Gamemastery Combat PadI like material gaming accessories as much as electronic ones, so the Pathfinder Combat Pad always seemed appealing. “It is a wet- and dry-erasable board with a steel core, so the included magnets stick right to it!” You use wet- or dry-erase markers to write all the combatants’ names on the magnets, and then stick them to the board in initiative order.

Unless you stock up on extra monster magnets, the Combat Pad prevents you, as the dungeon master, from preparing initiative ahead of time, so it works best if you delegate initiative tracking to the players. When combat begins, just reveal which monsters to add to the order. “Give me a bandersnatch at +6 and a vermicious knid at +3.” While players handle the details, you can move on.  Not only does this free you, but it increases the players’ involvement in the game. Players start reminding distracted players of their upcoming turns. Play moves faster on both sides of the table.

If you allow players to manage initiative, then the Combat Pad only suffers one limitation: The pad is only visible from one side, making it hard to position so everyone can see.

DMs point of view

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order. Either way, to adjust initiative order, just rearrange the tents. If someone wishes to delay, hand over their tent and ask for it back when they wish to act. You can mark the active combatant with something like a Post-it flag, or just separate their tent from the others.

Use index cards to make simple tents. Cutting a card lengthwise yields two tents suitable for draping across a DM’s screen.  Or cut top to bottom for three, smaller tents suitable for standing on the table. I like using colored index cards and giving each player a unique color, so they can identify the color across the table. All my monsters get white stock.

For a minimal initiative tent, just write a name on each side, and an initiative bonus and score on one side.

You can hand blank initiative tents to the players and let them manage everything. But if you choose, you can prepare the monsters’ tents in advance. This lets you write the monster names and even pre-roll their initiative.

As a DM, managing initiative yourself gains one advantage:  You can add reference information to the tents.  Especially when I have big variety monsters to run, I like seeing their defenses. For the player characters, I like seeing perception and insight scores.

If you reference the characters’ non-combat information, I recommend having them pre-roll initiative to avoid having to pass the tents back and forth.  At the beginning of a session, have each player roll 3 or 4 initiative numbers and list the results on their tent.  If pre-rolling seems uncomfortably predictable, begin combat by randomly choosing which set of scores to use.

Hit on Crit makes a nice set of pre-formatted DM-screen initiative cards available for download. These cards inspired me, but they packed more information than I would ever use. If I ask my players to fill out something that looks like a tiny tax form, I feel honor bound to need all the information.

I created my own pre-printed tents. Download my fourth-edition initiative tents or my fifth-edition initiative tents.

My set includes tents for players and for monsters, but also includes variants suited for home play and for public play at conventions.

initiative tent without AC for playersThe basic player character tent limits the information to the essentials. The tent includes blanks for 8 pre-rolled initiative scores—enough for a marathon gaming session or a Battle Interactive. I’ve seen enough illegible names on these tents that I considered adding little boxes for each letter, but I elected to leave that sort of thing to the DMV.

initiative tent with AC for playersThis alternate player’s tent adds a place for the character’s defenses. This reduces the blanks for initiative to 4, but still allows for most gaming sessions.

initiative tent for monstersThe base monster tent includes blanks for defenses and a single initiative roll. On the player side, the tent includes places to enter the creature’s highest and lowest defenses. Sometimes in a time-sensitive environment, I speed play by entering these values so players only need to ask whether a few to-hit rolls succeed. Most times, I leave these blank and keep the players guessing.

Living Forgotten Realms initiative tent for monstersThis alternate monster tent works best for Living Forgotten Realms games at conventions. When I judge at a big convention, I often run the same adventures 3 to 5 times. Rolling the monsters’ initiative in advance cuts delays at the table, but I cannot know any party’s level in advance, so I do not know the monsters’ initiative bonuses. Most LFR adventures include versions of the same monster scaled for five different levels.

To enter pre-rolled initiative scores using this tent, perform the following steps:

  1. Subtract half the monster’s level from the creature’s initiative bonus and enter this number as Init at lvl 0.
  2. Roll a d20 and enter the result as the Base roll.
  3. In the Initiative at level blanks, sum half the party’s level, plus the monster’s initiative at level 0, plus the base roll.

You can easily do step 3 at the table, as needed.

Obviously, the defenses will change for each level. At the table, add the values you need, as needed, in pencil. Or just leave the defenses blank.

Download my initiative tents in PDF.

Also, check out the inserts for my mini DM screen.