Archive for April, 2010

Overworked Dungeon Masters make Masterworks with Masterplan

The Masterplan Opening Screen

I have a long list of things I want for gaming purposes. It started in 1983 with a photocopier. Oh how I dreamt of having my own personal copy machine. No longer would I need a pocketful of dimes and a ride to the library. When the modern computer – and its accessory the all-in-one printer – arrived on the scene, a gaming itch of many years got scratched. It didn’t take long for the ubiquitous computer to make itself felt to even the most Luddite table-top game. With my computer, I would spend hours scanning maps, pictures, even text entries in books, then using those entries to build my adventures and encounters. Years passed, pdf’s became available, the internet exploded, and it was nearly impossible to be a DM without at least some computer usage. Besides dungeons, I have become a master at cutting, copying, pasting, taking screen captures, and then going back and editing all these diverse tid-bits into a unified package which I would prepare for my next Dungeons and Dragons session. One of the things I have longed for these many years is a program that could help me manage all this data and put it into a format suitable for play.

I am here announce I have found that program, and it has all the capability I could hope for in one sweet suite. It is called Masterplan, and it is (for now) a freely download-able program on the web with regular support and upgrades. In fact, when I started using the software last month, it was version 8.3, but in that one month it was updated four times. This program is the ultimate tool for a DM to create quickly and beautifully. Let me run down the list of major features: Dungeon Tile Map editor; encounter, adventure and even campaign builder; monster, trap, hazard, and magic item compendium (updated with DDI subscription to include every single official listing.) And with each of these features comes the ability to customize and/or to randomize! The list of features goes on, and there are new things I notice every day while using it. In short, this is a full featured adventure design software suite that will help a DM with almost every single aspect of dungeon mastery.

Use it at the gaming table, if you dare!

In addition to above usage, it also is designed to be suitable for use whilst gaming, and allows for player views and DM views. It even allows importing PCs from the Character Builder for this purpose. I admit to being somewhat anti-technological at the gaming table – too many times have I seen eyes distracted by LCD screens of varying size to be comfortable having them around (and I include myself in that category.) But for those groups who can control the almost instinctual need to “look something up” whenever they are within 100 feet of a computer, it could be a boon while playing. So I haven’t tested its usefulness at the table, but I could see a scenario where I import my player’s characters into Masterplan to help gauge the difficulty of an encounter.

Mapping Your ideas

The Garden Grotto of the Shadow Panther lady

First off, the map editor. The Dungeon Tiles Map Editor is one of those holy grails of game aids I have searched for over the years. At some point a few years ago, Wizards put out a “beta” dungeon tile mapper. It was a great idea, but it was never fully developed or supported, and faded into the mists of time. Other programs tried and are still being developed (and I have a sneaking suspicion that Wizads will add a Dungeon Tile editor to Adventure Tools at some point) but none work so well or effortlessly as Masterplan. The biggest difficulty is finding the dungeon tiles libraries, but there are resources online to help with this, and I believe the program comes with a small assortment pre-loaded. It is also possible to scan tiles and convert them for use with Masterplan, and it is possible to import other maps and graphics. It is even possible to import an image, tell it how many squares in size it should be, and it will plop it down just like a dungeon tile! One could create an entire library of their own, and this makes the editor infinitely useful and customizable. In fact, a great feature for a future release of Masterplan could include a set of “classic” dungeon tiles that could be used to make old-school style dungeon maps.

The usability of the map editor is simple and effective. Choose to show tiles from specific sets, and order them by size, set, and subject. Drag and drop tiles into place, rotate, delete, bring to front-or back. The desktop re-focuses to include newly placed tiles, so there is very little zooming and panning required unless it is a larger map. The map can be rotated, divided into regions or areas, named, and it can be exported to a graphic file. When making larger maps, it has a tendency to slow down, sometimes making it frustratingly difficult to drag a tile to the proper location. This could be a problem on my end, but it does seem like the map-utility could use a little optimization in the memory or processor department which is my only complaint, and it is better than any other Dungeon Tiles mapping program I have used.

Building a Better Adventure

It is easy to jump right in and start creating. The basic functions of this Adventure Design Studio are very easy to navigate and use, while the myriad of additional features can take a little time and some digging to find – use the manual, which incidentally is updated with the software. Once a new project is started, it is time to assign “plot-points” to a flow-chart. Then it is a simple matter to add elements to each plot point, such as encounters, quests, treasures, etc. It is very straightforward, and once the adventure is complete, it will export it to an HTML or web file. The professionalism of the final product is amazing, and I only wish that it would export to pdf rather than HTML.

The plots points can be as simple or complex as necessary. There are areas for read-aloud text, as well as background and other customizable headings. The software will keep track of experience point values for the encounter and the adventure. It will also gauge the danger level for a group of at-level adventurers, and it can even be set up to show only those elements which fall in a certain range, which makes encounter design even easier. The plots themselves can be a straightforward delve, or they can be dynamic with multiple paths. Sometimes the menus can be hard to follow, and the more complex a thing is to do, the more windows will have to open to get it done, but no more than expected from a product like this.

Its the little things that count

Masterplan does it all...

My personal favorite feature of this feature-rich software suite is the skill challenge creator. It has such an elegant design for creating skill challenges, that it actually helped me to understand some of the finer points of skill challenge design, and made me a better DM for it. That is high praise indeed, but these little utilities are what make Masterplan shine. It is a snap to bring in any monster, trap, hazard, or treasure that is available with a current DDI subscription, and with just a few more clicks it becomes possible to edit or even create brand new. Once again, it is the customizability which makes Masterplan great.

The monster editor is especially potent. Besides being able to modify every single piece of data, it is possible to add themes and templates to creatures and encounters. This is something Monster Builder can’t do, so thumbs up to the developers behind Masterplan. Recently Wizards announced that they were changing the way monster stat blocks read, by grouping the creature’s actions, and within days Masterplan had an update with all new stat-blocks. As well as monsters, the same versatility exists for traps, obstacles, and hazards, and it is a simple matter to browse through the list of available options until finding the right choice, or modifying a close one.

In conclusion

Masterplan is a masterpiece of usability and versatility. It can improve every aspect of dungeon mastery, from building and populating maps and encounters to creating involved story-lines. Masterplan is right there, helping to keep thoughts organized and focused on the adventure. And not only that, but it is a continually evolving project with updates and new features added regularly. Add to all of the above the complete and total customizabilty of every element of the game, and Masterplan becomes a true masterpiece. After nearly 30 years of being a dungeon master, Masterplan became instantly indespensable to me, and I foresee a long and glorious future. it is rough around the edges in a few areas, and I would really like to see pdf support, but I am confident the developers will fix any problems it has.

There is one last feature that turns Masterplan into an incredible masterpiece: ITS FREE! It can be found here.

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Converting D&D Encounters adventure Halaster’s Lost Apprentice to D’ Erte Ruins of Forge Helm mega-dungeon with kids.

This is an unusual combination of circumstance. I used the D&D Encounters adventure Halaster’s Lost Apprentice as the basis for an encounter-a-week game I wanted to play with my two youngest children. I changed the back-drop to occur in my campaign world, D’ Erte, rather than Forgotten Realms; I replaced Waterdeep with the frontier towns of Magmaburg and Minotaur Halls; I replaced Undermountain with the Ruins of Forge Helm, a mega-dungeon I am creating for D’ Erte, but I left the rest of it as close to the original as possible. [No Spoliers here] Halaster was an Eladrin arch-wizard who lived amongst the dwarves of majestic Forge Helm before its fall into ruin, and Fayne and Zereas were his estranged children, each seeking to reclaim what they can of their father’s fortunes.

But the characters knew none of this in the beginning. They are a brother-sister team of 2 drow who have recently left their homelands in the Underdark in order to seek the surface world. The brother is a telekinetic psion, and he is played by Jackson, my 13 year old son, and experienced D&D player, eager to try out the psionic classes of the PHB3. My daughter Audrey, soon to be 11, played a storm-sorceress, who worships the goddess of the Sea Melora. I explained that in Drow culture, the female is normally in charge, and so the two agreed that the Sorceress would take the lead. She picked neutral for her alignment, after learning about Drow culture, because she wanted “to keep all her options open.” Thus it was decided that the 2 drow left their homeland to look upon the sea, and to experience the summer storms of Melora.

Their adventures brought them first to the Minotaur Halls, a busy way-station between the Underdark and the surface. This fortified pioneer town also lies across the great trade route through the Dawnforge Mountains. From Minotaur Halls, one can choose the over-land route or the under-mountain route to cross The subterranean route also passes through the Ruined Halls of Forge Helm, though the access is barred by a contingent of deep deurger who in the past 5 years have built a stronghold to seal off access to their hated brother’s ancient halls, so access through Minotaur Halls is blocked for most. This makes Magmaburg a much better route into Forge helm, as there are 4 major entrances, and new entrances are sometimes found.

Upon arrival, the party detected a buzz in the air, getting their first clues that something was up in Forge Helm. They decided they wanted to investigate, and found a Scout and Guide Hall, run by a surly dwarf named Garson Petty. He introduced them to his newest hire, a taciturn dwarven rune-priestess named Shorty. For 50 gp, Garson agreed to send Shorty on with them to act as guide and guard, with the promise of a fair share of any future treasure they might find whilst adventuring. With the arrangements made, the party set off on the under-mountain route to Magmaburg. Along the way they met up with a troupe of dwarvish miners who told them of the rumours surrounding a newly discovered vault in Forge Helm. It led apparently tothe chambers of one of Halaster’s many apprentices.

Arriving in Magmaburg, they questioned some of the locals about the rumours they had heard, and were directed to the tavern, Scabfoot’s Eatery and Drinkery, where they overheard an Eladrin noblewoman discussing a job opportunity with an obvious thug. The party watched silently as she followed them out the back door, and rushed out upon hearing her scream for help. And so at long last initiative was rolled.

The thugs, a dwarf strong-man, a Halfling slinger, and a tiefling hedge wizard were waiting for the party across a 20 ft deep sewer chasm, a strange fixture in a pioneer town constructed almost entirely of wood, but there you have it. There was a small wooden bridge crossing the sewer and onto it Shorty rushed, charging the dwarf. She was soon knocked prone and fell off the bridge thanks to the dwarf. Then the psion went, and with an excellent perception roll he found the Halfling, and sent a mental attack his way which resulted in the Halfling falling into the sewer. He was slain by the fall, never having taken a single action.

The sorceress sent a lightning attack at the tiefling and the dwarf, then the tiefling struck back, immolating her with his hedge fire. The battle continued for another round, and on the 3rd, the dwarf was killed by the psion, his corpse also being pulled into the sewer. The sorceress, taking the brunt of the hedge wizard’s attacks, was knocked unconscious and burning, but Shorty the dwarf soon made it out of the sewer and was able to heal her. She stood up and sent a storm of energy that finally managed to slay the tiefling, and as the character did what characters do, that is, loot the corpses, Fayne woke up and with surprise said she knows when she has found the right party for her job. She invited them back into the pub to discuss the terms of their employment, and the session ended.

In case you were wondering, the ruby-eyed monkey in the accompanying photo is the sorceress’ familiar. The stage was built with the newest 3d Dungeon Tiles, Harrowing Halls, which have added great depth (and height) to my encounters.

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Design, construction, and maintenance are the three major pillars of a successful mega-dungeon, and they will be the lens through which every article of this series will be viewed, yet they are so entwined as to be inseparable. The design is the big-picture. It is an over-all plan, the creative impetus of the dungeon itself, and its placement into the campaign world. The design carries through to the construction of the mega-dungeon in almost every way: from the very look of the dungeon maps, to the thematic elements that are found within, including its monstrous inhabitants. And finally, none of this would be possible or necessary without the maintenance of the mega-dungeon, which is to say the continual exploration, exploitation, and extermination of said mega-dungeon. The adventurers who delve within its halls will be continually pushing boundaries, directing the actual construction and possibly even design elements by their choices. No plan survives contact with the enemy is an axiom that is true with dungeon mastering as well as war: no carefully laid plan of the DM will ever survive the uncanny machinations of a group of zealous PCs unchanged, unchallenged.

The creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax, has written that when his new game was first becoming popular, he would host many sessions a week, sometimes with more than a dozen players. He wrote of drawing up levels and side-levels as fast as he could for his his Greyhawk campaign. Certain areas became popular or dreaded and were avoided, while paths continually forged in new directions, and deeper. It is important that the creation of the mega-dungeon happens concurrent with game sessions devoted to plunging its depths, or at least with the experiences and inspirations that come with playing with a group of like-minded players in the shared experience of building a campaign world together. The play’s the thing, so get the game started as soon and often as possible. Great campaigns are played, not postulated.

That design philosphpy actually works perfectly with the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons as well as it did with every prior edition. The players are going to make choices which lead them down specific paths while adventuring, and other paths are going to be left fallow, either to be explored by another group, or never seen at all. Through the usage of dynamic campaign choices, we will actually map the mega-dungeon as we go. We can use exploration and skill challenges for the PCs to meaningfully affect the direction of the mega-dungeon’s creation. It allows for infinite adaptability and size. Its dimensions are limited only by our campaigns needs and our imaginations.

For example, lets say a party of 1st level adventurer’s is in the 1st level of a mad wizards catacombs. They have just defeated a skeletal legion, and now must choose to enter the inner tomb where even greater undead may await, or to turn to the side where natural caverns have opened up in a wall collapse. This is a branch, and while the next encounter has been planned for either eventuality, the encounter after that might not be, depending on how far ahead the DM pre-plans, or relies on inspiration or improvisation, which is also a valid way to populate the mega-dungeon. The mega-dungeon becomes modular in nature, with each “adventure site” being a string of linked encounters of varying length, from a single encounter, to an entire adventure or campaign arc.

When the 3 tenets of mega-dungeon creation are working together, its design, construction, and maintenance, then the mega-dungeon will build itself with inspired grace. The DM will provide the framework lattice through which will weave the tangled vines of the PCs adventures. This is the epitomy of the modern mega-dungeon, and in the coming articles we will plumb the depths of what is possible. The next article, part 2 of Chapter 1 will go over the 14 ideas set out in the preface and detail the why’s and how’s of each of them.

We will end this article with an introduction to the mega-dungeon I will be building for the series. There are actually 3 (known) mega-dungeons in my campaign world D’ Erte: The Titans Fang in the Arctic north, the Isle of Dread in the Jade Sea, and Forge Helm, lost citadel of the dwarves. My campaign has been focused on Forge Helm, in the Dawnforge Mountains, and its famed mansions and ruined halls will be displayed in all their pride-wracked ruin.

Exploring the Shattered Halls of Forge Helm

Over a centruy ago, a great war tore the land asunder. While waves of undead beseiged the south, monsters were released from the darkest underworld in the north. A great host of Orcs dared to attack Forge Helm, first and greatest citadel of the dwrves, and battled for one year over the city. The greatest champions of the war came ad fell at Forge Helm, until finally Gruumsh himself took the field, and blasted the Dwarvish bulwarks with his black spear. Moradin, patron of the dwarves, and honored here in the halls of their very birth more then any other place, was enraged that Gruumsh dared to take the field and he too appeared in the great central courtyard of the city. Forge Helm and the surrounding mountains shook with the battle as the two deities grappled. Moradin threw Gruumsh down again and agiain, then stood over him laughing. Slowly gruumsh got to his feet, and with a curse that caused avalanches 100 leagues to the north, he strck his spear into the carved court of Forge Helms central Halls. His spear pierced every level as it strove ever downwards, first through the mountains rocky depths, then into the roots of the world, where the dwarven halls met the Underdark. Magma flowed through halls of elemental flame and Gruumsh’s spear plunged into that cauldron of flame and magma and the dwarven halls became a volcao of fire and ash. Dwarf and orc alike were slain and for many years it was a dark realm where only the dead walked.

But the ghostly whispers of death are giving way once more to the sounds of life. New and darker threats call this place home. Abandoned by the dwarves, Forge Helm has a new name. The treasure seekers and lore dealers of Magmaburg and Minotaur Halls call the place the Damned Mansions and the Diamond Mansoins depending on their fortunes, but that is only the name of the first level of this epic underworld. And through it all, from the blasted peak of ever-smoking Forge-Helm Mountain, 3 miles deep and 100 feet in diameter, the smoking shaft the spear of Gruumsh smote.

Magmaburg and Minotaur Halls

Magmaburg lies at the feet of the Dawnforge Mountains on its Western slopes, while the Minotaur Halls are delved high up in its Eastern slope. There are two ways to cross the Dawnforge mountains in this region: an overland trade caravan pass which is unavailable much of the year, or an under-mountain subterranean route. Between these two fortified frontiers of civilization lie the plunging depths of Forge Helm.

Magmaburg is a new town. It is built mainly by treasure seekers hungry to plumb the riches of Forge Helm for the wealth of centuries. OUtside the gates of ancient Forgehelm was a tower built by a clan of dwarves known as Petty. The Petty tower guarded a valley in the foothills of Forge Helm which had a semi-lucrative silver trade. The quality of the silvwer was subject dispute, ad the Petty dwarves, being outcast from Forge Helm, were ever looked down upon. But the Petty dwarves were spared the destruction of their betters and were so avenged.

Soon after the destruction of Forge Helm, a nomadic tribe of halflings known as the Scab-feet settled near the Petty Tower, and built a great sprawling wooden building which they called a tavern and roadside inn. When a band of warrior-priests of Kord wanted to build a temple, the three groups signed an alliance. The warrior priest built a palisade wall which they oversee, and a burgeoning town has flourished under the leadership of the three factions.

Minotaur Halls is an ancient city built by Minotaurs long ago. It is a gateway city, which connects the underdark to the surface, and is an important strategic location. The city is a maze of vast corridors, each of which are 40 feet wide and at least as high. The private dwellings of the minotaurs are hidden by secret doors in the walls of these echoing chambers. Down the centers of many of the central chambers, non-minotaurs have built dwellings and shops, and the city is a bustling trade route. It is said that the Minotaur King, ever faithful to Forge Helm, now pays homage to the surviving dwarf lords who reside in Hammerfast, far across the Dawnforge Mountains.

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The PCs are level 4 now, and they came to the table with new higher ability scores and fitted out with new feats. I seem to remember level 4 being a blah level in previous editions, and now it was definitely improved by the ability increases, which helped many characters get an extra + here or there. And the level 4 feat is often the first time a character can branch out from the “must haves” of the beginning levels, and by 4th are beginning to really become unique in their own ways. It was interesting to see the choices our party made in the feat selections.

One of the more interesting feat choices was made by the Seeker, who multi-classed into Spirit Talker, and gained the Shaman’s Spirit Companion. This elf, Poppy, is from a small elven community steeped in fey magic, and she wants Poppy to be as mystical and magical as possible. Between her new spirit companion and her magic items, which include a Cape of the Mountebank and Hedge Wizard gloves, she is now wielding some wicked whimsy. Another good choice of feats was for the druid, who between pouncing into the middle of melee and then wanting to blow the place up with flame seed, she needs some protection from Opportunity attacks, which she received through a feat that gives her +4 to AC versus opportunity attacks. Now she can leap into combat and toss her flame seeds with the best of them. Like Johnny Appleseed she is Felipe Flame-seed: tearing it up and burning it down. The other PCs took feats that enhanced their current abilities in various ways. For a moment, Thokk the half-orc barbarian considered taking Battlemind multi-class, which provokes a hilarious image of the brute pausing in the middle of his crimson carnage to put a finger to his brow and unleash a mental blast. Thankfully, he chose a combat feat instead.

So the characters were pimped up and ready to go. However, there was one catch. Technically they should not have been able to level at all, since they were in the middle of an encounter, but I didn’t want to pause them game to level after the encounter, nor did I want to make them wait a whole week before finally attaining 4th level. Last week they were ambushed by the Shadow Panther Lady as this encounter was starting, just as the skeletal trap was sprung. However, as the Shadowfell descended over the scene, the skeletal legion encounter was stopped, as time was affected, and the Panther Lady unleashed her attack. Defeated, the shadowfell departed, restoring the party to the beginning of the encounter with the Skeletons at last, bloodied and winded with no time for a rest between combats. So it was ruled that they could level up, but they would still be down any HPs and powers that they had expended in the last encounter, which was most dailies. They did, however, all get an action point out of the deal, and the combat wasnt too brutal. Ok maybe it was.

The party were cowering at the far end of the hallway when the encounter began so long ago, but there was much movement during the battle of the Shadow Panther Lady, so that when the veil was lifted and they stood once again with the skeletal legion, their placement was changed to reflect any movement during the previous encounter. This placed most of the PCs at the far end of the chamber, except for the druid and the seeker who were caught amongst the many minions. The battle was made up of 8 skeletal minions, with 8 more appearing each round from the sarcophagi, 2 skeletal warriors, and at the end of the hall in front of the double doors to Keegan’s chamber, an enormous bonecrusher skeleton wielding a great club made from the thigh-bone of an even greater skeleton. A total of 24 minions eventually joined the combat before the trap was circumvented, making the encounter worth 1200 exp, a level 6 encounter. For a group of 4 PCs (the genasi barbarian was on a hot date) of 4th level with a 3rd level companion character; also the 4th encounter since an extended rest, this seemed about right. The battle was tense, but not agonizing. A few PCs were bloodied, and needed to have some emergency first aid, but no one dropped.

And so the fight began, ad the bones started flying fast. The druid was taking out minions as fast as they came, while Poppy and Tara concentrated on the Skeletal warriors and Thokk, never quailing from engaging the biggest foe on the field, stepped up to the bonecrusher. By round 3, Felipe, Tara and Thokk were in need of healing, and Stella Luna rushed forward to provide it. Felipe was holding off the minions, and even had an incredible ability that did auto-damage when he was hit by a melee attack. This resulted in many minions rushing forward only to explode against him. Luckily, they got their 4 points of damage in before being destroyed, so Felipe was steadily going down in HPs. Actually so many skeletons missed against Felipe, my dice we behaving very badly.

One of the skeletal warriors found an opening and charged Poppy, but rolling a natural 1, fell prone at her feet. (I should write an article on our groups evolving usage of critcal hits (natural 20s) and penalty rolls or critical fumbles (nat. 1s) Anyhow, it was soon her turn to retaliate, and she wanted to nail his skull to the ground with an arrow. This led to all kinds of controversy as we sussed out the prone rules, the opportunity rules, and the shifting rules. Finally it boiled down to Poppy accepting the opportunity attack from the prone skeleton he swept his longsword at her ankles, then she nailed his head to the floor.

By round 4, Tara, Stella, and Poppy were all behind one of the alters to Bahamut while Thokk held off the bonecrusher, and Felipe could be heard laughing maniacally behind a curtain of flames and bursting bones. Then Stella Luna was able to read the prayer on the alter due to a great religion check, even though she (nor anyone else in the party) knew draconic. The 10 sarcophagi had been described as having a green, necrotic glow surrounding the armored corpse within, and a new skeletal warrior stepped out of that corpse at the end of their turn. Once the prayer was read, the glow faded and no more minions emerged. The crisis had past, and the reaving was soon done. The dusty, empty chamber of a few moments before was now hip deep in the shards of broken bone fragments.

They immediately collapsed into exhaustion an began a short rest. In the middle of that rest, they heard a commotion from the hallways through which they had passed earlier. Thokk wet to investigate and saw a large number of hobgoblins pass by, heading upwards and outwards. The PCs remained unnoticed.

When they awoke, they entered into Sir Keegans chamber. Each PC had a coffee in one hand, and their weapon in the other. The scent of a bacon and egg breakfast wafted through the dank burial chamber, and a refreshed party met with Keegan and parleyed for a bit. So began a skill challenge to convince Sir Keegan that they were not tomb robbers and that they were sincere in wanting to close the rift. he was convinced of their sincerity, and called on the barbarian to show him an example of his battle-prowess. Impressed by a high athletics check (and the final skill check of the challenge) Sir Keegan bestowed his longsword, Aecris, upon the half orc, hilt first. When Thokk grabbed it, somewhat underwhelmed at the puniness of the blade, he was surprised to see it transform into a great axe. Then Sir Keegan told his story, and answered a few questions, though he had no idea who was in the dungeon, having just awoken. When asked where the shadow rift lay, he replied at the deepest level of the dungeon.

They vowed to do all they could and proceeded to delve deeper into the dungeon. The guardroom at the base of the stairs leading into the 2nd level was abandoned. Using dungeoneering the party was able to navigate quickly to the room with the titan statue in it. The door slammed shut, trapping Thokk and Tara on the inside of the room as the titan groaned into animation and it was 10 o’clock, another session ended, this one on a real cliff-hanger.

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A level 6 (1,275 exp) Difficult Encounter

This encounter was conceived to be the culmination of the mini-quest for the druid’s complete set of Skin of the Panther. The encounter is designed for a party of 5 3rd level characters, one of whom should be a druid seeking the Skin of the Panther, obviously. In this case, our druid had 2 of the pieces out of 5, and she received the last 3 items at the end. Only needing 1 or 2 items would be preferred, but this encounter brought our party up to 4th level, and we are only half-way through Keep on the Shadowfell. It also might be noted that the encounter is easily modified to support any other reward or reason. I wanted particularly to focus on the completion of an item set as the crowning goal of the encounter. There is a clear focus on shadow magic for this encounter, so that should be considered when altering any element. Retaining as much of the shadowy feel, with a leaning towards other-worldly and preternatural tendrils and dark vegetation. Druids of the night, of mushrooms, fireflies, and other darker things.

To give a brief summary of where this encounter occurred in my campaign, in order to show its versatility, in Keep on the Shadowfell the party is at the chamber of skeletons outside Sir Keegan’s tomb, known as the Skeletal Legion. The beauty of this encounter, however, is that it can be literally used anywhere. In our case, the encounter was begun at the exact start of a completely different encounter, that with the Skeletal Legion. The theory here is that the shadow panther lady is a master of moving between the shadowfell and the world. She is also able to lay inter-dimensional traps, and this she did here in order to reclaim the 2 items our druid had. The region was described as the boundary between the planes was “thin” and the shadow panther lady could exploit this.

Diabolical DMs could also choose to have this encounter occur immediately after another encounter, to add further risk, as PCs have not had time to regain encounter powers before being ambushed. One should be careful before taking this route, as a player frustrated by lack of options is seldom happy, especially during a focused set-piece encounter of this nature. If taking this route, the same basic idea should prevail: have the intro combat be light and under-level, so that wise PCs will be able to save their encounter and daily powers, and may even come out ahead in action points

This method of ambushing the PC’s also allows the least deviation from the current course of a campaign, which was one of my design goals. Too many times the party has been pulled away from completing this adventure (thus being level 4 halfway through an adventure for 1st -3rd level PC’s.). The design had many drafts before I settled on the time-stopping veil of the shadowfell falling across the scene, but it worked perfectly. We are in a high fantasy setting, and 2 weeks ago had seen them in a leprechaun’s grove, so this was fitting. It might be too much for some campaign settings, but it could equally be placed as a permanent region where the panther’s hunting ground is closely linked to the shadowfell.

The veil dropped across the skeleton attack, and suddenly the party finds itself in what I described as an “underground garden grotto” there is lots of running water, cavern walls, anf fungi, mushrooms, and vines. In the water were silvery grass-like fronds that swayed in the current. At the far end of the chamber, really in a second chamber altogether connected by a watery passage, the Panther Lady stands on a 10 ft tall dais, next to a statue.

In a small pool at the south end of the map (also the PC start area) a vicejaw crocodile awaits (mm pg 45). Besides the croc, the Panther lady is the main foe of this encounter, and she is a 3rd level solo foe. She summons starved dog minions to add enemies to the table as a minor action. She is based loosely off the legend of the Skin of the Panther. This particular set is the focal point of a long line of druids in the region, and it allows for a druid to gain both the set, and the possibility of enrolling in that long line of druids by burying the bones of the Panther Lady in the ancestral mound of the Panther Druid Circle. She hurls insults, shadow bolts and starved dogs at her foes before switching to melee mode when the PCs begin to mount the dais. Upon being injured, she will teleport 3 squares away from the PCs to land behind the dais and hopefully out of the line of sight of the PCs.

Meanwhile, the room itself is adversarial due to the hazards and traps. the first of these are the silvery tendrils that are located in every water square on the map. These tendrils are dangerous hazards that slow and damage opponents. The hazard attacks at the beginning of the round as a immediate interrupt for any enemy who begins its tur in a water square. The dais was surrounded with water, and the passage connecting the entry chamber to the main hall is also filled with water. PCs should find it difficult to maneuver without suffering the hazards of the silvery tendrils.

And finally, the statue next to the Panther Lady holds in its outstretched arms a Shadow Mote. This trap would send bursts of shadow energy at any enemy that got too close, and can only be disabled by a skill challenge or physical damage. The Panther Lady will try to stay within range of this statue, or to lure the PCs within range. Of particular note is the blindness that this trap can cause in addition to damage. This is a very deadly encounter, especially for those who reach the top of the dais.

The dais itself should present something of a challenge. Climbing or leaping to the top of the 10 ft dais is a DC 20 athletics or acrobatics check, respectively. The silvery fronds ca also prevent easy access. The other option is the ladder on the eastern side of the dais. It can be climbed as a move action. The only other feature of the grotto is the trench at the southern end of the connecting hallway. This is a 5 foot wide, 10 foot deep gorge DC 5 athletics check to succesfully jump. Failure results in 1d10 damage and an immediate end the the PC’s turn, as well as a move action to cliumb out.

Special Note: I used the platform in the new Dungeon Tiles Harrowing Halls set, to give the element of 3d to the encounter. Having the dais stand out from the water helped give a sense of the difficulty of reaching the top.

In a typical battle the Panther Lady will stand on the dais for as long as possible, before teleoprting behind it. She should then make her way towards the Northwest corner of the map. She will attempt to be in the water before hittig her bloodied value and appearing to perish. Re-incarnated as an umbral panther on its next initiative count, it will begin its turn insubstantial and attempt to wreak as much damage as possible, focusing on the druid if it can. When it is finally slain, the bones of the panther lady will appear, and her voice will echo “Thou hast bested me, mortal! Place my bones in the Circle of the Shadow Panther for even greater reward.” his could be a tie in for future adventure, or the option of granting the druid PC in your campaign access to an organization. The Circle of the Shadow Panther could be one such organization, possibly of neutral alignment, intent on balancing the natural world with equal amounts of fey and fell influence.

The treasure will be the missing pieces) of the Skin of the Shadow Panther, lying across the bones. Some players may feel left out that the encounte is for the druid alone. you should remind them that they also benefit from the experience-rich envirnment, and if that is not enough, then perhaps they can remind the druid of the favors owed at a future time…

Special note: This encounter was designed using the incredible Masterplan Utility which deserves its own review soon, and the map image is taken from that program, using version 8.5. This program allows Dms to build encounters and adventures, including dungeon tile maps and imported elements from Adventure tools, Character Builder, and Compendium. And that is just the beginning of what this tool can do.

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In what looked like the busiest night so far, I DM’ed for 1 of 5 massive tables playing session 4 of Encounters on Wednesday night. I always like to shout out to the great people of Game Cafe who make this all possible. It is their enthusiasm and hard work that makes these events possible. That and the brilliance of Wizards for coming up with the idea. I just can’t gush enough, but enough of that, it is blood the public calls for.

The place was packed. I estimate at least 40 people were there playing in our cellar beneath the store. There is something unique about playing games in such a small packed environment. In some ways, it is like indoor playground at Kindergarten. Im sorry, was the table next to us just completing a skill challenge through a game of 4-square? Maybe not, but I know I saw some jacks being tossed pokemon cards. With 40 people and 5 tables, I was able to add one more player to our party, Richard who played a female drow assasin. On the other hand, our divine striker was absent so it was a wash numerically.

One more thing I noticed was a huge influx of teens and pre-teens, which I’m sure must be good news for Wizards. My intuition tells me that this program is set up to bring in new and lapsed players. Well, my table of 7+ is made up almost entirely of new or returning players. In fact, the blend of old-school knowledge like Ron and Steve possess, coupled with the varying past experiences of those like Roy, Dave,Eddie and Richard, and with the enthusiasm of Dana and Jenna, a perfect blend of players is achieved. It is a party of adventurers destined for greatness…

Previously, in Undermountain, our part had just discovered the door to Halaster’s Lost Apprentice’s private chambers. They had easily defeated the magical wards which had protected the door from discovery and disturbance, when a dark shadow emerged from the depths of the stairwell revealed. The encouter opened with the shadow materializing into a strange and tiny little creature of obscure origin. An Arcana check by the sorceress revealed it was a demon, which the religious check by the ardent (if i remember) correctly identified the creepy litle creature to be an imp, a minor devil. The imp surveyed the party with arms crossed, doubting that they served the master. He requesed that they explain what they are doing disturbing this set of chambers. The Halfling sorceress was ready to bluff, and convinced the imp they worked for He-who-shall-not-be-named, the apprentice of Halaster. The fact that neither the party, nor the imp (who referred to the apprentice as That Thing) referred to the apprentice by name, and thus, the bluff worked.

Next, the ardent again stepped up to use diplomacy, and successfully calmed the imp down, who was gettinng restless, and the sword-mage stepped up to discuss things of an arcane nature. Finally, the skill challenge ended with the halfling, with lightning in her eyes, cowed the imp into relenting. It was aroud this time that I allowed a perception check – anyone over 20 felt a distant or small rumbling, almost a seismic event. Too small tfor most to even notice. As this skill challenge was happening Richard the drow assassin joined us. I was laying out the map, the same one we used from last week. As I placed the various mini’s, I was explaining that, other then the imp (see image) the rest of the mini’s I placed represented statues, and not to worry, I was just placing them around the edges to keep the map down. (I wonder if anyone actually fell for that ridiculuous excuse? ha ha)

Next followed a sequence of questions by the PCs about what might lie beyond the door, but they didn’t get very far before he imp grew tired of their line of questioning. When asked what powers he possessed, he mildly replied “Here allow me to demonstrate” and the winked out of existence. Initiative was rolled.

We are continuing to use Steve’s method o initiative, which is to have everyone write their name and initiative roll on a note card, and then Steve orders them and we flip through the lineup. I write cards for the monsters too, it works great, and I am even considering having my other group try it out, which is both happy and sad, havig just made this excellent magnetic white-board initiative tracker. It is the mysterious power of note cards I guess. I also like how he lays them out so that we can all see who’s up and who’s next on deck, but what I love most is that he takes care of it so I don’t have to!

And so, a he rumbling intensified so that all could feel it, the statues sprung to animated life: one iron hound, and 4 small stone warriors, with spiked fists. They did sort of a double pow-pow move when they attacked. But it was the iron defender who went first, ad he leapt to the nearest enemy, who this time, and always is that earth-shockin’ genasi sword-mage. He is ever leading the fray, and is a constant target of their enemies ire. His 19 AC does him well, but he has fallen in combat and used up all but 1 o his healing surges. It will be a tough fight for our valiant sword-mage, but he never shirked his duty, and even though he was reduced to 2 or fewer HP’s more than once in this battle, he never fell. He did however have to threaten the dragonborne with violence to keep him from spraying his dragonbreath (1d6+2) all over Hax and his 2 HP. He deserves a medal of honor, and a retro-active moment of greatness at the least. MVP of session 4 goes to Hax the Genasi Swordmage. For withstanding the front line rigours, the sword mage and the half-elf battlemind forever contended side by side. The battlemind found himself surrounded by his enemies and unable to move for much of the battle. he hacked and fought and finally slew one allowing him to shift into a more advantageous position.

There were many contenders for the MVP title though, including our Ardent, who was forced into mortal combat again. But this time he would not miss, and finally hitting for the first time this season, he would in fact go on to destroy one of his enemies, the imp itself I believe, correct me if I’m wrong. He earned his moment of greatness. Another moment was earned (though not given, due to his having already received it.) The assassin, first wounded by the defenders, was knocked to zero by the rock slide. Amazingly, he rolled a natural 20 and was able to miss only a single turn of combat before regaining his feet. The area of combat was very confined, and many people had to suffer more than one round of falling rocks (in a 3 burst) simply because there was nowhere to go.

The imp was quickly killed. Though I had him begin the encounter invisible (his turning invisible is what initiated the roll for combat) he was never able to turn invisible again. He died on the second round of combat, the victim of focus fire by a party working together. The rogue had a tough time of it, being attacked nearly every round, and unable to position without giving up a flanking maneuver or acceping an oportunity attack. It was tough ad he suffered some damage, but survived while still inflicting great amounts of damage. The sorceress stood back and electrocuted her enemies while laughin in the face of the falling rocks. having rolled a natural 1 on her to-hit, I ruled that she escaped even the half-damage. Maybe its too old-school, I think not. next round she took damage from the rocks, and quickly found a new place from which to launch her lighnting bolts. It was also interesting to watch the assasin played by Richard who knew the class well, who used shrouds to good affect as well as his amazing melee reach of 3. The shadow-step is an excellent move, which he described well, by saying that he darted from shadow to shadow until finally stepping out of the enemy’s shadow to attack.

Many, or possibly all action points were spent, as well as any remaining dailies and at least on PC’s healing surges were ALL used up. In fact a funny moment ensued when the sword-mage, having suffered a brutal round of combat ended his turn with 2 hit point and no healing surges left. He still had his minor action, and so tried to hand off his healing potion to the assassin, who had 16 HP at the time. The dragonborn ranger was deadly with his arrows. He did not get to spray his enemies with his acidic spittle as he’d hoped, but he dropped at least one of the enemy with those arrows. Oh how twin strike must be the bane of all DMs, I know it is a constant thorn in my side, but the rangers sure love it. Some with swords, or even axes, other with the bow, twin strike: the strike by which all striker powers are measured.

When the imp was down, the iron defender and 2 stone defenders quickly followed. This left 2 stone defender left, who were each practically unharmed. At this point I had an evil glint in my eye, and a cruel smile crossed my face. Each of those defenders attacked the genasi who had managed to scrape a few temporary HP together thanks to the healing efforts of the ardent, who had swept away the cobwebs of missed attacks, and went on to score hit after hit. But the sword mage was hit once and missed and came a second time too close to zero HP.

But a string of great hits followed, averaging nearly 20 damage a hit, and the party stood victorious over the defeated foe. At this time I casually mentioned that the ceiling was collapsing, and everyone was going to take damage. They bolted for the stairwell, looting corpses along the way. As the chamber collapsed above them, so they collapsed on the stairs into an extended rest. They needed it. They earned it.

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So, for awhile now I have had a growing desire to create a ‘mega-dungeon’ for my 4e game. In all my years of gaming, the Temple of Elemental Evil is about the closest I have come to using a mega-dungeon. There have been extended romps into the underdark, and some truly horrendous multi-level dungeons in my gaming past, but nothing so epic and iconic as the mega dungeon. The time has come to see what I can do with this classic trope of the genre. This post begins a series of dialogues on the Design, Construction and Maintenance of a mega-dungeon, or focused campaign adventure site.

In addition to discussing the finer points of mega-dungeon creation, I will build a mega-dungeon from the ground up using the tools and tips in these articles. In the end, I hope to have a cohesive manual that offers a step by step guide to creating and running a mega-dungeon, complete with at least one fully playable campaign site detailed and ready to use, the Titan’s Fang.

It is worth mentioning that this series of articles will be written expressly for the 4th Edition of the world’s most popular role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. (In fact, my blog is specifically geared to 4th Edition.) Though I hearken back to ye olden days of little brown books, it is the current version of the game that has captured my attention and imagination like never before. Of course some of the information should be compatible for about any role playing system, but my focus on 4th Edition allows me to bring in specific and unique rules systems such as Skill Challenges and healing surges. And finally, since I am playing and loving 4th Edition, it seemed natural. (There is another reason for this, and that is the popular notion that somehow 4th Edition is unable to handle the exploration and challenges of an old-school mega-dungeon. I find this to be hooey, as I shall soon prove.)

First, off, let’s define mega-dungeon. We can look to some famous sites from the game’s roots to see a few examples: There is Castle Zagyg, the massive dungeon near Greyhawk City in D&D’s seminal campaign created and run by its co-creator, E. Gary Gygax, as well as fellow creator Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor. In addition, as the game matured Forgotten Realms campaign setting came about which boasts its own mega-dungeon in the form of Undermountain. A favorite of mine during the 3e heyday of third party publishers was Rappan Athuk by Necromancer games, and Castle Whiterock by Goodman Games. (Sadly I was never able to participate in either of these mega-dungeons, though not for a lack of want.) There are many more where these came from – some better, some lesser known. A mega dungeon is a campaign focal point. It is a site for adventure and treasure that is seemingly limitless, that is near-at-hand, and is changeable enough that it is a new experience each time a party enters it, but at the same time is stable enough that players generally know what to expect when heading that way. A mega dungeon doesn’t have to be the sole focus of a campaign, it can be a location the party returns to on occasion throughout the life of the campaign, or it might just be a major part of a single tier of play.

Here are a few necessities that come to mind when I think of a mega-dungeon.

1. It should have a lot of levels, sub-levels, secret levels, and maybe some more levels.
2. The levels should become progressively more difficult as one progresses downwards. For example, in a 30 level dungeon, each level might correspond to the character level of an average party.
3. it should be a crazy mash-up of monsters, traps, obstacles, NPC’s and other weird occurrences.
4. Each level, or section should have its own theme. The themes can be as vague as “Orc territory” or “underground mushroom forest.” They can also be specific, such as “This level is made from special rock which makes teleporting unstable.”
5. There should be a focus on exploration and discovery. There should be mysteries, some solvable, some not.
6. The dungeon itself should be adversarial. It should be difficult to map, it should have many dangers, and they should be concealed to surprise the unwary.
7. There should be wandering monsters, and they should harass and harry incautious adventurers.

The above list seems to be nearly universal to the mega-dungeons I have seen. These are the standards that separate a massive mega-dungeon from the lesser dungeons sprinkled liberally across the land. Hopefully I am not leaving anything out. Here is another list of my personal ‘must haves’ in a mega dungeon.

1. It must have an awesome back-story, explaining why it exists.
2. It must have a wide variety of monsters, yet should have at least a thin veneer of verisimilitude.
3. It should tie in with the campaign world, and not feel like it is ‘floating in space.’
4. It should have a nearby locale or locales that allow the characters time to retreat, train, spend their looted winnings, and even have side adventures. In ancient days of yore, the nearness of Greyhawk city to the Greyhawk dungeons is a prime example.
5. The dungeon should be dynamic, and should surprise the characters in unexpected ways. Re-stocking is one way, shifting walls is another.
6. Rumor tables! There should be rumor tables, possibly for each level. This gives the characters some focus for their greed, lust, fear, and anticipation. Don’t forget false rumors! Some should lead the feckless astray.
7. Politics – Links to the world above, cults of Orcus, the mayor is really an evil liche, whatever they are, add to the fun of the game.

So these are the elements I think a mega dungeon should have. All of them are ways in which the mega dungeon comes alive, and fits in with its surroundings. The first list of requirements sets the foundations for the mega-dungeon. By following these guidelines, the mega dungeon will have the basic necessities. But it is this second list that will give your mega dungeon life, and will turn it from another set of drafty hallways into a fitting campaign locale. In my next installment, I will go into the details of each of these points, and afterwards, I will unveil my mega-dungeon concept and how I used the guideleines to create a fantastic site for my own campaign world, D’ Erte.

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