Archive for September 2010

The Map is the Trap – Part 3

Introduction

If you’ve been following my story, you know I ended up missing the PAX Prime DM Challenge this year. This article is the third in a 3 part series detailing the encounters and maps I built. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The Concept

When I was working up my trap ideas, one of my first ideas was for a room with a switch that inverted gravity causing the party to have to fight on the ceiling and floor. While working out the mechanics of how this room would work in 4th edition, I had another thought, What if the entire room was spinning like the rotating corridor in the movie, Inception? How could I translate the mechanics of a rotating room into 4th edition and make it immediately understandable?

The Map

I’ll give you a quick rundown of the map then walk you through an example encounter in the room. The idea is simple –  an encounter in a trapped, spinning hallway. Each round the corridor spins 90 degrees counterclockwise. For the rest of this article, “floor tile” refers to the tile that is currently in the normal floor position. At the beginning of each round, a new tile is placed to the left of the last floor tile. When you have placed all 4 tiles, you move the right most tile to the left side of the map. This simulates the revolving action of the corridor.

The spinning of the room introduces some constraints on movement. Each player needs to end their turn in a square on the current floor tile or fall prone in the closest floor tile square at the end of their turn. Also, if the creature passes through any trapped squares while falling to the floor tile, they take attacks from any trapped squares along the way.

The Traps

I tried to keep the traps simple. Iron spikes randomly shoot up through the floor on the spiked squares. If you want to simplify the operation of the map, you could simply have creatures take 10 damage for each trapped square they move through.

Treat all the pit squares as normal terrain. If forced movement sends a creature into a pit square, they get the normal save or fall prone. You can even allow characters to stand and move in pit squares when their sides are aligned with the current floor tile. Don’t forget the extra height if a character fell from the bottom of the 20′  to the opposite floor tile.

A map like this could easily tear your players (and monsters) to pieces even without combat. Make sure to leave some sort of refuge area in your maps. On my map, the last 2 squares at the far end of the hall are the refuge spot. There is only a 10′ pit trap to mess with the players. The grates on the ceiling are also a place of refuge. Characters can hold onto the bars with a moderate athletics DC while the room continues to spin.

You also need a way to disable the spinning room. I was planning to run the encounter with a control panel on the far end end of the room, but you can place the control panel anywhere you like. The bottom of the 20′ trap is a particularly evil place to put it.

Running The Encounter

The traps in this room can be avoided pretty easily. Let the players move through a single revolution of the room to get acclimated to the physics of the area. Then, up the ante by adding monsters. I used my King of Monsters content winner, the horakh and a couple spider swarms. They both have spider crawl to further frustrate our intrepid dungeoneers.

Here is a quick run through.

The players enter the room and the door slams shut behind them. There is a large 20′ deep pit, several deep holes on the walls, and grates on the ceiling, but nothing seems out of sorts.

A loud chunking sound reverberates through the hall and the floor suddenly lurches beneath the players feet. Spikes shoot from the walls and the room starts rotating.

The room continues to spin. The players are now standing on what was previously the ceiling. A player spots a control panel on the far wall with his passive perception.

The room continues to turn and new traps spring up. A number of horakh and spiders flood into the room through the grates. The players divide up taking different routes through the room.

All tiles are now in play. Now the rightmost tile is moved to the leftmost position. The tiefling warlock fell prone because he didn’t end his movement on the floor tile.

More fighting. The tiefling stands up as his move action and attacks. He is going to take another tumble at the end of his turn.

OW OW OW OW!

The warlock double moves and spends and action point to get out of his predicament. The human wizard rushes to the ceiling grates and grabs on for dear life.

The tiefling copies the wizard and grabs onto a grate.

The battle continues to roll forward. One of the spider swarms clings to the ceiling and chews on the wounded warlock who is hanging from the ceiling by his tail.

The encounter continues. I wish these poor bastards good luck.

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The Map is the Trap – Part 2

Introduction

If you’ve been following my story, you know I ended up missing the PAX Prime DM Challenge this year. I spent a huge amount of time designing my encounters and building my maps. This article is the second in a 3 part series detailing the encounters and maps I built. You can read Part 1 here.

The theme for the DM Challenge was “Dungeon of Horrors.” The idea was to design 3-5 encounters for a party of 9th level adventurers “that spotlights fiendish traps and diabolical puzzles, in the grand tradition of Tomb of Horrors.” My goal was to come up with 3 solid encounters with strong hooks and special effects.

The Map

The next encounter is a puzzle room. The room contains two large daises in opposite corners of the room. One dais is topped by an enormous suit of armor frozen in a combat pose. Two sturdy doors are on opposite walls. Each door is topped by an large crystal. The crystal over the door the PCs entered is glowing with a pale green light. The opposite door is locked and its crystal is not illuminated.

The only way to move forward is to get the armor from one dais to another. This causes the light over the locked door to turn on and the door to open. Unfortunately, the armor is incredibly heavy. As soon as the PCs attempt to move the armor, it comes to life. The light over the entry door goes out and the door swings shut. The daises both light up. This should hopefully be a clue to the players what they need to do. In any case, it looks cool.

Introducing the Iron Juggernaut


The armor, also known as an iron juggernaut, is an arcane construct created to guard this room. Its creator can simply command it to move from one dais to the other while interlopers would have to do it the hard way.

Obviously, the players need some way to move the juggernaut to the other dais. Make sure your players have some powers that include forced movement. Teleportation effects are negated until the creature is bloody. If players are attempting to teleport the iron juggernaut, make sure to explain there is some sort of force field in place. You could describe it as a shimmering blue nimbus covering the juggernaut. After being bloodied, make sure you describe the shield dissipating.

The iron juggernaut should give the PCs a bit of challenge. In this case, I made it a solo two levels above the PCs. The iron juggernaut’s powers revolve around the concept of grabbing and tossing its enemies. You should be grabbing your front line defenders and throwing them at the rear strikers.

Map construction

This map was the easiest to build. I used some black foamcore posterboard left over from the last map. I found the RGB LED display stands at the dollar store($1 each). I printed out my scanned map tiles on card stock again and pasted them down with Weld Bond. Using an exacto knife, I carefully cut 2 holes in the map.

The corner placement of the display stands was prompted by the need to keep from tipping over, but I think it was accidentally a good design decision as well. It flows well and adds a few squares to the distance between daises.

Here’s a side shot to show you how elevated the map is.

The map is surprisingly stable with minis as you can see from some of the previous shots. You could always add some cardstock braces to prevent tipping.

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The Map is the Trap – Part 1

Introduction

If you’ve been following my story, you know I ended up missing the PAX Prime DM Challenge this year. I spent a huge amount of time designing my encounters and building my maps. This article is the first in a 3 part series detailing the encounters and maps I built.

The theme for the DM Challenge was “Dungeon of Horrors.” The idea was to design 3-5 encounters for a party of 9th level adventurers “that spotlights fiendish traps and diabolical puzzles, in the grand tradition of Tomb of Horrors.” I went back and read through the three versions of the Tomb of Horrors that I still have: the original, the recent RPGA reward version and the 4th edition hardback. The RPGA version was the closest to what I wanted to achieve (though I find the interpretation too literal). But something has been bothering me about 4th edition traps. My goal was to come up with 3 solid encounters with strong hooks and special effects.

It’s a trap!

Most traps in 4th edition, quite frankly, are boring. Greg Bilsland summed it up succinctly in a recent post. Either the party never triggers the traps (this happened to me multiple times DMing Season 3 of Encounters) or they notice it and someone disables it quickly. Most fourth edition traps feel like nothing more than resource sinks. One player is forced to spend multiple actions in combat to disable a device. That character should be running around the map smiting his foes – not tied to a square on the map trying to stop type X damage from draining the party’s hit points. Don’t get me wrong. This can be fun in the right encounter. Overall, traps feel too similar from encounter to encounter.

You must always be telling a story!

Here is my trick to making all your encounters dynamic. You must always be telling a story. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and earlier versions were great at this. Those versions of the game were combat-light and exploration-heavy. Every time you walk into a room, the DM describes your surroundings. As a player, you are automatically drawn into the story because you have to create a mental image of this location. This is especially true during combat. There are no grid maps or miniatures. You have to imagine the scene. 4th edition has a handicap in achieving the same level of player immersion. My experience is that players have a tendency to see a battle map in terms of squares and mechanics. The bloody pile of dismembered limbs, heads and torsos cast aside by the demon lord Baoba is simply “difficult terrain.”

The way to combat this is to insert interesting multi-dimensional features into your encounters. A floor that bounces like a trampoline. Rickety stairs that break and dump all creatures to the ground. Pretty much anything that makes someone have to think in 3 dimensions is going to have the desired effect. It’s sort of like George Lakoff’s idea about framing. If you read the phrase “Don’t think of an owlbear,” you will have already thought of an owlbear. Inserting three dimensional features into your encounter automatically engages the player’s imagination. They have to create a mental model their character’s surroundings. For bonus points, add some new simple mechanic. For example, in the trampoline room I would use the following rules: All bouncing creatures have a fly speed of 4. All creatures must touch the trampoline once per round or on the next round, the creature falls prone and moves straight down to the trampoline expending their move action. It’s a good enough start and easy to explain. Invariably, your players will come up with new ideas during the encounter and you will have to adjudicate rules of the cuff for backflips, wall running and body slams.

The map

My first map in the series is a gravity trap/puzzle. I wanted to create a map with unusual physics and some dazzling special effects. The party enters an enormous cavern with some ruined structures. It looks as if the area was once a carved room with incredibly high ceilings but most of the walls have crumbled away to reveal the cavern. Peering over the edge, all you see is inky blackness. Eighty feet up there is a circular trap door in the ceiling. There is a twenty foot wide section of wall that is still intact connecting the floor to the ceiling. Oddly, there are two large gargoyle statues on pedestals positioned on the perpendicular section of floor. The wall has a localized gravity effect with a 2 square height which allows creatures to walk on the wall. The gargoyles are not only statues. They are also switches that can change the map. One gargoyle controls the lock on the ceiling trapdoor. Spinning the statue left several times will unlock the door. The other gargoyle controls gravity effects in this room. Each position (0, 90, 180, 270 degrees) triggers a different effect. The effects are: turns off the localized gravity on wall, turns on the localized gravity on wall, turns off all gravity except localized gravity wall, inverts normal gravity (i.e. Everyone standing on the floor falls 80 feet to the ceiling trap door.)

One gargoyle controls the lock on the ceiling trapdoor. Spinning the statue left several times will unlock the door. The other gargoyle controls gravity effects in this room. Each position (0, 90, 180, 270 degrees) triggers a different effect. The effects are: turns off the localized gravity on wall, turns on the localized gravity on wall, turns off all gravity except localized gravity wall (i.e. zero G), inverts normal gravity (i.e. everyone standing on the floor falls 80 feet to the ceiling trap door.) You may wonder which effect is triggered when. The answer is whatever creates the most drama. As long as the effects are consistent, bring them out in the order that will be threatening but not wipe out the party in a single swoop. I also kept a group of bat-like humanoids on hand to swoop in and attack at an inopportune time -hopefully while the party is on the gravity wall to show off the unique properties of this map.

Map construction

Building this map was inexpensive. I bought black foamcore posterboard ($6), 4 3.8″x5″ thin metal plates($3.60), a roll of adhesive magnets($8) and a metal brace ($1.70). For the magnetic portion of the map, I cut out a 4″x16″ piece of foamcore. I evenly spaced and glued 3 of the plates to my foamcore with Weld Bond glue. I printed out my map tiles on cardstock and glued them over the plates.

Once the glue was dry, I flipped over the board and glued the last metal plate to the back. This plate would hold the map on my brace. I need to set the plate off the board a bit so I glued about 10 nickels to the foamcore and glued my plate to that.

One of my kids went to a pirate-themed birthday party and got a pad of paper with skulls on the cover. I ripped off the cover and affixed it to my plate to give it some more character. Once the glue was dry, it was time to see if the board would be able to stand up.

and a front shot…

I’m pretty happy with the way the map turned out. If I was going to construct this again, I would probably use better magnets. The adhesive backed magnets are not very strong. Large minis have a hard time staying on the board. During playtesting, I had a few mini avalanches – one would fall off and bring down the rest under it. If you handle them carefully, they will stay on the board very well.

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Guess Who Is The New King Of Monsters

I was sitting in front of the computer in my least dirty bathrobe with a cup of coffee when the tweet flashed across the upper corner on my screen. @KoboldQuarterly: The new King of the Monsters has been crowned! All hail the horakh, and keep your eye on it! http://cot.ag/9IUVid. It’s finally official! My entry in Kobold Quarterly’s King of Monsters 2 contest won best in show.

My monster is going to appear in Kobold Quarterly #15 Fall issue. The most exciting part is that artwork of my creation has been commissioned and will appear with the article. I can’t wait to see my glorious flesh rending and skull humping baby in action.

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I Was Attacked By An Owlbear

I have to apologize to all the people I missed at the PAX Prime 2010 DM Challenge. Literally, one minute before I walked out the door I was attacked by a raging owlbear also known to some as my wife. I had my laptop and projector packed in my backpack. All my minis were picked out. I had printed out the stats for my cast of characters. The statblocks for all my monsters including my award-winning horakh monster with custom-built miniatures. My stacks of foamcore maps. Everything. It was all in the car. Then, I heard the screech just as I was pulling the car out of the driveway.

I ran back into the house and into a full frontal assault by my wife who shall henceforth only be referred to as the Owlbear. After being torn limb for limb and left bleeding on the floor, I was accused of being an absentee father and making my owlbear into a D&D widow.

To be fair, it might have had something to do with my oldest daughter getting stung by bees twice an hour earlier and her left hand swelling up to the size of a catcher’s mitt, the five year old crying for her missing blankey while the two year old was emptying out the contents of her sippy cup onto the new bedsheets. What does she have to even complain about? She’s a stay-at-home owlbear. I’m a work-from-home dad who can watch the baby while she runs errands. This is her job as she so often reminds me. Do your job. Let me go!

I guess I do spend quite a bit of time obsessing over D&D and role-playing games. Last year, she told me I needed a makeover so I went out and bought all new T-shirts. All my old punk rock t-shirt were full of holes and starting to pinch my ever-growing frame uncomfortably. So I got an all-new RPG inspired wardrobe.  D&D conventions t-shirt reprints, shirts splashed with d20s and my favorite, my “I (heart) Dungeons” t-shirt. I also spend an inordinate amount of time reading RPG blogs and working on different projects. But the alternative is to sit and watch T.V. with her all night. The owlbear follows two shows a night including 48 Hours, Big Brother and the Real Housewives of INSERT A CITY I DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN. In other words, brainmelting horseshit that I can’t handle for ten minutes. I certainly do abandon my family for five hours every week when I ride my bike to the city to run D&D Encounters. Maybe she has a point.

There was nothing to do, but stay. Even though I had made plans with her a month in advance. Even though she had witnessed me spending every night (after I bathed and put the kids to bed) gluing and cutting maps, printing documents and crafting minis. Even after I ended up missing my ferry the night before the DM Challenge, spent all night stranded in Seattle, got home at 7:00AM and caught an hour nap only to get up and feed the kids while she slept. Even though I told her this happens once a year and it was important to me. Deep breath.

The owlbear actually has a blog that a few of you posted comments on when she blogged about D&D. She calls me “Big Daddy.” I didn’t claim her at the time because we had a “no follow each other rule” on Twitter, but that went out the window. I don’t know. How do you handle your significant owlbears?

I refuse to let the time I spent on my DM Challenge entry be a waste of time. I’ll be posting pictures of my maps, traps and encounters this week starting tomorrow. I spent a great deal of time to bring some new ideas to the game table. I hope you all like it.

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