The Waterdeep Job

Looks like it’s heist heist week here at Mike’s D&D blog. On Monday I posted about how in heist movies, there is usually an expert team assembled each with his or her own unique characteristics that contribute to the success of the heist. Now that you’ve got your team assembled, let’s look at how to plan a heist in-game.

The gnome DNAPhil at Gnome Stew posted a great essay on how a DM might plan a heist adventure. He breaks down the elements of a heist, with the focus of the article on the planning portion. The planning is the best part, with a cool soundtrack and montage of everybody walking into their various situations and overcoming the planned obstacles. One of the commenters to pointed to where Robin Laws maked a good point that cool thing in a heist movie is the plan unveiled to the audience where the “A” plan gets foiled by the bad guys, but in doing so they actually fall right into the party’s “B” plan. In order to make that scenario work in a RPG the “A” plan is the MacGuffin, planned out of game and the party’s in-game response is the playing out of the simulated “B” plan.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the The Plan going forward is either the “A” plan or the “B” plan where the DM described where the A plan was foiled. In either case, when you and your party mates make a plan you’ll have to be flexible because the DM is going to try to throw wrenches into the gears.

Start by making sure you know what The Object is and what’s guarding it. I’ll assume you’ve scouted out the area, bribed some NPCs for the building plans, and rolled some good Gather Information checks to find out the guards’ schedules. If not, get on it, and I’ll meet you back here when that’s all done…. Now that you have inventory of what’s ahead, map out a route from your base to where the object is stored and note along the way all the obstacles to be overcome.

Next you should make a list of all the things you have to get around those obstacles. You’ll want to list important skills, feats, rituals, items, and of course the NPCs and connections you might have. It’s best to be somewhat general in order to be flexible and tied to a specific thing. For example, instead of “Arthalas’ 23 skill in Stealth” you should list “a sneaky PC.” It may not seem like a big difference but the less concrete you can make it in your minds the better you can adapt the plan. So in this example, if Arthalas gets caught by the law you can send in Birlana, even though her sneak is only a 16 (hey, that’s the penalty for failing a skill check) On the list also make note if the item is expendable, such as a potion, a daily power, or an ally that owes you only one big favor.

With a list of advantages in hand go through the obstacles in chronological order, picking out your best bet for overcoming that obstacle. For each obstacle come up with a primary method and a backup plan. Ideally one of these should not depend on anything that could have been used up previously. This should give the DM ideas for foiling your plans and the confidence to know you’ll still reach the goal after some suspenseful encoutners. Repeat for each obstacle until you get to The Object and back out to the base. Pretty simple, right?

Here’s a list of potential obstacles in a fantasy setting and some ideas for overcoming them. This is by no means exhaustive either in types of obstacles or means around them, but instead just a little brainstorm to get you started.

  1. Guards at the Gate. Wait until the fewest guards are expected to be present.
    • You can create a diversion to distract the guards or pull them away. Use Illusion spells like Ghost Sound [DDI] or a Bluff check to distract them. If the party has burly friends, creating a riot out on the street usually works, or if you have a sneaky ally he can steal the guard’s hat and then they will chase him around the corner.
    • Or you can scare them off. Nothing sends underpaid grunts running like the fear of death. A good Intimidate check could go a long a way, and it helps if you have a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak.
  2. Traps Of course the best way around traps is a thief who can disable them. Also think about ways around traps such as ladders, ropes, and teleportation. Just remember that if your way out is the same as the way in, you’ll want to make sure you disarm the trap completely, or that you can avoid it when fleeing out. You can also try to convince the DM to let you use Dispel Magic [DDI] to overcome magical traps (some traps specifically list this is a possibility).
  3. Locked Doors/Gates If an item is worth protecting, it’s probably put in some kind of vault.
    • Try to get the key ahead of time. If the current owner is a narcissistic bastard, he probably keeps the key on him at all times, especially when he goes on dates. Send someone to lift it off him while flirting.
    • If you can’t get the key be prepared to either pick the lock or use some sort of magic such as teleportation, shadow walk, or mage hand to get it. Going quietly is always preferred, but if none of those options are available, bring a portable battering ram [DDI] or pry bar to force open a door. Be prepared to deal with alerted guards.
  4. Decoys You’ll want to make sure you have some way of verifying that you got the real thing. You don’t want to get back to camp and discover you’ve only stolen some polished glass instead of a real Dragon Orb. Going back a second time will only be harder.
  5. Boss Guards Try to find out what kind of monsters will be lurking and if you can pick up anything to defend yourself against its attacks. Or better yet, find out if it has any weaknesses, like vulnerability to sleep spells or will chase a steak flung out a window. A battle not fought is a battle survived. (Argue with your DM to get the xp if you overcome a monster non-violently).
  6. Going sneaky They don’t call these plots capers for nothing. If your character is not the sneaky type, get some bonuses that will prevent you from attracting attention like boots or capes to boost dex or stealth or speed. If the whole thing is supposed to go down in one session, consider downgrading to light armor (don’t forgo your defenses for a month of dungeon grind, however).

For more inspiration, watch one of the 212 Heist Films listed on Wikipedia. Happy hunting!


High performance teams

If you’ve haven’t seen the show Leverage, it’s basically a weekly 1-hour heist movie. Someone described this show to me as “competency porn,” since all the team members are the best at what they do and they show it off for the audience each week. The Star Trek Next Generation team was also the same way: they took the best and brightest in the whole galaxy and we watched them roll through any challenge put before them in only 44 minutes.

Contrasting to these shows is Burn Notice, which is a show about a spy going around doing MacGyvery things. While the protagonist has specialist friends that help him into and out of jams, the show is pretty much about the one guy. The single protagonist model, while awesome on TV, fails in a RPG. The main hereo a cool fantasy for an individual to play out, but to do so you need understanding friends that wouldn’t mind being the supporting cast. In a cooperative story telling game, everyone has to share the spotlight. That means as a player you have to encourage others to take their turn and sit back when it’s not.

Let’s go back to the Leverage example. Each character on the show has a unique role due their specialties. While they might all be charming and witty, only one person is the designated grifter. And evne though they can each throw punches, there’s someone dedicated to be the muscle. Sometimes they shake up who is performing a specific role, but each person still has a non-overlapping role. In these examples and “role” refers the the character’s party function and not the combat role (leader, striker, defender, controller). In d&d you can have a party with 5 rogues or where everybody is sneaky, but only one guy should be the cutpurse, wilderness scout, or crossbow back-stabber. Having something uniquely useful a character can do makes him an integral part of a team.

In a general party, one guy should be the history buff, one the trapmaker, one the healer, etc. The best way to ensure uniqueness of roles is to use a “group template” and build the characters together as a team. I think many groups have gotten better about this in terms of having the class roles covered, but not as often with the adventuring roles. Ideally you should talk about your character’s motivations and desires and how those manifest as her skills, feats, and abilities. It’s better to cover what roles the various characters will play at creation time, so you can compromise and adjust if there is an overlap. After all, if one character hogs all the “cool” activities, why bother with an adventuring party?

It’s harder to modify an existing group, but there is plenty of opportunity. If two characters grow into the same role, trouble can ensue when both players try to grab the stage. When that happens there are a few ways out:

  • One player can take the opportunity to stretch his role play imagination and play a unserved role in the party. The interested player can take feats and train skills in the applicable areas or buy specialized equipment, make certain contacts, etc. It’s incumbent on the GM to make sure there then is sufficient game time for that character, and hopefully if you have a good DM he’ll let you retrain more than one thing at once to maximize the character’s usefulness.
  • You can split the role, but agree to be the lead for certain situations. Share the decision with the DM so he can make sure there is ample opportunity for both players to have that spot. It’s not the best situation since it may not work out to 50/50, and put stress on the DM to balance your two egos.
  • The easiest, but least fun option is to be so passive-aggressive about it until you tear apart the campaign, and start all over again with a group template that discusses roles.

This is another case really of communication issues, but I honestly believe there is enough stuff to do in an adventure for 4-5 characters to each have their own niche. There’s a lot of burden on the DM to provide opportunities to express that niche, and patience required on the part of the all the players to wait for their turn and to let the others get theirs. Players can help each other by creating opportunities for each other’s skills to be useful, but that requires knowing what roles each person wants to fill. For those who want to be the single hero, there’s plenty of opportunity to play Dragon Age, Assassin’s Creed, or Uncharted instead.

The New Mounted Combat

Jousting KnightIn a fantasy role-playing games sometimes a character finds himself on top of another creature in battle. In my Second Edition days, I had characters that jousted from horses and dragons, and even once fought some sea monsters whilst atop a dolphin. Each 2e sourcebook had some complicated set of rules for the mounts of its worlds. Things got better in 3E with a standardized set of rules for movement, but there was still built-in support for mounted combat and specialized encounters like jousting.

In 4th Edition, I wouldn’t know where to tell where you where are the mounted combat rules in 4e, if they exist at all. Of course, it matters less now that size and height differences aren’t factors in combat.

In my game, we had a situation a few weeks ago where there were some enemies wanting to escape on griffon-back. In course of the session it mattered what kind of an action getting on or off a mount is; is it a standard, minor, or move? Can it be done as part of a move action? Can a dazed, stunned, or slowed character effectively mount? Then there was the situation of trying to get a mount to throw its rider…

I think the 4e designers purposely hid these rules. Mounts in d&d are complicated affairs, and are only effective out of doors (horses are ridiculous in a dungeon) and when everyone in the party has one. I think they would be fun occasionally for an encounter, but as much as some unique terrain piece.

I guess my questions to the group are: (a) are there official mounted combat rules, and if so (b) where are they? And (c) have you effectively used mounts in or out of combat in a 4e game? Do people still have “horseman” as a character identity/trait or do we assume they are all proficient riders that only get on a horse between adventures, if at all?

Gathering inspration from traveling, part deux: Tricking out your character

viking flair

viking flair

On Monday, I presented part 1 of my vacation report about gathering ideas for D&D from traveling around the world. Today I’ll finish off by describing some ideas I had about tricking out characters with medieval pieces of flair.

Wall of HalberdsBefore parts standardization, weapons were hand-made and unique. I saw several museums with wall upon wall of swords, halberds, and the like. Each weapon was unique in size, shape, and decoration. If you’re going to put in the amount of time and money it took to make a weapon that would survive hundreds of years of museum quality, you might as well have it nicely decorated. In-game, once weapons reach masterwork quality, they should have a little unique design; if your character was the one to comission it, you get some say in the matter. A character can show his humor or devotion by the decoration on his arms and armor.

Characters can also carry around small amount of wealth embedded in the hilt, pommel, and scabbard of a sword. Decorative art (aka, generic treasure) isn’t limited to brooches, figurines, and goblets: it can also be weapons and armor that are too fancy to be functional. The real crowns, bowls, goblets, scepters, swords, etc. owned by the medieval kings seem to have a gaudy big jewels haphazardly shoved on  like a kindergarten art project.  I imagine the most powerful rulers in the d&d world probably have astral-diamond studded crowns. By the time your character works up to magic items he’s pretty much guaranteed to have a little bit of gilt. For magic items decorations could  double as a hint to its functionality: snow flakes for frost effects, divine symbols for radiant or necrotic, or a serpent for handle on a poisonous dagger.

In London I found out that Henry VIII had more firearms than wives. He wad a fanatical collector of early cannons, guns, sword-guns, and mace-guns. In his collection you can see the evolution and experimentation in the early days of firearms as the engineers and artists tried to make gunpowder work on the battlefield. Looking an actual arquebus makes me wonder if the d&d stats should have a had a higher misfire rate. I bet its wielders died more often from a sword-gun or mace-gun than its targets; but it must have been exciting for them at the time.  Just as in the real world some people are early adopters of technology, in d&d some characters should be the type to jump to the newest thing, be it weapons, transportation, or spells. This kind of character may adopt a new “main” power at each level, or start using the newest piece of treasure, letting his trusty waraxe gather dust in the handy haversack.

16th C hand mortar

16th C hand mortar

Some characters like artificers may be inclined to be the one developing the new stuff in the world–always experimenting and trying out new ideas and techniques. I once convinced a DM to let us set up a giant “there i fixed it“-style goblin-killing device to clear out a dungeon.  We made up a lot of up rules as we went a long and it wasn’t as effective as straight up combat, but it sure was fun.

Of Kings and Servants

Another way to trick out your character is with lackeys, servants, and sycophants. In order to go adventuring, you need lots of gold for equipment. Since labor is way cheap, it’s not unreasonable to think that player characters could support a few characters’ yearly wages from their earnings. I couldn’t find good 4e rules for hiring servants, but as they wouldn’t really have any in-game effect, they are probably free. If your character has the least bit of noble blood or the desire to join their ranks, she should get some personal staff. A good start would be to have valet and cook, and you probably want a someone to oversee the running of your estate. From there you can pick up any Victorian era-set novel to see what else you need: a gameskeeper, butler, chauffeur, constable, etc. The rules make it quite cumbersome to take non-PC friends adventuring so let’s assume for argument that you have a way of storing these guys when you’re not actively adventuring, so you probably own a manor or keep.

For time advice, see today’s Dungeon’s Master repost on +1 swords.

Gathering inspiration: travel

A month ago I set this blog to autopilot while I was on holiday in England and France.  Traveling always fills my head up ideas for adventures and characters.  I’ve mostly visited “exotic” places within the U.S., which provides fodder for interesting adventures, but with a distinctly American theme. Going to London and Paris was like visiting the source material for the PHB.  Those cities have all the basics: knights, castles, kings, royal jewels, priests, grand cathedrals, etc. Most of the gaming inspiration I found was best suited for campaign or adventure ideas, but I want to focus on player aspects where I can.


The tower of london

Tower of London

Hundreds of years of wars between England and France meant a pretty steady advance of military technology for attack and defense. Both London and Paris’ main castle/royal residence started out a tall tower with guard wall, which slowly expanded over time. Years of modifications to monumental structures leave interesting architecture for fights (think bridges, stairs, ledges, and corners) as well as passages long ago forgotten. Castle building is expensive and therefore generally unpopular with the peasants, but the kings and queens who build great castles and palaces are among the best remembered and the most accomplished. It’s important to think about where a character grew up.  Whether on a remote settlement or major city, it seems like everywhere was pretty much under the threat of attack, so growing up inside versus outside the walls probably had an affect on a person’s outlook on life.


The culture of middle ages Europe was different than it was now. There was huge emphasis put on the church. Think of the sheer number of churches, plus their grand scale and opulence combined with how even the secular-powered kings were concerned with their souls and afterlife. Knightly orders had religious underpinnings and often met in churches, with their own reserved rows and altars. Even peasants were expected to live according to church customs. Art and relics traveled across the land to those who could not go on pilgrimage to visit them in their home churches.

Rose Window

Rose Window from Notre Dame

The D&D world is filled with a whole pantheon of gods that have the ability to directly influence the world, but in my experience only the Cleric character has any sense of religion. Players should think about their character’s view of the gods. Did she grow-up religious: going to the temples every week or was she dragged along against her will on pilgrimage by her parents. Does he have a healthy superstition, thinking any unexplained action is the “will of the gods”? Or does he blame Pelor for the conditions that sent him adventuring in the first place. Maybe your character worships the main gods in a non-traditional way, other gods or no gods at all and is persecuted for it, or at least is uncomfortable that everyone just assumes he worships as they do. Customs and beliefs in a fantasy world  is probably not that different than the superstitions of the medieval Europeans.

Knighthood & Chivalry

Both the English and French had several different orders of knighthood. The most prestigious were mainly made up of the King and his relatives, but it is possible for a knight (who in those days was already a noble) to distinguish himself and earn entry in a prestigious orders. Perhaps your character is a member of an order and has taken vows to uphold a certain way of life. Or he has had a knighood thrust upon him by birth that he wants no part of but is afraid to shame the family. Or he is aspiring to be a part of a particular order, perhaps to be in the inner circle of friends of the King.  In 4e, the knight isn’t a class type, so it’s possible to think of most class types permitted in a general order of knights, or having their own order (e.g., Wizards of the Rose, the Warlords of the Misty Mountains, etc).


Wandering around the great churches and palaces helps give a sense of spatial and historical context to the age, but so much the stuff that inspires the arcane side of d&d can be found in the great museums. There are items that were already old and had years of legend around them by the middle ages: crowns and swords of the early post-Roman kings, relics from the Saints of early Christianity, etc. By the time wealth started ramping up after the crusades, these items were re-branded with additional gold and jewels. Looking at fancy, 600 year old jewel-encrusted scepter surrounded by history and legend, it takes imagination not to believe that the item holds real magical power. Combine its appearance with the fact that people back then actually believed that certain items had healing or luck powers, or it could be used for direct communication with God, and you get a true sense of wonder.

Crown jewels and reqliquaries with their gold and jewels are the inspiration for many aritifacts and wonderous items listed in the PHB and DMG. A player should not only think about an item’s appearance, powers, and history (including who most recently owned it), but also how NPCs react to its presence. If the GM hasn’t come up with a lot of history for it, feel free to make some up and share it with her. Is its description well known from legends? Does its appearance fit well with your character’s? People may assume you a king from another country or perhaps have stolen the item if it looks to good for you to own. Does the item have religious significance? Will people want to rub it for good luck, or banish you from their town to avoid the wrath of an angry god? Do your items inspire jealousy from other characters (or do you secretly covet another’s)? Does a magical ring start a desire to collect as many different ones that you can, even if you have no intention of using them. How do you store them?

There’s a lot to think about even the simplest item. Fancy items in the old days showed off how rich and powerful you were by giving them away (more so than simply owning them). Kings would give each other fancy crowns and jewels to show off their own wealth. A king could honor a knight or servant with coins, jewelery or gifts. If your character preforms good service, he could expect a token inscribed with the royal arms or visage. If you play in a campaign where you get to choose your own items, instead of founding it in an old tomb, it is a gift from the local lord.

If you’re going to make your own magical items, do think about how they look and and fit into the art and culture around you.

On Wednesday I’ll have more thoughts from my travels, concerning various people and arms & armor.

Playing the part: working with your enemies to recover an artifact

One of my favorite parts in any adventure movie is the part where the hero has to team up with his or her enemies to recover an artifact or save an ally. For example, in Indiana Jones and the Quest for the Holy Grail Indy helps the Nazis go through the trap filled mountain to recover the grail. In these movies, the hero gets into this situation because (a) he’s stupid. This is denoted by you shouting at the screen for him to not help them and keep the artifact hidden (he can always go back for it later), Or, (b) he is pressured because they are holding a loved one hostage.  Sometimes the hero has half the map and the enemy the other half, but then it’s usually better for no one to have it than risk it fall into the bad guys’ hands.

There are fewer movies with this situation where a whole group teams up with the enemy (i.e. a party of autonomous characters).   For this type of scene to work well it’s best if all the players are motivated to get along with the bad guys.  Only holding one family member hostage works if the characters share a background where they would care about one person’s mom, or they have become such good friends that they would risk giving a powerful artifact to an evil warlord just to save her. Kidnapping everyone’s moms would be tough to do without being too contrived. A player can make this scene work with an open mind about your character’s background so it can be worked in. For instance, if the evil warlord has captured the ranger’s mother, maybe the same warlord also muscled your character’s family off his ancestral farm, or burned his village. Maybe there’s nothing about the villian other than you’d hate see the Diadem of Icarus fall into the hands of a dwarf; yet you’d hate to see the entire Dwarven civilization die out because you failed to help (you are a hero, after all). Having a strong motivation to dislike but also work with the villain allows you stay engaged without just rushing to kill him.

Once you get going, it’s your character’s duty to be on the lookout for ways out the situation. You are a prisoner to his evil plans.  Try implementing a plan to rescue the mother so your opponent no longer has any leverage, or come up with a way to neutralize or disable artifact once you reach it. If you have important information for finding or using the artifact, withhold it as long as possible, even if that means bluffing that you have more. Once you no longer have any use, you and your mom are toast. You can try to get your own leverage by using your allies to capture his mom.

Once you reach the artifact, you need to have plan to rescue it from the villain. It helps to have a side meetings with the artifact’s ancient and Secret Order of Guardians. That way they can show up at the last possible moment and turn the tide in your favor through valiant sacrifice. Be prepared for an epic boss battle: have potions, scrolls, and daily power ready for use. Hopefully, you’ve had some time to get know you opponents and have discovered something to your advantage, like they are afraid of spiders or take 5 turns to recharge their breath weapon. If you’ve managed to work together in a combat before-hand, I hope you took good notes.

Once you’ve won the day, make sure all your party-mates are on the same page about being gracious about it. The best possible situation is to turn the villain around around as he sacrifices himself and the artifact to save all of humanity (and elvendom, dwarfdom, etc).  If you’re not on the same page about the villain’s fate I’ll explore that in a future post, but make sure that if the artifact leaves its ancient temple it’s in one of your hand and not the enemies. Otherwise the DM has the next 10 adventures planned of you going after it and cleaning up your mess.

Who gets to say what your character does

There are a few ways someone else at the table can directly interfere with your character’s actions. By “directly interfere” I mean flat out verbally denying your plans meta-game, and not by putting a physical obstacle in your character’s way or countering an effect with an in-game action.

Some of those ways are:

  1. Flat out telling you that your character “wouldn’t do that.” In my experience this happens pretty rarely. Most gamers are good about letting you control your character’s motivations and how those manifest themselves. In older editions with stricter alignments this usually took the form of: “that’s a morally complex act, a Paladin would never do that.” This is very annoying but most people can be told to cut it out.
  2. There’s a more subtle form of #1, where there is a crafted world with social norms that the DM or other players want your character to conform to. For example: demanding elven characters be mean to dwarves or expecting rogues to always pickpocket or back-stab. As a DM I once (rightly) to a player he couldn’t play a Centaur because all the townsfolk would be afraid and try to attack him. In these situations you can guilt the offending person to leave you alone with the “I’m role-playing a unique and non-conforming character” excuse.
  3. And then there’s “making helpful suggestions.” In my group during a normal session fight we’ll come up with a strategy before a fight and then promptly disregard it and do our own thing. When this happens someone might give a suggestion about what your might do in a round to best benefit the party. Where this becomes a problem is when the other person either demands that your character do something, or worse, performs that action for you or jumps in and takes over for you. I usually wind up exploding those situations by acknowledging it in the moment. I’d love to hear suggestions for defusing rather than escalating intra-party violence.

In these and similiar situations the best thing to do is remind yourself that you’re playing a game and you are all there to have fun. Your non-malicious DM and teammates want the best outcome for the party. Not everyone gets the chance to solve the puzzles all the time. However if you find the balance not equitable, it’s best to speak up, and get the group on the same page.

Remember to look out for your character and make sure you’re the only one playing him. After all, each of the other players get their own characters and the DM gets all the NPCs. I’ve found that it’s easier to establish role boundaries in-game, so if the meta-game discussion gets too much or is unproductive: don’t “roll with it”, but instead RP it out.