What’s In Your Wallet?

Recently a friend shared a story where he tried to explain 3.5 after playing 4e for awhile. I don’t remember the exact quote, but he was describing how armor weight interplays with other gear weight (in non-linear fashion) when determining encumbrance for determining armor check penalty and speed penalties. Encumbrance is something I’ve generally always played without. My house rule is generally: everything can fit into the backpack, but nothing unusually large or heavy (doors, statuary, ladders, bodies, etc).

The advantage of an abstracted inventory is that it takes away tedious bookkeeping. Also by having a vast arsenal of items on hand, it makes it possible to MacGuyver up some interesting solutions to puzzles and other situations. The downside is that it takes away some of the challenge and a lot of the realism. But D&D is supposed to be heroic, not realistic… so I guess that’s kinda moot.

Besides the size and weight there’s also an issue of location. Obviously the equipped items are filling up some slot on the body, but everything else? Is it in a belt pouch, pockets, backpack, saddlebags, chest strapped to the pack horse? Normally an item’s location doesn’t make a difference; it’s always just a minor action away from my character’s hands.

But what about if an enemy wants to steal or attack an item? Called shots, sundering, and pickepocketing are out of the rules in 4e so I guess it’s pretty much at DM’s discretion. This is good for an enterprising player that wants to lift a key out of a guard’s pocket, but bad if the DM turns around and has an enemy ritual your sword right out of your hand!

To that end, even though I don’t fastidiously record the weights and locations of everything, I like to have a general sketch of where all my character’s items are, even if there is probably more than is reasonable in the backpack. That way if my DM is feeling evil, I can at least make a case for saying something is hard for an opponent to get at.

Photo courtesy of kevindooley on flickr.

Getting Your Stuff Stolen

One of the tools in the GM’s toolkit is stealing the party’s stuff. Sometimes this is done to re-balance a party when they get an overpowered item, and sometimes this is done as a plot device: the party gets captured or they have to go on a quest to recover their stuff. This is all fine for the GM but it’s quite traumatic for a player. This is not as much an issue in 4e because gear matters a lot less, since most powers are intrinsic to the character. However, it still sucks to be without one’s favorite stuff.

What can you do without your junk?

  • Improvise a weapon, or go bare-handed [DDI].
  • Beg, plead, or busk for money and use that to rebuild your equipment. Alternatively you can appeal to the quest patron, church, or guild to get an advance.

How can you get your stuff back?

  • If you’ve been temporarily deprived (such as being imprisoned), odds are, your goods are lying nearby. Your first priority should be to find them. You should do this stealthily to avoid getting into combat unarmed.
  • If your stuff is stolen and the enemy is not immediately available, you get to swear vengeance and hunt him down, assuming you know who “he” is. Before you go off, you should follow one my suggestions above or one of your own to get replacement gear in the meantime. A warrior doesn’t feel right without his armor.
  • You can use rituals such as Detect Object [DDI] to help locate your stuff as well.

How often do your characters get deprived of your stuff and how do you handle it? Anyone have a good GM story about this? In my experience, when I’ve done to this to my players, it hasn’t gone well!

Top Ten Things to Put in Your Keep

Lately all my posts have been inspired by the intersection of two separate events in my life. Today’s post was brought on by my quest to become the land baron of small parcel of New England, and the re-discovery of the plans for one my old 3.5 party’s strongholds. (It was on a pad of graph paper I haven’t touched in years, but needed to plan out my game this past weekend).

In every hero’s life, there comes a time when he’s either looking to settle down for awhile, hide out until things cool down a bit, or at least store his earnings. I won’t go in to the types of adventurer housing available, so let’s assume you’ve got a small manor somewhere that your character owns. What does he deck it out with? Or in other terms, if your GM turned it into an encounter setting, what would be the dungeon dressing? To help you figure out what you’d fill your house up with, here are 10 ideas.

  1. A (insert race) Cave. No adventurer’s home is complete without a place to relax, have a mug of mead with old friends, and scry in peace. A place to escape the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It should also double as a defensive area and a good place to store one’s hoard.
  2. An arcane tower. Especially useful for wizards and other arcane casters, but any hero’s home could benefit from a tall tower from which to read the stars for signs and portents. A wizard’s tower can double as a guard tower and a place to house one’s griffon.
  3. 10′ wide corridors. D&D fire code requires all corridors to be an even 10′ wide, and rooms to be at least 8 squares x 8 squares. Even if you never expect to be in a fight, it’s good to be prepared.
  4. A throne room. You need a spot with a big a comfy chairs, tapestries, and pillars with which to greet guests an supplicants. If the power ever goes to your head, you’ll need a spot for your guards to bring captured (N)PC’s to you so you can deliver a monologue on the proper stage.
  5. A treasure room. You’re going to acquire a lot of expensive items. You’ll need a high-security vault for all that stuff, and if you want to impress your guest, they’ll need to be on display. One bonus of having a personal museum is that you can charge your guests a modest fee for the privilege of looking at your loot. I also suggest hiring the services of a mimic or two to mess with anybody that tries to rob you.
  6. Arms and armor. In 4e, treasure is now rarely found on the bodies of one’s enemies. That doesn’t mean they’re not wearing interesting and diverse armors or carrying cool weapons. You can bring these back to your keep and put them display and show off the number and variety of enemies you’ve conquered. A Nature or Heal check should be sufficient for a little taxidermy…. There’s nothing like a stuffed Ogre wearing his original plate, just the way you slew him.
  7. Traps. If your house is all decked out, it’s likely to attract attention of unsavory types. Plus you’ve probably managed to gather a few enemies by now that would just love to catch you in your sleep. It’d be a good idea to have false floors, fire traps, murder holes, portcullises, secret doors, and all sorts of other nasty surprises. A giant rolling boulder would go great with those 10′ wide halls. Of course you’d have to make sure your legitimate guests know how to spot and disable these.
  8. Guest quarters. For those people and creatures that are welcome to come visit you should have a place for them to stay in comfort. That means you’ll need quarters with beds that should fit all sorts of guests from gnomes to goliaths, to archons and fire elementals.
  9. Teleportation circles. Important heroes may be called upon to save a distant kingdom or they want to go visit old friends and allies. Having a handy circle saves weeks of overland travel. For security reasons, you could get a pet dragon instead, which doubles as both transportation and security.
  10. Wainscotting. Little decorative touches turns a castle into a home.

What does your characters’ homes look like?

Yo, We Got Some Hats Now

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a hat guy. I’ve got a fancy collection of regional headgear from around the world. Every hat says something about it’s culture, climate, and traditional profession. I recently saw this chart of pretentious hats and it does a good job of making the point: hats say something about your character.

Whether we start off in media res, in a tavern, or with a long exposition, every 0-th adventure always has a “describe your character moment.” Generally people say something about race, facial features, armaments, and clothing. Little attention is paid to the headgear unless it’s particular part of the character’s flair: i.e. the iconic Cavalier hat with large plume of the Muskeeter.

Without bothering to find evidence to back up my claim, I’m going to assert that most characters in a fantasy world are going to have their head covered outdoors. Whether it’s for a formal holy day, a helmet on the town guard, or something with a wide brim to protect oneself from the sun. Players should expect that their characters have a good shot at identifying a villager’s profession and economic status by their hat. A gold-rimemd toque on a bloke at the market? There’ s a good chance he cooks for the king. A clean, yet threadbare bonnet? She’s either a poor married woman, or a pickpocket disguised as one! Adventurers are easy to identify: they’re wearing protective head coverings, dented and bloody, even when there’s no expectation of being attacked.

It’s reasonable to think that a freshly built character’s hat will nicely match the ensemble, but what about once she starts acquiring head-slot items? Most magic hats are helms, circlets, or crowns. How would one of those fit in with the rest of her outfit? As far as I understand the rules, head items don’t count as armor, and so she can wear a steel, face-plated helm with cloth armor. I know the rules make an exception for this, but I’d probably laugh at someone wearing a big steel fishbowl with his street clothes. What about a crown? Europe’s fanciest crowns almost have a tangible magic where you can believe in their magic. But even those were worn only on special occasions: they’re too heavy, fragile, and valuable to wear while adventuring, yet that is what happens in D&D. Imagine how much attention a character would draw walking around the woods or a city with a big, fancy crown! What would the actual ruler think? And I think fancy hats would also be an attractive target for a grab & run (that would make an awesome monster power–see below).

Rule-wise I think what the item physically is isn’t as important as its slot, and so when making your wishlist of items for the DM, feel free to ask for a head-slot item that appears in a form better suited to your character’s appearance.

For inspiration here is Wikipedia’s list of hats: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hats_and_headgear. And here is the hat-stealing power I just came up with. It’s for novelty purposes only:

Thievery Utility ??Snatch and Dash

Like a madman, you grab your target’s hat and take off down the street.

Standard Action Melee touch

Target: One creature

Attack: Thievery vs. Reflex

Effect: Move up your full movement through a square adjacent to target. You have a +2 bonus to AC against opportunity attacks during this action. Upon entering the first adjacent square to the target, make a Thievery vs. Reflex attack.
Hit: You obtain the opponent’s headgear.

Prerequisite: You must be trained in Thievery.

First published at Mike’s D&D Blog.

Let me close with these immortal NWH lyrics: “Grab a brim, babushka, or yarmulke (Yo G, what about a bonnet?). It really don’t matter just put a lid on it.”

Vehicular slaughter

Last week I wrote about escaping from a dungeon. Reader Paras commented that a good scenario would have the heroes locked up with the ingredients to build a battle vehicle for the escape.  This comment got me thinking that vehicles don’t come up that often in regular D&D games. In novels the heroes always wind up on a boat [snl skit], and my favorite element of the Eberron setting is the lighting rail. But in my experience occasionally the characters will own a horse to hand-wave overland movement, and maybe they’ll be on a wagon once and awhile. This leaves out the bulk of transport the characters can find themselves on.

Why do vehicles rarely show up in my games? Well, to start off vehicles are expensive. A cart [DDI] is only 75gp, but it costs 75gp for a horse to pull it. If you want to go faster, a hippogriff will set you back gp 4,200, and a ship costs 10,000. If you want to arrive in style and have a cool 125,000 gp, nothing less than a flying carpet will do. Keep in mind that’s enough to get a Lilting Songblade. And at those prices, you might as well just teleport. But let’s just say that the party gets some transport as a gift. What other obstacles have kept my characters on foot in the past? Oh yeah, the rules are obscure and confusing. There’s a lot of things to keep track of in battle without having to worry about staying mounted, mount size and mounted movement. Plus there’s what about Riding checks, combat advantage, rolling saves, charge rules, etc. What if the animal gets scared or confused? I do have to say the 4e rules are the simplest yet, but they are a headache just for the novelty. I’d rather be in campaign where mounted combat occurs often, so we can use appropriate feats and have incentives to learn the rules. Otherwise it’s easier to deal with “everyone magically dismounts” at the start of combat. I wrote a bit about this a long time ago.

For my own and others’ future reference, the rules for mounted combat are on page 46 of the DMG.

These hassles are only problems if you actually want to get on a moving object. I’ll cover two places where “vehicles” would be fun and how to get your group on it. First place is… the story. Vehicles can be good stylistically for the party: you’re a horse-bound knight or a griffon-riding elf noble. Owning a wagon lets NPCs know you’re a merchanty-type, and rolling into town on your own boat or airship lets everyone know you’re successful. You can trick out a vehicle to suit the party, whether you want to decorate with bright colors, post-apocalyptic tank trim, or chrome rims is up to you. Mobility imparts freedom on party, unless the campaign is literally on rails. In addition to increasing your shared ownership of the world, vehicles can move the story forward: they can take characters quickly across great distances, or to areas that cannot be accessed by foot (high cliffs and isolated islands). Building or finding a vehicle can be the story macguffin, a reward for completing a quest, or an item won from enemies. Large vehicles can also serve as the setting for an encounter or a whole adventure.

Vehicles present phenomenal opportunities for combat. A classic scene is jumping on to a moving vehicle from standing or another vehicle. This could be jumping a guy on a horse, making it onto a ship just as it is pulling away from the dock (with enemies in pursuit or on the boat), or breaking into the lightning rail while it’s in transit. In fact, I’m willing to bet a rice and beans dinner that there is already a module with that scenario. Similarly “car chases” can happen with horses, carts, boats, etc. If you’ve got griffons or dragons, your DM can set up a 3D dog-fighting scenario with fireballs and lightning bolts. Flying is even more complicated than regular mounted combat, so I’d like to see simplified rules somewhere for both situations. Maybe if no one knows of any, I’ll think up some rules and bribe my DM to let us try it out.

So fellow players, if vehicles sound cool talk to your GM about including them. You can indicate interest by purchasing a mode of travel and taking feats that deal with riding, flying, or sailing, to show you’re committed. If your DM balks at the overhead of dealing with with transport, agree to share some of the responsibility, maybe make a rules cheat sheet for each of the players….

Illuminated Ruminations

I was recently watching a show that mentioned the Treasures of the British Library.  Some of my favorite works in their collection are the illuminated texts.  Books come up pretty frequently in my games in the form of magic tomes, black market ledgers, and royal genealogical records. As important as the contents are, rarely does my group pay any attention to the physical object. In a medieval setting I imagine books are pretty rare due to the lack of printing presses and literacy, which should make them relatively expensive to start with. Any important book would probably have a cover made from exotic material (griffon hide or dragon scale), gilt pages, and written with exotic ink. On top of all that, if the book had special significance, it should probably be illuminated too.

Rothschild Canticles Illuminated pagBetween the time need to write and illustrate a book plus the raw materials, a book is going to be pretty valuable without regards to its content.  My first suggestion is for DMs to throw books in with scepters, jewelery, paintings, and statues as valuable “works of art” which are portable objects of wealth. My suggestion to the players is: even though craft has been done away with, using whatever attributes characters have in your game to make things, why not consider illumination as an artistic skill. This works nicely into the background of any divine-powered character, especially those trained in a monastery. It may not be as fun a craft as brewing is when you’re hanging out at the Dwarven hold, but its something that might get you noticed by a noble or church leader.

So far I’ve been talking about mundane drawings (although with fancy, expensive pigments). But in a fantasy world, there’s no reason why Illuminations can’t be magical. The act of drawing patterns, symbols, runes, or pictures in a book can be like applying a spell; in fact, this can be the implementation of how books get enchanted. Spells can be placed on mundane books to ward against fire, mites, and evil intentions. Other spells can make the text either legible or illegible to the reader, make the book invisible to thieves, change its appearance to keep up with the times, or let its owner know where it is at all times. Of course, the contents of the book itself can be magical; examples include a kingdom’s chronicles that updates itself, a biography that changes with its owner, or just a regular book of rituals.

The drawings themselves don’t have to be plain. Characters can get up and move around (like in Harry Potter); instead of just one snapshot of a battle or religious event, the illumination can be animated. A book can also be a scrying device that shows the target in vain similar to a crystal ball or silver bowl. It would be cool if it shown scenes were shown in a medieval stylization instead of appearing like a TV show.

The illuminations in a book can be a reward for an adventure, or the macguffin that gets the story going. Players should feel free to add depth to the world by inquiring about a book’s art, or describing the art in books owned by the characters. In particular pay attention to a character’s literacy, and just because he can read doesn’t mean he likes to.

(image courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library/ / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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!