Tag Archives: ideas

Stealing Liberally For My New Campaign

There are quite a few things going on right now that are preventing me from turning this into a full length post. One of those things is the construction of this, which you can see if you’re coming to Charm City Gameday on June 9th. Then there’s the Two Page Mini Delve I’m prepping for (hopefully) Friday.

I’m also planning a summer long campaign for the guys in my D&D group. They’re home from college, so I’m hoping to do a tight story arc that will wrap up by the time they go back to school. Just this past Sunday, we had a character creation session where we rolled some dice to determine inter-party relationships. I stole the ideas for inter-party and NPC relationships from Sly Flourish and Rob Donoghue, respectively.

Below is the result of all the dice rolling and table referencing; making a relationship web was the best way we could think of to make sense of it all. (Click for big…) Continue reading

Two Parties, One Goal: Ideas for Playing D&D Against Another Group

Although I like to stick to terrain projects and general advice here, I have, in the past, used this blog to put forth D&D thought experiments I’ve had. These mostly deal with non-traditional ways of playing the game; I suppose I like to put the ideas out there for feedback, or maybe just writing them out forces me to flesh out the idea into something that’s logical and cohesive. In any case, this is one of those posts.

I originally asked Dice of Doom to kick around this idea in one of their podcasts. I kind of forgot about it until The Angry DM posted this tweet, and got me thinking about the topic again. Someone else tweeted this in response to a comment I made that both groups of adventurers should be actual play groups. This got my brain churning even faster. Continue reading

An Age Old Puzzle That Belongs In Your Game

The Swan

What would you say if I told you that there’s a centuries old Chinese puzzle that has limitless replay value, engages creative types, is appropriate for grade schoolers through adults, and that I’ve never seen this puzzle in a single D&D adventure, ever.  Intrigued?  Let me tell you about tangrams.

Tangrams are deceptively difficult puzzles in which you are required to replicate a given shape with a predetermined set of tiles.  The tiles are as pictured: two large triangles, a medium triangle, two small triangles, a square, and a parallelogram.  That’s the “official” tangram tile set, and they’re cut out of a single square.  Every single tangram in existence can be made with a set of these tiles (unless, of course, it’s a “double tangram” puzzle for the experts among us).  One of the greatest advantages to tangrams as a D&D puzzle is the fact that it requires players to use a different part of their brain – normally puzzles are logic based; tangrams require spatial reasoning, and they will be very rewarding to the creative types in your group.  They’re also tactile – instead of staring at a piece of paper, unjumbling words or filling numbers in blocks, players get to fiddle with something.  They may even put their cell phones away!  There is no special knowledge or level of education required to solve a tangram.  You are simply given a shape’s silhouette, and then must make that shape out of the tiles. 

Note that the picture at the top of the article belies the puzzle’s difficulty, because you can see each tile; an actual tangram looks more like this:

The Camel

 And even that may seem simple, just looking at it – you can sort of imagine where each piece goes… until you actually have the tiles in front of you.  Then you begin to stare at the misshapen puzzle you’ve tried to piece together, and then at the leftover pieces you can’t seem to find a place for, until you are forced to admit that, yes, there is a bit of a challenge here.  Especially if there’s a clock ticking… 

Before I get into the When and How, I should also note that tangrams come in all levels of difficulty.  In trying to convey the challenge presented in a tangram, I don’t want anyone to think that they’re TOO difficult.  There’s a tangram for every person, every group, and every one is solveable.

 So let me spell out a scenario for you: The characters enter a huge vaulted room, easily 50 feet high.  The floor is polished marble, and grim statues line the walls, each one pointing at the center of the room where a massive obelisk stands.  The obelisk has [insert number of characters here] sides, as smooth and cool to the touch as the floor.  In each face of the obelisk, there is a single depression – a setting for what you can only assume is a massive jewel.  And beyond the obelisk, on the other side of the room stands a set of double doors, 20 feet high, made of cedar no doubt, by the smell of it, and bound by adamantium.  The chill emenating from the area, as well as the faint crackling of arcane energies warn would be intruders from trying to break them down.

The PCs are meant to find [number of players] jewels, and with each jewel will be a tile set.  Once they have all the jewels set in the obelisk, each face will display a depression of a tangram silhouette below each gemstone.  The players will then have to solve the tangrams and place them in the depressions to open the door.  Going about it this way gives each player a puzzle to solve simultaneously, and makes retrieving the puzzle components as much fun as solving the puzzle.  After all, the gemstones and tiles don’t have to be in the same dungeon, let alone on the same continent.  How badly do the players want to see what’s on the other side of the door?

Of course, that’s just one way to play it.  You could have just one tangram that the group solves together, using a more advanced (or even a double) tangram and a timer.  “Not done yet? Take another 10 ongoing damage everyone….”

The drawback to tangrams is that they require equipment.  You’ll never see them in published adventures because an author cannot assume that a group has a set of tiles lying around.  (Though, really, they could just include one printed on a sheet of paper to cut out…) But you, you’re the DIY type, and lucky for you, it’s easy to make a tangram tile set.  I made one in about 10 minutes while watching TV.  Do it during a full length drama show, and you’ll have a set of six.  For this project, I used the old standby – crafting foam.  If you’ve never used it, crafting foam is about 1/8 inch thick, flexible, and about the size of a sheet of paper.  It comes in all different colors, and can usually be found in the kid’s crafts section of your art supply store.  I got six different colors, one for each player, and so the pieces couldn’t get mixed up. Drop each set in a sandwich ziplock baggie, and you’re good to go.

I was going to type out the cutting directions, but it turns out someone has already done that for me. Thanks Google!  You can check out the cutting directions here.  I will say that I was tempted to go bigger than 4×4 (the sheet of foam could have EASILY handled 8×8, after all), but it turned out that 4×4 was a perfect size.  So stick with that.

Now that you have your sets of tiles, where do you find the puzzles?  Well, as you might expect, online is a good source.  You also might want to buy a book of tangrams to have handy, like this one or this one over at Amazon.  You can also get them as decks of cards.  All these options are really cheap, and that’s just a sampling.  You can get books upon books of them, at all levels of difficulty. (They are sometimes also called “tangoes,” so be sure to include that in your search.)

I would suggest sticking with a theme (“animals” comes immediately to mind), though you could also simply do abstract shapes.  Believe it or not, it’s actually difficult to reassemble the basic square, especially your first time around.  No matter what you try, be sure to include them in your next game.  The creative types in your group will thank you!

Have you ever seen or used tangrams as a D&D puzzle? How did they work out?

The Sea Dragon’s Maiden Voyage, Part II

In Part I, I outlined a skill challenge I used aboard a ship, and promised the combat encounter that followed; before we get into that combat encounter for the Sea Maiden, I wanted to highlight two other things I did during this adventure, and my thoughts on how they worked out. 

Arcane Ballista on the forecastle. The sailor henchmen are the pink starburst.

I’ve long been a fan of using special terrain features to add spice to combats.  This particular combat, however, was my first time actually trying it, and I think it went very well.  I used the Arcane Ballista from the D&D Miniatures “War Drums” line, framing it as a deck gun that the players could fire on their turn using a minor action.  Since the card that came with the mini was written with 3.5 rules, I had to come up with some 4e mechanics governing how the ballista was to be used.  I required a difficult arcane or thievery check to operate it, and then an intelligence or dexterity attack vs. AC.  Once the ballista had been fired (hit or miss), it took a full round to reload, so the team couldn’t just gather around it and fire it six times a round.  I struggled the most with determining the damage output of the ballista.  I wanted to make it good enough to be enticing to use, but not so overpowered that it would break the combat.  Obviously, the damage would be force damage, but how much?  I eventually settled on 3d6 for the 4th level party, rationalizing that rolling lots of dice is fun, and the average damage didn’t seem too out of line.  Being that the PCs were on a ship, I also gave the ballista a push ability so the players would have the opportunity to shove their adversaries overboard.  Here is what the finished product looked like: 

Arcane Ballista 

  • The arcane ballista requires a DC 22 arcana or thievery check every time you want to operate it.  This skill check is part of the minor action to fire it.
  • Powerful Blast  recharge: 1 round; Minor Action Ranged 20; Int+5 or Dex+5 vs. AC; Hit: 3d6 force damage, and you may push the target 1 square.

 (Sorry about the formatting, but you get the picture…) 

In retrospect, I may have changed the push to 2 squares, and perhaps made the arcana/thievery check a one time thing.  Other than that, I think it went very well.  Two of the PCs (trained in arcana and theivery, of course) made a beeline for the ballista as soon as I handed them the mechanic.  It’s something I will definitely do again. 

Arrrrr! Sing a chanty and man the topsail! (Artwork by Wesley K. Hall)

The second thing I tried was giving each of the players a henchman.  This idea I owe entirely to Wesley Hall over at WeXogo.com, who proposed the idea of “reverse minions.”  He’s created three: the Merchant, Soldier, and Farmer.  These were the inspiration for my henchmen, the Sailor.  I wanted to make mine more sturdy than 1 hp, so I took the idea of a “two hit” minion, and turned it into a power.  Here is a pdf of the final result, with artwork courtesy of Wesley Hall.  They are set at level 1, but can easily be leveled up with the PCs, if you so choose, by using the SlyFlourish cheat sheet.  Just use the minion damage, atk vs def for the attack bonus, average AC, Fort & Will -2, and average Def for Reflex.  The defenses you could tweak a bit depending upon the flavor you want to give the henchmen.  

How did they go?  I’d say swimmingly. (See what I did there?)  The group immediately gave their “cabin boys” names and personalities without any real prompting.  While I didn’t give them a lot of opportunity to roleplay them, I suspect there would have been shenanigans.  The combat they were involved in wasn’t broken by the addition of the henchmen, and because they only have the one attack, things weren’t really slowed up either.  

In planning to use them, the biggest question I had was: would the players involve their henchman in combat, or opt to hide them in order to keep them around for roleplaying opportunities later?  I mean, sure, two hits is twice as hardy as one hit, but it’s still pretty fragile.  Involving them in combat would mean a pretty good chance of henchman death, and there wasn’t a replacement waiting in the wings.  I did make it clear at the start of combat that their henchmen were either in or out; they couldn’t choose to run and hide after the first hit.  In the end, only one of them chose to leave their sailor out of the combat, which was fortunate because he ended up being a hero later on.  Only one of the henchmen died, though several of them took their first hit.  I still haven’t decided whether the henchmen will stick around, given the PCs current predicament, but if they do, I expect that the group will have a lot of fun with them. 

Well, this post has run a little long, and rather than tax your attention span even more, I think we’ll put off the combat encounter until next week.  You’ll be highly amused when you see how it ends, I guarantee it.  See you then!

The Sea Dragon’s Maiden Voyage

Almost done with the skill challenge. Notice all the sails are furled but one in the stern.

A month or so ago, I mentioned in passing that I had finished my first build of World Works Games’ papercraft ship, the “Sea Maiden.”  Although I actively looked for an occasion to use it, only recently did an opportunity present itself.  My group had just finished an adventure tracking down a drug cartel, and clues led them to another area of the campaign world that was reached fastest via sea travel.  So I put together a fun little “on the way” adventure for them that also contained hooks that they may or may not investigate.  I thought I’d share the adventure with you in a few different posts because I had a lot of fun running it, and since it’s an adventure that happens “on the way” from point A to point B, it can pretty much be dropped wholesale into any campaign.  Alternately, you could just take any of the pieces and use them individually.

But first, to address some questions that I’ve been getting about the ship itself:

How long did it take to make?

The ship took between 20 and 30 hours, by my estimate, to put together.  I did not time myself, and did most of my cutting and gluing in the evening while watching TV.  The 20-30 hour time frame did not include printing time, which I discuss below.

How big is it? I can’t tell from the picture.

The ship is approximately 36 inches from stem to stern, and 28 inches from bow to stern.  It’s 7 inches wide, and the masts stand 20 inches tall.  The main deck is about 3 inches off the table, and the forecastle and sterncastle deck are 6 inches up.

How much did the ship cost?

The plans themselves cost only $17 from the World Works Games website.  You receive a downloadable PDF that you can print out as many times as you want.  However, I found that the cost of the PDF was not the most expensive part of the ship.  I only have an inkjet printer, and I went through approximately 4 ink cartridges in the course of making the ship.  That worked out to about $44 more dollars in ink.  I have since purchased a color laser printer for all my papercrafting needs, and expect that future builds will be markedly cheaper.  The printing also took a long time, and the printer I used required babysitting or it would jam, so I couldn’t just send the print job and walk away.

Future builds?

Yes, I plan on making this ship again… sort of.  I learned a lot in the course of making it; for example, it’s really important that the foamcore you base your decks on does not warp.  I also have some ideas for kitbashes* that I’d like to try, and I think it might be neat to print out the plans in black and white for a ghost ship, or a ship from the Shadowfell.  Will I do all of these?  Maybe, maybe not, and certainly not anytime soon; I have a few other projects on the table right now that will be taking precedence (like the mini I talked about in our last podcast).  But that’s the nice thing about the PDF plans.  They’re there when you want them.

*Kitbashing is taking the plans, and changing them to suit your needs.  For example, I might make the ship without the fore and sterncastle cabins, or I may shorten the deck considerably and only have one mast.

And now, on to the adventure…

The group started in a port city, and in need of “nautical transportation.”  Heading to the docks, they proceed to try and locate a ship that will grant them passage.  This can be as involved and interactive as you like, but I ended up handwaving this part, and informing the party that there is only one ship available.  The captain of the ship is a bounty hunter; he is planning on leaving today with two prisoners, but if the party wants to pick up one last bounty that he didn’t have time for, he will give them free passage and share the bounty as well.

While I think everyone (especially myself) had a lot of fun with the bounty hunting part of the adventure, I’m not going to outline it here.  Suffice it to say, it involved most of the party entering through the front door of a tavern, and exiting a second story window.  I’ll leave this part of the adventure to your imagination, or you can leave it out altogether.

The party returns to the ship bounty in hand (or in the case of my group, not), and the ship departs.  At some point in the passage, an unnatural storm suddenly arises, and the ship is tossed about like a cork. I used a moderate Arcana or Nature check to determine that the storm was not natural, and in fact magical in nature. 

The captain shouts over the storm to furl the sails before the wind takes down the masts.

Skill challenge! I will note that I designed this skill challenge specifically for the Sea Maiden.  The plans come with open and furled sails, and they can be swapped out on the fly – from unfurled to furled in seconds.  I saw this as a built in skill challenge.  Since there are six yards on the ship, the skill challenge is 6 successes before 3 failures.  At every success, I would swap an open sail for a furled one, so that the group had a real visual of their progress.

Furl the Sails! (Skill challenge complexity 2: 6 successes before 3 failures)

  • Endurance (mandatory group check, easy DC): You continue to work as you are pelted by rain, buffeted by wind, and soaked through again and again by waves washing over the deck.
  • Athletics (moderate DC): You climb the masts and pull the ropes in.
  • Acrobatics (hard DC): You keep your footing on the rolling deck.  You scramble out on the yardarms to help furl the sails in the upper masts.
  • Theivery (moderate DC): You’re a wizard with the ropes, tying them off to the cleats on the deck and securing the sails.
  • Perception (moderate DC): You watch for incoming waves, and warn the crew before they hit so that no one is washed overboard.
  • Intimidate (moderate DC): You convince the crew that if they don’t work harder and faster, “we’re all gonna die.”
  • Bluff (moderate DC): You convince the crew that things “aren’t really that bad,” and “I’ve seen worse” so that they do not panic and make mistakes.
  • Nature (difficult DC, optional): You assist the captain with navigating the boat so that you don’t capsize, and in fact the waves don’t toss it around quite as much.

Success: The sails are furled in time, and the PCs get a breather before the combat starts. (Yes, combat. Who did you think was generating the storm?)

Failure: Lose a healing surge.  Also, because the wind is still buffeting the sails, the entire deck is difficult terrain and a moderate acrobatics check is required for movement in the following combat (Failure=fall prone).  The movement penalty and acrobatics check can be eliminated by completing the 6 successes during the combat.

I hope you enjoyed the skill challenge.  Come back next time to find out who is behind the storm!

Dungeon Accessories: Lectern

This post is part of a series showing readers how to use Hirst Arts blocks to make accessories for 3D dungeons.  For the rest of the series, click the “Article Series” link on the menu bar.  If you don’t own any Hirst Arts molds, have no fear! You can skip right to the bottom for adventure ideas that do not require the actual accessory. 


“You enter a room that is completely empty, save for a lectern with an open book on it.” Such a scene, of course, sparks a myriad of questions in the player’s minds.  Added ambiance, like a sourceless beam of light illuminating the book, only serves to bring them to the edge of their seats even more.  Of course, showing them the lectern makes it that much cooler.  And let me tell you, this accessory couldn’t be easier.  I mean, so easy I almost didn’t post it, for fear of a resounding “duh” from the collective internet.  Let’s get to it. 

You will need mold 201 or 202.  I do not own 202, but I would have preferred it for this project.  You’ll need two of the long skinny floor pieces, two of the tiny triangles, one of the 1/3 rectangles, and a 1 inch square floor piece.  See the picture. 

Gather the pieces

 Glue the two triangles together, smooth sides facing in, and the skinny long pieces the same way.  Then, glue the triangles to the skinny long pieces as shown. 

Glue the triangles to the skinny rectangles

Congrats! You’re practically there.  Now, the tricksy part.  You need to stand the lectern up, and glue it to the 1″ square floor piece.  This will add a lot of stability, as well as giving it a “raised off the floor” look.  Since it’s pretty top-heavy, you’ll need to lean it against something so it doesn’t fall over while the glue is drying.  I just used another Hirst Arts block, as shown.

Once it was dry, I added the final piece to the triangular support, for the book to rest on.  The final product is pictured at the top of the post.  If you don’t want to make the lectern “raised” up on its own floor piece, you can integrate the floor piece into a 2×2 or 3×3 modular floor section, also as pictured at the top of the post.  You do cast your Hirst Arts to be modular, right?  Also, if you don’t want the triangle pieces as supports, you could also leave them off, and sand the top of the skinny rectangles at an angle.

As I said, this project couldn’t be easier.  Start to finish (not counting casting time), it came together in about 1/2 hour.  That’s counting drying time!

Some ways to use the lectern:

  • The PCs are given a quest to find a certain book. They find this lectern in the middle of a library, with a book open on it. Is that the book they’re looking for? Or, like Indiana Jones looking for the Holy Grail, is it in a more humble location?
  • When a ritual book or spell book is placed on the pedestal, rituals or spells cast from it are more powerful. (In “crunch” terms, a spellcaster is given a bonus for casting from beside the lectern)
  • The book on the lectern cannot be removed without performing an action, quest, or ritual.
  • If the book on the lectern is removed, a trap is triggered. (Who didn’t think of that one? Raise your hands… you should be ashamed.)
  • The book on the lectern acts as a “deck of many things.”  When approached, the book flips itself to a random page.  A PC reading that page pulls a card out of the deck of many things. (Yeah, I know the deck’s not out yet. It’s coming out this year though….)
  • The lectern stands alone in the middle of an empty room, with a book on it, illuminated by a sourceless light. It is completely mundane, as is the religious text on it… but the players don’t know that.

I hope I’ve sparked your imagination.  Do you have an idea for the lectern not listed here? Leave it in the comments!

“Choose a Skill Challenge” part 2: Travel the Road

 In the first part of this post, I proposed the idea of “choose a skill challenge.”  Instead of presenting your players with the choice of “skill challenge or combat,” (when a choice is presented at all), I suggested that it is just as legitimate to give them a choice between two different skill challenges.  This technique works best when presenting a problem with two conditions required for success.  In this way, you can design each skill challenge to assure success of only one of the objectives.  In other words, if the PCs need to complete A and B to be successful, you would design skill challenge 1 to assure success of A, but risk failure of B.  Skill challenge 2 would do the opposite.

Of course, everyone likes a concrete example.

The characters find themselves at POINT A with AN URGET NEED to get to POINT B both quickly and undetected.  They are now faced with a choice: they could aviod roads and travel overland.  This plan is sure to avoid detection, but overland travel is slow, and there’s no guarantee the characters will arrive at their destination on time.  Taking the roads would assure you of a timely arrival, but every stranger you meet along the way could be in the employ of your enemy, or willing to whisper word of your travels to the highest bidder.

We already looked at the “overland” skill challenge that avoids the roads (and assures the PCs aren’t detected).  We will now design a skill challenge for PCs who choose to travel the road instead.  They are sure to arrive at their destination on time, but need to contend with the possibility of being detected.

 Taking the High Road

You decide to travel to your destination via roads, staying in towns and villages when possible.  You rely on your superior social skills to disguise your mission from people you encounter and simply avoid other travelers when possible.

  •  Bluff (group):  You have a plausible cover story to tell other travelers you happen to encounter.  You effectively disguise yourselves so that you blend into a crowd.
      • Streetwise (secondary; +2 to everyone’s Bluff check, -2 to everyone’s Bluff check for failure) You know enough about local customs, language, and dress to help the party craft effective disguises, cover stories, and responses to questions.
      • Diplomacy (secondary; +2 to your Bluff check only) When asked a direct question, you are able to seem like you’re saying something without really saying anything.
  • Theivery: (Only one check allowed): You are able to forge believable travel papers, or steal legitimate ones from other travelers you encounter.
  • Stealth:  You scout ahead of or behind the party for approaching travelers.  You are able to hide the party off the road until they pass.
      • Perception: (secondary; +2 to your stealth check) You spot patrols and other travelers from far enough away that you can decide whether or not to avoid them before they see you.     
  • Insight:  You discern whether people you encounter would be sympathetic to your mission or whether they would be willing to give out information about you.  You can tell whether they might be willing to turn you in for a reward.  You advise the party to interact with sympathetic travelers only.
  • Streetwise: You gather information before you leave about the best times to travel that in order to avoid other travellers.
  • Any Knowledge Skill (group check; hard DC): If the party fails a bluff check, the party can negate the failure by choosing a knowledge skill, and succeeding at a hard DC.  Each member of the party can choose different knowledge skills.  As with any group check, at least half the party needs to succeed. “You quickly divert the conversation to a subject you’re knowledgable about; your audience is so enthralled that they forget about the questionable answer you gave earlier.”

So there you have it.  A fully fleshed out skill challenge choice.  Hopefully, I’ve sparked some ideas, and I’d love to hear some of them.  Do you have a good scenario that would benefit from a skill challenge choice?  Leave it in the comments!

How “Choose a Skill Challenge” Can Change Your Campaign

When I see skill challenges in an adventure, I see them in one of two ways.  The first way is as a “plot blocking” standalone challenge.  In other words, the skill challenge as set up is unavoidable if the players want to move the plot forward.  For example, in a recent post, I talked about an investigative adventure I ran recently where, in order to solve the adventure’s mystery, the characters had to complete a skill challenge. 

The second way I see skill challenges is part of an either/or proposition.  In other words, “either skill challenge or combat; you choose.”  Sometimes, these types of skill challenges are framed as “do a skill challenge or engage in combat, and if you fail the skill challenge, it will devolve into combat.”  I contend that these are basically an either/or proposition.   

I have a problem with the either/or skill challenge.  It’s not that I think it’s broken, or am opposed to using it.  They work fine as a plot mechanic.  My problem is that there’s more than one way to do an either/or skill challenge, but I only see “either skill challenge or combat” when there’s a choice.  What’s the other way?  I never see “either this skill challenge or that skill challenge.” And why not?  Having a second skill challenge ready for the players is just as legitimate a choice as choosing combat over a skill challenge.  I’ve found that using a skill challenge choice really shines when there are two conditions that must be met to insure success.  When done this way, you design one of the skill challenges to pose a risk of failing one of the conditions, while the other skill challenge risks failure of the other condition.

To demonstrate what I’m talking about, what follows is the  “choose a skill challenge” concept in action.  I will give a brief (very generic) scenario, and outline one of the skill challenges.  Next week, I’ll post the second skill challenge choice, and if you’re lucky, write a conclusion.

The characters find themselves at POINT A with AN URGET NEED to get to POINT B both quickly and undetected.  They are now faced with a choice: they could aviod roads and travel overland.  This plan is sure to avoid detection, but overland travel is slow, and there’s no guarantee the characters will arrive at their destination on time.  Taking the roads would assure you of a timely arrival, but every stranger you meet along the way could be in the employ of your enemy, or willing to whisper word of your travels to the highest bidder.

This sets up our either/or proposition.  To get to their destination, the characters must either travel on the roads or not.  There are also two conditions to success – timely arrival, and avoiding detection.  Each of the choices eliminates only one of the risks.  Let’s look at the skill challenge the PCs face if they choose to avoid roads.

Overland Travel Skill Challenge

You travel cross country through wooded and mountainous terrain, avoiding roads and any other possibility of human contact.

  • Nature: You make sure that the group is headed in the right direction.  The path you choose is a good balance of shortest distance vs. path of least resistance.  You are able to forage enough food and water that the group doesn’t need to carry a lot of provisions that would weigh them down.  You keep the party away from any encounters with hungry wildlife.
  • Athletics (group check): You are able to move over rocks and fallen trees with ease.  You leap over streams, and are able to climb rock faces, cutting hours off travel time.  Moving up and down steep slopes is no problem.
      • Acrobatics (Secondary Skill; +2 to your athletics check only; cannot grant bonus to another party member) You are able to nimbly fall when you slip, and are light of foot over all the obstacles that the forest provides. 
  • Endurance (group check): You are constantly on the move, stopping to rest only for very short periods of time.  You have no real path to follow, so physical exertion is far beyond what you would experience traveling on a road.  You get minor cuts, scrapes, sprains, and blisters from traveling over uneven and overgrown terrain.  You cannot light a fire at night, so you’ve been eating cold food and relying only on a blanket to keep you warm when you sleep.  Several times you have to travel through the night because you couldn’t find a suitable place to camp.
      • Heal (Secondary Skill; +2 to anyone’s endurance check; no PC can benefit from more than two bonuses per endurance check): You tend to one PC’s minor wounds, and can administer first aid to more serious injuries.  You know how to ease the soreness and fatigue that comes from incessant overland travel.
  • Perception: You spot other people in the woods (hunters and the like) or dwellings so that the group can avoid them.  You hear the sounds of a well traveled road as the group veers too close, and you steer the group away.  You spot game trails that the party can use.  You point out things that other party members would otherwise trip, slip, or hurt themselves on.
  • Dungeoneering: You are able to find adequate caves for the party to overnight in, so that their sleep is more restful.

Tune in next Tuesday to see the other choice the PCs have – travel by road.

Is it Time to Split the Party?

It’s a maxim that every D&D player knows: “Never split the party.”  In fact, when faced with a scenario where something will go faster by splitting the party (say, an investigation) most groups will still opt to stay together anyway.  And that’s fine.  There is safety in numbers, and no one would want to get caught in an encounter designed for five or six PCs with only one other PC, however min/maxed that other PC might be.  Which is where, I believe, the saying began.

But let us go back to the grandfather of the game, the template upon which the collective D&D imagination rests: Lord of the Rings.  There came a point in that story where *gasp* the party split up.  So could there be a place for such a scenario in our games? Let us explore.

First, let me say what I’m not talking about.  I’m not talking about an accidental splitting of the party, where, by some unintended turn of events, the party is split into two or more groups.  I’m also not talking about a voluntary splitting of the party that is a surprise to the DM.  This usually happens when the characters (or players) have a disagreement, and decide to go their separate ways.  So, what I am going to propose is actually a very specific scenario.

Imagine this: there is a nuclear missle about to be launched, and the only way to disarm it is to turn two keys simultaneously.  Unfortunately, the keys are too far apart to be turned by one person.  You need two people on opposite sides of the room to turn the keys.  Classic? Yes, of course. Do we use it? No.  And not just because there are no nukes in D&D (ooh! a new maxim!).  How would this translate into an adventure where the party needs to split up?  First, you need pressure, and second, you need multiple objectives.  Time is the easiest pressure to use, and the objectives could be anything that fits into your campaign at the moment.  You simply need to create a situation where the PCs need two different objects (or to complete two different tasks), and don’t have enough time to get (or do) both.  An example off the top of my head: a wizard needs two components to cast a ritual that will close an arcane portal.  On the other side of the portal, an army is massing and will invade by the end of the week.  The two components are three days travel away in opposite directions; there is no time to get them both.  Or, a more mundane example might be the retrieval of two medicinal herbs to heal a dying NPC.  And, as mentioned before, you can easily substitute “get a thing” with “complete a task.”  You can also substitue the “time” pressure for a “simultaneous action” pressure, as in the nuclear warhead example above.  Feel free to drop hints that splitting up is the best way to go because “never split the party” is pretty well ingrained in many player’s heads.  They will most likely search for the “solution” to the “puzzle” they assume you’ve presented them. They will think, “I’m not sure what the solution is, but I am sure it is not to split the party…”


Once the party has decided to split up, you have a problem.  There are now two independent groups doing two independent things.  You’ve essentially created a game where you’re trying to run two adventures simultaneously. What were you thinking?  Actually, since this is a problem you’ve created, the answer is pretty simple.  You need to time the decision point to happen at the end of the gaming session.  Then, when the party decides how they’re going to split up, announce that the two groups will be meeting separately once or twice.  This may mean that half the group will miss a week of gaming, or it may mean that half the group will meet on a different night.  Either way, assure the group that it’s temporary.  In fact, the gaming sessions should be part of the time limit.  Make it clear that if the objective isn’t met within a real-world time frame (one gaming session), then the mission is a failure, with appropriate consequences.  Meeting with each group separately insures each group gets equal attention, and that no one is sitting around doing nothing.  Quite the opposite – since the split groups are going to be small, it means more attention and less sitting around.


Excellent question.  Why bother with this?  Meeting separately, disrupting the gaming schedule… it seems like a lot of work, I agree.  Let me answer the question with one of my own.  How many times have the rogue and ranger attempted something stealthy when the noisy fighter or the dumb barbarian completely gummed up the works? How many times have the bard and cleric rolled for diplomacy while the rogue announces that he’s going to “pick the NPCs pocket,” gets caught, and completely ruins any chance of friendly negotiation?  The fighter vaults easily over the compound wall, but the wizard struggles. I can keep going… If your party is at all typical, the skill sets and character personalities represented are often at odds with one another.  And that’s good, you want diversity.  So why not play to that every once in a while?  Set it up so that there is a stealth heavy track and a bash in the door track for the two groups to follow.  Or a “talky” one and a “we need an arcanist” one.  This is your opportunity to tailor an adventure geared to the different subtypes that are represented by your party without anyone having to worry that the weaker characters are going to drag things down.

Of course you shouldn’t do this all the time.  Once or twice a campaign is enough.  Once per tier, tops.  Try it.  I guarantee your players will be talking about it for some time to come.

Has your party ever split up?  How was it handled?

Creating an Investigative Adventure

Recently, I ran the Living Forgotten Realms adventure “Crafts” by Andrew Cowan (DRAG1-7) for my group. In running this adventure, I was surprised at the elegance with which the author presented the “investigative” part of the adventure, and wanted to share it so that others could benefit from it. Often, writing a good investigation is difficult because things get complicated quickly.  I think you’ll see that keeping it simple is best.

As you read this, you should keep in mind the following:

  • This is a Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) adventure, so the plot is pretty railroad-y. However, the organization that was used in the investigative part of the adventure can apply just as well (maybe even better!) to a sandbox game.
  • The investigation was framed as one big skill challenge spanning several locations and scenes. We’re not going to touch on that at all, but rather the planning and presentation of the information.
  • LFR adventures are written to be run by many different DMs, and often the adventure is “pick up” (i.e., not a lot of prep time for the DM). Clear presentation and common sense organization of the material are paramount to writing a good adventure, good plot notwithstanding.
  • Since I don’t know the author, I’m making some pretty big assumptions about the PROCESS involved in writing this. If the process that I present doesn’t suit you, that’s fine; use what works for you. What I’m really doing is pointing to the finished product as an example of a well organized investigative adventure.
  • I shouldn’t need to say this, but will anyway: there are spoilers involved here, so if you haven’t played “Crafts” and are planning to, go away and come back when you have.

With these things in mind, let’s look at how the investigation was organized and presented in this module.

The setup:

The PCs are contacted by some sisters from a local church, and asked to put a stop to the sale of a new drug in the city. The sisters’ temple has been caring for those going through the debilitating withdrawl of the drug, and has become overwhelmed with the number of new “patients.”  If the spread of the drug isn’t stopped soon, the city will soon succumb.

It is important to remember when creating an investigation that at some point, there needs to be a “bottleneck” of information; everything needs to point to one culprit.  Put another way, all paths of investigation need to lead to the conclusion.  Granted, one path may be a red herring (ONE), and some paths may take longer than others. There may even be some overlap. In the end though, the PCs need to be able to conclude their investigation.  There are no unsolveable crimes in D&D.  With that in mind, you need to start by deciding where the investigation will conclude.  This will make it much easier to draw “paths” to that conclusion.  In “Crafts” the conclusion is the compound where the drug lords reside.

From there, you start wherever the PCs will start, and work forwards.  Come up with several leads for the PCs to follow up on; they don’t have to be obvious, either.  For example, the PCs could talk to some of the patients to find out where they were buying the drug (obvious), or the PCs could try and find a dealer on their own (not as obvious).  Finally, they could check with the city watch and find out what they already know (some groups may not even think of this).  It’s important to spend some time brainstorming possible investigation paths that the players may think of.

After you have initial leads, the rest of the investigation is simply adding some dots to connect start with finish. In other words, you don’t want the first lead they follow up on to bring them directly to the drug lords’ doorstep.  So you add some more leads.  Let’s look at how the dots follow from the “find a drug dealer” lead:  Find a drug dealer >> Obtain a sample of the drug (or) ascertain the dealer’s supplier.  So we have another choice for the PCs to make, keeping in mind that, either way they go, they will be pointed to the conclusion.  Let’s follow the “Obtain a sample” lead: Obtain a sample of the drug >>  ascertain the drug’s ingredients.  At this point, the PCs really only have one choice that will produce results.  That’s good, because now we have a bottleneck.  From here, the PCs only have to trace the ingredients back to their source, the drug lords’ compound.

There are actually other bottlenecks in the investigation.  For example, talking to patients in the infirmary (one of the initial leads) points you to seeking out a drug dealer as well.  While the PCs followed a different initial lead, they are sent along the same path.  That’s a bottleneck – no matter what the PCs do, they should be pointed towards the conclusion.  The more of these overlaps you can come up with, the better.  If you can use the drug dealer encounter when the PCs choose lead one OR two, that’s one less encounter you need to write. 

When you’re ready to map out the investigation in your notes, there are several ways to do it.  You could draw a picture, or make an outline.  I prefer an outline, because you can type it and save it, but if you’re more graphically driven, a picture with circles and lines works fine too.  Here’s what our investigation might look like in outline form:

  1. Talk to Patients
    1. Go to 2.
  2. Find a Drug Dealer
    1. Obtain a sample
      1. Ascertain the ingredients
        1. Find merchants who deal in those ingredients
          1. Go to conclusion
    2. Ascertain the supplier
      1. Get inside the supplier’s house
        1. Go to 2A
        2. Go to conclusion (with appropriate skill checks)
  3. Talk to the city watch
    1. Go to 2Bi

Of course, this is the barest of outlines, and should be a kind of “Index” pointing you to more robust notes elsewhere.  There is all manner of information, and many skill checks not included in this outline.  As an aside, I always advocate putting more information in your notes than less.  That way, later you can come back to something you’ve done and re-skin it, or possibly use it again as is.  It’s tempting to only include the outline in your notes, and rely on your memory for the rest because that’s less work.  However, you will most certainly forget the details in a year or two, and when that happens, the bare outline will require you to do the work of fleshing it out all over again.

Hopefully, I’ve given you a starting point for writing investigations.  I’m sure there are other ways of doing them, but what I saw in this adventure really made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to write my own.  If anyone else has tips, or a different way of doing them, feel free to leave advice in the comments!